Fantasy tales from the begging of storytelling and those which have endured hundreds of years entail a common thread; a dashing hero, a dastardly villain, a beautiful princess and an enchanting city. Fairbanks and Walsh immerse within the classic fable with their epic inspired by the tales from the classic Arabian Nights. The Thief of Bagdad is the parable of a recalcitrant thief fighting powerful suitors for the hand of a princess.
Douglas Fairbanks portrays the eponymous hero of the tale. A penniless man on the streets, surviving day to day by his motto ‘What I want, I take’. Fairbanks wastes no time to amuse or show off his athleticism and grace as he navigates the bustling city of Bagdad and obtains breakfast, money and a magical rope in a single morning. By 1924, Fairbanks had don capes and cowls as Zorro, Robin Hood and D’Artagnan, establishing himself as a legend as large as these swashbuckling myths. The Thief is a different step. Sneaky, selfish and underhanded, he must learn to change and embrace the moral of the story displayed in the stars at the beginning of the film – ‘Happiness must be earned’. This picture has a heart to it and Fairbanks engages in romantic scenes with all of his acting faculties. However, the forty year old action star steals the show whenever performing moves with energy a man half his age could only wish to have. Fairbanks races through the magical city, bouncing across giant pots, careening out a window over guard tigers, climbing the self supporting enchanted rope. Fairbanks has a wealth of talents, but subtlety is not one of them. Bare chested, beaming a grin which stretches his odd moustache, Fairbanks sits comfortably in the realm of pantomime. No matter the action or situation, when attempting to remain stealthy or narrowly avoiding death, the Thief laughs joyously and strikes a pose as through it will be sculpted. Thankfully, the film is wondrous, exciting and fantasy. Fairbanks takes the liberty to join viewers in their delight.
Fairbanks was an absolute necessity for this picture. A huge star with an even bigger presence was needed to fill the colossal sets. Designed by genius William Cameron Menzies, Thief of Bagdad is a living a breathing fairytale on the proportions a awe inspired child would conceive. Everything from the hidden lairs, mysterious caverns, towering palace and the spiralling Moon Kingdom is gargantuan. The magnitude of the sets combined with Fairbanks absorbing hero are greatly magnified by the charming effects. The matte shots are fantastic even by modern standards, it is a camera trick which would be used for decades yet, but many effects have lost their sparkle. Yes, the dragon is a lizard with bony bits stuck to him, yes the undersea sequence does not hold much water these days and yes that is piano wire levitating the magic carpet. But the film mesmerises and transforms these trifling matters into charming additives.
The Thief of Bagdad revels in imagination as magical as the work Méliès pioneered. The slight down fall belongs to over indulging in narrative. In a world where carpets fly, apples reanimate the deceased and giant bats guard caves, the creators were caught enjoying the limitless possibilities. Nevertheless, The Thief of Bagdad is cinematic magic.
The triumphant Thief rides winged horse back through the clouds. The magic box gripped in his hand, the key to success and his true love’s heart. A spellbinding image.