Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

There is, of course, another classic retelling of the story, bearing the same name and starring John Justin as Ahmad, Sabu as, uhh... Abu, Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, and the beautiful June Duprez as the Princess of Basra.

Although the overarching narrative of Ahmad's quest to be with the princess remains the same, there are many differences, which make the tale even more recognizable as a classic Sword & Sorcery.  For one thing, the entire film is positioned within the context of a destiny which is fulfilled by the end of the film: "But a wise man among the sages of Bagdad comforted them with a prophecy, saying 'in the fullness of years, a liberator shall come upon you, and this shall be the sign of him: He shall be the lowest of the low and you shall look for him in the clouds.  For there, one day, in the blue you shall see a boy.  The lowest of the low mounted upon a cloud, but the cloud shall be as strong as the hills beneath the snow.  And from the ranges of the sky he shall destroy this tyrant with the arrow of justice."

Further, there is an evil sorcerer, a "Grand Vizier" by the name of Jaffar who has plotted to usurp Ahmad's throne and steal the princess for himself through the trickery and deceit of his dark craft.  This is played out through several scenes, but none quite so powerful as the moment when Ahmad faces Jaffar just as he attempts to take the Princess from her home in Basra.  Having been chased out of his own city, Ahmad faces Jaffar and says "At last, face-to-face, man-to-man, sword-to-sword.  Give me a sword... Allah will judge."  Right in the face of that moment of heroic courage, Jaffar conjures the treachery of his magic by stealing Ahmad's sight and transforming Abu into a dog.  Incidentally, the decision to curse Ahmad with blindness seems very close to the well-worn associaion between sorcery and invisibility in Sword & Sorcery cinema.

Sorcery is manifest in many ways within the film.  Perhaps Abu's towering Genie is the most famous, but magic objects such as the "All-Seeing Eye" and the "Blue Rose of Forgetfullness" play a critical role as well.  Ultimately, though, these toys of sorcery are overcome by physical the physical acts of Abu's heroism and Ahmad's love.  For example, to obtain the All-Seeing Eye so that he can find Ahmad, Abu must enter the Temple of the Goddess and steal it.  In the process, he finds a sword and must avoid an octopus and slay a spider.  Soon after, Jaffar uses the Blue Rose of Forgetfullness to erase the Princess' memory and take her for his own.  However, her memory returns in the embrace of Ahmad as he bravely fights Jaffar's minions.

Ultimately, the prophecy is fulfilled as Abu takes a magic carpet from the Land of Legend and kills Jaffar with his arrow of justice.  Ahmad and the Princess are saved, Jaffar is killed, Bagdad is liberated, and wedding between Ahmad and the Princess of Basra is celebrated.  A classic style of ending for a Sword & Sorcery film: A tyrant is overthrown and a wedding is celebrated.  In this way, the film holds to the same basic moral lesson as its silent predecessor from 1924: Happiness must be earned.  Ahmad has come out of his ivory tower to suffer, and now enjoys his reward.

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