Filmsite Movie Review
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is Raoul Walsh's timeless and expensive silent costume fantasy. It was a lavish and bold Arabian Nights swashbuckler-adventure film - and an epic, spectacular accomplishment in production design and revolutionary state-of-the-art special/visual effects from production/art director William Cameron Menzies. It brought film audiences to a new level of imagination and fantasy, and displayed legendary design with its massive palace sets.

The visually-opulent film was inspired by writer/director Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921) (aka Destiny or The Tired Death) - the source for the flying horse and carpet sequences, and adapted from One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). Douglas Fairbanks wrote the story (under the pseudonym Elton Thomas), performed in, and produced the film.

It was one of the greatest Hollywood studio silent films ever made, and the most expensive at its time, budgeted at $1.1 million (and with box-office revenues between $1.5 and $2 million). The Art Deco-styled Arabian Nights fantasy, the first major visual effects epic in American film-making history, had a lasting influence on other fantasy tales, but it was a box-office failure and underappreciated at the time. The silent 155-minute version was the first of four prominent versions of the classic Arabian nights tale - strongly influencing the other films:

  • The Thief of Bagdad (1940), producer Alexander Korda's inferior remake with sound and Technicolor, starring Conrad Veidt as the evil magician Jaffar, Sabu as the young title character and thief Abu, and John Justin as the romantic lead Ahmad
  • The Thief of Baghdad (1961, Italian) (aka Il Ladro di Bagdad), starring Steve Reeves as the title character Karim
  • The Thief of Baghdad (1978, UK) (made for TV), directed by Clive Donner, starring Roddy McDowall as Hasan the Thief (top-billed over hero Kabir Bedi as Prince Taj)

Other films paid homage, such as Gene Kelly's "Sinbad the Sailor" segment in Invitation to the Dance (1956), and Disney's animated feature Aladdin (1992) and recent live-action reimagining Aladdin (2019). And the creators of the popular computer game Prince Of Persia (1989) based some of its scenarios on the film's plot.

The astounding and innovative visual effects in the fairy-tale included: the Valley of Monsters, a smoke-belching, fire-breathing dragon in Caverns of Fire, an underwater spider, a golden apple of the sun, an all-seeing crystal eye, a cloak of invisibility, a Flying Pegasus Horse, the famed Magic Carpet, and armies mystically arising from the dust. The storybook film, Walsh's lavish masterpiece, featured amazingly difficult stunt work performed by the dashing, flamboyant and gracefully-athletic 40 year-old Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. the first major Hollywood celebrity. In this spectacular film, the silent star screen actor was required to ride high above the city on a magic carpet (a 3/4 inch piece of steel suspended on its four corners by 16 piano wires held by a 100-foot crane), battle with a fire-breathing dragon (a cleverly-disguised crocodile shot with the actor using double-exposure), and ride on the back of a flying horse (or Pegasus).

He performed with charisma, exuberance and grace throughout the entire film, after already having proved his swashbuckling agility and box-office popularity in 38 previous films including these from the early 1920s:

  • The Mark of Zorro (1920), director Fred Niblo's silent film, adapted from Johnson McCulley's novel The Curse of Capistrano; with Fairbanks in the dual role of Don Diego and the dashing young swordsman Zorro - the hero of the oppressed poor by tyrants ruling in California in the 1830s.
  • The Three Musketeers (1921), Alexandre Dumas' adventure classic, with Fairbanks as the acrobatic D'Artagnan
  • Robin Hood (1922), with Fairbanks as the title character

His son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., would follow in his father's footsteps as both a comedic romantic lead and as an action star, sometimes performing his own stunts much as his father had, in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and RKO's Sinbad the Sailor (1947).

In the film, the title character, the mischievous and roguish Ahmed, the Thief of Bagdad (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr), stole a magic rope used to scale walls and rob people, including the royal family in the Palace of the Caliph (Brandon Hurst) in Bagdad. He found himself enraptured by the exotic, ravishingly-beautiful Princess (Julanne Johnston), who was compelled to choose a princely husband on her birthday. Three other princely suitors arrived to win the Princess' heart (and inheritance). He disguised himself as a regal Prince to win the heart of the Princess, but then felt compelled to confess to the Princess that his original plan was to abduct her. His deceptive duplicity was soon discovered, and he was flogged and imprisoned for his fraudulent behavior, but was able to escape.

A test or challenge was devised by the Princess (who had already been smitten by Ahmed) -- the suitor who retrieved the rarest treasure within the mysterious Orient "after seven moons" would win her hand. Ahmed repented, reformed and confessed the truth to a Holy Man (Charles Belcher), and joined in the magical yet perilous quest. He was competing with three other suitors: the Prince of the Indies (Noble Johnson) who located a Magic Crystal, the Prince of Persia (Mathilde Comont) who purchased a Magic Carpet, and the evil and treacherous Mongol Prince Cham Shang (So-Jin Kamiyama) who discovered a Magic Apple. The Mongol Prince had plans to overthrow the Caliph, including a plot to poison the Princess and then save her with his magic apple.

