In which two stars outshine a thousand.
The Thief of Bagdad is another of those films that have sat in my consciousness as a film fan, without much detail or context. Mention its name and I could describe its famous magic carpet scene – often used to advertise the film – and tell you it had something to do with Arabian Nights.
Alongside 1922’s Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad is perhaps best known as a Douglas Fairbanks film and is often credited as changing his image into the pre-Erroll Flynn swashbuckling hero of silent cinema.
A world away from the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, Fairbanks is the shining star of the movie. He’s charismatic, daring and handsome – one of the first idols of cinema. He’s back by an enormous cast of main players and thousands of extras in one of the most ambitious movies of the decade.
Fans of Disney’s Aladdin will be familiar with the plot – a street thief disguises himself as royalty and falls in love with a Princess. He must then go on an epic quest to save her from a forced marriage to some real, but evil, Princes. As the thief travels far and wide, the Mongol leader forms a plan to cease power through force – marriage or not.
The Mongol Prince is assisted by a spy, masquerading as one of the Princess’ slave girls. From her first appearance, discovering the thief on the night he breaks into the palace, she captures our attention in every scene. She’s played by Anna May Wong, who I began to read up on after watching the film and discovered a fascinating life story.
Wong is considered the first Chinese American movie star and became hugely influential and icon in the 1920s as an actress and fashion icon. During the next decade, she became disillusioned with Hollywood as she lost out on Asian roles to white actors and was most often approached to play stereotypical villains. Wong continued working until her sadly early death in 1961, taking a break during the second world war to help promote the Chinese cause.
Such is her impact on the film, in a small but important role, she’s begun to take over this review some 100 years later so I’ll say no more other than to encourage you to look her up. I plan to find and cover some of her later films in the coming months.
What sets The Thief of Bagdad apart as a masterpiece of silent cinema is not just its combination of Fairbanks and Wong, but also the grand scale of the film (each palace wall seems a mile high and the crowds number in the thousands) and the infectious sense of adventure. Just like after watching Robin Hood or Zorro, you feel ready to don a makeshift cape and sword, and take to the streets to fight your enemies.
That’s what the best cinema does – it inspires us. Not always to battle poverty, systemic injustice or oppression, but sometime just to go outside, brandish a good stick and fight against the bad guys.