Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
The Thief of Bagdad:
An old wooden sailing ship is driving hard into the Arabian port city of Basra. Her red sails speak of royalty while the accompanying chantey croons corruption. Down the red carpet marches the Grand Vizier of Bagdad [sic]: Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), knife in his belt, sword by his side. On the docks a blind beggar Ahmad (John Justin) asks, “Alms for the love of Allah.” His mutt of a dog has an uncanny ability to detect an occasional false coin.
Jaffar magnanimously offers to house the homeless man in splendor, with his canine companion. Far be it from me to question his motivation, but I'm reminded of Bob Dylan's song “With God On Our Side.” Dylan the raconteur reminds us that “Jesus Christ was betrayed with a kiss,” and asks, “If Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” Ahmad has his own tale to tell of Jaffar ordering yet “Another execution.” The young king asks why. Jaffar's response: “He had been thinking.” Ooooh! Jaffar suggests to Ahmad that he travel about disguised as a commoner to better understand his subjects.
In Ahmad's story his dog had once been the lad Abu (Sabu) who was thrown into prison for thieving in the souk, along with an oddball character claiming to be the king. Due to speedy executions they were the only two incarcerated, and their spots would be vacated the next day. Abu helps Ahmad to escape. When Abu sees the spare-no-expense manhunt for them the next day, he knows it's not for some common thief so pays homage to the king.
The king gets tripped up with a pretty princess (June Duprez) causing them to hang around the palace instead of putting some distance from the pursuit, the vizier gets onto them and strikes the king blind and turns the boy into a dog (“Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!”), and now we come to the time to break the evil spell … but at what cost.
In the ensuing adventures Abu enlists the aid of a reluctant (wily) genie (djinn) he frees from a bottle where King Solomon had bound it for 2000 years. Let's see, Solomon reigned in the 10th century B.C., so that would put the action of “The Thief of Bagdad” in the 10th century A.D. That looks about right. The princess's father (Miles Malleson) the Sultan of Basra has in his possession a pendulum clock which he won't share with the masses because he doesn't want them to keep time; he is the king of time. Ahmad has come to the princess “From the other side of time” having “been searching” for her “Since time began.” That also puts us in mind of King Solomon in whose book of Wisdom he says, (Wisdom 7:15, 17, 18a) “God … hath given me certain knowledge of the things that are, namely, … The beginning, ending, and midst of the times.”
Since “Thief” has introduced Solomon, and since we have his writings in the Bible, we might as well look at what seems applicable to the movie. (Ecclesiastes 11:5) “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.” The Sultan knew not how the mechanical horse became animated, nor did he know about the dagger hidden in the hair of the Silver Maid, even so he was clueless about starting a dynasty. All those wives, and what does he end up with? a daughter. Yes, but the king and princess are in love and have plans of their own.
(Eccl. 11:6) “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.” Abu was working on breaking out of prison from the get-go, and he continued working on it in the evening after the guards had eaten and fallen asleep, so he might well succeed.
(Eccl. 11:7-8) “Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.” Ahmad was delighted when the spell was broken and he received his sight, but his days in darkness had been many, and the cost for receiving his vision might not have been worth it (“What good are my eyes to me without her!”)
(Eccl. 11:9) “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” Young Abu delighted in the irresponsible life he was living, singing:
I want to be a bandit,
Can't you understand it?
Happy as can be,
That's the life for me.
And yet we see him praying to Allah for forgiveness when out of necessity he steals a magic carpet.
(Eccl. 11:10) “Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.” Ahmad cleans up nicely at the end.
A Fantasy in Technicolor
When “The Thief of Bagdad” came out in 1940, technicolor was the newest rage, and this movie made the most of it. We today take CGI-produced effects for granted, but “Thief” absolutely amazed its audiences with a veritable trompe l'oeil [French for deceiving the eye—lit. eye wash] that had to be painstakingly put together using a panoply of tricks, and with coordinated editing of three concurrent films to get the technicolor spectrum. This took time, and they were interrupted by the hostilities of World War II requiring them to move production from London to Hollywood—after first producing the propaganda film “The Lion Has Wings” under contract. Fourteen-year-ole Sabu grew some by the end when he was sixteen, requiring them to re-shoot some of the scenes.
“Thief” in its effects is antecedent to “Star Wars”; indeed the flying scenes in “Thief” remind one of “Star Wars” except that the camera doesn't move one along with the action. A technicolor camera was unwieldy and then some. There were three cameras running to get the full spectrum, and the additional noise necessitated sound baffling as well, so they ended up with a camera that was a large piece of furniture that had to remain stationary. That's why a lot of action scenes are not included in “Thief” but in the telling. Aside from some color bleeding around the perimeters in some scenes, and a pasted-on look, the special effects are worthy of today's audiences. We're so amazed they did that, we don't mind, we just enjoy the surprise.
“Thief” received Academy Awards for Color Cinematography, Color Art direction, and Special Effects. A lot of talent goes into a creative work, so no one person deserves all the credit, but we may consider the producer Alexander Korda the auteur. There were six directors in all, but the name of Michael Powell is the one most commonly listed as he's the most recognizable (and he did contribute his stamp.) The music of Miklós Rózsa was also remarkable.
Young Sabu was discovered as an elephant boy in India and put into films for his boundless energy. That's what makes this picture, an exuberant adventure rather than any tour de force in acting. Save the good actors for where they're needed.
“Thief” (1940) was based on the same material from Arabian Nights as was the classic (1924) version, here adapted w/dialog by Miles Malleson who in “Lazybones” (1935) played an unenthusiastic man drafted off the street to witness an elopement.
“The Thief of Bagdad” should be viewed for the spectacle it is, having a simple plot a child could follow. In fact you have to get into the mind set of a child to appreciate the fantasy. It's a delightful movie.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up Ages 8