When a Chinese army directed by the Mongol Prince captured Bagdad, Ahmed magically conjured up an army with his own magical powder (from a magical chest), retook and liberated the city (with the help of an invisibility cloak), and restored the Caliph to power. In gratitude, the Caliph agreed to the Princess' marriage to Ahmed, and the two newlyweds flew off into the star-studded sky on a Magic Carpet. The moral of the story: "Happiness must be earned."

Plot Synopsis

Title Screen:

The opening title screen stated: DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS IN "THE THIEF OF BAGDAD" - An Arabian Nights Fantasy.

Opening Framing Device:

A Holy Man (or Imam) (Charles Belcher) was seated in front of a young boy. He was stirring a steaming pot next to him, and then pointed into the starry sky of the night desert to emphasize an inscription written there - with the platitude:


This was followed by a quotation allegedly from the Koran:

Praise be to Allah - the Beneficent King - The Creator of the Universe - Lord of the Three Worlds!
The Koran

Also, there was a quotation from the Introduction to the Arabian Nights:

Verily the works of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel other folk and may there-from take warning.

Introduction of the Main Character - The Thief:

"A street in Bagdad, dream city of the ancient East." A street scene was presented - a populated and busy mercantile area surrounded by high walls. The unnamed protagonist, the Thief of Bagdad (Douglas Fairbanks) appeared to be asleep atop a stone platform above a small drinking water fountain. He was clad only in silky pantaloons, wearing a headband and round gold earrings. He was barefooted and had a bare-chested muscular torso, and sported a thin pencil mustache. When a traveler paused to drink from the fountain in front of him, the Thief pickpocketed the man's purse and stuffed it inside his pantaloons. He found himself squabbling with a second possible victim who fought him off, thereby drawing a crowd of onlookers. The Thief was challenged: "If it be his purse, let him tell what is in it," and the clever Thief replied: "'Tis empty." His guess was accurate, and he boisterously laughed as he was handed the empty purse. In his other hand, he revealed he had taken gold coins from the purse.

Hungry, he noticed that a female was heating up a bowl of food on the upper balcony of her residence. To ascend upwards, he stole a cloth rope wrapped around the pointed hat of a sleeping merchant. He threw the coiled piece of cloth into the air over the balcony railing and attached the end of the rope to the hind-end of a donkey to create a pulley. When the donkey walked forward, he was hoisted up, allowing him to steal a handful of rice and grab a piece of baked bread. Perched precariously on the edge of the railing, he watched as a street magician below placed a young boy into a "magic basket," and skewered the basket with six long swords from different angles. The magician then held up a "magic rope of Ispahán - woven from a witch's hair in the caverns of the Jinn." After uttering a few commands, the coiled rope was extended upwards - becoming rigid and straight. The Thief watched in amazement as the boy from the basket magically appeared clinging to the top of the rope, before scampering down. When accosted and beaten by the female occupant of the home, the Thief lept onto the still erect rope and slithered down to the street when the magician ended the trick.

A Holy Man's call to prayer interrupted everyone's mercantile business: "Come to prayer! Come to prayer! Come to prayer!", and worshippers bowed and knelt in the direction of the mosque. While everyone was bowed down, the Thief grabbed the magic rope and escaped pursuit by acrobatically scampering over the backs of prostrated worshippers at prayer. He tied the rope around his waist and eluded capture by leaping and bouncing in and out of numerous giant clay pots in the marketplace. When the enormous vase that he was hiding in cracked open, he extended the magic rope upwards and climbed into the open window of the mosque, where he observed religious believers in prayer, led by the Imam:

O true believers, gathered in this sacred mosque, earn thy happiness in the name of the true God...Toil - for by toil the sweets of human life are found.

The Thief, a cheerful infidel, challenged the Holy Man and other mosque-goers by asserting his own philosophy of life - hedonism, lawless selfishness, atheism, materialism, and reckless disregard for others. His main precept in life was to take what he wanted. He expressed his sneering disdain for religion, and his belief that Allah was a myth:

Thou liest! What I want - I take. My reward is here. Paradise is a fool's dream and Allah is a myth.

He emerged onto the street from the mosque, just as a public punishment by flogging was announced and about to take place in the public square: "Honest citizens of Bagdad. Here is a thief to be flogged." The thief was suspended by four chains (from each of his arms and legs) over a pit and mercilessly whipped. After the flogging, the owner of the stolen ring declared:

Let all thieves beware! Four and twenty lashes for the stealing of this jewel.

