The Thief of Bagdad

Paul R. Potts

Note: the film uses the spelling “Bagdad,” while these days the Arabic name of the city is more commonly transliterated as “Baghdad.”

Today — the day after my twenty-fifth birthday — I got the opportunity to see, for free, a restored print of the silent film The Thief of Bagdad, accompanied by the Michigan Sinfonietta, playing a restored score. Due to a series of misunderstandings and problems with my ticket, Beth wasn’t able to come with me, much to my disappointment. Even attending alone, though, Thief was great fun and a terrific way to spend three hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Thief is a blast: an energetic, racy, silly, even campy film. I had not realized that visual effects in Fairbanks’ day had reached the level of sophistication they display in Thief. One shouldn’t attempt a comparison to Spielberg, but Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen came to mind a number of times: go see Baron first and you will understand why. There are numerous examples of models, double exposure, overprinting, panning, mattes, and some effects that were so startling I still have very little idea how they were achieved. But in Thief, the story drives the use of effects, and not vice-versa, as in many modern films.

The costumes seemed surprisingly sexy, especially Fairbanks’ skin-tight outfits, which clearly earned their designation as “tights.” Our era, it seems, is more prudish than we would like to believe. Thief surprised me also by the sparseness of the printed dialog that appears during key scenes. The action is so clear, though, that no more explanation seems necessary. If you resist the idea that Thief is deliberately campy, look again for the loopy details: for example, the number of stolen items that Fairbanks stuffs into his pants, a flogging scene which shows Fairbanks ogling the victim and grinning dementedly, the constant flinging off of clothes and cloaks by Fairbanks and by soldiers, Fairbanks’ hiding place, which he shares with his older compatriot thief, Fairbanks having his hands kissed by the Caliph’s men-in-waiting, his initial refusal to let the beneficent priest touch him and later acceptance, and Fairbanks’ fetish with the slipper of the princess (which he also stuffs into his pants). I’m sure there are a lot more campy details I could pick up upon a second viewing.

Fairbanks’ style in this film consists primarily in leaping about, waving his arms dramatically, and running after monsters with his sword drawn. He has a physique that many bodybuilders of 1992 would kill for, and his characterization shines with energy, if not subtlety. His co-star Julanne Johnston as the princess seems to spend most of her time hiding herself behind veils, gazing mournfully at the moon from the balcony of her bedroom, and swooning. There are a number of princes, consisting of negative ethnic stereotypes, running around. The evil Mongol prince, a Fu Manchu sort, particularly catches the eye because of his amazing makeup and his success at looking nasty and scheming. There are plenty of scenes in Thief that would offend a militant animal rights activist, and bothered me somewhat, but there is no point in applying the mores of 1992 to a work conceived seventy years ago, except to understand why we no longer make movies like this one.

This is a very lavish film; I was constantly surprised by the extravagant sets and attention to detail. I wouldn’t call the sets, costumes, or props realistic: they seem designed primarily to delight the eye and not necessarily to fool it. I was reminded a bit of the old black-and-white Flash Gordon serials. There are numerous special effects which are quite good, and some which are rather silly: keep an eye out for the gilded lizard, for example.

This is the first silent film I have seen with musical accompaniment. In the silent film era, accompaniment would have been the rule rather than the exception. Accompaniment ranged from a full orchestra performing an original score, to a small band performing snippets of borrowed music, to a single organist improvising an accompaniment. The Michigan Theater was a perfect place for the restored Thief. I had a balcony seat with a clear view, the acoustics were fine, and I could shift my attention back and forth between the film and the Michigan Sinfonietta.

The score flows beautifully and is, in many places, quite surprising: Wilson leads the listener away from the musical clichés one might expect to follow certain of the scenes. The flow of the film and the flow of the music are loosely coupled in places, tightly in others. I had been expecting the music to follow the action very closely, as if the film were a gymnastic floor exercise, but this wasn’t always the case. In many scenes the music swells alongside the action, conveying emotion without distracting from the events on the screen, while in others it provides unique little dashes of spice that are cleverly synchronized with the events on screen. I don’t even want to think about how much rehearsal time went into this.

This is quite a long film, and even with an intermission I could see some of the audience becoming distracted. The story follows a very conventional fairy-tale story, almost painfully arranged, with the usual symbols and values, but in some scenes the iconography is played to the point of ridicule. Look for a very funny scene in which one of the princess’ wicked ladies-in-waiting instructs the evil prince how to fulfill a prophecy — and the attempt backfires in Fairbanks’ favor. There are also a number of points in which we are left expecting a long and conventional scene, but treated instead to a whimsically brief one. It was little touches like this that kept me interested throughout the longish film. Even scenes that are simply brief throwaways are gorgeously produced. Keep an eye out for the undersea lair of the mermaids, a set which is unbelievably elaborate, but probably on-camera for all of fifteen seconds. I was left wondering if there weren’t even more amazing pieces of Thief that were left on the cutting-room floor.

Thief has given me a strong desire to see as many silent films as possible, and confirmed in me my opposition to trying to view movies like this on videotape. On a television screen Thief would be reduced to a flickering and illegible shadow, the detail, beauty, and score squashed into illegibility. This was a silent film the way it was meant to be experienced — not silent at all. These films are quite old, rapidly deteriorating, and prints in fine condition are rare — it is quite possible that missing Thief at the Michigan would have meant missing my last chance to see the film in a theater. I’m glad that I had the chance.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
September 27, 1992

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