XL Popcorn – The Thief of Bagdad

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 702/1007Title: The Thief of Bagdad 
Director: Raoul Walsh
Year: 1924
Country: USA

After two films in the 1990s, which is rather overpopulated compared to the nearly empty 2000s, I felt the need to watch something substantially older. With my self-imposed ban on any films from 1930-1950 still in effect (otherwise I’ll have none left at this rate!) I reached for one of the oldest I had remaining – a swashbuckling silent epic with way too many white people in various degrees of [non-white skin colour]-face.

I think it is hard now to imagine just how big and important Douglas Fairbanks was in early Hollywood. Along with his wife Mary Pickford, he was part of the first Hollywood power couple and was one of the founding members of United Artists – a semi-independent film studio centred around the needs of actors instead of film executives in suits.

Based on his important role in early Hollywood it would be understandable to include a film of his on this list to at least keep his place within the movie canon. The Thief of Bagdad, however, is here on it’s own technical merit as a film that really set the bar for an action movie. I mean, without this film actors like Errol Flynn would have not had a career.

From a story-telling point of view The Thief of Bagdad is a bit bloated and could have lost a good degree of time in the second act and have made for a tighter film. Thing is, that wasn’t the point of this film. It’s meant to be more a feast for the eyes and a chance for Douglas Fairbanks to show off his athletic abilities as he jumps around the most amazing sets… bare-chested.

I cannot overstate just how amazing the set design was in this film… although my eyes would often drift to the oiled chest of Douglas Fairbanks as he jumps off a ledge whilst looking dashing, but that’s another story. The fact that they constructed full-sized sets for the palace scenes is astonishing and it really helped to make everything feel hyper realistic.

Sure one or two of the practical effects (like the sea spider and the flying horse) were a bit Doctor Who-ish, but on the whole it was a technical marvel for 1924. It’s on par with the futuristic elements of Metropolis, but not quite up to the ridiculous standards of the Babylonian set of Intolerance (then again, I’m not sure any film can be). Scenes with the magic carpet at the close of the film were particularly impressive considering that the only ways I can see it being achieved are using an overlay or a crane – either way expensive, time-consuming and very effective.

It’s also worth noting the appearance of Anna May Wong in this film – the first Chinese-American film star who (if I am being honest) was a real stand-out. She just outshone everyone else on the screen with her, especially the princess… which speaks to the power of Anna May Wong and the lack of presence of her co-star.

As a key film from the silent era The Thief of Bagdad  really is essential viewing, but come and stay for the visuals rather than the plot.

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