Monday, June 20, 2016
ALI BABA AND THE 40 THIEVES (1944)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
In my review of SON OF ALI BABA I rhetorically wondered why the film had posited an Ali Baba who was the leader of the Forty Thieves, rather being a guy who robbed their hideout and who indirectly led to the thieves' extinction. Then I saw the 1944 ALI BABA, and realized that SON is a loose sequel to that film-- probably not least because both films were Universal products.
I presume that an earlier venture in Thousand-and-One territory, 1942's ARABIAN NIGHTS, must have been successful, for ALI BABA once more unites the earlier film's stars, Jon Hall and Maria Montez. I downgraded NIGHTS somewhat because I found it something of a routine riff on 1940's THIEF OF BAGDAD. However, ALI BABA, while not any deeper than NIGHTS, feels somewhat fresher, possibly thanks to a new director, Arthur Lubin, and a new writer, Edmund Hartman, who scripted THE SCARLET CLAW the same year.
To be sure, ALI BABA is a riff on the Robin Hood legend, transported to the 13th century, when the Mongols under Hulagu Khan (real-life brother of Kublai) successfully invaded Persia. The old Caliph is deposed, and he tries to run for it with his young son Ali. The Caliph is betrayed and killed, but Ali escapes to the desert. He witnesses a band of thieves emerge from a cave, whose stone door promptly shuts itself when the bandit-leader cries, "Close sesame." Ali figures out how to make the door open and takes refuge in the cave. Rather than stealing the thieves' treasure, he falls asleep, only to be found by the thieves when they return.
The early section maintains a loose parallel to some of the Robin Hood versions in which Robin, on the run from the forces of King John, takes refuge in Sherwood, encounters other fugitives, and forges them into his Merry Men. Here, young Ali impresses the thieves with his courage, so that their leader, "Old Baba," adopts the fatherless boy, who is then renamed "Ali Baba." Ten years later, when all of Persia groans under the yoke of the Mongols, Ali has forged the Forty Thieves into a resistance-force that continually harries the occupiers,
The story's romantic arc is possibly also derived from the Robin Hood legacy. In many Sherwood-tales, Robin at least knows Maid Marian before he's exiled from his home. In the prequel, young Ali bonds with Amara, noble daughter of a Persian aristocrat (ironically, one of the men who betrays the Caliph). Years later, Ali, during his rebellious career, encounters the grown Amara with the usual romantic complications, not least of which that her father has pledged her troth to Hulagu Khan.
The romantic subplot isn't overly compelling, not least because the charms of once-popular Maria Montez have not aged well. However, though I've stated that the main plot of ALI BABA is thoroughly derivative, somehow Lubin, Hartmann and Jon Hall manage to sell it in all its naive glory. Maybe it's because Lubin depicts more of the way Persians suffer under the Mongols, making the urgency of their defeat more compelling. Indeed, the simple story was so persuasive that I didn't even mind the hodgepodge of accents and anachronisms-- best represented by the inclusion of comedy relief actor Andy Devine, using the same "golly-gee" dialect he had used in countless Westerns.
The cave's power to open and close at a word is never even referenced, much less explained: it's just presented as a given, the only magical presence in this roughly historical milieu. It does play a role of sorts, since the thieves' ability to conceal themselves in the hidden cave makes it hard for the Mongols to find them. Still, its role in the story is so minor that I consider it an example of what I'm currently calling "the peripheral-metaphenomenal;" an element of strangeness peripheral to the central action.