Everybody should watch at least one of Douglas Fairbanks' productions in their lives, whether they're into silent film or not. His performances transcend that line in ways similar to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, where his innate machismo is only trumped when he's required to deliver larger-than-life emotional beats. It's easy to steer those interested towards his more overt swashbuckling epics, like Robin Hood and Mark of Zorro, but there's something mesmerizing about The Thief of Bagdad, a whimsical look at A Thousand and One Nights directed by Raoul Walsh. Grand production design marries with a simple but romantically-told yarn about status, power, and destiny -- a beautiful tapestry of silent-era beauty to absorb, driven by Fairbanks' versatile physicality as he navigates one of the most lavish films of the '20s.
Fairbanks plays Ahmed, a thief among Bagdad's alleys who skirts up walls and plucks jewelry from the rich when they're not looking. One night, after sneaking into a palace, he catches a glimpse of the beautiful daughter (Julianne Johnston) of a caliph (Brandon Hurst), and his desire for a vagabond life of thievery disappears with his desire for this woman. Reminded by his "associate" (Snitz Edwards) of a situation where a princess was once stolen by a thief, Ahmed orchestrates a plot to sneak into the princess birthday celebration and, in the midst of selecting a suitor, he would obtain the woman he desires -- since he, not being of royal blood, couldn't rightfully marry her. The Prince of the Mongols (Sojin) has other plans, as he too desires the hand of the princess for his political machinations. So begins the story's twists and turns.
Countless dazzling visuals are bottled up in The Thief of Bagdad, even in just the first frames: wisps of smoke dance into the night as text forms among the stars. Towering, spike-laden doors open to allow passage through the city, with walls that stretch far, far taller than those whom pass through them. These production feats, meticulously laid out by Fairbanks and realized by art designer William Cameron Menzies, create a fantastical environment that's almost like a long, glorious stream of storybook images, at times dependent on their visual splendor to keep the simple plot moving. Some of the best moments come in slight dashes of vision, such as a magical rope stretching up those colossal walls and rooftops, and how Fairbanks convincingly grasps onto it while hovering above the crowd. Apes, tigers, and parades render a persuasive illusion at first, which only gets better as more fantastical Arabian fairytale elements -- magic carpets, billowing fire, winged horses -- slip in.
Perhaps the grandest illusion is the one reinforced by Douglas Fairbanks himself, in prime physical shape as he scales walls and gracefully slips through the majestic art designs of varied expressionist influences. Unyielding charisma emits from the actor as his smarmy persona evolves into one of determination and barefaced adoration for the princess, ever with the backbone of an on-his-toes rogue supporting his movements. Fairbanks' interaction with Julianne Johnston is often entrancing, her supple glance absorbing the tenor he so effortlessly emits. But he also conveys the film's darker moments exceedingly well, such as a scene where he's viciously whipped; he's able to project palpable agony through well-felt body gestures, and he wears a defeatist attitude in an earnest way after that. He's, as always, a splendid hero, but he also expertly garners the audience's empathy.
The Thief of Bagdad's loosely-adapted story serves more as architecture for visual and emotional personality than as an absorbing narrative across its two-plus hours, but what a sensory narrative it remains to this day. As the fantasy elements escalate, and the intrigue intensifies with a delightfully ominous villain in Sojin and a deceptive minx in rising star Anna Mae Wong, it takes shape into quite a sprawling feast for the senses. The depths of the ocean and the expanses of the skyline aren't limitations, but playgrounds; painterly images of castles in the sky succeed just as thoroughly create an openness in the air as careful vignetting and deep shadows assert claustrophobia. And once Fairbanks' story soars off into the horizon, filled with high-fantasy that's more concerned with grand delights, it never loses either its grasp on pacing nor its sense of wonder.
Cohen Media Group have swiftly made a name for themselves in the Blu-ray arena, presenting niche and a few classic films in a slickly-designed "collection". The Thief of Bagdad might prove to be one of their best and attention-grabbing releases: offered in a clear single-disc case, promotion photos from the film can be seen on the front cover, disc, and inner artwork. A snazzy Booklet contains an essay from Laura Boyes, film curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, all clasped together in a clear-white case. It's a very appealing package.
