When I think of my favorite adventure and fantasy films, I usually don’t reach back further than the 1970s. For fantasy to work, we have to believe in what we’re seeing, and in a pre-CGI era, no everything is so believable. However, when it is done right and with enough charisma, anything is believable. That’s what I love the most about The Thief of Bagdad, the whole film looks like it came straight out of a story book and the effects are years ahead of their time.
In The Thief of Bagdad, King Ahmad (John Justin) is a young ruler who doesn’t realize how his people do not like him, or how his advisor, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), is an evil sorcerer. When he ventures out to be among his subjects in plain clothes, he is arrested. In jail, he meets Abu (Sabu), a boy thief, and together they escape Bagdad. Soon, they meet a princess (June Duprez) who becomes Ahmad’s heart’s desire, as well as Jaffar’s. Along the way, they encounter a powerful djinn, giant spiders, a mystical all-seeing eye, a flying horse and, of course, a flying carpet. It’s quite an adventure!
I was immediately struck by all the vibrant color in the film. We’re greeted with billowing red sails, grand painted ships and brilliant blue skies. The bright array of colors continues through to the very end. In an era of film that was mostly black and white, The Thief of Bagdad must have been a real treat to movie goers young and old.
I’ve always been a sucker for big-budget special effects where I find myself trying to figure out just how it was achieved. Sadly, with most of today’s films, the answer is usually boring old CGI. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing the mechanical shark in Jaws chomping down in Quint, the big rotating station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or a claymation King Kong battle. Here in The Thief of Bagdad, that thrill of old timey special effects is back, full force. My heart soared when that some-assembly-required horse took off into the sky. Seeing the djinn escape from his lamp for the first time was exciting. And the multi-armed blue lady feels so much more real when all six arm are attached to real people.
The Thief of Bagdad is not the sort of film that doesn’t fit in with most best picture nominations of the 1940s. The film boasted no big stars, has more fun and adventure than drama, but I wish it had been nominated. However, it was not forgotten at the Oscars of 1940, it won three of its four nominations. It won for best art direction, cinematography (both for color films) and best effects. It was also nominated for best original score, but lost to Pinocchio.
This is a great film to watch with kids. The adventure is fantastic and does not slow down until it ends. I can see adults getting more into it alongside little ones, who may be absolutely floored by the idea of a flying horse and giant djinns. If possible, show this to kids before they see Disney’s Aladdin, the makers of Aladdin were obviously influenced by this film. No one wants to hear a child accuse a classic of copying a 90’s cartoon.
“Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!”