This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
To begin with a story: Our grandson Taylor was deeply immersed in a video game on his laptop. I began to watch "The Thief of Bagdad" on DVD. At first he ignored it. Then I saw him glancing at the screen. Then he closed the laptop and watched full time. During the spider sequence, only his eyes were visible above the neck of his T-shirt. "That was a good movie!" he told me. "What did Taylor say when he found out it was almost 70 years old?" his mother, Sonia, asked me. "I didn't tell him," I said.
This 1940 movie is one of the great entertainments. It lifts up the heart. An early Technicolor movie, it employs colors gladly and with boldness, using costumes to introduce a rainbow. It has adventure, romance, song, a Miklos Rozsa score that one critic said is "a symphony accompanied by a movie." It had several directors; as producer, Alexander Korda leaped from one horse to another in midstream. But it maintains a consistent spirit, and that spirit is one of headlong joy in storytelling.
The story is loosely borrowed from Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), itself a great film. Fairbanks Jr. told me it was his father's favorite. One major change is crucial: In the silent film, the thief and the romantic lead were one and the same, played by Fairbanks. In the 1940 film, they are made into two characters. The thief, Abu, is played by the Indian child star Sabu, then about 15. The king, Ahmad, is played by John Justin with a Fairbanksian mustache. This is an invaluable change, for both dramatic purposes and practical ones: The silent character needs no one to talk to. The 1940 characters become allies drawn from the top and bottom of society, making Sabu essentially the star of the film, although he doesn't receive top billing. The most compelling character, as he should be, is the villain Jaffar, played by the German emigre Conrad Veidt with hypnotic eyes and a cruel laugh. The beautiful, passive heroine, a princess desired by both men, is played by June Duprez.
The story in my mind moves from one spectacular special-effects sequence to another: the Sultan's mechanical toy collection. The flying horse. The storm at sea. The goddess with six arms. The towering genie released from a bottle. Abu's assault on the temple that contains the All-Seeing Eye. His climb up a mountainous statue. The battle with the gigantic spider. The flying carpet.