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Baghdad of old

Video | New DVD edition of classic film recalls its forgotten virtues

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

The irony that has become an unwanted part of 1940's The Thief of Bagdad [sic] is almost too much to bear: Thieving Muslim children escape angry merchants without fear of punishment, virtuous young Arab women are saved from forced matrimony in the nick of time, and beheading is a limp threat, quickly forgotten. Even in the shiny new print from the Criterion Collection, there's not an IED in sight.

In many ways, The Thief of Bagdad is a miracle. Producer Alexander Korda went through at least five directors to get the final cut of the film, which should by rights be as scattershot and confused as the worst committee-directed serial. Instead, the film works like perfectly dramatized excerpts from Arabian Nights, with vignettes and rabbit-trail narrative detours coalescing into a consistently fun escapist fantasy about a blind beggar named Ahmad (John Justin), who is secretly a deposed king, and his larcenous teenage friend Abu (Sabu), recruited on the streets of Baghdad and residing in the form of a dog when the film opens.

It's always a little strange to see a vintage special-effects extravaganza with modern eyes, not just because the visuals are occasionally clunky, but because they're so different. Long before computer graphics, Korda and his crew marched out to the desert and built bazaars and palaces, occasionally using forced perspective and stage magic. As a result, most of the film looks surprisingly real, and scenes like the genie's entrance are genuinely astonishing.

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There are brief moments of bloodless violence, and the evil Jaffar may be too much for the very small, but by and large the unrated film is family-friendly, without a hint of sexuality or foul language. The acting here ranges from mildly lame (the moony Ahmad doesn't give Justin much to do) to oddly impressive: Conrad Veidt plays the evil Jaffar with the same creepy stare he used as Major Strasser in Casablanca. Overall, the film is a brilliantly paced, unjustly forgotten spectacle that continues to astonish well after everything from the film stock to the spelling of "Bagdad" in the title has lapsed into disuse.


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