The Thief of Bagdad Movie Review
The overstuffed story begins when King Ahmad (John Justin), who truth be told looks more like an Oxford rower than an Arabian king, is tricked by his evil number two Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) into leaving the safety of his palace to meet his subjects. Once on the street, Jaffar has him arrested and tossed into a dungeon, where he meets Abu the thief (Sabu), a charismatic 15-year-old Huck Finn type who loves the life of the orphan adventurer.
The pair escape down the Tigris to Basra, where Ahmad falls in love at first sight with the local princess (June Duprez), and she goes ga-ga too. But Jaffar wants her for himself, so he magically blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog. Only an embrace from the princess can reverse the curse. That happens, of course, but it will still be a while before the two lovebirds can be reunited.
It's interesting how the film eventually leaves the somewhat sappy love story off to the side and instead follows Abu on a fantastic and magical solo journey of discovery. Shipwrecked on a deserted beach, he finds a bottle, opens it, and in doing so, releases a gigantic genie (played by the very impressive African-American actor Rex Ingram), who first tries to kill Abu but later decides to grant him three wishes. Abu's wish number one: sausages just like mother used to make. Wish number two: to find Ahmad. To do that, Abu hangs onto the genie's ponytail and the two fly around the world to the highest mountain on Earth, where Abu can get a magical stone that will show him Ahmad's location. To get the stone, however, he has to battle a gruesome giant spider, and his adventure won't end until he goes halfway to heaven to pick up, yes, a flying carpet, on which he rides to Ahmad's rescue.
Among the many fascinating things about The Thief of Bagdad is the fact that its London-based production had to be halted due to German bombing. The whole operation moved to Hollywood for completion, picking up a few more directors and a good deal of confusion along the way. The end result is a bit of a mess and a pastiche, but seeing it for the first time, it's impossible not to notice how much of the imagery we associate with "Arabian nights" -- genies, bottles, magic carpets, evil sultans -- comes directly from this film. Kids will certainly appreciate the enthusiasm of Sabu. His Abu is a brave and relentlessly optimistic teen who really knows how to get things done while rejecting authority and any rule or regulation that might pin down his free spirit.
Among the many extras in the two-DVD Criterion Collection set is an audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, surely a must-listen for students of film.