Big Screen Berkeley: The Thief of Bagdad

John Justin and Conrad Veidt survey the kingdom in The Thief of Bagdad.

Some films need to be seen on the big screen. Within this hoary platitude lies an obvious truth: a film’s impact can be severely diminished when the screen shrinks from several hundred square feet to less than a hundred square inches, an effect even the advent of so-called home theatres can’t entirely mitigate.

Films such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Star Wars pop up from time to time at the Paramount or the Grand Lake, but with repertory cinema otherwise all but extinct, opportunities to see epic-scale motion pictures the way they were meant to be seen are increasingly rare. So three cheers to Pacific Film Archive, who will be screening 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad this Wednesday, January 26, at 3:10 p.m..

The Thief of Bagdad is an Arabian Nights fantasy writ large and in Technicolor. Co-directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan, it was produced by London Films, the company founded by Alexander and Zoltan Korda after they emigrated from Hungary to Britain in the early 1930s.

Work on the film began in London in 1939, but the challenges of wartime compelled the Kordas to relocate production to Hollywood. The Thief of Bagdad debuted in British cinemas on December 19, 1940, and must have been a most welcome distraction indeed. (If distraction could be found at all: opening night coincided with a massive air raid on London, during which the Luftwaffe plastered the city with tens of thousands of incendiary bombs.)


The film stars Sabu — an Indian teenager discovered by Korda when he was shooting Elephant Boy in Mysore in 1937 — as Abu, a cheeky street urchin who will steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Jailed for theft, Abu finds himself in the same dungeon as a blind beggar named Ahmad (John Justin). Ahmad is the rightful king of Bagdad, but has been usurped by wicked vizier Jaffar (frequent movie bad guy Conrad Veidt, perhaps best remembered today as Major Strasser in Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca.)

Their prison sojourn is brief, however, as the resourceful Abu has stolen the jailer’s key. The new friends flee south to Basra, where Ahmad is promptly smitten with the beautiful daughter (June Duprez, in a role originally imagined for Vivien Leigh) of a child-like Sultan (Miles Malleson, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and would play similarly dotty characters throughout his long career) — but Jaffar has his eye on the princess as well, and will go to any lengths to win her hand. Abu and Ahmad, naturally, have other ideas.

The Thief of Bagdad is a perfectly cast and beautifully made adventure that transcends its somewhat predictable story. It’s also one of the great technical achievements of cinema. Lawrence Butler’s special effects—including a Kali-style six-armed statue, a flying horse, a giant spider, and a massive genie played with gusto by the great African-American actor Rex Ingram —earned an Academy Award, as did Georges Perinal’s cinematography and Vincent Korda’s art direction.

The film anticipated and surely influenced the extravagant fantasies that Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen would produce, such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) — films which in turn would leave an indelible impression on youngsters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. For better or worse, The Thief of Bagdad is the great-granddaddy of the summer special effects blockbuster — but try not to hold that against it.

This being Berkeleyside, I suppose I should criticize the film’s relentless orientalism, its conflation of Islam with Buddhism, and the routine nature of its narrative arc. Indeed, The Thief of Bagdad is guilty on all counts. Now go and see one of the most magical and marvelous films ever made, back on the big screen where it belongs.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.