Wednesday, 18 November 2015

I've Just Seen: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Saying that Walsh is the director of this film feels slightly false; while he was the one who decided where the camera would go (wide shots the wise choice throughout), he wasn't the one who decided to write the story, act the lead role, or create the astonishing sets. The latter of the these belongs to art director William Cameron Menzies and his team; the former to silent film star Douglas Fairbanks.

There are several problems with this film, all to do with its age. Though set in Bagdad, the 'good guys' are all played by white actors, while the 'bad guys' are Asian; Hollywood actually did have a racially diverse cast, its just a pity it does so racistly. Anna May Wong, despite playing a deceitful servant to the princess is far more interesting to watch than Julanne Johnson, whose princess is rather forgettable.

That leads me onto another problem with the film, the acting. I personally don't have a great issue with silent film acting, but it doesn't make for psychologically compelling characters. In this story however it doesn't matter as much, for the story has the quality of folk lore and myth. Others, however, may find much to chortle about.

The biggest star of the film is the sets. They are still amazing to modern eyes, and arguably more so as you know that these days it would largely be CGI. Though it is not how Bagdad really ever looked, they are beautiful works of art; the shiny floors add to the lustre of it all. The leaping through the giant pots sequence was a standout. The special effects to, though it is obvious how they were done, are charming and show how inventive early cinema is.

One can't talk about this film without mentioning at length its leading man Douglas Fairbanks. Despite being in his 40s he bounds around the sets with such vigour and his famous winning smile. This was the first of his films that I have seen, and his star quality is obvious. He is the mastermind behind is gorgeous film.

For the problems with the film, I loved it. Unlike the human drama at the centre of The Son of the Sheik (another silent film set in the Middle East), The Thief of Bagdad is pure spectacle, but on such a breathtaking scale that it is hard not to enjoy. I reminded me of my favourite film from childhood, Aladdin, which clearly knew its cinema history.


  1. The Thief of Bagdad is a lot of fun and one of the few silents I do not mind rewatching. Yes, it has a racist slant, but so did all Hollywood movies at the time. Today the bandits are all RAG's (Russian, Arabs and Germans) and that is not much better.
    It is also good to reminded that something good can come out of the Middle East if only the back story.

    1. I have a weakness for Middle Eastern flavoured stories, as I knew I would always enjoy this. You are right about the inherent racism in Hollywood at this time, and at least the 'evil' characters had some great scenes to display their dastardliness.

      I can definitely see myself watching this again.