The Archers thought in colour from The Thief of Bagdad onwards.1

When British producer Alexander Korda set out to remake Raoul Walsh’s silent epic The Thief of Bagdad (1924), his intention was not fidelity to the original. Itself a free adaptation of the One Thousand and One Nights folk tales, Walsh’s film truly cemented star and producer Douglas Fairbanks’ screen persona as the swashbuckling adventurer he is best remembered for today. While Korda’s version was to similarly mine the stardom of Conrad Veidt and the freshly famous Sabu, it was also conceived as a showcase for the technical wizardry of the special effects department at his Denham production studio and the newly available Technicolor process in Britain. 

Of the film’s long and messy production history, Michael Powell – who had been contracted by Korda in the late 1930s on the strength of his first major feature The Edge of the World (1937) and was one of three credited directors to work on the picture – recalled that “it could hardly be claimed, even by the warmest Korda partisan, that The Thief of Bagdad had been ‘planned’ – it just growed [sic].”2 Indeed, Korda’s unconventional and demanding methods resulted in a lack of concern over whether a script was finished before shooting began, and his competing vision for the film with the director whom he had originally hired to helm the production, Ludwig Berger, triggered early conflict. Berger was actor-focused, filming intimate scenes in medium shots and close-up at the expense of the lavish scenic backgrounds. Korda, by contrast, envisioned an epic visual spectacle and was not amicable to the prospect of the enormous sets he had had constructed for the film going to waste.3 As their rivalry escalated, the petulant Korda hired two additional directors as a countermove to undermine Berger’s authority – Powell and Hollywood’s Tim Whelan – to shoot large portions of the film. Powell, then in his mid 30s and, in his own words, “unknown and afraid of nothing,”4 was chosen to direct the largest and most complex sequences of his career so far. 

As a first assignment, Korda sent him to Cornwall to begin shooting the remarkable scene where the young thief Abu (Sabu) discovers the Djinni in a bottle (Rex Ingram). According to Powell, very little was known of the script at this point; in fact, all the crew in Cornwall had to go on was that Abu’s boat had been destroyed in a storm and he had been washed ashore.5 The first morning of shooting the scene was also Powell’s first meeting with Sabu. The orphaned son of a mahout (elephant caretaker) living as a ward of the Maharaja of Mysore in southwestern India, Sabu had become an international child star after being discovered by Korda’s brother Zoltan and documentarian Robert Flaherty while shooting footage for a film which would become Elephant Boy (1937), a subsequent critical and box office hit. Powell found the 15-year-old actor “enchanting […] kind, direct, strong and intelligent,” and the two remained friends until Sabu’s sudden death at the age of 39 in 1963.6 In the first volume of his autobiography, Powell attributes The Thief of Bagdad’s success to Sabu’s immensely charismatic, earnest, and energetic performance.7 

Sabu’s casting – a major point of difference from the 1924 version, which featured a 40-year-old Fairbanks – was a key factor in the film’s global popularity with young audiences. Often screened on American television in black and white throughout the 1940s, The Thief of Bagdad captured the imagination of many future filmmakers who would go on to spearhead the New Hollywood: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, as well as visual effects artists Dennis Muren and Craig Barron (whose work includes films directed by Lucas, Spielberg, and James Cameron) all recall formative memories of seeing the film at a young age,8 and it’s easy to understand how its world of flying carpets and horses, spells and magical jewels sparked such wonderment. Eight decades later, my own first encounters with the similarly vivid, sensory worlds cultivated in Powell’s later work with Emeric Pressburger through their production company The Archers – especially the atmosphere, emotion, and affectivity of landscape in I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947) – left such a strong impression on me that I would remain held in their afterglow for days.

