It was not the huge box-office bonanza that had been hoped for. It’s an ambitious demanding movie and audiences looking for pure escapist entertainment found it a little bewildering. It has long provoked conflicting critical assessments, but then great works of art tend to do that.
There have been many movies since that have been inspired by the Arabian Nights but none have surpassed the Fairbanks film.
By 1924, in the wake of box office blockbusters such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) Fairbanks was a huge star. He had a great deal of creative control. He conceived, produced and wrote his 1920s swashbucklers and had major input into every aspect of these films. For The Thief of Bagdad he was also lucky to have very talented collaborators. Raoul Walsh directed and William Cameron Menzies was the art director. But there is no question that this is Fairbanks’ movie. The idea was his and the movie is his vision. He supervised every aspect of the production. Fairbanks was very much an auteur, possibly the outstanding example of a producer-star as auteur.
Fairbanks plays a thief in Bagdad. The Caliph’s daughter is to be married but her husband has not yet been chosen. Three of the greatest princes in the known world have arrived as suitors. They are not merely keen to marry a beautiful princess. Marriage to the princess will make the successful suitor master of Bagdad one day. One of the suitors, the Prince of the Mongols, intends to take Bagdad by force if his suit is unsuccessful.
The thief sees an opportunity to enrich himself. He steals expensive clothing and presents himself as a fourth suitor, the prince of an entirely mythical land. Of course when he meets the princess he genuinely falls in love with her. And of course his imposture is revealed and he is whipped for his presumption.
A holy man tells him that he must earn the right to the princess’s hand by undergoing a series of quests. If he succeeds then he will surely be enable to marry the princess.
The princess, in order to buy herself time (she dislikes the other three suitors intensely) proposes a quest for the suitors as well. She says she will marry the man who bings her the most fabulously valuable gift. The suitors set out to find suitable gifts which naturally must have magical properties.
It’s a fine story but it’s the way Fairbanks unfolds the story which is entrancing.
In 1924 techniques for moving the camera did not yet exist. F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund are usually given the credit for inventing these techniques in Germany at around this time although the truth is slightly more complicated. In the case of The Thief of Bagdad it doesn’t matter. There are many ways of bringing a sense of movement and dynamism into shots without moving the camera and both Fairbanks and Walsh were keenly aware of the importance of avoiding a static feel. With a star like Fairbanks that was easy. The man was a human dynamo who never stopped moving. If he did stop moving he had the ability to make you think he was about to burst into action again any second.
One of the most impressive things about this movie is the extraordinary sense of scale that it achieves. You know the sets cannot possibly be that big and yet you find yourself believing that you’re seeing enormous palaces and vast caverns. And in fact the sets really were enormous - the biggest ever built in Hollywood. The movie is extraordinarily successful in achieving a genuine sense of a fantastic world of unreality, a world in which you believe even while acknowledging its unreality. This really is the Arabian Nights brought to life.
The look of the film was heavily influenced by Léon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s ballets, especially Scheherazade.
When watching movies from this period you have to remind yourself just how new was the technology of motion pictures. Motion pictures were being made in the late 1890s but in 1924 the feature film as we know it was only a decade old. Taking this into account the special effects in The Thief of Bagdad work pretty well. How well the special effects work is unimportant. It is the beauty and grandeur of the images and the soaring imagination required to create those images that is breathtaking.
Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany the same year. Fairbanks had been impressed by Lang’s films, especially Destiny. Fairbanks set out to surpass the German masters, and to a certain extent he succeeded.
Fairbanks brings power and manic energy to the rôle of the thief but also extraordinary grace. He is like an athlete and a dancer rolled into one. Julanne Johnston is both sweet and clever as the Princess. Most reviewers focus quite a bit on Anna May Wong but while she’s fine she has no more than a minor supporting rôle.
The Eureka Masters of Cinema release includes the movie on both Blu-Ray and DVD, with various extras. The transfer is excellent and most importantly it preserves the tinting. Tinting was an important technique is silent film and Fairbanks used it to perfection.
Fairbanks was one of the grand masters of cinema. The Thief of Bagdad is very highly recommended indeed.