Friday, November 18, 2011
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
I finally got round to reading the Starblaze Classics Illustrated reprint of THIEF OF BAGDAD, which was the contemporaneous novel-adaptation of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks fantasy-film. I'm not well-versed as to the genesis of the original film, though it's been said that Fairbanks, writing under the psuedonym "Elton Thomas," was most responsible for the overall shape of the film. The book-adaptation is written by one of the film's screenwriters, one Achmed Abdullah (actually a Russian-born subject of Great Britain), and sports lush illustrations by esteemed comics-artist P. Craig Russell.
Though the film influenced the book rather than the more usual reverse-situation, I note in passing that the metaphysical themes of the story-- the rogue reformed by love-- receive more expanded treatment in the novelization. Some episodes may have been present in the film-script and excised. In the book the Thief's encounter with a "tree-man" is an episode in its own right, while in the finished film the tree-man is a minor matter quickly overshadowed by more dazzling wonders. However, the film outshines the book in terms of visual presentation. The comic moment wherein the Thief's horse tosses him into a rose-bush is desultory in the book, but in the film it serves to heighten Fairbanks' gift for both stuntwork and visual comedy.
I concur with the standard view that THIEF remains a classic, though as a longtime devotee of the 1940 remake by producer Alexander Korda, there are times I found myself regarding the 1924 work (directed by the famed Raoul Walsh) as something of "raw material" for a greater work. I admit this is unfair to the Fairbanks film, which has its own distinct identity-- for one thing, possessing a more earthly sensuality to the love-scenes between Fairbanks and his princess bride (who's actually given the name "Zobeid" in the book, yet is left unnamed in both films). Still, there are times when the second film just does more with elements of the first one. In the Fairbanks film, the Thief's battle with a sea-spider and a man's scaling a huge idol to gain its eye-gem are two unrelated scenes. In the Korda film, the two become fused into one grandiose scene in which Thief Sabu both scales a giant goddess-statue AND fights a giant spider. The two separate scenes from 1924 are enjoyable but not very complex, while in the 1940 work they take on qualities I can only term "archetypal."
I term this film "metaphysical" because from the first it's suggested that the Thief's growth from a simple atheistic robber ("What I want I take," "Allah is a myth") to a self-sacrificing lover has a deeper spiritual dimension beyond the level of "who gets the girl." Of all the dangers the Thief faces in order to gain the hand of his beloved, the most visually arresting are his moments wandering through the Valley of Flame, which suggest a purificatory ordeal. Again, I have to remark that the book enlarges better on the framework of this wild psuedo-Islamic universe, and the princess' other three suitors are more rounded characters. Here too it's interesting to see how the Korda film took various elements-- the seeing-crystal, the flying carpet-- but reworked others (the Princess of the first film is poisoned by the villain so that he can bring her back to life and wed her; in the second film she falls into a long-lasting sleep by her own volition).
Of the principal actors here, only Fairbanks and Anna May Wong (playing a treacherous Mongol slave girl) went on to much fame, though Noble Johnson, one of the rival princes, enjoyed a long and varied career, especially in horror films like the 1932 MUMMY.
I confess that I did find the film rather slow going at times. But in terms of the film's technical achievements and Fairbanks almost giddy athleticism, THIEF steals the game from any of its silent-era competition.