Blessed with a combination of athleticism, good looks and a sense of humor, Douglas Fairbanks became the silver screen’s first action star. A title earned over the course of more than twenty-five feature films made between 1915 and1920. By 1920, Fairbanks began starring in elaborate costume adventures such as The Mask of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) that made him a bonafide superstar. Not content to sit on his laurels, Fairbanks decided to push the costume adventure to new levels.
After reading 1001 Arabian Nights, Fairbanks decided it would be the basis for his next film. Young and handsome, thief Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) lives by his wits on the streets of Bagdad, stealing jewelry from the rich while they’re not looking. After sneaking into a palace one evening, he catches a glimpse of the beautiful daughter (Julianne Johnston) of a caliph (Brandon Hurst). Almost immediately, his life of thievery is forgotten, as Ahmed becomes consumed with desire for this woman, a Princess. Instead of carrying off all the treasures he had intended to steal, Ahmed takes only her slippers.
The next day is the Princess’ birthday and the day she is to choose a suitor. Princes come from far and wide in a bid for her hand, including a Mongol Prince (Sojin). However, the Mongol doesn’t come in search of marriage. Instead, he wants to conquer the city and uses the party as a cover to gain entry. Desperate to see the Princess again, Ahmed steals a regal looking outfit and is announced as a Prince from a far off land. Unseen, he is able to climb up the balcony and charm the Princess. Rather quickly, and to the dismay of the others, the Princess falls in love with Ahmed and chooses him as her groom.
Unfortunately for Ahmed, it is soon discovered that he isn’t a Prince. He quickly finds himself flogged and thrown out of the palace. Meanwhile the Princess still has to choose a husband, so she sends all her suitors out on a bit of an expedition. They must travel to far off lands and the one who brings back the rarest treasure will receive her hand in marriage. Not to be outdone, as the Princes set out on their quest, Ahmed does as well.
Fairbanks wanted The Thief of Bagdad to be a film of epic proportions. Filled with exotic opulence, apes, elephants, flying carpets, winged elephants and more, he certainly succeeded in creating a spectacle. No matter what’s happening with the story, there’s always something to watch on screen. Director Rauol Walsh (White Heat, High Sierra) handles Fairbanks’ script expertly, never allowing frames to look overcrowded or busy; honestly, nearly every shot looks like a piece of art. He smartly used matte painting to make the film look grander than it already was.
Douglas Fairbanks, though nearly forty at the time, was at the height of his creative powers when The Thief of Bagdad was made. He looked younger than his years and seemed to have no trouble climbing up ropes and scaling castles; he was clearly having fun. It is also a credit to Fairbanks that he surrounded himself with such a talented supporting cast. Sojin, who had a solid career playing oriental villains during the silent era, is convincingly sinister without being over the top. Julanne Johnston as the Princess isn’t given a lot to do, but she looks beautiful in her flowing robes. Anna May Wong nearly manages to steal every scene she’s in as the duplicitous Mogol slave.
Cohen Media recently restored The Thief of Bagdad from two 35mm prints that stay true to the original color tints. The results are nothing short of amazing. Under a surprisingly natural looking film grain, this 1080p transfer shows incredible detail for a film of its age. The Bagdad set looks amazing and Douglas Fairbanks’ chest literally glistens as he moves around the screen; this only confirms that Fairbanks was in peak physical form. There a few signs of print damage, but this transfer is really a top notch effort.
We get two different audio tracks: a 5-channel Master Audio treatment and a 2-channel PCM option, both of which are a result of Carl Davis’ score as orchestrated by The Philharmonia Orchestra. Both options are crystal clear and exploit the musical flourishes that truly capture the film’s mood. No distortion is apparent in either track, with each suiting the film well. However, there are differences between the two: The 5-channel track tends to envelop the soundstage a bit more, while the 2-channel track brings closer to the center, which in the case of this film would be more realistic to the original theatrical experience.
The following special features are included:
- Audio Commentary by Douglas Fairbanks Biographer Jeffrey Vance: In a very educational, informative commentary Vance provides a lot of details about Fairbanks’ routines for getting ready to make the film. Vance states that he subscribes to Charlie Chaplin’s theory that revealing too much about the filmmaking process spoils the magic. As such, he does provide some information on how the special effects were done, but spends more time discussing the filmmaking philosophy of Fairbanks and the film’s production. It’s a different way of approaching things, but I always find Vance informative.
- Fairbanks and Fantasy: The Thief of Bagdad (HD, 17:07) A nice group of production stills, with interstitial text by Jeffrey Vance.
- Restoration Trailer (HD, 2:25)