Thursday, February 14, 2013
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The walls of Bagdad are so high that to convey their immensity is to reduce the actors before them to squirrels, scurrying at the base of the screen. Within those walls is a city so seemingly vast that we do not witness its parts so much as explore them—moving not just right and left as we do, forward and back; but down: to its catacombs and sewers, and up to the lofty heights of its castle spires and tallest trees. Among the beings inhabiting the city is represented every race; every type: lithe and fleet; muscular and powerful; sedentary and fat; young, old, ugly, beautiful. And beyond the city lies every challenge, real or fantastically imaginary, that an adventurer in a long-lost time might hope, or fear, to encounter. Douglas Fairbanks called The Thief of Bagdad his best film. He was right.
Fairbanks not only starred in Thief; he wrote it and produced it too. His commitment paid off: not only is the film, in terms of action and effects, heads and shoulders above Fairbanks’ other swashbucklers, it also provides us with one his best big-budget performances. One of the few, it could be argued, that required him to really act. Thief is also, in this blogger’s opinion, one of director Raoul Walsh’s finest films—which is saying a lot, although comparing Thief of Bagdad to, say, What Price Glory?, Sadie Thompson, Objective, Burma! or White Heat is a task less likely to yield a winner than simply impress you with his range.
What Fairbanks, Walsh, and a legion of talented set designers, makeup artists, and makers of monsters created here was a world. You get this feeling, sometimes, from silent films—from the big ones, like Metropolis, Ben-Hur, or Intolerance, where the images and music weaving themselves into our brains are bolstered by an awareness that the gargantuan sets and sheer masses of people, animals, and machines on screen are real—no tricks of the lens here (or at least, not many); no CGI. It’s an utterly transportive experience. It is immersive. It is alive.
Like so many silent films, big and small, Thief begins with a platitude: “Happiness must be earned.” The Thief (Fairbanks), begs to differ. A well-toned Baghdadi urchin who sees life as a game, steals what he wants, flees when he needs, and seemingly hurts no one, the Thief has yet to meet a challenge, physical or intellectual, that would cause him to reconsider. But eventually, he will, and that puts The Thief of Bagdad another notch ahead of the Fairbanks epics that followed it.
I first saw Thief many years ago. What I remembered best about it were the sequences in the first half-hour. That is not to say that the rest of the film falls short; just that those first scenes capture so perfectly Fairbanks’ grace and joie de vivre, and with it, the near limitless potential the film promises us, that they come to define it. We see the star bounce and climb; leap and alight upon objects big and small; upon animals and people and buildings; always effortlessly, never predictably. It is here that he uses the first of several enchanted tools: the remarkable Snake-charmer’s Rope, which, with a waving of the hands, can be made to extend upward from its coil, becoming straight, rigid, and—if you’re Douglas Fairbanks—climbable. This effect, by the way, is flawless—I have no idea how they pulled it off.
The version I saw this past Tuesday night was accompanied by a recording of Carl Davis’ orchestral score, inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov. The music was lavish, which seemed right. Fairbanks’ performance in these early scenes is practically balletic, and the sets have a theatrical quality, elevating design over function. Our brains tell us they cannot be theatre pieces, at least in the traditional sense—they’re much too big. But they allow us to accept Fairbanks’ gestures, outsized as they are, as realistic.
Some Fairbanks films drag, especially when the star is off-screen, but this one continues along at a nice clip. This is due partly to the structure of the plot, which is compartmentalized into sets of short-term goals: Thief tries to get rich; Thief tries to steal girl; Thief tries to win girl instead; Thief undertakes quest; Thief tries to save girl’s life. Though the film is long (over two hours), these pieces are not.
Thief also benefits from a quality cast of co-stars. Slapstick veteran Snitz Edwards (familiar to Keaton fans), plays the Thief’s sidekick: a small role, but a necessary one, since there are some plans even the great Thief cannot execute alone. Julanne Johnston, as the Princess who must reform a Thief merely by being the object of his gaze, is suitably lovely.
The Mongol Prince, the film’s primary villain, is played by Japanese actor, Sojin. Calculating, cold, and bound up in ornate garb, he represents something alien—although nothing else in The Thief of Bagdad looks or feels average either.
Sojin’s character, one of three vile princes vying for the Princess’ hand, stands at the edge of the skulking, ‘yellow-peril’ stereotype too common in films of this era. But I don’t think he crosses it. He is evil, but so are the other two princes he competes with: one of whom is white, the other black. His spy, played by the Chinese silent star, Anna-May Wong, is more notable today for her phenomenal sex appeal than any racial overtones embodied by her role. Say this much for The Thief of Bagdad: every Asian character in it is played by an Asian actor. You can certainly find silent films that do worse.
What else can I tell you about? There are monsters, quite a few of them: a giant spider, a bat, an iguana-thing—not that credible-looking, frankly, though no onscreen monsters were before the 1990s. There are live animals too, like the huge ape on a leash, and the two tigers that crawl out of trapdoors in the floor—the castle’s automatic defense system, more or less. The Thief battles these creatures and more.
He does so not just with his body and wits alone. Over the course of the film, he will employ a winged horse, a flying carpet, a cloak of invisibility, and a silver chest containing dust that can constitute armies. His competitors utilize a crystal ball that depicts far-off events, and an enchanted apple that can raise the newly dead. These are men wielding godly power.
Is this why Thief ages better than many of Fairbanks’ other films? Is it because Thief is not an adventure film in general so much as a superhero film in particular—tied closely to a genre very popular today? The Thief, with his supreme athleticism, brilliance, and fantastic gadgets, is not a traditional movie action hero. He’s not just a swashbuckler. He’s Batman.
Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox screened The Thief of Bagdad on February 12, 2013.