Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Director: Alexander Korda                              Writer: Miles Malleson
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                              Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin and Rex Ingram

There’s an undeniable connection between Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz from the previous year. And while this was an acknowledged remake of the 1924 classic of the same name with Douglas Fairbanks, the Technicolor Oz is clearly the most influential on Korda’s production. Everything from the set design to the special effects is reminiscent as well as the film quality and the style of direction makes it a nice companion piece. Korda actually began is production in England, but with the beginning of the war he had to give up the studio to the government and move the production to Hollywood. In the end, it was probably a good move and makes the final product a real showpiece.

The story begins with Conrad Veidt arriving with his ship in port. A blind beggar, John Justin, who has an incredibly smart dog is taken by one of Veidt’s servants to his home. There he tells the story of how he became blind. He was actually a king, whose advisor was Veidt, and when he went among the people dressed as a peasant in order to better understand them he was arrested by Veidt so that he could take over his kingdom. He meets a young thief in prison, Sabu, and when the two of them escape Justin sees a princess, June Duprez, and falls in love with her. The only problem is Veidt is in love with her too, so he blinds Justin and turns Sabu into a dog. When the princess learns of this she asks Veidt to release them from their curse in exchange for being with him. But Justin is just beginning his quest to find Duprez and break the hold that Veidt has over his people.

The source material for the film, by way of the silent version, is One Thousand and One Nights, Middle Eastern fairy tales that have been around since the middle ages inspiring Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba and numerous others. But Korda’s film also drew on the writings of Robert Howard. The visuals are stunning, in the rich, Technicolor look of the day and they were rewarded with Academy Awards, for cinematography, art direction, and special effects. Another aspect of the film that raises the artistic bar is the film score by Miklós Rózsa. It’s one of his most distinctive and earned him one of his thirteen Oscar nominations. Conrad Veidt gives a terrific performance, but the rest of the cast is fairly average. Indian actor Sabu does well enough but the ostensible lead, John Justin, is not very good at all. One bright spot is Rex Ingram as the genie who gives Sabu three wishes. There’s nothing here that’s all that exciting for modern audiences, but it is fun in a way. The Thief of Bagdad is a classic film from the golden era that fans of fantasy films from the era should love.

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