Thursday, October 23, 2008
When a classic, shouldn't be-The Thief of Bagdad
The Thief of Bagdad had an incredibly difficult road to the big screen, it went through a reported 6 directors (only 3 of which are credited), a shift in shooting location from England to Hollywood, much more behind the scenes fighting, and production being interrupted by World War 2 (which is what prompted the move to Hollywood). But when it was released it was a big hit, even winning 3 Oscars. It was an early special effects picture, and was of the always popular fantasy genre, but I believe that in the resulting 68 years, it has not dated very well.
The movie's plot is taken somewhat from "Arabian Nights", and it concerns King Ahmad (John Justin) finding love with a Princess (June Duprez), but being usurped in power by his advisor Jaffar (legendary German actor Conrad Veidt), who is equally smitten with the princess and throws Ahmad in jail under false pretenses. Ahmad is being prepped for execution when he is tossed a cell-mate, Abu (played by famous Indian actor Sabu, in only his 3rd screen role) the titular thief. Abu breaks them out of jail and basically the movie is a series of episodes of them trying to get back into the kingdom and save the princess. The most famous episode is probably Abu's encounter with an ancient (and annoying) genie, which explains the picture I used above. But my favorite sequence is one in which Abu is chased by seemingly every merchant in town, after he steals 2 fish from one of them.
I heard about this movie through Roger Ebert, who recently wrote a nice piece about special effects in movies and how too many filmmakers take the ease of CGI for granted, and thus incorrectly use their effects. He pointed to Iron Man as a recent example of how to do it right, and offered up The Thief of Bagdad as an historic example of how to use special effects, because although they're obviously special effects, we still believe them inside the context of the movie. I agree with him in theory, but not in this specific example. The effects were certainly groundbreaking at the time, but have not dated well, and I believe distractingly so. Normally this isn't a problem for me, as many special effects from the 40's don't hold up now. But this was a big time "EFFECTS MOVIE" that really relied on its effects to affect its audience.
It definitely has some beautiful shots, a few nice sets, and some nice effects, like the matte paintings representing the skyline of Baghdad. But overall, I think that because it relied so much on its effects, it doesn't work today like it would've in 1940. Conrad Veidt and Sabu are both good, with Sabu in particular having an infectious presence on screen. June Duprez is beautiful, but too wooden in her performance to be much more than eye candy. Sadly, John Justin is just as wooden as our leading man Ahmad, making for a fairly uninteresting love story. I'm glad I saw The Thief of Bagdad, as I'm always up for anything considered a "classic", but I don't think this one deserves its status, and I'd take Disney's Aladdin (which took much from this movie, including Anglicizing the leads in an otherwise Arabian story) as an alternative take on this type of story.