Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Thief of Bagdad, The

Several movies – of which 1 and 2 are important – have been made of this Arabian Fantasy.

1. The Thief of Bagdad US movie (1924). United Artists. Pr Douglas Fairbanks. Dir Raoul Walsh. Photography Arthur Edeson. Art dir William Cameron Menzies. Screenplay Fairbanks (as Elton Thomas), Lotta Woods. Novelization The Thief of Bagdad * (1924) by Achmed Abdullah. Starring Snitz Edwards (Thief's "Evil Associate"), Fairbanks (Ahmed), Brandon Hurst (Caliph), Julanne Johnston (Princess), Sojin (Cham Shang the Great, Prince of the Mongols, King of Ho Sho, Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak), Anna May Wong (Mongol Slave). circa 155 mins. B/w, silent.

With his "Evil Associate", the thief Ahmed makes a rich living on the streets of Baghdad, and seems set to do even better when he steals the Magic rope belonging to a practitioner of the Indian Rope Trick. Using it, he breaks into the palace, where are stored the treasures brought by the Princess's three suitors; instead he falls in love with her, bringing away only her slipper. He forswears his criminal life and becomes a fourth suitor, as "Ahmed, Prince of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces". Within the palace, the Princess's Mongol Slave is secretly in the pay of Cham Shang, who plans to take Baghdad either by marriage or by force. The Slave fakes a prediction that the successful suitor will be the first to touch the rose tree in the gardens; unfortunately, before Cham Shang gets there, Ahmed is thrown from his horse into the bush. The Caliph has Ahmed sentenced to death as an impostor, but he escapes. The Princess, now loving Ahmed, to whom she has given her Ring, decrees that all her suitors have seven months in which to bring her a gift: the rarest gift will win her hand. Ahmed determines to enter this contest, and is directed by his imam to where there "is a silver chest that doth contain the greatest magic"; Ahmed sets off on his Quest.

The Hermit of a defile in the Mountains of Dread Adventure tells him that many have sought the chest and none returned; yet offers help. He must first reach the Cavern of Enchanted Trees and touch the central tree with a Talisman the Hermit gives him. Ahmed survives the Valley of Fire, aided by the Astral Body of the Hermit. He kills a giant Dragon (looking like a Dinosaur) in the Valley of the Monsters before at last reaching the Enchanted Trees. The central Tree, on being touched, becomes briefly animate and gives him a chart to guide him to the Old Man of the Midnight Sea. The Old Man in turn directs him to the sea's bottom, where he finds a chest containing a star-shaped key, but guarded by a Monster and, more insidiously, by a troupe of alluring Siren-like women. Returning to the surface, Ahmed is instructed by the Old Man to use the key to gain access to the Abode of the Wingèd Horse, which creature he rides to the Citadel of the Moon. Here the Hermit's astral body tells him the Magic Chest is wrapped in a Cloak of Invisibility. With both items he sets off for home on the horse.

Meantime the other three suitors have located their own gifts. The Persian Prince has bought a magic carpet from the bazaars of Shiraz; the Indian Prince has stolen the Scrying crystal from the eye of "a forgotten [six-armed] idol near Kandahar", and the cruel Cham Shang has located in a secret shrine on the Island of Wak a magic apple that has the power to restore life to the dead; Cham Shang has also arranged that the Mongol Slave poison the Princess, so that he may save her life. The trio discover her condition using the crystal and fly aboard the carpet to the palace, where Cham Shang indeed cures her. Since she would have died had it not been for any one of the three gifts, the Princess – aware via the crystal ball that Ahmed is on his way – insists she must have time to decide. But Cham Shang orders his troops to seize the city by night. Ahmed arrives at dawn and, using his magic to create a vast horde of warriors, recaptures the city. Triumphant, he claims the Princess's hand. The stars in the night sky spell out for us the movie's moral: "Happiness Must Be Earned."

A milestone of early fantasy Cinema, TTOB is packed with fantasy ideas; most are left undeveloped, but their effect en masse is impressive, and the movie thereby retains freshness and vitality today. There are other reasons why TTOB – despite much that is kitsch – still provides an astonishing visual experience. The play is less acted than danced: it is perhaps best approached as a ballet (Fairbanks was much influenced by the Diaghilev Ballet). The sets, designed by William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957; it was one of his first commissions), are sumptuously magnificent and highly imaginative; German Expressionist ideas played a role. The spfx are technologically limited, but are (mostly) cleverly deployed and serve their purpose well; again, there are so many of them that, despite frequent creakiness, the net effect is to convey the full sense of magic. Sojin is splendidly evil, Wong (real name Wong Lui Tsong; 1907-1961) – who later had a successful career in Hollywood (despite suffering racism) and more especially in the European cinema – produces a fascinating performance (quite upstaging Johnston whenever the two are together), and Fairbanks is Fairbanks.

