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One of the great fantasy films, The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is also included on that short list of movies which had long, complicated production histories of false starts, script rewrites, and multiple directors (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan), yet managed to emerge as a special entity, effortlessly carrying off a unique single vision. In this case, that vision belonged to London-based Hungarian producer/ director Alexander Korda. By the late 1930s Korda had amassed an impressive crew of artists and craftsmen around him at London Films' Denham Studios, and much like his American counterpart David O. Selznick had with his production of Gone With the Wind (1939), Korda sought out a property to showcase the talent under his wing.
Inspired by the success of his personal discovery - Indian actor Sabu - in his films Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), Korda hit upon the idea of casting the energetic youth in an Arabian Nights fantasy. In 1924, Douglas Fairbanks had scored one of his biggest hits as The Thief of Bagdad. The title, which Fairbanks owned, was irresistible, so when Korda found himself seated near Fairbanks at a banquet at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1938, he asked if he could buy the rights to the title. A new story, also drawing from the Thousand-and-One-Nights tales, would be fashioned around it.
The elegant final screenplay for The Thief of Bagdad was by actor/ writer Miles Malleson, (who also took a major role in the film, playing the befuddled Sultan of Basra). We are introduced to Abu (Sabu), a thief amongst the many merchants in the marketplace of Bagdad. The city's ruler, the good-hearted Prince Ahmad (John Justin), is undermined and overthrown by the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Abu and Ahmad escape their prison and flee to Basra, where the Prince falls in love with the Sultan's beautiful daughter (June Duprez). Unfortunately, Jaffar has his own designs on the Princess and bargains with the toy-obsessed Sultan (Malleson) for her hand. Jaffar eliminates his competition by blinding Ahmed and transforming Abu into a dog. The two are returned to human form only when Jaffar embraces the Princess, now under his control. Ahmad and Abu, as well as the viewer, take in many more wonders on the way to vanquishing the Vizier and rescuing the Princess; Korda's team conjures such visual treats as a magic flying carpet, a deadly six-armed dervish, a full-size mechanical horse, a stolen all-seeing ruby eye, and most spectacularly, the bombastic Genie of the Lamp (Rex Ingram), who grants three wishes of Abu.
Sabu was a stable boy for the Maharaja of Mysore when he was discovered by Korda and cast in The Elephant Boy at the age of 13. The success of that film, co-directed by Zoltan Korda and the great documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, led to several more starring roles in Korda productions: The Drum, again directed by Zoltan Korda; The Thief of Bagdad; and perhaps his most famous role, that of Mowgli in the Korda brothers' adaptation of Kipling's Jungle Book (1942). (Sabu appeared in several low-budget Hollywood films before his death in 1963, though along the way he worked again with director Michael Powell in the Powell-Pressburger classic Black Narcissus, 1947).
Korda had only one choice in mind for the villainous Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad: Conrad Veidt. As Michael Powell was later to write, Veidt was "a legendary figure. For us, he was the great German Cinema...he was invention, control, imagination, irony and elegance."
To oversee his original conception of The Thief of Bagdad, Korda brought in German theater director Dr. Ludwig Berger. Berger envisioned a lyrical, black-and-white fantasy film. Korda saw the sketches his brother Vincent was creating and determined instead to film the picture in Technicolor. In his autobiography, A Life in Movies, director Michael Powell writes, "Alex was not going to sit in his office and let Dr. Berger make a stylishly directed, modestly black and white, decorated film. As his mind cleared and crystallized under the influence of Vincent's magnificent designs, he realized that what he wanted was a great, big colourful extravaganza..." Korda brought Powell in on the pretense of having him shoot footage of Sabu with the Genie's bottle, in order to have something to show to the film's backers. The actual assignment, though, was to take over the picture. Powell wrote that Korda told him, "'...there are a thousand decisions for which I need Dr. Berger here with me. Now, I would like you, Micky, to take Sabu and a film unit down to Cornwall and start making the film there.' This was the only briefing that I ever received from Alex Korda about the making of The Thief of Bagdad. I consider it the greatest compliment ever paid me."
Aside from Michael Powell, Korda enlisted several others for design, directing, and supervising on The Thief of Bagdad. The third credited director was Tim Whelan, who "was particularly good at action comedy scenes," according to Powell. Exerting additional influence (as well as directing chores) were associate producers Zoltan Korda and the wonderful production and effects designer William Cameron Menzies, fresh from his design work on Selznick's Gone With the Wind. As a young man, Menzies had also served as Art Director on the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad.
Before The Thief of Bagdad could be completed, war was declared between Germany and England, on September 3rd, 1939. Korda had made a promise to Churchill himself to turn his London Films resources over to wartime propaganda as soon as a state of war existed. Powell and others at Denham were taken off the Arabian Nights fantasy and assigned to quickly produce a documentary about the R.A.F., The Lion Has Wings (1939). Production on The Thief of Bagdad shifted to America and, since Korda was unable to shoot planned scenes in Africa, to locations in the Grand Canyon. American distributor United Artists put up additional funds to complete the picture. Miklos Rozsa wrote the Oscar®&-nominated score for the film; he had been also surreptitiously brought on by Korda behind the back of Berger's original choice, Oscar Straus.
Released in December, 1940, The Thief of Bagdad won Oscars for special effects, color cinematography, and art direction, as well as a nomination for Rozsa's score. The film also won near-universal praise from the critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times echoed the general sentiment when he called it a "beguiling and wondrous film" and wrote that "the least one can do is recommend it as a cinematic delight, and thank Mr. Korda for reaching boldly into a happy world." Coming as it did just at the outbreak of World War II, The Thief of Bagdad eventually came to represent for many a cinematic last gasp of Old World innocence, magic, and adventure, forever lost during the horrors of war.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Associate Producer: Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies
Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Lajos Biro
Cinematography: George Perinal
Film Editing: Charles Crichton
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Costume Design: John Armstrong, Oliver Messel, Marcel Vertes
Special Effects: Lawrence Butler
Cast: Conrad Veidt (Jaffar), Sabu (Abu), June Duprez (Princess), John Justin (Ahmad), Rex Ingram (Genie), Miles Malleson (Sultan of Basra), Morton Selten (Old King), Mary Morris (Halima), Allan Jeayes (Narrator).
by John M. Miller