Hardened fans of the action movie often deplore the inclusion of a love story. It disrupts the narrative, they protest, and is only driven by commercial imperatives (the action film too commercial?!). But they might have a point. In a film like The Thief of Bagdad, the story is of a child – a 40-year-old child, mind – becoming a man, putting away childish things to enter maturity and prove himself worthy of the woman who has physically and spiritually stirred him. Of course, this is the subtext of most heterosexist myths. But it must be confessed that The Thief of Bagdad is a lot more fun and engaging when it concentrates on childish things.
The first reel provides some of the purest joy the silent cinema can offer. Douglas Fairbanks plays Ahmed, a petty but tirelessly inventive thief who operates in ‘A street in Bagdad, dream city of the ancient East’. The establishing shot of the main action in The Thief of Bagdad, rendered as throughout with William Cameron Menzies’ magical combination of spare geometrical architectural forms and lush Art Nouveau detail. But this street is also a gym or assault course. If we have seen a Douglas Fairbanks film before – which, by the release of The Thief of Bagdad in March 1924, many millions had – we will be looking with heady anticipation for the spatial props (including receptacles, windows, balconies, steps, mounds, tunnels, poles, ropes, drapes) which will soon enable a series of physical astonishments.
Fairbanks used to plot his films with elaborate charts, and there is something mathematical about the way he lays out the constituents of an acrobatic problem and proceeds to demonstrate how it is worked out. Here is X and Y, I will make use of these to achieve Z. QED. Take the sublime sequence where Ahmed espies food being cooked on a balcony. He removes a turban from a sleeping merchant, unwinds it and creates a pulley by throwing it over the balcony, under the sleeper and tying it to a donkey, then finally and blithely hoists himself up. This would be pure mathematics – very enjoyable mathematics – if it wasn’t for the dissolving screen that precedes the sequence and the close-up of Ahmed’s hand grasping the hot food, indicating the thief’s desire and desperation, hunger and appetite. It is the psychology motivating action that gives these early sequences their profound charge.
This is the closest Fairbanks ever came to the cinema of his friend and associate, Charlie Chaplin. Ahmed is the inventive little tramp (under 5’ 8”) transplanted to the ancient East. His anti-social antics are for our enjoyment; he draws us in with winks, grins, gestures, hesitations and epiphanies. Director Raoul Walsh – whom Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance seeks to downgrade as the film’s auteur1 – is also at his happiest here. The vast, intimidating space is broken down in variously-angled shots to ensure that we continuously share Ahmed’s point-of-view and his exhilaration at his own mental and physical prowess, and the proud self-mockery that only the genuinely accomplished can afford.
Menzies did not simply design exotic, pictorially pleasing sets. The Bagdad of which Ahmed is the apparent master is a moral space, his thievery a moral act. The dizzying, vertical sets embody and ensure a despotic hierarchy where life is cheap and everyone must know their place. Ahmed knows one place, a physical place, Bagdad, as he scales its inaccessible heights and plumbs its murky depths. But this is a place he can see, survey and master. Power and social hierarchy are more elusively sited, though they have their physical boundaries – as Ahmed discovers when he first tries to penetrate the Caliph’s castle, through the front door, as it were.
The Bagdad outside the castle is a middle-class, mercantile space, populated by overfed, soporific dullards Ahmed can easily run rings around. Even here the risks are great. Perhaps the single most forceful moment of the film sees Ahmed emerge from the mosque, where he has sneered at religion and any ideal beyond that of material satisfaction. His sacrilegious self-assurance is brought up short. One poor sap is about to be punished for such a materialist focus – having stolen a jewel, its owner can order him to be publicly chained and flogged. This is one of many scenes of public and private spectacle and looking staged in the film, as high and low hustle for attention and allegiance. Aware that one day this could be him, Ahmed slowly turns his back on the scene. The powerful torso which seemed to pirouette with magical ease is now shown to be vulnerable to forces way beyond Ahmed’s control – and very soon Ahmed will suffer the same, brutal fate, as all heroes of fantasy apparently must. This is expressive, physical acting of the highest order.
Soon after, Ahmed sees the princess. For this viewer at least, this meeting is fatal to the film, though its transitional status – from comedy to romance and adventure, from selfish marginality to selfless heroism, from everyday subsistence to eternal love – means that the scene itself is extraordinary. Here is Walsh at his best – the eroticised, languorous female space, all lattice, veil and shadow, presided over by an alert Mongol fifth columnist (the unforgettable Anna May Wong) – is slashed into by Ahmed and his dagger. The tension, the fleshly confluence of sex and death, of suspended and accelerated time, is heady. But Ahmed leaves transformed, determined to be worthy of his ennobling love, and takes a different kind of film with him. One staged by the Ballets Russes rather than Mack Sennett.2
The Thief of Bagdad now opts definitively for the didactic, allegorical mode that was announced in the film’s very first shot, wherein a holy man teaches a boy in sky-writing, “Happiness must be earned”. Where initially there had been a satisfying equivalence between the discrete adventures of Ahmed as a psychologically plausible thief in medieval Mesopotamia and Ahmed as a universal Everyman figure, in the film’s latter two-thirds, the former distinctive superstructure gives way to a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress in Orientalist drag. Endless pageants are reminiscent of the local May Day parades that clogged early cinema screens. Adventure sequences are staged like fairground tableaux and have none of the interest in physical process or emotional investment that made the early reels so exciting. Individually, these can be impressive – the underwater sequence, under cranked to produce heavy, slo-mo movements as Ahmed struggles against gravity, is astounding – but cumulatively, the effect palls. After promising a dream, this great but flawed film eventually sends its audience to sleep.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924 USA, 149 minutes)
Prod Co: Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Prod: Douglas Fairbanks Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: Achmed Abdullah, adapted by James T. O’Donohoe, from a story by Douglas Fairbanks Phot: Arthur Edeson Ed: William Nolan Prod Des: William Cameron Menzies Cost Des: Mitchell Leisen Mus: Mortimer Wilson (initial release)
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong, Sôjin Kamiyama
- Jeffrey Vance, commentary to The Thief of Bagdad, Blu-ray (London : Eureka, 2014). ↩
- “Fairbanks’s thief is completely different from the roles his audience had come to expect from him; he is less the all-American Doug here than a ballet dancer in the style of Nijinsky” (Jeffrey Vance, Douglas Fairbanks (Berkeley : University of California Press, 2008), p. 154). Many of those who worked on the film’s effects developed trick photography for comedies, including those of Sennett (Vance, 2008, pp. 168, 173). For more on the influence of the Ballets Russes and Art Nouveau on the film, see Vance (p. 164), and Lucy Fischer, Cinema by Design: Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Film History (New York : Columbia University Press, 2017), pp. 100-110. ↩