TTOB was shot entirely on vast, specially constructed sets, and had a cast of thousands; it cost nearly $2,000,000 to make. Although warmly received by the critics, it was not as successful at the box office as predicted, probably because of its complexity. The best version available today, despite annoying tinting and an over-repetitive score by Carl Davis (based on Rimsky-Korsakov), is probably the one prepared in 1985 for Thames Television by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and subsequently released on video. [JG]

2. The Thief of Baghdad UK movie (1940). Korda/United Artists. Pr Alexander Korda. Assoc pr Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies. Dir Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan (also Geoffrey Boothby, Charles David, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, Menzies). Spfx Lawrence Butler, Tom Howard, John Mills. Screenplay Miles Malleson. Starring June Duprez (Princess), Rex Ingram (Djinn), John Justin (Ahmad), Malleson (Sultan), Sabu (Abu the Thief), Conrad Veidt (Jaffar). 106 mins. Colour.

Title apart, this is unrelated to 1. The urchin Trickster thief Abu is thrown into prison, where he finds Ahmad, deposed as King of Baghdad by the wicked vizier Jaffar. But Abu has stolen the gaoler's key, and the two escape to Basra. There they glimpse the Princess – a capital crime – and Ahmad falls in love with her; when he steals into her garden and confronts her, the adoration is returned. Jaffar arrives and with a mechanical flying horse bribes the Sultan – an avid collector of automata (> Toys) – for the hand of the Princess. She flees (and, we learn, falls into slavery, being eventually bought by Jaffar). To silence them, Jaffar Curses Ahmad to blindness and Abu to be a dog. About here the plot falls apart, spectacle and (mostly) dazzling spfx becoming the priorities. Notable among the further adventures of the restored pair are: a famous encounter between Abu and a giant djinn (> Genies), who eventually grants him Three Wishes in return for freedom from his bottle; a fight with a giant Spider; and the use on the Princess by Jaffar of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, inhalation of whose fragrance causes Amnesia – but not so total that she forgets Ahmad. At last, the lovers facing death, Abu is transported to the Land of Legend, where dwell those from the time before mankind lost its innocence. He is informed he will become the land's new king, but first he flies by stolen magic carpet to save his friends from execution – thereby fulfilling a Prophecy that the city would be delivered from tyranny by a boy riding the clouds.

TTOB has sufficient spectacle and frequent enough flashes of wit that its deficiencies as a coherent piece of fantasy (and its dreary songs) can almost be ignored. Yet it lacks the magic of 1. Its visual style, however, has influenced directors since, as well as the makers of various of the Sinbad Movies. In particular the Disney movie Aladdin (1992) owes it a considerable debt: the modern movie's Jafar, Sultan and Genie are virtual carbon copies of their counterparts in TTOB, while there is much of Ahmad in the figure of Aladdin, and even traces of TTOB's Abu in Aladdin's monkey sidekick Abu. [JG]

3. The Thief of Baghdad Italian/French movie (1960). Titanus/Lux. Dir Arthur Lubin. Screenplay Augusto Frassinetti, Filippo Sanjust, Bruno Vailati. Starring Georgia Moll (Princess), Steve Reeves (Thief). 90 mins. Colour.

A very minor version, repeating the essential Arabian-Fantasy tropes of 1 and 2; this was Reeves's attempt to drop his image of being a mere mindless muscleman, but it was unsuccessful. [JG]

4. The Thief of Baghdad French/UK movie (1978 tvm). Columbia/Palm/Victorine. Pr Aida Young. Exec pr Thomas M C Johnston. Dir Clive Donner. Spfx Allan Bryce, Ray Caple, Dick Hewill, Wladimir Ivanov, Louis Lapeyre, Zoran Perisic, John Stears. Illusionist Kovari. Screenplay Andrew Birkin, A J Carothers. Starring Kabir Bedi (Prince Taj), Daniel Emilfork (Genie), Frank Finlay (Abu Bakar), Ian Holm (Gatekeeper), Roddy McDowall (Hasan), Terence Stamp (Jaudur the Wazir), Pavla Ustinov (Princess Yasmine), Peter Ustinov (Caliph of Baghdad), Marina Vlady (Perizadah). 104 mins. Colour.

This version draws freely from 1 and 2 as well as other sources like Captain Sindbad (1963; > Sinbad Movies). Prince Taj of Zakhar travels to Baghdad to woo Princess Yasmine, but in the desert his party is attacked by troops in the pay of his wicked wazir Jaudur. Eventually reaching Baghdad, ragged and penniless, Taj encounters the conjurer and thief Hasan, and the two become firm friends. In stolen garments, Taj presents his suit to the Caliph alongside the aged ruler of the Mongols and the fat Prince of Kashmir. A fourth suitor arrives by magic carpet: Jaudur states Taj dead and proclaims himself King of Zakhar. Taj and Jaudur duel; Jaudur is unkillable because his Soul is not in his body but secreted elsewhere. Adventures proliferate before all wrongs are righted.

McDowall makes an admirably fey thief and Stamp is excellent, but notable is Vlady (as Yasmine's handmaiden), who repeats the "flaw" of 1 by being much more interesting than the rather insipid Princess she serves. This is a modest version and the spfx creak, but the overall effect is exceptionally pleasing. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.