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Film / The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

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The Thief of Bagdad is a 1940 movie, starring Sabu, John Justin, Conrad Veidt, and June Duprez. It borrows heavily from stories of the Arabian Nights. (There have been several movies using the name, including a 1924 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but this article is about the first remake.)

Ahmad is the king of Bagdad. His vizier, the wily Jaffar, has kept him isolated in his castle his whole life. One day, Ahmad decides to go out into the city disguised as a peasant, so he can learn more about his people. Jaffar, sensing a chance to seize power, sends guards after the king; Ahmad has just enough time to hear a prophecy about a boy saving his city before Jaffar's guards capture him and throw him into the dungeons. He is sentenced to death in the morning, but luckily for Ahmad, he's trapped in jail with Abu, a young thief who has Bagdad — and the dungeon keys — in his pocket.

Abu and Ahmad embark on an amazing journey involving ancient prophecies, captured princesses, mechanical horses, magic spells that turn seeing men blind and thieves into dogs, assassinations, giant spiders, ship wrecks, flying carpets, and an absolutely enormous genie who will grant three wishes to anyone clever enough to survive him.

The Thief of Bagdad was very popular in its day, partly due the charm of child actor Sabu. It had a lasting influence on Hollywood; many of the tropes the Arabian Nights made were actually codified by this movie, and its influence on movies like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and especially Aladdin is hard to miss. It's also the first film to use Chroma Key.

