Friday, October 21, 2016

Before I Die #585*: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

This is the 585th film I've seen from the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. *Once again, the people at the "Before You Die" crew have updated their list by adding 10 more movies to the list, seven of which I have already seen. Hence the jump of numbers between this film and the previous "Before You Die" film that I reviewed. 

Director: Raoul Walsh

Quite the spectacle which must have set a new bar for film back in its time. Still, it is a silent movie, and The Thief of Bagdad now suffers from several of that era's limitations.

The story draws from the world famous Tales of the Arabian Nights, combining several elements from various tales to create the character of The Thief, played by Douglass Fairbanks. The Thief (his real name is never revealed) is a carefree pickpocket and robber who manages to take what he wants and evade capture at every turn, laughing the entire time. He eventually decides to try his most ambitious scheme - to win the hand of the beautiful princess of Bagdad (sic) by posing as a prince and competing with other monarchs from Mongolia, Persia, and India for her hand. Each must try and procure a "rare object" from somewhere in the world and present it to the king, who will give his daughter to the man who obtains the object he deems the rarest and most precious.

As far as silent movies go, I found The Thief of Bagdad far more watchable than most of its contemporaries, if not exactly the most profound of films. While it is long (nearly two-and-a-half hours), the story continues to move and change at a fairly vigorous pace. In the spirit of classical epic adventures, the hero must travel to faraway and strange lands, battle adversaries both human and inhuman, and brave all manner of peril. Although the actual elements of danger are nothing new to modern viewers, I couldn't help but be impressed at just how many innovations director Raoul Walsh utilized to dazzle the audience. Yes, they will seem almost laughably rudimentary to us now, over 90 years later, but compared to its contemporaries, this movie must have seemed like the Avatar of its day.

This still shows just how much work went into the sets and
costumes on this massive production. It's as lavish and eye-
catching as anything you will see from this era of movies. 
I think another reason I found this movie more enjoyable than other massive-scale silent films is that it clearly is not taking itself seriously. It is pure fantasy, meant for pure entertainment. Because of this, it is far easier to excuse a lack of character depth or plot sophistication. When you are dealing with fantastic tales meant mostly for children, you can't really criticize a film the same way you would a humanist drama, such as Foolish Wives or The Wheel. Such films were aiming high in terms of studying the human condition, but could only do so much due to a lack of sound and acting techniques still rooted a little too much in theater. And it certainly doesn't hurt that Douglas Fairbanks was clearly a great actor for this type of role, flashing a proto-Clark Gable grin as he artfully dances and escapes from one precarious pitfall to another.

A curious note to me is that the movie was directed by Raoul Walsh, whom I previously only knew for the classic gangster movies he would oversee later - The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, and White Heat. I guess it goes to show that great directors really can do anything, whether it's hard-nosed crime flicks or swashbuckling family movies. I wouldn't recommend this movie to anyone but hard-core film buffs or true aficionados of silent film, but it was still rather fun.

That's 585 movies down. Only 602 to go before I can die.