The Thief Of Bagdad (1940) (Blu-ray film review).

January 28, 2015 | By | Reply More

Made in 1940, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ production had to switch from England to California because of the war and at that time computers were really non-existent. Valves ruled the day and even Bletchley Park’s Colossus, the Enigma breaking device, was partly mechanical so how was this magnificent film produced by the legendary Alexander Korda able to display so many remarkable scenes without computer graphics? The answer was ingenuity, money and wizardry. Most people will have seen ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ before but here it’s presented in Blu-ray, refreshed and invigorated by high definition. The magic carpet, flying horse, genie and the deadly six-armed blue woman remain the same but they are digitally sharp and astoundingly clear.


Filmed in Technicolor, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ won an Academy Award for its special effects and it was the first movie to use a technique called blue screening extensively. This is a process still utilised to this day, especially for weather forecasts, where a blue background is used for the superimposition of another image. The menacing genie coming out of the bottle was one such scene created using blue screening.

How things have changed since 1940! The action takes place in Bagdad (Baghdad) and Basra, cities we know so well today for entirely different reasons. Ahmad (John Justin) is the young king who is booted out by the evil vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veldt). Actually, Ahmad is a bit of a scatterbrain who doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in his kingdom, not seeing the public dissent, the executions, the poverty and fear all caused by the Grand Vizier. Left to rot in prison, his only friend is the thief Abu (Sabu), a young teenager who lives by his wits stealing from the markets. Escaping to Basra, Ahmad falls in love with the Princess (June Duprez) but her father, the whimsical Sultan obsessed by mechanical toys, promises her to Jaffar for the price of a clockwork horse.

Using wizardry, Jaffar makes Ahmad blind and converts the boy into a dog. Eventually, they are restored and, to cut a long story short, they end up at sea, become shipwrecked and Abu encounters a genie who grants him the proverbial three wishes. Wasting one on a pan of sausages, he has to think more carefully about the last two. Jaffar kills the Sultan of Basra but Ahmad falls out with Abu when he is shown the All-Seeing Eye to see what his Princess is up to with Jaffar, unaware that she has been tricked by the blue rose of forgetfulness. There is a final showdown involving a magic carpet coming like the seventh cavalry just when all seems to be lost and, of course, Abu has the final say in what happens.

This is a film suitable for all ages. It’s also musical in parts with quite a few catchy tunes. It keeps going at a good pace with plenty of action throughout, enough to keep everyone awake and interested. The acting is tremendous, particularly Jaffar, who makes a magnificent magician. Now that 75 years has passed since the movie was made, you would guess correctly that the actors are now deceased, except for Leslie Phillips and Cleo Laine who made brief appearances as street urchins.

Sabu appeared in many movies but he died quite young, despite the doctor telling him he was as fit as a fiddle. The leading man, John Justin, went from this movie to serve in RAF but later made other movies and acted on the stage. Thirty-nine years after making this movie he appeared in a BBC production called ‘Schalcken The Painter’ (reviewed on this website) where he played the part of the deathly suitor Vanderhausen. This shows you what 39 years can do!

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June Duprez made a few more films and went to Hollywood with Alexander Korda but she didn’t really progress and her career fizzled out to some extent. In the closing scenes, with her boyfriend Ahmad, now restored to being the King of Bagdad, she is shown wearing a veil. Without getting into any political controversial matters, it’s interesting to note that a woman wearing a veil was not considered to be a threat 75 years ago while today, in certain sectors, opinion has changed. On another reflection, even though it’s cast in what is now Iraq probably 10 centuries ago, all the major parts are played by Western actors. The majority of the crowd scenes were populated by ethnic characters! However, that’s nothing unusual for movies from these days where even Chinese characters were played by Europeans with sticky tape at the side of their eyes. Thankfully, today such practices are totally unthinkable.

‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ can be described as a jolly film, an escapist fantasy where good defeats evil and where everything turns out right in the end. As said, it has been around for many years and most people will have seen it at some time or other but it’s unlikely that they will have experienced it in Blu-ray definition. For that fact alone, it’s got to be recommended. It was a bit disappointing to find limited extra material. All that existed was a trailer and movie stills but, thinking about it, with all the major actors now deceased, likewise production staff, making a commentary would be impossible. It’s also unlikely that such material was made post-production and if it had been, it’s probably now lost forever. So, on reflection, this is probably the best you’ll get for ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’.

A film for all the family, it’s there to be enjoyed.

Rod MacDonald

January 2015

(Region B: pub: Network. 1 blu-ray 106 minute film. Price: £10.25 (UK). CAT: 7957028)

cast: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin and Rex Ingram

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Category: Fantasy, Films

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