Co-directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan, with three other uncredited directors shooting some scenes—it had a Troubled Production.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: Grand Vizier Jafar. The historical Ja'far ibn Yahya of the Barmakids (and the fictional version of him in the Arabian Nights tales) was not a bad guy, but possibly the greatest Grand Vizier Persia ever had. He was a polymath who sponsored the building of libraries and introduced the use of paper to Baghdad (thus almost single-handedly kickstarting the Golden Age of Islam). This movie was the first instance in which he was portrayed as a villain.
  • Adaptation Distillation: It borrows heavily from the Arabian Nights, merging plot elements from several distinct stories into a single narrative. For example, when Abu frees the genie, it's initially angry at being held captive and wants to kill his rescuer, but is tricked back into the bottle and finally agrees to grant Abu three wishes. This is taken directly from the story, "The Fisherman and the Genie."
  • Always Accurate Attack: The Bow and Arrow of Justice, when used to attack the unjust, results in this.
  • Ancestral Name: Abu's father and grandfather are also named Abu, and, apparently, they're all thieves. (Amusingly, "Abu" is also an Arabic word meaning "father of"—Abu is saying he's the son of his father.)
    "I'm Abu the Thief. Son of Abu the Thief. Grandson of Abu the Thief."
  • Animorphism: Abu is transformed into a dog.
  • Anti-Villain: Jaffar, at least when it comes to his crush on the princess. He refuses to hypnotise her at first, constantly trembles when he's around her, and can't bring himself to touch her. His fingers hover just a few inches from her and only his shadow can touch her. This was a deliberate touch on director Michael Powell's part, who identified with the wizard/artificer character and the pain of unrequited love. Consequently, he told Conrad Veidt to play the tortured lover angle to the hilt.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: Trope Codifier for a lot of them. To its credit, it takes inspiration from the original 1001 Nights and, as noted below, has some historical accuracy with regards to the costumes.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Abu accidentally wishes Ahmad back to Bagdad after they fight, using up his last wish.
  • Big Eater: Abu. He steals pancakes, honey and fruit at the bazaar early on; later, he wishes for sausages from the genie.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Abu in the climax.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Within minutes of meeting each other, Ahmad and the Princess have a big passionate kiss to signal that they are indeed madly in love.
  • Brownface: Conrad Veidt as an Arab.
  • Catapult to Glory
  • Chase Scene: There's an energetic foot-chase early in the movie, wherein Sabu does all his own stunts. Incidentally, he was sixteen at the time.
  • Chroma Key: As noted in the opening, this is the first film ever to use chroma key. The technology was quite primitive at the time, which is why there are obvious matte lines throughout the movie. Still, it was an impressive enough innovation to win an Oscar for Larry Butler, who invented the technique for this movie.
  • Clockwork Creature: Jaffar has a mechanical flying horse, and uses a clockwork dancer named the Silver Maid to stab the Sultan to death.
  • Cool Horse: Jaffar's mechanical flying horse. Some assembly required. It's also a Mechanical Horse.
  • Cool Toy: The Sultan of Basra collects mechanical toys, which makes it easy for Jaffar to bribe him with the abovementioned horse. Later, Jaffar uses another such novelty (a Robot Girl) to entrap and kill the Sultan.
  • Costume Porn: And how. The film's particularly impressive for including not only fantastical fairytale costumes (everything the princess wears, basically) but also for a considerable amount of historical accuracy in the costumes, something missing in many later Arabian Nights films. Jaffar wears five layers of silks and velvets (appropriate for a high-ranking Persian lord) at one point, which can't have been easy under the massive studio lights required for a Technicolor production.
  • Crosscast Role: Most of the riders who clear the marketplace to make way for the princess are actually played by women. This is because most of the men were fighting in the war.
  • Crystal Ball: The All-Seeing Eye Abu steals from a temple. Jaffar also mentions to use one in order to see the princess.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Quite a few.
    Merchant: "Allah be with you. [beat] But I doubt it."
    • The entire scene with the flying horse consists of glorious banter between the Sultan and Jaffar.
  • Death Glare: Jaffar when enspelling Ahmad and Abu.
  • Decomposite Character: In the 1924 film, the thief and the love interest are one character. Here, they are two characters: Abu is the street wise thief, while Ahmad is the man who fights to win the princess's love.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Easy Amnesia: The Princess loses all her memories almost instantly after smelling the blue rose. But the sound of Ahmed calling for her is enough to just-as-quickly restore her memories.
  • Evil Chancellor: Jaffar.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Taken from an Arabian Nights story where a dog that's really a person in dog form functions this way, Abu as a dog can identify bad coinage.
  • Evil Laughter: The Genie. Hammy, but still evil. Abu indulges in a little after turning the tables on the Genie.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Jaffar, again.
  • Fruit Cart: Well, not a cart. But the people in the marketplace in Basra have their fruit on display in bowls and baskets. The sultan's men come barreling through on horseback and wreck it all.
  • Genie in a Bottle: Played with. The genie that Abu releases does not come out of the bottle granting him three wishes. Instead he's so angry at spending 2000 years in a bottle that he says he's going to kill Abu, and Abu has to trick him back in. This is taken straight from The Arabian Nights and story "The Fisherman and the Jinni". After the genie begs for mercy Abu lets him out again and the trope is played straight in grant-three-wishes style.
  • Giant Spider: Abu fights one while climbing a web to get to the All-Seeing Eye.
  • Give Me a Sword: Ahmad wants a chance to duel Jaffar. Jaffar declines and promptly blinds him.
  • Grand Vizier Jafar: The Trope Maker. Whenever an "Arabian Nights" Days story has a villain named "Jafar", they're borrowing straight from this film.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Abu and the Genie.
