Friday, July 15, 2022

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

At least five directors (including Michael Powell) worked on the 1940 British production The Thief of Bagdad but this movie is like Gone With the Wind - it’s an example of a movie made by a producer as auteur. The producer in this case being Alexander Korda, and there was no more colourful and ambitious figure in the British film industry than the Hungarian-born Korda.

This movie is of course an Arabian Nights adventure/fantasy/romance.

We start with events that offer hints of strangeness and that leave us a little uneasy. A woman from the imperial palace is talking to a man about a princess, a princess who sleeps. We get the impression that this sleep is not a natural one. The woman is Halima (Mary Morris). The man is Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) and we will soon learn that he is the Grand Vizier. Halima invites a blind beggar to accompany her to the palace.

The blind beggar tells his story in flashback. He was not always a beggar. Once he was a king. And his faithful dog was not always a dog, but a small boy and an inveterate thief. The boy’s name was Abu.

The beggar had been King Ahmad, and he ruled Bagdad. He was served by his Grand Vizier Jaffar, but he was not well served by him. Jaffar in fact was the real ruler. It was a brutal unpopular rule but the people blamed King Ahmad rather than Jaffar.

Jaffar devised a fiendish plot to get Ahmad out of the way but it was more than just a power grab. There is also a princess, the daughter of the Sultan of Basra. Ahmad and Jaffar both love the princess. The princess of course loves Ahmad. There are three magical spells at work. One spell has put the princess to sleep. She can only be awakened by the man she loves. The other spell, cast by Jaffar, robs Ahmad of his eyesight. His sight will be restored when Jaffar holds the princess in his arms. Ahmad does not want his sight restored if that will be the price. The third spell turned Abu into a dog.

This is a movie with lots of magical elements and they’re handled in an interesting way. The princess’s father, a kindly but foolish old man, loves mechanical toys. He has a huge collection of amazingly clever toys. They’re so clever you could easily mistake them for magic. Jaffar is a genuine sorcerer and his specialty is creating mechanical toys that are actually magical rather than mechanical. Such as an amazing flying horse. And a much more devious toy which he will employ in a very sinister manner.

Ahmad is determined to save the princess from a fate worse than death (marriage to Jaffar) but he’s not really sure how to go about it. He and Abu tend to blunder about, but fate lends a hand. There is a prophecy. Of course the prophecy can’t possibly have anything to do with a mere young ragamuffin of a thief like Abu, or can it? And Abu has a stroke of luck. He discovers a bottle washed up on the beach, a bottle that contains a genie. Discovering a genie can be very good luck but you have to be very very careful with genies. The genie does offer to help Abu steal the All-Seeing Eye from a gigantic statue of a goddess, and that will certainly help.

And naturally there’s a magic carpet.

This is a movie that is very special effects-driven, which was still pretty unusual in 1940. Some of the effects work superbly, others not so well, but what Korda was attempting with this movie was something very ambitious indeed, in fact more ambitious than anything done in movies up to that point. Even when the effects are a bit iffy they’re still fun.

The settings, the props, the costumes, are all spectacular. It looks like a very very expensive movie which is exactly what it was. Alexander Korda was always prepared to spend real money on his movies.

John Justin as Ahmad is the ostensible hero of the movie with June Duprez as the princess being the leading lady but in fact it’s Conrad Veidt as the villain and Sabu as the hero’s sidekick who get top billing. Which is absolutely just. The movie belongs to them. Conrad Veidt is a marvellous villain. He’s suitably ruthless and sinister but he is also human. He is motivated by the desire for power but most of all he is motivated by love. His love for the princess is genuine. It’s the kind of love that could redeem a man, but the princess does not reciprocate his love. Jaffar is perhaps to some extent a tragic villain. He gains everything that he thought he wanted but without the love of the princess it ends up meaning nothing.

Sabu is bursting with vitality without ever becoming irritating. You can see how a genuine friendship developed between Ahmad and Abu.

This is not just a remake of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks movie of the same name. Both are great movies, both are visually stupendous, but each can stand on its own merits.

The 1940 Korda version combines adventure, fantasy, humour, romance and even horror (the giant spider) and it gets the mix just right. You can find holes in the plot, some of the special effects don’t quite come off, but there’s so much movie magic here that minor flaws can be overlooked. It’s a movie with energy and charm, and heart.

The 1940 version has had a number of DVD releases (my copy is the Region 4 release from Madman) and Network in the UK have released it on Blu-Ray.

The Thief of Bagdad is a real feelgood movie. Highly recommended.


  1. "And a much more devious toy which he will employ in a very sinister manner."

    No kidding! A real highlight of an awesome movie. I like this film more now than I did when I was younger.

    I've got the Network Blu Ray. One of those films where I would recommend a Blu Ray over DVD.

    Nice point about Veidt's character. Have you ever seen Contraband, aka Blackout, where Michael Powell cast him as the hero?

    1. I'll have to keep an eye open for CONTRABAND.