Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 production of The Thief Of Bagdad was one of the most expensive movies ever made at that time, with a set that sprawled across six acres and a creative team that included director Raoul Walsh, production designer William Cameron Menzies, and costumer Mitchell Leisen—each of went on to have long, diverse, distinguished Hollywood careers. The Thief Of Bagdad was a major event in the ’20s, and still feels major now. In a pre-widescreen era, Walsh, Menzies, and future three-time-Oscar-nominated cinematographer Arthur Edeson made a boxy frame look as tall and narrow as a skyscraper, with lines leading the eye ever upward. Fairbanks’ special-effects artists concocted delightful setpieces, sprinkled throughout the story to create the sense of a fantastical ancient world. But the greatest attraction in The Thief Of Bagdad remains Fairbanks himself. Fairbanks had the final authority on his United Artists films, and pushed for visual splendor and thrilling physicality over an excess of plotting and title cards. The best effect in The Thief Of Bagdad is Fairbanks’ lean, muscular physique, which he shows off while leaping and climbing at such great speed that he looks like a real-life superhero.
Based on One Thousand And One Nights, The Thief Of Bagdad stars Fairbanks as a carefree rascal who becomes smitten with a princess, and goes to great lengths to win her hand. The first hour of the film is full of pageantry, as Fairbanks maneuvers through courtly opulence to make an impression on his true love. In the second hour, Fairbanks quests through dangerous, monster-ridden landscapes—on par with Fritz Lang’s similarly eye-popping 1924 epic Die Nibelungen—to find an artifact so rare that he’ll best his rivals for the princess’ hand. Simply as spectacle, The Thief Of Bagdad is effective even today, with its underwater spiders and winged horses trotting through clouds. It’s also remarkable for its affectionate take on the exotic Middle East, which is in some ways diminished by its cartoonishness, and in some ways is more open and gracious than Hollywood today. (How many studio movies in the 21st century would open with a quote from The Koran?) Behind everything was Fairbanks, who initiated the project, roughed out the story, and reportedly put up a big chart with the film’s theme—“Happiness Must Be Earned”—to make sure every element of the production served it. Fairbanks understood that at the start of The Thief Of Bagdad, his mischievous hero and the pompous princes he challenges aren’t so different, in that they all take what they want. So Fairbanks spent piles of money and mobilized thousands of people to demonstrate how anything of real value requires hard work.
Key features: Given that that this is one of the first titles in the “Cohen Film Collection”—a series presenting fully restored Blu-ray and DVD versions of classic movies—the extras are a little sparse. The disc contains only a 15-minute video essay (essentially a slideshow of production stills, with text), plus an engaging, insightful commentary track by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance. The Blu-ray does look outstanding, though.