Video and Audio:
Cohen Media Group recently undertook the job of restoring The Thief of Bagdad for a theatrical run, derived from a pair of 35mm prints that stay faithful to the original color tints. The results are, as corny as it might sound, magical: under a rich veil of grain that rarely feels anything but natural, this 1080p visualization shows off incredible detail and depth for a film approaching a century old. The sheen on Douglas Fairbanks' torso nails the rich bronze appearance of a street thief in peak physical form, while the shadows in which he maneuvers around in are thick but not overbearing. The Bagdad sets look fantastic, revealing weathered textures and ornate trappings with well-preserved precision, while faint elements like the transparency of fabric and the notches in a ring reveal a true delicateness to its focus. Some unavoidable print damage and moments of occasional grain heaviness are the only gripes to had with this stunning transfer.
Two audio tracks have been provided for this release: a 5-channel Master Audio treatment and a 2-channel PCM option, both of which are derived from Carl Davis' score as orchestrated by The Philharmonia Orchestra. Integrating elements of the Orientalia of Rimsky-Korsakov with Davis' own flourishes, both options support crystal-clear, bass-aware, involving sonic properties that capture the film's mood flawlessly. No distortion or egregious hiss was present in either, and either one will fit the screening experience well; however, there are differences between the two. The 5-channel track stretches its legs across the stage a bit more and comes across a bit cleaner, while the 2-channel track brings the channels closer to the center for a more ... "authentic" experience. Tough choice, which is a great thing.
The Audio Commentary with Jeffrey Vance is pretty terrific, a mix of textbook informationabout The Thief of Bagdad -- at times, directly from Douglas Fairbanks' son's recounts -- and occasional interpretation of the details. He discusses, in detail: Fairbanks' daily routine before getting to work and the spot the actor invented, the presence of a gym-like atmosphere for the stunts, how much physical film was cut together, poetic and painterly influences on the title cards and posters, music, costume tests, and other elements that occasionally hit on specific scenes. I greatly enjoyed Vance's conversational rhythm; he'll shift from perfunctory information to admiring the sets and scenes themselves, then he'll delve into meta topics like the critical reception of the film. A splendid track.
Thankfully, Jeffrey Vance isn't quite done with us yet. Cohen Media Group have also included a Video Essay (17:07, HD) of his that stitches together production photography and imagery to create something of a "making-of" for The Thief of Bagdad. Between blocks of text that offer a wealth of insight into the cameras used, the production elements being viewed, and the way these photographs were reused as promotional materials, we're treated to a slate of exceptionally-detailed images that illustrate Fairbanks in peak form. The shots of the sets, however, steal the show. Finally, a Restoration Trailer (2:25, HD) incorporates the new print used into a suitable, grand stretch of footage sure to whet anyone's appetite.
The Thief of Bagdad is a delightful, gorgeous, if overlong silent-era adventure featuring the legendary Douglas Fairbanks, a take on the Arabian fairytale that's full of lovingly-designed composition. Expressionist notes bring the massive sets and entrancing practical effects to life, in a sprawling epic built atop a straightforward story about a lowly thief who must work for the princess he so deeply desires, with a little magical help. The story's been told many times since, handled by the likes of Michael Powell and the House of Mouse, but this take on the mythology and mysticism -- eventually full of beasts and journeys across air, water, and fire -- endures as a work of pure artistry, featuring a spry and sublime performance from Fairbanks in his peak that ensured the tone for much of the rest of his career. This Blu-ray from Cohen Media Group masterfully presents the film in a robust fashion that's close to its theatrical appearance, freshly restored from 35mm prints and featuring an orchestral recording from silent-score composer Carl Davis, while an audio commentary and a video essay from Jeffrey Vance offer a fine contextual supplement package. Highly Recommended.