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Patrick Schoenmaker

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TR.N Research Indy's Influences Classics Adventures The Thief of Bagdad
The Thief of Bagdad

Released by Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corp. in 1924

Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Douglas Fairbanks, James T. O'Donohoe, Lotta Woods
Produced by: Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks .... The Thief of Bagdad
Snitz Edwards .... His Evil Associate
Charles Belcher .... The Holy Man
Julanne Johnston .... The Princess
Sojin .... The Mongol Prince
Anna May Wong .... The Mongol Slave


Douglas Fairbanks flies across the screen with an effortless, incomparable power. And he does so, not against a blue screen backdrop, but on an actual set built with hammer, saw and nails. George Lucas has said, regarding Star Wars that one of the things he wanted to do is create enormous, imaginative sets for his characters like in the old days of Hollywood. What Lucas achieves with computers is remarkable but in The Thief of Bagdad what viewers see on screen is almost all real (trick photography of flying horses, carpets, etc. aside). A comparison between Lucas and Fairbanks is striking in that both concentrated on epic fantasy films achieving a production value unrivaled by competitors and they did it with their own capital and companies.

Fairbanks as the Thief.

Buoyed by the successes of his Zorro and Robin Hood, Fairbanks put more money into Bagdad than had ever been put into a movie and it shows. Citizens of Hollywood must have been amused by the extraordinary construction of a fabled Arabian city stretching over many blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard right in the middle of their still developing town.

In no small measure, fantastic stunts and special effects have always played a crucial role in the allure of cinema. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is its power to still play well on that level after one hundred years of magical illusion. But that’s because its not all dazzling images and costuming. There is an elaborate story here with great characters as well.

The Thief in action.

The film begins and ends with the same image; that of a wise man whose advice appears as words written in the stars – "Happiness Must Be Earned". There is a difference between happiness and fun, which is something the Fairbanks character must learn as he begins his journey a fun-loving thief. Soon, he sets his eyes on the Princess (Julianne Johnston), daughter to the Caliph of Bagdad. When she has her pick of royal suitors Fairbanks disguises his self as one in effort to gain entrance to the palace and all its wealth. When she eventually picks him however, he is so overcome with love that he reveals his identity as thief and suffers public flogging. Redemption and marriage to the Princess becomes possible finally when the Caliph offers his daughter’s hand to whoever can obtain the world’s rarest treasure.

Arabian flying carpet.

Heroes are occasionally written as characters with a morally questionable past. Thrust into desperate circumstances where society faces danger, the hero then rises above past sins achieving greatness and benefiting all. It’s a dramatic tool used effectively with many of the Bogart roles, Star Wars’ Han Solo, Antonio Banderas’ Zorro (also a thief) and Indiana Jones, who is in a sense a grave robber whose questionable past is especially revealed through the character of Marion. Indy is in fact a descendent of all Fairbanks’ adventure roles in that he is a character of great physicality (flying through the air with the use of a whip, climbing out of the ocean onto a submarine, leaping from horse to truck, etc.). Incidentally, the Prince of Persia in The Thief of Bagdad looks very much like one of the chilled monkey brains dinner guests from Temple of Doom. He is a mustachioed fat man with a turban and the image is so cartoonish it seems unlikely to be coincidence.

Some criticize the epic running time for a silent where obviously much reading is essential, but the story never ceases to evolve and the pace is hardly slow. One luxury not afforded in a theatre viewing is the ability to stop watching and come back to it the way one would with a novel. Modern technology affords us that luxury and so to criticize a movie simply because its long loses validity. The question put to lengthy films like Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather has always been, "but is it good?" A silent film deserves no less consideration just because it is silent.

The fun-loving Thief.

On the other hand, the experience of watching a silent is different. Our world is presented in a way that is more abstract than with modern films and may demand a greater effort on the part of the viewer. But, as in the message of this movie, the reward for the effort, the happiness earned, can be surprising.

There is a fragile quality to the silents inherently conveyed by the flickering images, the scratchy surface of the reels and the tinkling piano score. Boldly defying the fragile nature of these films is the acrobatic daring and ever-present smile of Douglas Fairbanks. The contrast is constantly endearing. Throughout history, the most difficult art to produce has been art which expresses joyfulness. Remarkable among the achievements of this kind are the songs by Gershwin, the dancing by Fred Astaire, the paintings by Matisse and these incredible films by Douglas Fairbanks (I say ‘films by’ given that the film company belonged to him, he wrote a number of them and reportedly had a hand in all aspects of the production). They are all brilliant but The Thief of Bagdad is the most imaginative and wondrous of them all. (Stephen Jared)


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