  • Heroic Lineage: Ahmad is the grandson of Harun al-Rashid. Possibly parodied with Abu:
    Abu: "I'm Abu the Thief. Son of Abu the Thief. Grandson of Abu the Thief."
  • Historical Character's Fictional Relative: While Harun al-Rashid did indeed exist none of his grandsons who ascended to the throne were named Ahmad.
  • How We Got Here: The first act is told in flashback by Ahmad to a crowd of listeners, while he's blind.
  • Homage Shot: The shot of Halima and Jaffar looking through a curtained window at the Princess is lifted from the 1924 Thief of Baghdad.
  • Humans Are Bastards:
    • Jaffar tries to convince Prince Ahmad that humans are evil, and makes a good case for it himself:
    "Men are evil, hatred in their eyes, lies on their lips, betrayal in their hearts. You will learn one day, great king, that there are three things that men respect; the lash that descends, the yoke that breaks and the sword that slays. By the power and terror of these you may conquer the Earth."
    • Later, the Genie has his say on the subject, after Abu's third wish goes awry (though this is more Humans Are Flawed):
      "You're a clever little man, little master of the universe, but mortals are weak and frail. If their stomach speaks, they forget their brain. If their brain speaks, they forget their heart. And if their heart speaks, they forget everything."
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick / Chessmaster Sidekick: Abu to Ahmad, who is pretty much a Fish out of Water.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: "Love she has yet to learn. And I am here to teach her." And that's after And Now You Must Marry Me and is followed by Abduction Is Love. Jaffar really hasn't got the hang of this dating business, has he?
  • In Name Only: For a remake, this movie doesn't have that much in common with the original movie... but is no less wonderful a film for all that (by extension, averting It's the Same, Now It Sucks! and They Changed It, Now It Sucks!).
  • Jackass Genie: Trope Maker for the cinematic versions of this. When Abu frees him from his bottle, the Genie's first impulse is to kill him; only after Abu tricks him does the Genie let him live and grant him three wishes. While serving Abu, the Genie does fulfill his wishes without any malicious misinterpretation, but he abandons Abu in the wilderness immediately after the third wish.
  • King Incognito: Ahmad is a king disguised as a beggar for most of the film.
  • Large Ham: Genie.
    • Jaffar summoning up a storm. WINND!
  • Love at First Sight: Ahmad and the Princess fall in love in their very first meeting. Ahmad even declares himself "your slave" and she says "there can be no greater pleasure than to please you."
  • Love Potion: Inverted. The Blue Flower of Forgetfulness is intended to make the Princess forget about Ahmad.
  • Loveable Rogue: Abu.
  • Made a Slave: Happens to the princess offscreen. Jaffar buys her.
  • Magic Carpet: How Abu makes his grand entrance and grand exit.
  • McGuffin: This movie has everything, including one of these. The genie takes Abu to a temple where he has to steal a jewel to find Ahmad. The genie can't get it for him because... that wouldn't be fun enough.
  • Mind-Control Device: Jaffar erases the princess's memories of Ahmad, hoping she'll start loving him, with the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness. Slightly subverted in that he previously refused to use his powers to make her fall in love with him directly.
  • The Mountains of Illinois
  • Mundane Wish: Abu's first wish from the genie is a sizzling platter of sausages.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Briefly, when dog-Abu is caught by the executioner.
  • No Name Given: The Princess's name is never stated.
  • Noble Demon: Jaffar (at first). He could kill Ahmad, but decides to blind him instead (at first). He could take the princess by force, but pleads for her to love him instead... at first.
  • Ominous Walk: Conrad Veidt said he'd honed Jaffar's slow, gliding movements for over a month before filming began.
  • Plot Hole: If Jaffar is really such a powerful wizard he can cause blindness and turn people into dogs why at the beginning he bothered to lure Ahmad out of the palace and then have him arrested instead of using sorcery to kill young sultan/cause him madness or grave illness/turn him into an animal?
  • The Power of Love: The amnesia induced on the Princess with the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness is undone when she hears her true love's voice.
  • Prophecy Twist: The prophecy at the start of the movie says "a tyrant shall be overthrown by the lowest of the low, who appears on a cloud"; Ahmad and the peasants believe it's about him, but it's about a slightly different tyrant, and an unconventional "cloud".
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The title is 'Bagdad' instead of 'Baghdad' because most of the producers were Eastern European - and that is how it is sometimes spelled there.
  • Reverse Psychology: Used by Abu to entrap the genie.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Combined with Literal Genie and Exact Words. Ahmad says "I wish I were in Bagdad right now" so that he can fight Jaffar and rescue the Princess. Abu responds with "I wish you were!" The genie sends only Ahmad to Bagdad, leaving Abu to have to find the Magic Carpet to get back.
  • Robot Girl: The sultan of Basra dies at her mechanical hands.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Jaffar reveals that the only way to restore Ahmad's eyesight is for the princess to embrace him; she does.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The genie, borrowing from the 1001 Arabian Nights tale "The Fisherman and the Genie."
  • Sex Signals Death: This is the subtext in the sultan of Basra's murder.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Ahmad.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Abu mentions Sinbad the Sailor was willing to give them berths on his ship...
    • The shots with Jaffar cursing people with his eyes and menacing people with his shadow were tributes to Conrad Veidt's earlier performances in German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Street Urchin: Abu at the start of the movie.
  • Tempting Fate: The Sultan of Basra promises the Princess she will never go to Baghdad with Jaffar while he lives. Guess what happens in the very next scene.
  • Three Wishes: The Trope Maker. The genie grants Abu these.
  • True Love's Kiss: Jaffar tries to exploit this by wiping the Princess' memory and then kissing her.
  • Trope Codifier: For several "Arabian Nights" tropes, including Grand Vizier Jafar.
  • Villainous Crush: Jaffar.