Thief of Damascus
Cast & Crew
Lon Chaney [jr.]
In 634 AD, ruthless Khalid the Iron Man lays siege to Damascus in an attempt to complete his conquest of Persia. Damascus resists for over two months, angering Khalid's general, Abu Andar, who demands that he be allowed another method of attack. When Khalid refuses, Andar quits, prompting Khalid to reconsider and approve Andar's daring plan. Andar's assault is quick and successful. Inside the palace, Sultan Raudah learns with relief that his top advisor, Ali Baba, has escaped. When Raudah sadly informs his daughter, Princess Zafir, and her companion, Lady Sheherazade, that Damascus is about to fall, they refuse to leave. Sheherazade believes she might be able to convince Andar to make reasonable terms and, along with Zafir, travels to Andar's tent under a flag of truce. Impressed by the women's boldness, Andar agrees to spare the Damascans as long as Khalid is paid the city's gold supply and accepted as undisputed ruler. Upon riding triumphantly into the city with Zafir, Andar is summoned by Khalid, who promptly orders him arrested and the people of Damascus enslaved. Andar escapes and while fleeing Khalid's soliders, steals a sword from the shop of Ben Jammal, with which he holds at bay several attackers. At the palace, Khalid has Raudah sent to the dungeons and declares that Zafir will be made queen the following day. Zafir is locked in her room and when Andar breaks in, she attempts to stab him, believing he has betrayed the sultan. Andar swears he is trying to help but must escape before he can explain further. Fleeing the palace, Andar is befriended by locals Sinbad and Aladdin, who help him steal horses and retreat to the mountains. There, the three are quickly surrounded by the forces of Ali Baba, who takes them to a cave fortress, which opens and closes with the magical phrase "open sesame." Inside the cave fortress, Andar finds a former acquaintance, Neela, who has been bound and gagged as a spy, and has her freed. Andar tells Ali Baba about Khalid's overthrow of Damascus and offers his services. Ali Baba laments that his forces have no arms, but when Andar remarks about the stolen sword from the shop of Ben Jammal, Ali Baba explains that Ben Jammal's family has made the most powerful swords for years using a heavily guarded formula. Andar declares he will return to the city for Ben Jammal's help. The next day, Andar, Neela and his friends ride into Damascus disguised as merchants and meet with Ben Jammal, who agrees to help upon learning of Ali Baba's acceptance of Andar. When Ben Jammal asks about payment for the weapons, Andar assures him that Khalid will help them pay after Andar steals his sizeable plunder. When Ben Jammal advises Andar that Khalid intends to marry Zafir that night, Andar hastens to the palace, rousing Neela's anger. Andar breaks back into the palace by way of the kitchen and disguises himself as a one-eyed waiter to get into the wedding feast. With Sheherazade's help, Andar drugs Khalid to prevent the marriage ceremony from taking place. Andar then spirits Zafir to her room to learn the location of the palace treasure, but when guards start chasing them, Zafir gives Andar her jewelry to pay Ben Jammal. Anxious to protect her father, Zafir stays behind but Andar vows to return and free them. On riding back to the cave fortress, Andar purposely allows two of Khalid's guards to follow, knowing that they will report and Khalid will then send out a regiment. The next morning, when the regiment arrives at the cave, they find it empty, but Ali Baba, on a hill nearby with his men, orders the stone to close forever, sealing the soldiers inside. In Damascas, Khalid discovers Zafir and Sheherazade have helped Andar, and orders them imprisoned with Raudah and executed the next day. After Ben Jammal sends a messenger out to advise Ali Baba and Andar of the executions, they make plans to return to the city in their merchant guises with men and arms hidden inside huge barrels. The following day at the execution, Sinbad stirs the crowds by calling for the death of Khalid, signaling Andar and his men to attack with Ben Jammal's powerful weapons. Neela is killed defending Andar, who is then attacked by Khalid wielding one of the potent swords. The men fight bitterly, but Andar finally triumphs, bringing freedom to the city of Damascus.
Lon Chaney [jr.]
Philip Van Zandt
Ellis W. Carter
Robert E. Kent
Thief of Damascus
Thief of Damascus transports the viewer to another time and place. No, not Arabia in the legendary times of Sinbad and Aladdin, though it does that as well, but rather, to a time when Hollywood was content to fill a tale of Arabian Nights with obviously non-Arabic actors in both the lead and supporting roles. While some of the actors, Paul Henreid for example, have their voices and basic appearances working in their favor, others, like Jeff Donnell (that's Miss Jeff Donnell, by the way) and Helen Gilbert not only appear as clearly American actresses with modern hairstyles, but they also make absolutely no attempt to acknowledge their characters are in a story set in the year 654. To both of their credit, it doesn't seem to matter (Miss Donnell, in particular, is fantastically entertaining with her consistently deadpan, droll delivery).
