2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
It was so crazy that it had to work. In 1924, Douglas Fairbanks could never have imagined that his exorbitantly budgeted passion project would one day be improved by a surfer D.J., some sound effects and the music of an electronic classical/rock fusion band. In fact, trying to explain any one of those elements to a pre-talkie film star would be like playing Jimi Hendrix at a 1950’s sock hop. Combined with the comically broad acting of the silent era, a primordial stew of special effects and a little innocuous racial stereotyping, Shadoe Stevens’ re-imagining of “The Thief of Bagdad” is an instant dorm room classic.
If you’re among those who know what people really smoke out of a “water pipe,” you are probably also familiar with the uncanny appropriateness of playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” over a muted “Wizard of Oz.” Like many people of my generation who had a fridge full of beer and too much time on our hands, my college roommate and I loved to test this concept with other combinations. (For the record, the best results were The Beastie Boys with the “Scooby Doo” cartoon and Muse with “Mothra.”) Legendary radio D.J., Shadoe Stevens has taken this party trick one step further with “The Thief of Bagdad,” a film that is very close to his heart. In the 1970s, he set out on a thirty-year mission to find a soundtrack that “would do justice to the astonishing visuals” of this technically groundbreaking film. He finally found a perfect fit in the experimental strains of the Electric Light Orchestra. This unexpectedly harmonious marriage of sound and picture astonished even E.L.O.s Jeff Lynne who gave the project his seal of approval.
With an introduction by a pepper-bearded Orson Welles, “Thief” is trippy right out of the gate. Welles sits in near-profile in front of a red backdrop. He praises the film’s art direction and Douglas Fairbank’s performance, addressing the audience with the unnerving casualness of a drunken uncle. And with that, we’re transported to a 1920s Hollywood interpretation of a lively Arab berg.
Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular thief, a man with fuzzy morals who spends his days parkouring all over the city and stealing everything that he can get his hands on. He and his flamboyant accomplice plot to rob the palace, just as the princess begins accepting suitor applications. The thief seizes this opportunity to gain access to the palace, assuming the airtight identity of “Prince Ahmed, Prince of the Isles, of the Seas and of the Seven Palaces.” Meanwhile, an evil Mongolian (is there any other kind?) prince plots to conquer the city. The story only gets more convoluted from there, introducing tons of giant monsters, magical objects within magical objects and a quest to find the finest jewel in order to win the princess’ hand in marriage.
Until now, the only silent films I’d seen were the broad comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. So I was quite taken aback to discover that their performances weren’t considered broad. That was just acting. Actors had to convey everything with just a few lines per scene. Lines that no one even heard them say. It was perfectly natural to express hunger by circling a hand in front of your tummy or to scratch your palms to indicate a desire to steal something. How could one identify the bad guy if they didn’t slink around and literally shift their eyes? As the princess, Julianne Johnston is a master of hand-to-forehead acting.
The facts surrounding the production of “The Thief of Bagdad” are almost as remarkable as the film itself. Douglas Fairbanks was the world’s first movie star, known for swashbuckling roles in films like “The Three Musketeers” and “Robin Hood.” For him, “Thief” was a dream realized. He starred, produced, co-wrote and financed the film. He also did his own stunts, including riding free-style on a “magic carpet” constructed of sheet metal, cables and cranes.
Speaking of scenery, you can see every penny of the (then exorbitant) $2 million budget on screen. There are lavish palaces and halls, bustling bazaars populated by hundreds of extras and giant beasts galore (my favorite is a killer chimpanzee in a diaper). They must have spent thousands on large, empty clay pots as the streets are littered with them. Characters hide in them constantly. They figure heavily into elaborate chase scenes. The Thief’s cohort even carries around a clay pot disguise to remain unassuming whilst standing guard. In movie Bagdad, there is nothing more commonplace than a large clay pot.
One of the most lavish expenses is also one of the film’s funniest moments. They follow up a threat to boil someone in oil with a shot of an immense, extravagantly adorned chalice. A man stands on a ladder next to the chalice, stirring the boiling oil. He pauses to wave and gesture to the oil, thus corroborating the threat. There’s at least a couple hundred dollars right there. In an age in which films are often guilty of telling more than showing, it’s weird to think that the pioneers of the medium had the opposite problem.
Stevens recently showed the film to an audience at the Seattle International Film Festival. He is shopping the film around to garner interest for the project before he finalizes it with a full film restoration and colorization. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to be stoned to enjoy this one. Of course, it couldn’t hurt…
Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).