However, the arrival of Technicolor in Britain in the mid to late 1930s was treated with suspicion by the industry. Its ability to produce uniquely vivid hues threatened the centrality of standardised classical narrative, and therefore had to be reined in to ultimately support rather than overshadow a film’s story.9 This was institutionalised through the Colour Advisory Service, who supplied a “colour consultant” for films shooting in Technicolor to provide a chart of colours they believed would most effectively tell a film’s story. The Thief of Bagdad, however, refutes this dictum by affording free reign to the expressive potential of colour. There is no better example than our entry into the film (another sequence directed by Powell), wherein the sorcerer Jaffar (Conrad Veidt)’s ship arrives at the harbour in ancient Basra. A rousing seafaring song swells over a bustling tapestry of colour and movement: dock workers move up and down masts, traverse ladders, and adjust sails. An explosion of colours – reds, oranges, blues, teals, whites, maroons, yellows and purples – is registered with astonishing vibrancy in boats adorned with paintings of dragons, flora and birds, in robes, veils, turbans, sails and flags. Objects and materials continue as the central means through which the film generates its Technicolor sensuality, from the glistening drapes in the palace chamber through which we glimpse the Princess (June Duprez) to the tantalising display of fruits and vegetables lining the market visited by Abu and his fast friend, the Prince-in-disguise Ahmad (John Justin). 

Importantly, the film’s colourful, seductive and spectacular visual surface is also inseparable from its place within a long tradition of British and American filmmaking portraying imaginary versions of the ancient Arab world as a fantastical space and backdrop for grand imperial adventures. Korda himself produced a number of ‘Empire films’ in the late 1930s – “paternalistic defences” of British colonial projects in Asia and Africa – including Elephant Boy, The Drum (Zoltan Korda, 1938, also starring Sabu) and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939).10 Colour in The Thief of Bagdad contributes to, and indeed enables, its dazzling construction of an ‘exotic’ land. Its vibrant hues animate this vision and foreground racial difference (performed in brown-face by most of the main actors), enclosing its subject within an established network of meanings associated with fantasy and exoticism, rendering it “domesticat[ed]” and “legible”.11 

The adventure was soon to be interrupted, however: after production on the near-complete film was forced into suspension by the outbreak of World War II – making planned location work in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula impossible – Korda’s resources were promptly diverted, with Powell and others swiftly redeployed to work on The Lion Has Wings (Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrian Brunel, 1939), a rapidly-produced propaganda film intended to reassure the British public of the Royal Air Force’s preparedness for the coming war. After five months in limbo, Korda arranged for the remaining sections of The Thief of Bagdad to be shot in the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.

Almost two years after it began production, the film was screened for the press in October 1940, where it received a mixed reception. Many critics condemned the overpowering nature of its visuals: “[a]udience interest is focused on the production and technical displays of the picture, and the unimpressive story […] fail[s] to measure up to the general production qualities,” wrote an anonymous reviewer for Variety.12 Even Korda’s biographer Karol Kulik dismisses the film as plagued by “an over-emphasis on […] setting and a concern for spectacle for spectacle’s sake.”13 Yet to value narrative above the visual reflects a rejection not only of Korda’s original intentions for the film, but of one of the quintessential pleasures of the cinema. In the visual astonishment of The Thief of Bagdad lies a celebration of the cinema’s very origins as a medium for display, for wonderment and magic tricks.14 

The prominence of mechanical devices in The Thief of Bagdad – present in a beautiful sequence where the Sultan of Basra (Miles Malleson) shows a scheming Jaffar his opulent toy collection (and, later, the mechanical dancer which Jaffar bewitches to kill him) – makes striking allusion to an older tradition of visual trickery in optical toys and their magical animation of the inanimate; an effect also intrinsic to the cinema itself as a medium which brings a sequence of still frames to life. In the former scene, the pride of the Sultan’s collection is a magical cabinet containing six tiny acrobats. Created using a miniaturising effect, the footage of the acrobats – who stand on each other’s shoulders in various arrangements – was sped up to lend the figures a ‘windup’ quality, but this manipulation of pace also recalls the common faster projection speeds of silent films, resembling Georges Méliès’ La Danseuse microscopique (The Microscopic Dancer, 1902), in which a miniature ballerina dances atop a dining table. The Thief of Bagdad invites us to marvel at its composite images which, like the early ‘trick’ films, reconfigure vision by expanding the world of the frame through matte paintings, travelling mattes and hanging miniatures, and by manipulating scale through mattes and model work in the creation of the towering Djinni, the giant spider, and the temple of the “All-Seeing Eye”. Particularly impressive is that these effects weren’t immediately transferrable to colour film, in which it was much more difficult to match shots together. The iterations displayed here represent processes actively in development; details like the blue glow of matte lines outlining the Sultan’s flying horse exposing the magicians’ hidden threads.

