Saturday, September 19, 2015
THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1978)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociologicial*
At some point in my writing-career, I thought of trying to pitch an essay entitled "The Thieves of Baghdad," covering the four English-language / English-dubbed iterations of the story. The distinction of these four films for me-- at least at that time-- was that I felt all four films did an above-average job in evoking Arabian Nights magic. In contrast, most remakes and re-interpretations in this vein usually emerge as poor copies of some high-quality original.
I remain an unqualified fan of the 1940 Alexander Korda film, and an admirer of the original 1924 silent original. Had anyone asked me back in 1978, I might have judged this 1978 movie to be the third-best, leaving the 1961 Steve Reeves vehicle at the bottom of the heap.
Though I haven't re-screened the Reeves film in many years, my re-viewing of the 1978 film has bumped it down a notch. Undoubtedly I'm a little more aware of the budgetary limitations of this film. Despite a genuine attempt to bring a sense of pageantry to the settings and costumes, this THIEF, directed by Clive Donner, always seems constricted, even constipated, in comparison with the other versions. The only effect that still impresses me today is the re-imagining of the film's genie: though he's still lent gargantuan size by the wonders of photography, this time he has a more serpentine aspect, given green skin and played by the capricious-looking Daniel Emilfork (above).
The script borrows most of its motifs from the 1924 and 1940 films, but without much wit or verve. The silent film focused upon a solitary adult thief, played by Fairbanks, who must seek out fabulous treasures to gain the hand of a princess. The Korda film splits the solo protagonist into two characters: a handsome adult king who has been deposed by an evil vizier, and a teenaged thief who befriends the king and helps him survive many fantastic adventures before helping the king recover his kingdom and rescue a princess.
Plot-wise Donner's film probably takes its lead from Korda's film, though happily it doesn't use any of the character-names thereof. Handsome Prince Taj (Kabir Bedi) is deposed by his evil vizier. While on the run from the usurper's men, he happens across street-magician-and-thief Hasan (Roddy McDowell). Hasan doesn't fully credit Taj's claim to be a royal on the run, but he's too greedy to pass up the possibility of gaining a rich reward, and so becomes Taj's ally.
Fairbanks' thief entered the palace of the Caliph in the guise of a nobleman from a far-off land, with the aim of getting access to the Caliph's daughter. The 1978 THIEF borrows this conceit, having Taj and Hasan infiltrate the palace of their Caliph (Peter Ustinov) in the guise of noblemen, hoping to gain an ally against the Wazir Jaudur (Terence Stamp). However, Taj and the Caliph's daughter Yasmine become infatuated at first glance. However, master magician Jaudur also shows up, flying carpet and all. In a scene slightly indebted to a similar one in Korda's film, Taj challenges Jaudur to a swordfight-- but where no swordfight ensuses in the 1940 flick, Taj and the wazir do lock blades. Taj stabs his foe, only to find that the wizard won't die because he keeps his heart elsewhere. This effects-scene, incidentally, looks like it was copied exactly from a similar one in 1963's CAPTAIN SINDBAD.
Despite Taj losing the bout, Yasmine talks her father into having all of her suitors, including Taj and Jaudur, compete for her hand by bringing back the most desirable prize imaginable. From there on, the rest of the film follows the general scheme of the 1924 film, though the scene with the genie is indebted to the Korda work.
Some lip service is paid to the metaphysical motifs of the two earlier films, but on the whole, the script is ill equipped to handle such ideas in more than cursory fashion. Thus I don't even assign the film a metaphysical function, but only a sociological one, in that the story principally focuses on the fortuitous union of aristocrat Taj and lowly Hasan. Unfortunately, there's no chemistry between the actors who have to sell this relationship, and even McDowell doesn't bring his customary flamboyance to the role of Hasan. In fact,with the exception of Peter Ustinov, all of the actors merely deliver the goods with no extras included. Thus THIEF, while not by any means a waste of time, only offers moderate entertainment.
Though the film was released in theaters in Europe and elsewhere, in the US it only debuted on television, so that it's sometimes mistakenly labeled as a "film for television."