The Thief of Bagdad
Legendary producer Alexander Korda’s marvel The Thief of Bagdad, inspired by The Arabian Nights, is one of the most spectacular fantasy films ever made, an eye-popping effects pioneer brimming with imagination and technical wizardry. When Prince Ahmad (John Justin) is blinded and cast out of Bagdad by the nefarious Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), he joins forces with the scrappy thief Abu (the incomparable Sabu, in his definitive role) to win back his royal place, as well as the heart of a beautiful princess (June Duprez). With its luscious Technicolor, vivid sets, and unprecedented visual wonders, The Thief of Bagdad has charmed viewers of all ages for decades.
Criterion presents The Thief of Bagdad in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on the first dual-layered disc of this 2-disc set. The image has thankfully not been pictureboxed.
It’s an undeniably gorgeous transfer, one of the better Technicolor transfers I’ve seen. I have actually not seen the MGM DVD so I can’t make comparisons, but it’s hard to imagine that transfer could have been much better than this. At the print level, it has some flaws, though very few. There’s the occasional mark or bit of debris, and it appears there are a few frames missing, but otherwise it looks good.
Colours are very strong and nicely saturated. I’m used to Technicolor transfers, no matter how good, looking a little too bright, bleeding in places, specifically with reds, but that’s not the case here. The colours, even the reds, look absolutely fantastic.
Sharpness and detail is quite incredible, completely exceeding my expectations. Close-ups look very good and long shots for the most part are pretty sharp. I guess the unfortunate thing from this stellar transfer is that the flaws within the film’s effects (though still with their charm) are much more noticeable. Still, a very nice looking image.
The Thief of Bagdad gets a remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track and it more than helps the film. The track volume is very good, range is excellent, music sounds strong, dialogue is clean, and the track overall sounds almost new. Quite impressive considering the age of the film.
This two-disc edition of The Thief of Bagdad offers an interesting if somewhat underwhelming collection of supplements, though because of the film’s age and the film being passed around through the years (with most records of the production being lost or destroyed) I can’t say I’m shocked and still appreciate Criterion’s effort.
On the first disc we get two audio commentaries, one with directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and then a second one with scholar Bruce Eder.
I have to express some disappointment with the first track, featuring Coppola and Scorsese. First off the two have been recorded separately with the recordings edited together. I think overall I would have preferred a lone track with Scorsese as he has most of the track’s running time and offers more information than Coppola, whose offerings are more along the lines of nostalgic whereas Scorsese gets more technical. Both share their memories of first seeing the film, how they first saw it and eventually how it influenced them. Scorsese talks a lot about the techniques used in the film, whether having to do with filming or the effects, and he even points out sequences that he knows or at least believes were shot by Michael Powell. The film had many directors during its shoot but during the track only Powell gets most of the mention (as does the film’s producer, Alexander Korda.) It’s an okay track but I probably had unreal expectations for it.
Much better, though, is the second track provided by Criterion regular Bruce Eder. I’m not sure how others feel about his tracks but I’ve loved every track this guy has ever done (the tracks that I’ve heard at any rate) and this track is no different. As per usual, Eder has put together an extensive list of notes, and while it’s obvious that he is more than likely reading from them, he always keeps it interesting and never stops unless he is directing your attention to a sequence within the film. He first begins by stating that while Criterion’s supplements usually devote their attention to the film’s director that won’t be the case here, instead most of the attention going to Korda. And this commentary really gets into his history. While not only discussing Korda’s vision for the film (trying to make up for the advent of sound by going “bigger”) and the history of getting this production together and filming it through all sorts of troubles, Eder covers Korda’s personal history quite extensively. He also, as usual, gives fairly decent mini-bios for most of the cast and crew members, including the many directors who paraded through. He also tries to point out which director shot what scene (when he can) and touch on deleted scenes, make comparisons with the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, as well as get into the issues of the two year hiatus of the film’s shoot and how they dealt with the Sabu’s growth. Very informative, very entertaining and I recommend that if you only pick one commentary to listen to go with this one.
Closing off the first disc is the film’s epic-like trailer, which is in decent shape. It is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The second dual-layered disc contains the remaining supplements.
A section called “Visual Effects” presents a couple of features. The 30-minute documentary for the Visual Effects gathers together “special effects masters” Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron. This is an excellent interview with the three, who go into how the film influenced them and also give an in-depth analysis on how the effects were created for the film (with some simple examples and stills showing the effects being created, or giving a visual as to how they were done.) They cover everything, from the blue-screen techniques, to the small models, matte paintings (also with great examples), giant models, and even the basic camera tricks. Quite fascinating.
Along with the documentary you also get a “Blue Screen Demo”. This just over 2-minute bit explains how the effects for the flying horse sequence were created. Because of the technology at the time it was an incredibly complex process, the Technicolor process not making it easier. And it’s amazing that, even though computers make it so much easier today, the general idea behind this type of effect hasn’t really changed more than 60-years later.
