Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 106 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 27, 2008
Review Date: May 16, 2008
How ironic that within a year of one another, two of the cinema’s greatest ever fantasy films were released: MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and London Films’ The Thief of Bagdad. Of the two, Thief is the starker, rougher, more mature entertainment with a grown-up romance, several deaths and a slashing in close-up, and a main character who’s, well, not always altogether honest. Both are delightful entertainments and have stood the test of time admirably. And now in this new edition, The Thief of Bagdad can hold its head up high with a special edition that’s worthy of its greatness.
Scheming wizard Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) has hoodwinked ruler Ahmad’s (John Justin) kingdom from him (turning him blind in the process) and has now gone after the love of his life, the princess of the neighboring land (June Duprez). Only with the help of plucky Bagdad street thief Abu (Sabu) can he hope to regain his kingdom and his love as well as defeat the powerful Jaffar.
Alexander Korda’s massive production, filmed in both England and (due to the beginning of World War II) Hollywood (and the Grand Canyon), won three Academy Awards, and like The Wizard of Oz before it was the product of innumerable hands behind the camera. All production notes about who was responsible for what have long been lost, but none of it matters when the finished product is as enchanting and entertaining as this finished product. The massive sets, the then-astounding special effects (whose seams show rather obviously now almost seventy years later), and its surprising combination of an operetta song score (though it’s not a musical) with one of filmdom’s richest background scores (courtesy of genius composer Miklós Rózsa) makes for a film that astounded audiences in its day and still beguiles more than half a century later.
Though Conrad Veidt receives top billing and delivers a wonderfully stylized portrait of evil, the movie belongs to Sabu as the wily street urchin. With a brash confidence and a quick wit, he meets all obstacles head-on with grit and determination. Previous and future screen versions of the story (1924 and 1960) combined his part with the romantic lead into one central character, but the split here makes for a more entertaining picture as we have two rooting interests and at certain points two dire situations to juggle our interest and involvement with. June Duprez and John Justin make a perfect fairy tale couple (the sequence where she believes him to be a lake genie is one of the cinema’s most captivating “meet-cutes”), and mention has to be made of Rex Ingram’s bombastic performance as the almost malevolent Djnni adding yet another layer of Arabian Knights magic to the movie’s already mystical allure.
With its flying carpets, genies, giant spiders, mechanical flying horses, and other feats of legerdemain along with its romantic lovers and the engulfing spell of the best fairy tales, The Thief of Bagdad is a classic in every sense of the word. Its wondrous spell and bewitching enchantment have never ceased to delight audiences for over seven decades.
The film’s original 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced faithfully in this new digital transfer. The Technicolor hues (particularly the various shades of red) will burst from your screen with a vivacity that will delight the viewer. I’ve read complaints about the image being slightly brown, but I didn’t see it on my display though some might wish for a somewhat brighter picture. There are a couple of color registration problems where the picture appears out of focus for a moment, but the image is so sharp that the matte seams can be spotted with close attention, and you‘ll easily see the brown latex skull cap on Rex Ingram, too. You’ll glimpse a scratch or two as well, but nothing that will distract the viewer for any extended period of time for the image otherwise is wonderfully clean. The film is divided into 15 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is typical for its era. There is light hiss and momentary distortion on occasion, but mostly the track is clean and engaging mixing music, voices, and effects in a neat balance.
The disc offers two audio commentaries. In the first, Oscar-winning directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese reflect (separately) on the film’s impact on them, and Scorsese does some detailed analysis of shots and set-ups. The second (and better) commentary is by critic Bruce Eder who has concentrated his comments on the personalities before and behind the camera who took part in making this marvelous film.
The disc offers an isolated music and effects track which is a terrific way of appreciating Miklós Rózsa’s majestic music for the production. The recording is mono, of course, but is beautifully recorded and presented here.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is offered and shows a much brighter, more garishly colorful image than the more carefully controlled film transfer. In rough shape both in video and audio, the trailer runs 2 ½ minutes.
The other bonuses for the set are contained on disc two.
“Visual Effects” is a 30 ½-minute set of interviews with filmmakers Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron as they discuss the various special effects in The Thief of Bagdad and how the technology at use then affected their own film work years later. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen with 4:3 clips from both the 1924 and 1940 versions of The Thief of Bagdad. An additional featurette details the mechanics behind the blue screen matte work which went into the flying horse sequence.
Co-director Michael Powell reads excerpts from his autobiography which deal with his work on both The Thief of Bagdad as well as the other film included in this set: The Lion Has Wings. Divided into 11 sections, these spoken excerpts run over an hour and might have been even more interesting if stills and captured film images had been used to illustrate the people and places he’s describing.
A radio interview with Miklós Rózsa, like the previous bonus, is divided into sections (six this time) but with no stills or photographs to illustrate the composer’s interesting recounting of his early years and how he became a movie music composer, especially his interesting tale of how he came to work on The Thief of Bagdad.
The Lion Has Wings, a 1940 propaganda film produced by Korda during a hiatus in production of The Thief of Bagdad, is presented in its entirety. The 76-minute film, a mixture of documentary footage concerning Britain’s readiness for war (according to Powell’s interview complete hogwash) and some fictional wartime footage with actors like Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon playing a British couple doing their parts for the war effort, is interesting viewing with its views of munitions factories, Hitler and his troops, and the valiant Royal Air Force gearing up for battle. There’s been no audio or video clean-up for the film, but it’s in acceptable shape for viewing.
There are two step-through stills galleries featuring shots from the film, shots behind-the-scenes, posters, and lobby cards in both black and white and color. Interesting is the second gallery of stills printed in Dufaycolor, a less vibrant and slightly desaturated color process.
A 21-page booklet contains some stills from the films in the package as well as movie historian Andrew Moor’s essay on The Thief of Bagdad and film professor Ian Christie’s tribute to The Lion Has Wings.
One of the great cinematic fantasies of all time, The Thief of Bagdad finally has a DVD set worthy of its place among the cinema greats. Obviously, this set comes highly recommended.