In Out from the Past, Loser City writers discuss classic era films that were well-received and successful in their time but whose legacies have faded ever since. Up first is Chris Jones’ look back on The Thief of Bagdad, a hit from 1940 that won multiple Academy Awards but is now out of print and generally forgotten but is regarded by directors like Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola as one of the best films of its era.
I have this theory that maybe I’ll discuss more in depth some day, about how The Lion King primes a young mind for a subtle sort of racism by showing us an Africa that is only populated by animals. This film was the first representation I had ever seen of Africa, fictional or otherwise, and it took, like, a generation for the realization of “huh, I guess it makes sense that this continent would be mostly cities, like every other continent on the planet” to sink in. Are the two things definitely related? I don’t fuckin’ know. But I know there’s people in The Jungle Book, in Bambi, there are people in The Aristocats and The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. Lion King? No people. And as we know, sometimes when it comes to the other, even movie characters who are people are Not People. It’s not just a form of laziness or the disintegration of archaic cultural attitudes: in its purest form, this obfuscation of humanity in art is a symbol of inherent disrespect, for People and for its audience and for itself.
The Thief of Bagdad, the one from 1940, is a film that is essentially, exclusively people. And certainly it is fucked up in the way that any movie from 1940 would be: there’s more than a little brownface going on and the whitest motherfucker of all time plays a lead character named Ahmad. But unlike dozens or hundreds of movies before or since, skin pigmentation does not correlate to a character’s good or evil nature (although, perhaps bowing to accuracy or simple unexamined racism, it does frequently denote servitude or sovereignty in the film’s context): the villain of the piece is a mincing Conrad Veidt in tan makeup, but the hero is Abu, a bold, kind & cunning brown boy who cracks wise and bucks every authority with the cavalier grace of any renowned action hero twice his age. The actor who played this character, who went by the stage name Sabu, died unexpectedly at the age of 39, and I can’t help wondering what his legacy would have been if he had lived into the New Pulp Age, if he had managed to swing some parts in the kinds of movies Tarantino and De Palma loved to gobble up.
I watched Aronofsky’s Noah a few weeks back, and while it was much better than I was expecting it to be I found it absurd bordering on the hysterical that no character said the name “God” throughout the entire production, vaguely referring to the Abrahamic deity as “Him” or “The Creator.” It’s like setting a movie during the Civil War where no one says “slaves,” or during the Watergate scandal where no one says “Nixon.” Whether it comes from a place of true integrity from the creators or meddling from production, it’s a distraction that can’t help but detract from the message and mood of the piece.
In Thief of Bagdad the characters say the name “Allah” constantly and they say it with such ingrained, casual reverence as to make one’s heart ache. I can’t imagine a major film with an apolitically positive view of a major devotional figure being made like this today, with such gentle piousness. Paganistic elements like djinn and prophesying artifacts and evil, spirit-bound murder machines aren’t viewed as clashing concepts with a supreme, loving ur-god. The same care is taken by the directors with crafting this Arabic folk world as Walt Disney used while drawing on the Teutonic stories and images needed to animate his vision of Snow White.
It should perhaps go without saying, but identifying respect or lack thereof is one of the most helpful methods of understanding whether a work is achieving its goal or not. Much of the time it can save or destroy something entirely: from a brief reading the production of The Thief of Bagdad was apparently an ungainly shit show of epic proportions. Multiple directors were hired for what seems to be the express single purpose of pissing off the original man hired to helm the picture, entire musical scores were composed and thrown away at will, they ran out of money and had to move the production to a completely different country to stay solvent.
Yet the chaos inherent in its creation is unapparent, or perhaps subsumed into the work itself so as to be unrecognizable. The early blue screen techniques used to show flying horses and vulgar djinn materializing from a hostile dimension are things of beauty, holding up their own indelible sense of otherworldliness in a way not dissimilar to the clay beasts of Ray Harryhausen. The performances are campy but spellbinding, grandiose and full-bodied in that special way that seems to have disappeared in the post-New Hollywood era of filmmaking.
My favorite moment of all, though, comes when Ahmad is speaking to the Princess in her garden, using his reflection in the pond to trick her into thinking he is a genie:
Princess: You don’t look wicked. Are you a good genie?
Ahmad: Not too good. Very good genie are just as tiresome as very good men.
We have this little character moment that seems like just a little joke or quip but is slid in as a revealing, vulnerable confession: “I’m letting you know right now, I’m kind of a shit, but I’m fun, and I think you’ll think I’m fun too.” Moments later he hops out of a tree and reveals his trick to her. Their love is immediate and unsophisticated and utterly, achingly convincing.
I find movies that pretend to be something they aren’t to be so fucking boring and exhausting and maddening. I watch a samurai movie that turns out to be a treatise on the eternal complexities of shogunate bureaucracy, I watch a James Bond film that has maybe half a dozen exciting moments which are cudgeled by dismally nonsensical Cold War politics and mindless bloviating; I watch a superhero movie where the main character is a stupid dick who takes 10,000 years to figure out what his powers are, another hundred generations to decide if he even wants them and finishes his story with a flaccid brawl against an equally charmless, empty antagonist. Boring, exhausting, maddening: when a genre film thinks itself above its own genre, you as an audience member start to feel not just disappointed in it but disrespected by it, because you are being spoken to from the position of a work that does not even respect itself.
The Thief of Bagdad is a movie that English parents brought their kids to so they could occupy their families for a couple of hours and not think about how close civilization was coming to being extinguished by the monstrous armies of a delusional tyrant. It was made with sumptuous colors and stirring music and enthralling performances, it was made with craft and love, but it was also made to be uncomplicated and direct. If you didn’t see any other movies that week or that month or that year, if you were living with the possibility that you might never get to see another film again starting tomorrow or the day after or tonight, you wanted that experience to stay with you. If you go into a theater expecting magic, you want it to grip you for as long as it can.
This is simply not a movie that had the time or the inclination to suck or to pander to the lowest and base interests of its potential patrons. It was a movie about the wonders of the world made in a time where reality’s grip was ceaselessly, rapidly shattering all our wonderful things. It was a film that portrayed the beauty and salience of a foreign culture in a time when the civilizations of the earth were attempting to obliterate each other. It was a children’s film made as a distraction, popcorn fodder, entertainment. The stakes could not have been higher.
Respect is something that comes in many forms, and each of those forms cycle into each other and make them stronger. The Thief of Bagdad respects culture, it respects humanity’s attraction to the visual beauty of the world, it respects its own standing as A Bit Of Fun and as such it respects the audience, and the delight it fosters is pure. It is rare for something with such simple intent to leave me feeling so full and enriched; it is a feeling I have not taken from a modern blockbuster — with its endless entreaties to sequels and its slackening of understanding for its own purpose — in such a long time that I was starting to doubt whether the movies could even do something like this anymore.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.