BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: RAOUL WALSH / SCREENPLAY: ACHMED ABDULLAH, LOTTA WOODS / STARRING: DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, SNITZ EDWARDS, CHARLES BELCHER, JULANNE JONSTON / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 24TH
To some, cinema before sound is irrelevant; merely the embryonic experiments before the advent of sound and film as we know it today. ‘Silent cinema’ is too often shunned and overlooked as primitive when in fact some of the fundamental genre defining effects, narrative structures and filmic aesthetics were being crafted by filmmakers and studios who were harnessing the creative aspects offered by this new medium. With an outrageous budget, lavish special effects and some exceptional acting, The Thief of Bagdad is a fantasy epic to behold and an illustration of truly great early cinema. Even in a present day society where we are inundated with fantasy tales, The Thief of Bagdad- a story crafted by its charismatic star Douglas Fairbanks - is truly a spectacle.
The film’s blend of magic, storybook romance, mythopoeic fantasy travelogue, and sense of wonder and fun is incalculably engaging and immersive. Fairbank’s character, Ahmed, is an early cinematic example of a loveable anti-hero, that rogue we’re all rooting for (think Travis Bickle crossed with the Prince of Persia). Ahmed is introduced as a pickpocket who swaggers through the massive marketplace sets as if they are his own before he manages to make a chase from palace guards look graceful and poetic (such is the power of Fairbank’s exuberant and calculated performance). Later, Ahmed falls in love with a princess and his quest to win her heart by retrieving the rarest treasures known to man leads him to battle dragons, go deep-sea diving and even ride a flying horse - what commitment! Some of the effects such as the magic carpet riding or the giant spider look unmistakably old-fashioned but that really is part of the charm.
This Eureka Cinema release on Blu-ray of a film that reputedly cost over $200 million in art design and set production fortunately manages to do it justice; though one can only imagine the awe felt by audiences in 1924 being treated to this tale on the big screen. This is an impressive looking release, however, and it even boasts restored original tints (something that will surely please any cinephiles). The picture is not as sharp as more contemporary films (not to state the obvious), but given the age and filming techniques (extreme close-ups were a relatively rare commodity in this era and this film tends to exploit midrange and wide shots which best show the expansive sets), things look crisp and well defined. Audio-wise it holds up too, and Carl Davies’ grand orchestral score really has a breadth to it that perfectly complements the film.
In regards to silent fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad is a film that warrants a viewing, if only to experience the sheer delight of seeing a man battle a giant spider, ride a flying horse and disregard authority with an effortless bravado.
Special Feature: Audio commentary by Douglas Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance / 40-page booklet
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