Monday, November 7, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh. 1924)

"Happiness must be earned..."


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Actually, it was somewhat boring, and then spectacular. In a nutshell, Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad is a tale of two movies. For about an hour, the film is boring, slow uninteresting. It does have some neat visual effects and remarkable Arabian sets, but the entertainment value is simply not there. Then the audience is rewarded with the final hour and forty minutes. This second act could have been an entire movie on its own.

Douglas Fairbanks stars in The Thief of Bagdad as a buff, suave and confident thief on the streets of the Iraqi capital. For the first chunk of the movie he is shown going around the city and taking whatever he wants with little to no effort being expelled. This is a perfect performance for the acrobatic and, to be honest, ripped Fairbanks. He leaps across the gigantic sets with such ease and precision that it forces you to wonder how many times they had to film each scene.

Of course, any great Fairbanks screenplay has to have a significant love story. Here we have the thief trying to steal the princess from her bedroom window. To do this, he pretends to be a prince and invades a ceremony that would determine who the princess shall marry. Through a series of events, the thief and the princess fall in love. But a thief cannot marry a princess! He is almost immediately ousted and put on the run from the castle guards. His only hope is to find the rarest treasure in the world and bring it to the princess. If he does that, she will marry him. But what he has to endure is tough, not to mention he is racing against three other determined possible suitors.

This is where the film becomes worth watching. The thief is sent on a perilous path to find the greatest treasure in the world. First, he is sent through a fiery road that features some of film's earliest color-tinting. He is then thrust into a battle with a giant lizard-like monster followed by a flying bat-like villain. These special effects are miraculous and still work on every aesthetic level. In fact, I was honestly riveted by every effect in The Thief of Bagdad. It was nice to see a film, made as early as 1924, that used actual craftsmanship in showing the audience something amazing. This is a true spectacle of a movie.

The fire, monsters, magic rope and flying carpet are all shown with incredible realism. Fairbanks laid down a very meticulous and specific visual idea that eventually turned into the lavish and gargantuan palace settings shown in the film. It is no surprise that The Thief of Bagdad is still considered one of the finest works in fantasy and adventure. It was named one of the ten greatest American made fantasies by the American Film Institute and was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the National Film Registry.

If I had any complaints, I would say that The Thief of Bagdad is really boring for a little over an hour. The intertitles are also a bit silly. Are they in Iraq or England? I wonder how often the word "thou" was used in Arabia. It is used frequently in the movie. It just loses some of its credibility and comes off a little dated.

But if you can outlast the initial bore-fest you will be awarded with one of the finer action/adventure/fantasy films that I have ever seen. The special effects are still better than some of the computer animated garbage that I have seen recently. I really enjoyed the last hour and forty minutes of The Thief of Bagdad. It was the tale of two movies...

The Thief of Bagdad: B+

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