Writing my review for The Thief of Bagdad was a bit of a chore.
Not because it was awful, mind you. There’s some simple charm – Douglas Fairbanks stars as a carefree pickpocket, cavorting his way through Bagdad as the film starts and living in the moment. When he’s hungry he sneaks onto balconies where he sees cooking food and helps himself. When he’s broke he picks pockets or cons people out of their jewelry. He thumbs his nose at the law and mocks the imams at the mosque, having the time of his life.
That all changes the night he tries breaking into the sultan’s house, intending to rob his safe – instead, he blunders into the bedchamber of princess. He tries taking her maid hostage, demanding she lead him to the safe – but then sees the princess herself and is instantly smitten. Coincidentally, the princess is of marriageable age, and the sultan has put the call out inviting a series of princes to the palace so they can court her; our hero disguises himself (thanks to some pilfered finery) and joins the fray, and the princess takes a shine to him as well.
The princess’ maid recognizes him, though, and turns him in. He is sentenced to execution, but the princess bribes the guards to let him go. Then, to buy time and give him a chance to earn his way back into the sultan’s good graces, she announces that she wants her would-be suitors to go on a seven-month quest for treasure – whoever has the rarest prize when they get back will win her hand.
It’s a total fairytale of a story; like The Adventures of Prince Achmed, it borrows heavily from the “Thousand and One Nights” series of tales, with Bagdad presented as a neverland of exotic clothes and pious wise imams, ornate palaces and charmingly roguish thieves. There is even a moral lesson, when Fairbanks’ thief finally turns to the imam for help and is told that the labor he undergoes to find the treasure will “turn you into a prince”, for “true happiness must be earned”. It’s indeed a nice sentiment – but then, because this is a fairy tale, the imam also then tells him about a truly rare treasure and gives him a couple hints about how to get past the magic macguffin guarding it.
And I think that that’s ultimately why I’m lukewarm on this; it’s a fairy tale, and I’m not a fairy tale person as such. It’s fun to watch Douglas Fairbanks – who is clearly having the time of his life in this, swinging from ropes and scaling walls and getting into fights with imaginary underwater beasts, swashing and buckling his way through the whole film. And the film itself looks pretty, with lavish sets and exotic-looking costumes. It’s just that Fairbanks’ fun is in support of a story that ultimately didn’t grab me itself.
It’d be a fun film to show your kids on “old movie night”, but not anything I personally would re-watch.