(1940)5Bruce EderThe 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad is one of those rare fantasy films that has only improved with age as a dazzling example of the screencraft of the era. If seams and joins show on some of the special-effects work, it doesn't hurt, because we accept the film as a fantasy tale woven before our eyes; just as no one minds the brush-strokes on a painting truly great painting, few object to the sequences that slip ever so slightly in this more than 60-year-old work. Officially credited to Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, and Michael Powell, there were at least three additional directors on the film: producer Alexander Korda and his brother Zoltan Korda (who also co-produced), and associate producer William Cameron Menzies, plus special effects director Lawrence Butler, who helmed the flying-horse sequence. The completion of the production was something of a miracle. Producer Alexander Korda, after a search for a director, chose German filmmaker Ludwig Berger in early 1939, but by the early summer found himself dissatisfied with Berger's overall conception of the movie -- which was too small-scale and intimate -- and, specifically, the score that Berger proposed to use. Essentially behind Berger's back, British director Michael Powell was brought in to shoot various scenes -- and Powell's scheduled work grew in amount and importance whilst, in the meantime, Korda himself did his best to undercut Berger on his own set; and while publicly siding with Berger on the issue of the music, he also undercut Berger's chosen composer (Oscar Straus) by bringing in Miklos Rozsa and putting him into an office directly adjacent to Berger's with a piano, to work on a score. Eventually, Berger was persuaded to walk away from the project, and American filmmaker Tim Whalen, who had just finished work on another Korda-produced movie (Q Planes) was brought in to help augment Powell's work. But with the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939, work was suspended as Powell was taken off the picture and put to work on a morale-boosting documentary, The Lion Has Wings. By the end of the year, Korda found himself running out of money and credit, and in the spring of 1940 he arranged to move the entire production to Hollywood (where some shots of the movie's young star Sabu, had to be redone since he'd grown more than three inches during the year since shooting had commenced). Powell had remained in England, and so direction was taken up in Hollywood by Menzies and Zoltan Korda during the summer of 1940 -- including shots of the heroes in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Painted Desert; the scenes in the Temple of the Goddess of Light, among the very last to be written, were done late in the summer, and the film was being edited and re-structured into the fall of 1940. None of the convoluted production decisions were apparent, however, when the movie was finally released in December of 1940. Accounts by those involved have varied across the decades, but most maintained that hardly anything directed by Berger made the final cut; the film is considered a prime example of Powell's early output, displaying the wit, flair, and stylish camerawork that would inform his subsequent work. The lush Technicolor photography by Georges Perinal is as overpowering today as it was in 1940, particularly when combined with Vincent Korda's outsized sets and Menzies' grand conception of the film's visuals; and the movie overflows with intoxicating primary colors in a way that is echoed by Miklos Rozsa's music, itself a wonder of wall-to-wall film scoring that was ambitious in scope, even in an era in which movies were filled with music. Other movies, such as Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957), have tried to weave similar spells, but Thief of Bagdad exists on a completely different scale from any of them, with its incredible cast and opulent production, and also the time in which it comes from. It has endured as an artifact of a lost world of innocence and wonder -- Thief of Bagdad was the last major movie started in England before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the last fantasy film released before America's entry into World War II. And, like Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) and Mervyn LeRoy's production of The Wizard of Oz (1939), the movie speaks from a time before A-bombs, air-raids, and concentration camps, and as such, provided a two-hour escape for those seeking refuge from the horrors of war, which still resonates seven decades later.
In ancient Bagdad, Abu, a good-natured young thief (Sabu), befriends the deposed king Ahmad (John Justin) as both are imprisoned in the palace dungeon, awaiting execution under orders from the evil vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), who has seized the throne. But they escape and make their way to Basra, where Ahmad, now living as a beggar, meets and falls in love with the Princess (June Duprez), who has been betrothed by her father the Sultan (Miles Malleson, who also wrote the screenplay) to Jaffar. Their fight for the love of the Princess triggers a series of adventures for the young Abu that brings him halfway around the world and into mystical realms with help from a towering genie (Rex Ingram), brushing up against the gods and transforming the little thief into a hero in the process. Along the way, we encounter a wide array of characters, some of them charming, such as the gentle Old King (Morton Selten), and some sinister, such as the devious Halima (Mary Morris), plus a range of color and lushly designed sets and set pieces (and special effects) that still dazzle the eye seven decades later, even in the wake of various remakes (which include Disney Studios' Aladdin). And it all leads to an amazing and suspenseful ride on a magic carpet, and a race against time to save the king and his beloved.