Synopsis by Bruce Eder
The general perception of the Technicolor costume adventure movies that Maria Montez and Jon Hall made for Universal in the early 1940's is that they were pure escapist entertainment, intended to make people forget for an hour or so about the Second World War and the general world situation. And generally that is true about them -- they were mostly no "about" much more than having fun for 90 minutes or so amid pretty sets with lots of action and some pretty women in exotic outfits. But watching Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, one has to wonder if even here the screenwriter, Edmund L. Hartmann, was able to totally get away from the day-to-day reality around him. The opening Mongol invasion of Bagdad and the murder of the old Caliph (Moroni Olsen) while trying to set up a government-in-exile without thinking of the German and Japanese conquests and occupations of various nations that would have been going on at the time; additionally, the fact that the old Caliph is murdered with the help of a traitor in his own noble ranks -- a "quisling" in the term coined during World War II -- wouldn't have been missed by audiences at the time. Further, the screenplay very specifically paints the forty thieves as heroes who have gone from being criminals to an active resistance force against the occupying Mongols -- indeed, at the denouement, their invasion of the palace is greeted as a day of liberation by the people of Bagdad. The movie walks a strange tightrope, casting about veiled topical references of that sort, even as is otherwise sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to cast Andy Devine as a desert bandit. Obviously, Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves was sold as -- and mostly intended as -- light entertainment, but just below that glitzy Technicolor surface were some fascinating allusions to the real world. None of this stops Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves from being immense fun -- it is, even if the "fun" isn't totally escapist in nature -- and it's great to look at as well, even 60 years on; Universal has apparently kept preservation-quality source materials on this and Hall and Montez's other Technicolor costume romps. And this particular entry in that group of movies also contains one very instructive clue to the morays and censorship of the time in one scene, in which the hero meets the heroine bathing at an oasis -- the makers seem to have been forced to insert a particular shot that is there for no other reason then to make it clear that she is not totally naked when he sees her.
against-all-odds, escape, evil, killing, prince, rescue, robbery, swashbuckler, treason, treasure