Friday, February 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940)

I'm not normally the type of critic who insists on forcing political correctness upon films. For example, I think the stink conservatives have raised about "Avatar" is (mostly) bunk. But watching 1940's "The Thief of Bagdad," I couldn't help but notice some troubling trends when it comes to casting.

On the whole, the film does pretty well in depicting Arab and African peoples. There are lots of shots of faces in the crowd, men at toil, etc. So one would be hard-pressed to say Middle Eastern folk are not to be found in a story set in Arabia.

But looking over the principal cast list, there's nary a native among them.

Most of the leads are played by English actors: Ahmad (John Justin), the prince and ostensible hero; the Princess (June Duprez) he loves; her father the Sultan (Miles Malleson); and the wise old king/prophet (Morton Selten).

The villain Jaffar is played by the great German actor Conrad Veidt. The djinn role was handled by Rex Ingram, an African-American. And Abu -- who starts out as Ahmad's sidekick but eventually occupies the center of the story -- was played by Sabu, an Indian.

Western cinema has an enduring and troubling tradition of casting Caucasians as Arab, Latino and even African characters. Heck, the forthcoming "Prince of Persia" movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal.

But the fact that this English production appears to lack an Arab in a single speaking role does leave an unpleasant tinge.

The other thing that struck me watching this movie is its intended audience. Nowadays, studios tend to delineate their productions into specific targets: Adult dramas, romantic comedies, gross-out comedies, etc. Seen today, "Thief" seems very much like a children's film. In its day, though, it was viewed as a rousing adventure story for the whole family.

I liked it well enough, although the special effects (which won an Oscar) haven't aged very well. I'm thinking particularly of the djinn's flying sequences, which all seem to feature a motionless puppet. Even more embarrassing is the scene where Abu seeks out the All-Seeing Eye and is trapped in the web of a giant spider. The arachnid literally looks like a child's toy danging from a clearly visible string.

The story is based on "The Book of a Thousand and One Nights," which has spawned countless other cinematic versions, including a Douglas Fairbanks Sr. 1924 silent version.

Disney's 1992 animated film "Aladdin" draws particularly heavily from the 1940 movie. The name and look of Jaffar as an imperious figure cloaked in black was very similar to Veidt's portrayal. The brightly colored costume and childlike demeanor of the Sultan is virtually a straight copy. (Although the cartoon sultan doesn't get assassinated by a blue chick with multiple arms.)

Curiously, in most versions of the story the thief and the prince are the same character, although 1940's "Thief" splits them into two different people. Justin's Ahmad is frankly an uninteresting drip, and the romance with the princess is similarly drab. The filmmakers wisely keep its screen time to a minimum to concentrate on the adventure.

Ingram makes a real impression as the thunderous djinn, whose first impulse upon being released from his bottle after 2,000 years is to kill the one who freed him. Abu outsmarts him, though, receiving the requisite three wishes in return. Ingram, who also played Jim in the previous year's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," had a long career in film and TV.

Although it hasn't worn its 70 years well, "The Thief of Bagdad" remains a remarkable film, one that set the bar for many subsequent adventure tales -- even ones that included Arab actors.

3 stars

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