Monday, May 19, 2014

Silent Classic Movie Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks was the original big screen cinematic swashbuckler. By the time he starred in and co-wrote The Thief of Bagdad – which is perhaps his greatest achievement – he had already played Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, and Zorro. To play a title character in a story from the 1,001 Arabian Nights was just icing on the cake. Two years ago I enjoyed Fairbanks in Robin Hood along with live musical accompaniment. At the time, I thought that movie was an impressive feat of sets, action, and stunts, but then The Thief of Bagdad, quite frankly, dwarfs it in scope.

Although the sets are so obviously fabricated, the fact that they resemble a stage production serves to remind a modern audience of cinematic storytelling’s roots. You can clearly tell that everything is built on a sound stage. Everything, from the lightweight looking walls that are just short of sufficient detail to the polished floors that look nothing like an ancient Arabian street, calls attention to the production. This is not negative, but observable fact. There’s a quaintness to it that belies its implausibility. Attempting to watch with the eyes of someone seeing it in 1924 is a near impossibility, but may be just enough to prevent you from ignoring the sets for being ‘cheap’ by today’s standards and from laughing at some of the film’s more spectacular sequences and effects.

Ahmed, Fairbanks’ thief, starts out as a common street pickpocket who devises clever ways of ripping people off and eluding their chase. After traversing the palace wall with a magic rope he pilfered, he becomes smitten with the princess (Julanne Johnston) to the point that he forgets to steal anything. Later, he disguises himself as a prince to gain entrance to the palace behind three suitors from far away kingdoms. The prince from Mongolia wants to marry the princess to gain control over the land. He even has a woman on the inside before his arrival. The Mongol slave who attends to the princess is played by Anna May Wong, who went on to become Hollywood’s first Asian movie star. Ahmed is discovered, but the princess’s infatuation with him sets him free. Tasked with finding the greatest treasure in all the land, one prince seeks out a magic carpet, one a crystal ball, and the third a trinket that can raise the dead. But Ahmed goes on a grand adventure to complete some downright Herculean tasks that lead him to the greatest treasure of all that will help him defeat the army the Mongol prince has raised to take control of Bagdad.

The plot is simple and straightforward, basically existing to showcase the grand production design and Fairbanks’ athleticism. Watching him I realized he was the Tom Cruise of his day. He spends a good portion of the film shirtless, showing off his impeccable physique. He more closely resembles a late 20th century professional athlete than an actor. And when he scales a wall, or leaps and bounds around the set, we clearly see it’s all him. Like Tom Cruise, Fairbanks was one of the greatest box office draws of the twenties, and he also had great creative control over his work as producer. Raoul Walsh was nominally the director of The Thief of Bagdad, but the vision is all Fairbanks’.

One of my gripes with RobinHood was that it was too long and spent far too much time building to the big plot points. The Thief of Bagdad is similarly structured and slightly longer, but I rarely felt bored. Even while Fairbanks is spending an inordinate amount of time setting the stage for the big middle and even grander finale, there is so much happening on screen, so much action to focus on, that you simply lose yourself in the spectacle.

There is truly nothing from that decade, with the possible exception of Ben Hur, that compares in terms of effects and set design. There are sequences in Ahmed’s journey to the high mountain that are astounding. He leaps through a fiery cave, battles a giant lizard monster and a bat (okay, the bat looked ridiculous), flies on Pegasus, and travels on a magic carpet above the city. But the most amazing of all scenes is when Ahmed swims to the bottom of the sea to retrieve a treasure. The effect is so well done, it actually took me the length of it to figure out how it was executed. The illusion is mesmerizing and without doubt the best I’ve seen from anything even as recent as the forties.

Like any big studio production of today, it’s still important to have a decent story behind all the razzle dazzle. Fairbanks was one of the greatest film entertainers. That goes for his acting, his athletic approach to his characters and craft, and his light and airy attitude that beckons us to follow on his adventures in addition to his ability to set down a story that makes us care.

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