(It was a prophetic warning for the Thief - who would soon be flogged for his own criminal activity.) The imprisoned thief had stolen a jeweled ring, and its owner had requested 24 lashes as punishment for the theft. As everyone dispersed, the Thief tripped the ring's owner (who had ordered the punishment), and cleverly stole the ring without the man knowing.

The Thief watched a royal procession or parade through the streets, and cried out the familiar beggar's request for help: "Alms! O ye merciful! Alms!" As the procession passed, he rolled under the open litter transport held up by porters, clung to its under-carriage, and removed a ring from the extended hand of the unaware carriage's occupant. Afterwards, he descended into a secret passageway and tunnel, and entered into his abode - a secret cave at the bottom of a well. There, he bragged about his latest purloined treasures to his evil thieving associate (Snittz Edwards). He revealed his stolen coins (he performed a handstand and the coins fell to the floor) and the magic rope:

Rouse yourself, bird of evil. I have brought home treasure. It is a magic rope. With it we can scale the highest walls.

Their plan was to use the rope to steal more valuables from the high-walled palace.

The Scheming Mongol Prince:

The scene transitioned to introduce the main evil protagonist - Mongol Prince Cham Shang (Sojin Kamiyama):

In far eastern Asia, a Mongol Prince in his Palace at Ho Sho...

The ornately-dressed Mongol Prince was seated on his elaborate throne before his prostrate subjects and advisors. He viewed a scale-model replica of "The Palace of the Caliph of Bagdad." The evil Mongol Prince greedily announced his intentions to conquer the Caliph of Bagdad and take over the royal palace - using words similar to the Thief's philosophy of life ("What I want - I take!"):

It shall be mine. What I want - I take.

He was then told by one of his counselors about the impending marriage of the royal Princess in Bagdad. He replied and announced his scheme to become one of her suitors:

Mongol Prince's Counselor: Celestial Majesty, at the next moon, suitors do go to Bagdad, seeking in marriage its royal Princess.
Mongol Prince: The gods of our dynasty direct us. We shall enter Bagdad as a suitor.

Suitors Arrive in Bagdad - The Thief's Break-in and Sighting of the Princess:

The gates of Bagdad (with four snaggletoothed sections) were opened to various suitors (and their entourages in a procession) who arrived and then proceeded to the Palace to seek the hand of the Princess:

Open wide the gates of Bagdad! Open wide the gates of Bagdad! We be porters bound for the Palace of the Caliph. We bear gifts and viands to feast the suitors who, on the morrow, come to woo our Princess.

Meanwhile, The Thief and his associate emerged from their hiding place via a well - the two were scheming to break into the palace and they joined the parade, but were denied entry. The Thief vowed to steal the many valuables and jewels brought as gifts by the suitors - by scaling the tall palace wall with his magic rope: "Tonight - with the magic rope." By evening, "Beasts and scimitars guard the Palace." Two chained Bengal tigers and a giant ape were positioned at the entrance gates with guards. In the middle of the night ("when night reaches its noon"), the Thief activated his magic rope to climb to the top of the wall to initiate a break-in. As an intimidating guard on the lower level fell asleep, the Thief snuck up the stairs, found three fat guards sleeping, and used one of their keys to unlock a treasure chest of jewels.

He was interrupted by the nearby sounds of a lute, strummed by a female handmaiden-slave (Laska Winter, credited as Slave of the Lute) at the bedside of the recumbent Princess (Julianne Johnston), when the Princess' head Mongol slave-servant (Anna May Wong, the first Chinese movie star in Hollywood) noted: "The Princess sleeps." After the three maid-servants attending to the Princess retreated to their adjoining bedchamber, the Thief descended a sweeping, descending staircase into the Princess' boudoir and saw her languorously sleeping upon her bed under a veil - and he was instantly entranced. He approached closer, and through the veil, he amorously spied upon her. After he grasped one of her silk slippers, she stirred and awoke, as all of the guards (inside and outside of the palace) and the handmaidens came to the alert and rushed to her aid, while the Thief was concealed and hidden under a blanket.

After things calmed down and the Princess was assured of her safety, she again reclined on her bed and fell asleep. The Princess' slinky head Mongol slave-servant detected the Thief under the blanket. He reacted by poking her in the left side with his dagger to silence her, and with the knife still pointed into her back, marched her over to a corner of the bedroom wall. He braced the knife against her back with a pillow and ordered her to not turn around, to make her believe that he was still there so that he could make his escape. He grabbed the Princess' one silk slipper and dove through an open window to flee from the palace. The Mongol slave-servant realized she had been fooled and yelled out an alarm. Down on the street level, the Thief's dismayed associate asked:

Associate: "The treasure - where is it?"
The Thief: (holding up the slipper) "'Tis here - "

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