Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.
Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.
But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.
I hate that critical expression “switch your brain off and enjoy it”: I’d rather not lapse into a coma when I go to the cinema, thank you. But if you can separate the lazy stereotypes and cliches peddled by this “Arabian Nights fantasy” from your appreciation of the inspired movie-making in front of you, you’ll enjoy The Thief of Bagdad for what it is: Hollywood spectacle at its most lavish, and most daft. One thing at least should give you pause. Look how great Anna May Wong is here, in an underwritten role as a devious slave – she should be the leading lady here, by rights. One can hardly blame her for high-tailing it out of tinseltown later in the decade.
And with all that in mind, this really is a tasty presentation of a toothsome movie: all that gleaming exotica looks stunning on the Blu-ray, and Carl Davis’s score rises to the occasion as you know it will. The audio commentary by Fairbanks expert Jeffrey Vance is chatty, engaging and illuminating at every turn. Inside the glossy booklet, a lengthy essay by Laura Boyes details how this massive film was made, and why it is such an enduring favourite.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is released by Masters of Cinema on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 24 November 2014. Find out more here.