The UK production of The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is a bit like the US production of The Wizard of Oz from one year earlier. On the surface, it looks like a seamless blend of fantasy storytelling, special effects and stunning color, but underneath it was a patchwork collaboration of many hands, coming together in a combination of spit, duct tape and luck. These days, The Thief of Bagdad is usually catalogued alongside the movies of director Michael Powell (I Know Where I'm Going, The Red Shoes, etc.), but he was only one of three credited directors and at least two more uncredited directors. The saving grace is that The Thief of Bagdad had a driving force behind it: producer Alexander Korda. Korda was a Hungarian immigrant who, along with his brothers Zoltan and Vincent, took the British film industry by storm with his combination of business savvy and boyish glitz. No matter who filmed what footage, Korda would be the one to call final cut. And despite some sluggish spots, the result is still dazzling, enough to enchant entirely new generations of dreamy children.
Fourth-billed John Justin plays the film's hero, Ahmad, a king who is tricked and betrayed by his advisor Jaffar (first-billed Conrad Veidt). Unaware of the ways of the world outside his kingdom's walls, Ahmad falls in with a crafty young thief, Abu (second-billed Sabu, an Indian-born actor and a regular in Korda productions like Elephant Boy and The Jungle Book), who vows to help. June Duprez is third-billed, playing the princess who catches Ahmad's heart but who Jaffar wants for himself. The trouble is that Jaffar uses black magic to turn the tables at the worst possible moments. Just as Ahmad is about to expose the villain, Ahmad strikes him blind and turns Abu into a seeing-eye dog. Fortunately, Abu later finds a "genie" (or "djinni") in a bottle (played by bellowing American-born Rex Ingram), who eventually gives them home court advantage. Ingram is spectacular, playing a bullying trickster rather than the grateful slave "genie" we see in other films and cartoons.
Though it bears the same title as Douglas Fairbanks' brilliant 1924 film (Fairbanks was both thief and hero rather than just a sidekick), it quickly departs from that film's storyline. (Both films were inspired by the tales from the "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.") It starts awkwardly, with the blind Ahmad explaining the first half of the story in flashback, before he finds his true love and things progress again in present time. But soon the film spills its spectacular visual treats: Abu stealing food and escaping through a crowded square (later copied in Disney's Aladdin), the Sultan playing with his amazing toys and flying horse, the djinni about to stomp on Abu with giant feet (and huge, nasty, curled toenails), the theft of the "all seeing eye" and the flying carpet. Younger viewers may sneer at the old fashioned visual effects, mostly achieved through the use of "blue screens," but they're still quite graceful. When the horse flies through the air, he's clearly running on a flat surface, but his movements are slowed and tilted to just such a degree that it feels right.
A close look will show the movie's seams. Die-hard Michael Powell fans will recognize his unique rhythms in certain scenes, the way that his cutting can invigorate and enliven serious material, but not as often as you'd think. The casting seems just as haphazard as the hiring of the directors; John Justin just can't compare to the pure presence of his co-stars. He looks especially pathetic in a sword fight, his foes practically lying down under his feeble blows. A song from the princess comes too early and stops the movie dead for a few minutes. Yet the cinematography is still one of the very best early examples of Technicolor, with its rich mix of the entire spectrum, like a woven, magical carpet. And Miklos Rózsa's thrilling, trumpeting score definitely helps get the blood pumping. These achievements, as well as the rough patches, are part of the movie's homemade charm, and they help it come together as a whole.
The Criterion Collection has released a brand new DVD, replacing MGM's out-of-print 2002 edition. Its colors and effects are now sharper and brighter, and the two-disc set contains extras to die for. The best one is a commentary track shared by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese (clearly two tracks, recorded separately and edited together -- wouldn't it have been less work to get them in the same room)? Historian Bruce Eder provides the second track, and there's an isolated music and effects track, highlighting Miklos Rózsa's score. Another major extra is an entire second feature film from Alexander Korda, The Lion Has Wings (1939). It's a pure wartime propaganda piece, designed to look like a documentary and starring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson. Otherwise we get a documentary on the visual effects, audio excerpts from Powell about the film, a radio interview with Rózsa, various color stills, a trailer and superb liner notes by Andrew Moor and Ian Christie.