The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

thief of bagdad poster 1940 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 7/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 10/10

Fun adventure, innovative visuals for the time

Odd story structure, weird battle for the starring role

Movie Info

Movie Name: The Thief of Bagdad

Studio: Alexander Korda Films

Genre(s): Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Family

Release Date(s):  October 14, 1940 (Premiere)/December 25, 1940 (US)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

thief of bagdad john justin june duprez

Our eternal and boring love has so many obstacles

A blind man (John Justin) and his intelligent dog tell a harem of their story.  Prince Ahmad was betrayed by his vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) and blinded by him when he fell in love with a Princess (June Duprez).  Ahmad’s faithful friend Abu (Sabu) was transformed into a dog, and now the two seek out the princess who disappeared.  When Ahmad learns the Princess is in the city, he is reunited with her…but the reunion isn’t long as Jaffar takes the Princess as his own while restoring Ahmad’s sight and Abu’s human form.  When Abu discovers a djinn (Rex Ingram), Abu learns that three wishes could be his and that the wishes could change the tide of his fortune and Ahmad.

Directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan (with an uncredited Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, and William Cameron Meniez), The Thief of Bagdad is a fantasy adventure film.  A loose adaptation of The Thief of Bagdad from 1924, the film in turn takes inspiration from 1001 Arabian Nights.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography—Color, Best Art Direction—Color, and Best Effects/Special Effects with a nomination for Best Original Score.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #431).

Movies like The Thief of Bagdad feel like they were on Saturdays and Sundays a lot growing up.  You’d watch a bit of them and see another part of them the next time they were on.  While the story is a bit off, there is nothing bad that can be said of the film’s innovation.

thief of bagdad djinn abu sabu rex ingram

Hey kid, want to hijack this movie from the boring white couple?

The story starts out with a flashback being told by Ahmad on how he became blind and how his friend Abu became a dog (a bit of a play on the Arabian Nights aspect of the story).  This turns into Ahmad getting his sight back and Abu regaining his human form…which leads to a whole separate adventure by Abu (who is the title thief) and a djinn.  It is the Genie and Abu’s adventure that is largely remembered, but Sabu’s character is largely treated as a minority sidekick who kowtows to Ahmad in shared scenes.  It is a strange fight for the film’s lead.

Sabu was an interesting actor.  He had wide appeal and was a hot star at the time, but the studio cast rather dull (and extremely white) leads John Justin and June Duprez in this Middle Eastern story.  Justin and Duprez give their best, but it would have been interesting to see a more realistically interpreted cast (of course this has been a problems for decades and decades after this film).  While Justin and Duprez are kind of bland, Sabu and African-American actor Rex Ingram are fun and feel like the “secret” leads to the movie…they probably just couldn’t be advertised as such.

thief of bagdad worshippers

Ok…these things are kind of creepy

The film’s visuals are very innovative.  It was the first film to use blue screen, but it also used multiple other visual techniques.  While the techniques are dated, you have to admire them and how well they used them to build tension and scenes.  If nothing else The Thief of Bagdad is a great visual “historic” movie.

The Thief of Bagdad is a fun ride and was influential on movies for years after its release (you can especially see aspects of Disney’s Aladdin in it).  It would definitely be considered whitewashing by today’s standards (even Sabu and Rex Ingram aren’t technically the right nationalities for the characters), but it did try to be a bit more diverse which is more than can be said for many movies of the time…especially considering neither Sabu or Rex Ingram are really servant characters which would be the typical role for a minority at this time.  The Thief of Bagdad remains a class act and just needs to be taken in the context of when it was released to understand how innovative on many fronts it was.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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