The Thief of Bagdad gestures toward the ‘anti-realist’ aesthetic developed in the masterpieces Powell would go on to make in partnership with Pressburger as The Archers;15 their splendent atmosphere and bold use of colour running counter to the “anti-fantastic” and “restrained” cinema critically valued in Britain at the time.16 Yet The Thief of Bagdad is of relevance to the work Powell would go on to produce in more ways: several of the film’s practitioners would later work on Archers projects, including cinematographer Georges Périnal, whom Powell would seek out to shoot The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and Sabu, who was cast as the eager young general in Black Narcissus (1947) – another fantastical treatment of the ‘Orient’. While he does not recall its exact origin, Powell even speculates that The Archers’ iconic target logo could have “germinated in Denham on The Thief of Bagdad, when I watched my champion archer send arrow after arrow into his chosen target” during his direction of the raid on the marketplace.17 

The film also had a formative impact upon Powell’s aesthetic sensibility. He credits the experience with teaching him to formally experiment,18 and many commentators have retrospectively identified a thematic consistency with Powell’s other work, particularly the motif of the gaze – from the painted eye on the side of Jaffar’s ship to Ahmad’s magically-induced blindness – which carries all the way through to the murderer who captures his victims through the lens of his camera in the late gem Peeping Tom (1960).19 The Thief of Bagdad also marked the first time Powell had worked with Technicolor – the unapologetically expressive use of which would distinguish The Archers’ work from anything else in British cinema. In The Thief of Bagdad, as in Powell and Pressburger’s later works, Technicolor’s special vibrancy enabled a vision of cinema which valued not only narrative but mood, texture and atmosphere; to create not just a story, but a world. 

The Thief of Bagdad (1940 United Kingdom/USA 106 min)

Prod Co: London Films Prod: Alexander Korda Dir: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan Scr: Lajos Bíró, Miles Malleson Phot: Georges Périnal Ed: Charles Crichton Mus: Miklós Rózsa Prod Des: Vincent Korda Cos Des: John Armstrong, Oliver Messel, Marcel Vertès

Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram, Mary Morris


  1. Michael Powell, Million Dollar Movie (London: Heinemann, 1992), p. 35.
  2. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 499.
  3. Karol Kulik, Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles (London: W. H. Allen, 1975), pp. 224-225. The marketplace set was supposedly one of the largest in film history.
  4. Powell, A Life in Movies, p. 323.
  5. Powell, A Life in Movies, p. 325.
  6. Powell, A Life in Movies, pp. 323-324.
  7. Powell, A Life in Movies, p. 325.
  8. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola recall their early memories of the film in their audio commentary included in the Criterion edition of The Thief of Bagdad. For interviews with visual effects artists Ray Harryhausen, Craig Barron and Dennis Muren, see “The Thief of Bagdad: Visual Effects” featurette also included in the Criterion edition of the film.
  9. Sarah Street, “‘Colour consciousness’: Natalie Kalmus and Technicolor in Britain,” Screen, Volume 50, Issue 2 (Summer 2009): p. 193.
  10. Priya Jaikumar, Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 2.
  11. Jaikumar, p. 142.
  12. Quoted in Kulik, p. 243.
  13. Kulik, p. 243.
  14. See Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions”: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Wanda Strauven, ed. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
  15. By this time, Powell (as director) had already worked with Pressburger (as screenwriter) for the first time on Korda’s production of The Spy in Black (1939).
  16. Andrew Moor, Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), p. 5.
  17. Powell, A Life in Movies, p. 387.
  18. Powell, A Life in Movies, p. 348.
  19. See Scorsese and Coppola’s audio commentary in the Criterion edition of The Thief of Bagdad and Ian Christie, Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (London: Waterstone, 1985), p. 50.

About The Author

Alex Williams is a PhD candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, whose research focuses on corporeal vulnerability in contemporary slow cinema. They are co-coordinator of the community engagement program Screening Ideas and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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