The Thief Of Bagdad (1940)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/1/18
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, John Justin, June Duprez, Rex Ingram

A delightfully exotic fantasy romp that's marred by dreadful acting and dated visual effects. King Ahmad (John Justin) seems like a nice guy, but his subjects despise him and consider him a deplorable tyrant. One day, he leaves his castle disguised as a peasant so that he may walk freely among his people and learn about their experiences, but his nefarious vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) seizes the opportunity to imprison him as a madman and usurp the throne. In prison, he meets a local thief named Abu (Sabu), and together they break out before they can be executed. While travelling to Basra, Ahmad catches a forbidden glimpse of the princess with no name (June Duprez), and hopelessly falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Jaffar also covets the princess, and when he sees Ahmad in the sultan's palace, he blinds him and turns Abu into a dog. When the spell is lifted, Abu finds a magical djinni (Rex Ingram) and uses his wishes to help Ahmad free the princess from Jaffar's evil clutches.

Technicolor was a relatively new process at the time, and while the brightly saturated colors are startling and garish, they do a good job of complementing the fantasy setting. The film is credited with being the first to use the blue-screen compositing process, which is technically impressive and historically significant, but the results look rather crude. The technicians at Technicolor thought it couldn't be done and threatened to pull out of the film if the filmmakers didn't stop experimenting with the process, but producer Alexander Korda insisted that they keep trying. The scope of the film is incredibly ambitious and all of the effects are state of the art, including matte paintings, hanging miniatures, multiple exposure compositions, rear projection, miniature photography, puppetry, and the aforementioned blue-screen process. The costumes are delightful and the princess's wardrobe is scandalously sexy. Her tantalizing tops are constantly on the verge of malfunction, and seriously limit her range of movement. The music score is big and bold, which matches the fantasy spectacle, but a handful of bizarre singing numbers feel out of place.

Unfortunately, where the film falls apart is in its stiff and wooden acting. John Justin's performance is by far the worst of the bunch, and his whiteness sticks out like a sore thumb among the cast. A magnetic Conrad Veidt fares better as the evil Jaffar, but the real star of the show is the fifteen year old Sabu. His exuberant charm, physicality, and athleticism are gleefully infectious and he's a joy to watch, even if his dialog isn't that great. June Duprez is reduced to mere window dressing, while Rex Ingram's djinni is unsettling and sinister. As long as you don't look at it too closely and take any of it seriously, "The Thief Of Bagdad" is pure escapist fun aimed at a child-friendly audience. Its imagination and creativity are boundless, and the advances it made in visual effects were revolutionary and far-reaching.