Next you’ll find over an hour’s worth of audio recordings Michael Powell made for his autobiography. This has a very static presentation, the audio playing over a chapter menu, the recording have 11 chapters. The audio is in very rough shape, quiet and scratchy with some obvious deterioration. At times it was hard to hear. In these recordings Powell goes over his involvement with the project, discussing how he came on board, meeting and working with Sabu, shooting the Genie scene and then getting into World War II and the eventual break the production took, which leads to his work on the film The Lions Have Wings. There’s a lot of info on here, but I think my favourite bits were where Powell talks about one of the film’s other directors, Ludwig Berger, whom he obviously didn’t care too much for (by the sounds of it, if Berger had remained the sole director the film could have been an unbelievably dull piece.) It was hard to listen to on occasion because of the overall audio quality, but still worth going through.
Next on the list is an audio interview with Miklos Rozsa. This roughly 30-minute edited interview has features Rosza discussing his career from his early childhood when he first discovered music to hiding from his father the fact he was taking music in school to his work on film scores, including the score for The Thief of Bagdad. Overall it’s a decent interview recording, but not as interesting as Powell’s. Not a supplement I would consider a must-listen. Like the Powell interview it’s an audio presentation over the chapter selection menu, with 6 chapter stops.
A stills gallery presents a decent collection of images. The first gallery, called “Production and Publicity Stills” presents quite a few (mostly) black-and-white photos presenting shots from the set, as well as publicity photos from the film. There’s some effects shots including the giant foot and Sabu hanging from the giant ear. There’s some colour scouting shots from the Grand Canyon, as well as photos from deleted sequences. It then closes with lobby cards and posters from around the world.
The next gallery is a small gallery called “Dufaycolor Stills”, which is described as a colour process close to Techcolor’s but cheaper. At any rate, these few photos come from Powell’s collection. They’re shots taken during the shoot and have faded over the years. Still, an interesting section to look through.
Closing off the disc supplements is probably this releases most interesting piece, the entire 75-minute propaganda film shot during The Thief of Bagdad’s hiatus The Lions Have Wings. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and has, oddly, been pictureboxed. At any rate, the picture quality is surprisingly decent if not great, though its problems can more than likely be attributed to the fact the source material looks to be made up of newsreel footage.
I try not to comment on the actual film contained on the DVDs I’m reviewing but since this is technically a supplement I’ll just give the idea of what you are in for if you decide to look at this one. I can’t say the film is really all that good, though not terrible, and that may have a lot to do with the fact I’m not a huge fan of propaganda films no matter what side they’re championing. There are the interesting ones but they are, for me, few and far between. Running at 75-minutes the first half hour is made up of newsreel/documentary footage going over how England was pulled into the war, how absolutely wonderful England is (even the teachers are incredible) and how England is ready for anything. It does get into some interesting elements, such as how this war will be the first to be primarily fought by air, the RAF being the focus for this film. After this long intro we get into the “story” still mixed in with newsreel footage and recreations. The film was rushed (only took barely two months to shoot) and it shows at times, but I will say that the direction (Powell contributing a bit, along with Brian Desmond Hurst) is surprisingly decent. Can’t say the same about the acting, though (not even from Ralph Richardson.) With the constant narration and the fact it plays more like a documentary (but isn’t) made this feel less like a film and more of a product, just like almost all propaganda films.
But that’s not to say it’s not interesting. It’s a product of its time and for the haste at which it was made, and considering why it was made, it still makes for a somewhat fascinating viewing. I doubt very much I’ll ever watch it again, but when compared with The Thief of Bagdad and how this film was made in between that film, it shows Korda’s ability to switch gears and is also a further look at his filmography. One thing I would have appreciated would have been a commentary by Ian Christie, who provides a wonderful essay on this film in the accompanying booklet. I think it’s worth looking at more in terms of film history and Korda’s career (even Powell’s early career) but I can’t say one should expect a “good” film.
Closing off the set is the 20-page booklet containing two essays. The first one, by Andrew Moor, goes over the film, touching on the original “Arabian Nights” tales, the original silent film, and then offering an analysis of the film itself along with some production notes. The second essay (which I actually found more interesting) is an essay by Ian Christie on the second film on the set, The Lion Has Wings, going over details of its brief shoot and how Korda got the financing for it. Despite the fact that I may not have cared for the film, I actually enjoyed this essay quite a bit.
This finishes the supplements. In all a solid collection but Criterion was limited because production materials have been lost over the years. Other things could have probably been added, like more information on the "Arabian Nights" or maybe even more clips from the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad but I'm sure rights issues would have prevented that (Kino released a decent DVD for the film.) In all, though, I found most of the supplements were worth my time, but I did feel a little disappointed with the Coppola/Scorsese commentary.
This is a lovely release for the film, presenting a strong transfer and some decent bonus materials that were for the most part quite fascinating, even going out of their way to include another Korda film. Strong release and highly recommended.