The story begins as Khalid (John Sutton) attempts again and again to conquer Damascus. He attacks and gets repelled, mostly because his forces are outnumbered by those defending Damascus. His most trusted general, Abu Amdar, suggests a different strategy: Take their already depleted troops and split them, attack from two fronts and give Damascus the impression that they have a much bigger army than they do in the hopes the city will then surrender to save itself from annihilation.
Khalid approves the new plan but warns Amdar not to attempt to take the glory and power for himself and reminds him that Khalid could have him killed anytime he wants. Amdar calls Khalid's bluff, stating correctly that Khalid would rather have Damascus than Amdar dead and heads off for battle.
Inside the walls of Damascus we meet Sinbad (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Aladdin (Robert Clary), friends helping to repel the invaders from the walls of the city. In the palace, we meet Sheherazade (Jeff Donnell) and Princess Zafir (Helen Gilbert) as they consult with Zafir's father, the ruler of the city, about what should be done. Both Sheherazade and Zafir have a plan that revolves around the two of them using their feminine wiles to lure Amdar into an easy surrender for the city, one in which no destruction or sacking will take place. When they go to meet him, it works, and the city is surrendered with no further bloodshed and no destruction.
A beaming Amdar presents the city to his king, confident that Khalid will be thrilled with this turn of events. Instead, Khalid is outraged that the city was not conquered, fearing that without losing brutally in battle, the citizens will always be restless for revolution against their usurpers. He orders Amdar imprisoned and Zafir to be his wife, while her father rots in a dungeon. Amdar escapes his would be captors and flees across the city. In the market, he steels a sword made of Damascus steel and finds that it splits the sword of any man he fights. Shortly after, he meets Sinbad and Aladdin who volunteer their help to get him out of the city.
Once out of the city, he meets up with Ali Baba (Philip Van Zandt) who takes him to his fortress (and, yes, the cave door opens with the words, "Open, Sesame") and agrees to help him fight Khalid. Now, he, Sinbad, and Aladdin have to get back into the city to set everything up. Amdar inquires about the Damascus steel he used but is told no one knows how to make the swords but one smith who will not reveal the secret to anyone. Can Amdar, Sinbad and Aladdin rescue Sheherazade, Zafir and her father and defeat Khalid?
Thief of Damascus suffers from missing elements in its attempt to tell the story but makes up for it with the actors involved and the earnestness of their efforts. Surely, a movie with Aladdin has a magic lamp but here we mainly hear Aladdin talk about a magic lamp without ever using it. Sinbad sails no seas and seems to be a directionless oaf, wandering Damascus, looking for trouble. That Robert Clary and Lon Chaney, Jr. are so charming together goes a long way towards forgiving the shortcomings of their characters as written. They are what would later be called the funny sidekicks in the movie. They have little to do but entertain the audience when the plot needs some more stretching out.
The star, Paul Henreid, is excellent as Amdar and despite being surrounded by plenty of stock footage, gives the viewer the feeling he is involved in his surroundings, whether they're actually there or not. Philip Van Zandt is terrific as Ali Baba and John Sutton makes for a suitably sinister Khalid, uncompromising and unsympathetic. But the real treat of the movie is Jeff Donnell. Born Jean Marie Donnell in 1921, she nicknamed herself "Jeff" after the "Mutt and Jeff" comic strip she so adored. Spending almost her entire career playing the leading lady's friend (and it's no different here), she developed a cynical, carefree delivery that works comically well in Thief of Damascus. Her cadence, accent and delivery is so anachronistic it quickly becomes the most endearing thing in the movie. And her one liners are the highlight of every scene (sample: When Zafir gets a sheer negligee gift from Khalid, Sheherazade remarks, "I wear more than that when I take a bath.").
Thief of Damascus may not top anyone's list of the best Arabian Nights movies ever made and it certainly didn't have the budget for much outside of reused sets and stock footage. But its cast is so delightful they prove once again that the right crew of talents can make anything work. And Paul Henreid and Jeff Donnell take top honors for working magic without benefit of a magic lamp. No small feat.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Will Jason
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Music: John Leipold
Film Editor: William Lyon
Art Director: Paul Palmentola
Cast: Paul Henreid (Abu Amdar), John Sutton (Khalid), Jeff Donnell (Sheherazade), Lon Chaney Jr. (Sinbad), Elena Verdugo (Neela), Helen Gilbert (Princess Zafir), Robert Clary (Aladdin), Edward Colmans (Sultan Raudah), Nelson Leigh (Ben Jammal), Philip Van Zandt (Ali Baba).
By Greg Ferrara
Thief of Damascus
For more information about the characters "Aladdin," "Sinbad" and others featured in the book The Arabian Nights' Entertainment, translated by Antoine Galland (Paris, 1704), please see the entry for the 1942 Universal production Arabian Nights in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.