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Original review at TVGuide

TV Guide review

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

One of the best fantasy films ever made, with astounding special effects and wonderful performances by Veidt, Sabu, Justin, and Duprez. A host of directors worked on this marvelous and inventive Arabian Nights spectacle, all under the meticulous eye of producer Korda. Every frame of The Thief of Bagdad is magical and exciting. As the film begins, charming urchin Sabu is thrown into a dungeon for stealing food from the marketplace of Bagdad. The city is ruled by good-hearted prince Justin, but the grand vizier, Veidt, is utterly evil. And behind Justin's back, Veidt oppresses the people. In time, he simply overthrows Justin and places him in the dungeon with Sabu. [Ahmad gets slung in jail first] However, the inventive little thief works up a plan whereby they both he and the prince escape and flee to the exotic city of Basra. There -- now wearing rags, rather than his customary raiment -- Justin learns the art of thievery from Sabu, though he is an unwilling pupil. In Basara, Justin becomes smitten with the city's beautiful princess (Duprez). Against Sabu's cautions, Justin scales the palace wall and enters the royal garden, where he climbs a tree. When Duprez strolls through the garden, she sees Justin's face reflected in a pool. Claiming to be a genie, Justin tells Duprez of his love for her and she responds in kind, but the illusion is dispersed when guards appear, forcing Justin to jump from the tree to escape. Later, Justin learns that Veidt covets Duprez himself, and has been busy plying her senile father, Malleson -- the king of Basra -- with magical toys, bargaining for the luscious princess. The toy-obsessed old man has promised Duprez that he will not yield to Veidt's importunities, but he changes his mind when the evil vizier presents him with a mechanical winged horse that flies about the enormous rooms of the palace and out over the city. "I must have it, I must have it," drools Malleson, who agrees to give Veidt Duprez's hand in marriage. Malleson then mounts the steed and -- cackling with delight -- rides into the air and over the city. While Malleson is in mid-flight, the wicked Veidt uses his magic to destroy the horse, dashing the senile king to his death. When Justin and Sabu attempt to interfere with Veidt's plan to abduct Duprez, the wicked vizier turns Sabu into a dog and makes Justin a blind beggar. The prince is next seen begging in the streets of Basra with his "dog" at his side. Discovering the fate that has befallen the man she loves, Duprez promises to wed Veidt if he will revoke his curse. Justin and Sabu are returned to their former forms, but the prince is in agony. "What good are my eyes if I cannot see her?" he cries. Justin and Sabu learn that Veidt plans to take Duprez back to Bagdad on his huge ship. Acquiring a small sailboat, Justin and Sabu take up the pursuit, but the evil Veidt spots their approach and causes an enormous storm to come from nowhere, engulfing the little craft.

Following the storm, Sabu finds himself on a wide, sunny beach, with Justin nowhere to be seen. There the boy discovers an ancient bottle stuck in the sand. Out of the bottle shoots a huge plume of smoke that rises hundreds of feet, then forms into a giant genie (Ingram), whose laughter seems to shake the land on which he stands. Ingram explains that King Solomon imprisoned him in that bottle 3,000 years ago. The genie looks down at Sabu, prepared to crush the young thief, but the clever youth tricks him by challenging Ingram to prove he's a real genie by going back into the bottle. That trick accomplished, Sabu renews Ingram's captivity by replacing the cork in the bottle. Only when Ingram agrees to grant Sabu three wishes does the thief release the genie. Ingram then tricks the little trickster into using the first of his wishes to request a frying pan full of sizzling sausages. "To hear is to obey, little master of the universe," booms Ingram. As Sabu nibbles at the sausages, he considers his options, then makes another wish: that he might see his friend Justin. Ingram grants the wish by taking Sabu to the All-Seeing Eye housed high in the Tibetan mountains. In a spectacular sequence, Sabu is seen flying through the air over continents and oceans while grasping Ingram's pigtail. Arriving at a huge monastery, the genie deposits Sabu on the stairs leading into the cavernous place and tells him he must obtain the All-Seeing Eye on his own. The genie pushes the thief through the doors, and Sabu finds himself in an enormous hall, a giant Shiva-like statue before him, at the peak of which radiates the coveted All-Seeing Eye, a glowing gem. Sabu starts to climb the statue, which is guarded by arrow-shooting little green men, and narrowly evades death during his incredible ascent, imperiled also by an enormous spider. After managing to pluck the eye from the idol's forehead, Sabu returns to the waiting Ingram, who--tricking the lad into his third wish -- deposits Sabu on the side of a high cliff, from which there appears to be no escape. Laughing so hard he almost causes the canyon in which he stands to crumble, Ingram declares himself free of his promised bondage and goes soaring away, howling hysterically.

