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Pulp Corner: The Thief of Bagdad

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I’ve always had a fascination with time periods that came before me. So in a way, The Thief of Bagdad is a two for one. Not only was the movie made in the 1920’s but it’s set in a time thousands of years prior. I don’t go in for silent movies often, but when I do it’s usually a comedy or some sort of epic. Let me tell you the Thief of Bagdad is without a doubt an epic. A 2 hour and 20 minute run time coupled with a classic story adapted from Arabian Nights, with exotic locations, lavish sets, a huge cast of extras all at a cost of $2,000,000 to make. For the time, it doesn’t get much more epic than that.

Part of the appeal to me of movie making and the general culture back then is a lack of any continuous information source delivered at high speeds. Cultures were much more isolated and as a result people as a whole were more uninformed. This led to many negative stereotypes being portrayed throughout the media of the time period. However, there is simplicity and a strange kind of purity in this where the people writing books or making movies (other than what was available to them) had to make a lot of guess work and use much more of their imagination to portray certain cultures. So the movie here is not Arabia as fact but more of Arabia by fantasy.

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The story of course may seem familiar as elements of it have been used on and off for hundreds of years. Recently the most notable touchstone would likely be Disney’s Aladdin movie which does borrow from this film, but more so the 1940 remake of it. Our movie’s title hero is portrayed with unbelievable gusto by the great Douglas Fairbanks veteran of swashbuckling films having made a name for himself as both Zorro and Robin Hood. He’s a good looking charming  thief in the Gambit mold and as the movie opens we get to see him pull off an amazing set of scams and robberies which are both elaborate but done with greatest of ease. It’s a life that suits him perfectly.

One night after breaking into the royal palace he sees the princess asleep and knows he won’t be able to rest until he can call her his own. Shortly thereafter he finds out there will be a ceremony where the princess will be choosing a husband based on suitor princes from foreign lands. The thief decides to dress up and pose as one of these princes to get his woman. Mongolia has other plans for the princess though. If their prince is chosen to marry her, they will begin the unification of their two countries. If not they will take it by force.

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As I’m sure you can guess, the princess falls in love with our handsome thief and chooses him above the rest. The Mongolian prince exposes him as a fraud leaving our princess to select from 3 men she doesn’t love. In a way to buy herself more time she sends the remaining 3 princes out for a week’s quest to return with the rarest treasure. Our dejected prince has a chance encounter with a priest who advises him that he does have another way to win his lady. To simply stop pretending and become an actual prince and gives him some clues on how to obtain magic dust (not a genie lamp) that can conjure up whatever he wishes. The road to obtain this relic is perilous and fraught with danger.

Watching our hero overcome obstacles for this treasure really turns this into an adventure movie.  His trials and tribulations bring him through a fire cave, a monster cave, the midnight ocean where he has to swim to the bottom to get a key, the key opens the door to the Pegasus and the Pegasus can then fly you to the citadel castle to get you a cloak of invisibility and that’s only the beginning!

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The production value on this film is so high that everything looks great; the special effects especially for back then look fantastic. The only things that come as a bit hokey are some of the monsters and creatures that he meets. They are that Flash Gordon style of small animals zoomed in with a small set to look large and menacing. As laughable as it may seem now, I’m sure it was far better than anything else for its time.

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To me though, what makes this film strong is its use of eastern mysticism (as inaccurate as it may be). There’s flying carpets, snake charmers, magic ropes that don’t need to be tied to anything and what may be my favorite, the Mongol has a staff where a snake can emerge from that when it bites somebody they instantly die. There’s no denying that the film is a bit culturally insensitive, nobody is the proper color, the Mongols are so devious but that’s how it’s going to be for any film from this time period. I also need to add that the princess’ Asian handmaids seem to be pretty scantily dressed for a 1924 movie, which was a surprise.

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If done well, the silent movie medium has an ability unlike any other to truly get you absorbed into a trance while watching it. The Thief of Bagdad delivers on every level. It’s an epic adventure done with lush surroundings and rendered gorgeously (the newly offered film restoration is crisp and clean too). Silent movies aren’t for everybody, but if your in the mood for something different or if you want to see how good adventures movies can be when they’re done right give this one a shot.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on April 2, 2014, in Features, Movies, Pulp Corner, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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