Sabu peers into the Eye and sees Justin, now a prisoner of the evil Veidt and condemned to die, while Duprez is to wed the sinister vizier. Frustrated about not being able to assist his friend, Sabu hurls the crystal to the canyon floor. Its destruction shatters the canyon itself, which, collapsing, propels the thief into a whirling void. Sabu finds himself in an outer world beyond the planet, one peopled by all the wise old men of the East, all waiting to travel to Paradise on a magic flying carpet. They are to protect themselves during this impending journey with a golden bow and a golden arrow that never misses its mark. Apologizing for his thievery to the wisest of these sages, Sabu steps on the magic carpet, grabs the golden bow and arrow, and orders the rug to take him to Bagdad. There, Veidt is about to execute Justin, thereby ridding himself of the man to whom Duprez has given her heart. But before the executioner can swing his axe, Sabu appears on the magic carpet and sends a golden arrow into the headsman, saving Justin at the last moment. The evil vizier--seeing that all is lost--mounts his mechanical steed and attempts to flee by riding skyward, but Sabu shoots another golden arrow, which finds its mark and kills him. Like Malleson before him, Veidt crashes to earth, dead. Justin and Duprez are united, and the prince regains his throne, promising the populace a fair and happy reign and making Sabu his new grand vizier. The irascible youth wants no part of politics, however, and is soon off on his stolen magic carpet seeking new adventures.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., made a spectacular silent version of The Thief of Bagdad in 1924, but that film bears little real resemblance to this Korda super-spectacular of 1940. (The two remakes that followed are pale, cheap imitations.) Korda involved himself directly with this production after discovering that his contracted director, Berger -- who had made some important early talkies, including The Vagabond King (1930) and the Dutch version of Pygmalion (1937) -- had gotten bogged down and displayed no flair whatsoever for fantasy and spectacle. The producer brought in Whelan and Powell to oversee the action scenes. The shooting of the project ground on for two years and WW II prevented Korda from using desired locations in Egypt and Arabia. He later finished the film in Hollywood and had his brother Zoltan and renowned designer Menzies direct the final scenes in the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert.

Although six directors worked on the picture, it all holds together wonderfully, with no apparent breaks in the transitional scenes. The Thief of Bagdad retains a consistent appearance of grandeur, its pace flowing so evenly that it might well have been directed by one man, and in essence it was--by Korda himself. The producer also employed his immensely talented set-designing brother, Vincent, whose marvelous creations are out of this world. Producer Korda also brought in composer Rozsa to create the rich, romantic, dynamic score. Korda originally wanted Vivien Leigh to play the much-put-upon princess, but she left for America to visit her true love Laurence Olivier, then appearing in producer David O. Selznick's Wuthering Heights. Once in the US, Leigh herself was "discovered" by Selznick and went into Gone With the Wind and history. Bereft of his chosen leading lady, Korda signed the sultry Duprez, a stunning beauty whose pretty face was enhanced by the rich hues of the Technicolor process then in use. Jon Hall was the producer's first choice for the part of the prince, but the actor was unavailable, so Korda cast Justin in the role mostly because he resembled Hall, and Korda thought Hall looked like a prince. He was right; the soft-voiced Justin is perfect in the part. Korda's favorite actors, Veidt and Sabu, are both splendid in their respective roles, and the rest of the cast comprises enchanting character players such as the chinless, blustering Malleson and the stentorian, towering Ingram. The film won Oscars for art direction, color photography, and special effects. The Thief of Bagdad remains to this day one of the most dazzling fantasies ever created for the screen.

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