The Thief of Bagdad (1940 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Thief of Bagdad
Thief Of Bagdad (1940).jpg
Directed byMichael Powell
Ludwig Berger
Tim Whelan
Alexander Korda
Zoltan Korda
William Cameron Menzies
Written byLajos Bíró
Miles Malleson
Produced byAlexander Korda
StarringConrad Veidt
John Justin
June Duprez
Rex Ingram
Mary Morris
CinematographyGeorge Perinal
Edited byCharles Crichton
Music byMiklós Rózsa
Color processTechnicolor
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • 5 December 1940 (1940-12-05) (US)
  • 25 December 1940 (1940-12-25) (UK)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box officeover $1 million (US/Canada)[1]
5,134,653 admissions (France, 1946)[2]

The Thief of Bagdad is a 1940 British Technicolor historical fantasy film, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan, with additional contributions by William Cameron Menzies and Korda brothers Vincent and Zoltán. The film stars child actor Sabu, Conrad Veidt, John Justin, and June Duprez. It was released in the US and the UK by United Artists.

Although produced by Alexander Korda's company London Films in London, the film was completed in California due to the outbreak of World War II.

Georges Périnal, credited as George Perinal, won the Academy Award for Cinematography, Vincent Korda for Art Direction, and Lawrence W. Butler and Jack Whitney for Special Effects[3] (marking the first use of the "manual bluescreen technique"[4]). Miklós Rózsa was also nominated for Original Music Score, a first for a British film at the Academy Awards.[5]

Although this production is a remake of the 1924 version, the two films have differences: the most significant is that the thief and the prince are separate characters in the 1940 version. The screenplay is by Lajos Biro and Miles Malleson, who also appears in the film as the Princess's father, the Sultan of Basra.


In ancient Basra, a blind, young beggar begins telling the film's story in flashback (mimicking the style of the Arabian Nights), revealing that he is really Ahmad, the young, naive Sultan of Bagdad. Wanting to know more about his people, Ahmad is tricked by Jaffar, his evil Grand Vizier, into going in disguise into the city. Jaffar then has him arrested and seizes the throne. In prison, Ahmad meets the young thief Abu, who arranges their escape. They flee to Basra, where Ahmad meets and falls in love with the Princess. Jaffar, however, also journeys to Basra, intent on having the Princess for himself.

The Princess is promised in marriage to Jaffar by her father, the toy-obsessed Sultan of Basra, in exchange for a mechanical flying horse. The Princess, now in love with Ahmad, runs away, but Jaffar blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog. The Princess is captured for the slave market and is bought by Jaffar's agent. At the palace, though, she falls into a deep sleep and cannot be awakened. Halima, Jaffar's minion, tricks Ahmad into awakening the Princess. He is then dismissed with the dog to the city's docks, where he concludes his story.

The Princess, tricked into boarding a ship, where she is met by Jaffar, who tells her that she can cure Ahmad's blindness only by allowing Jaffar to embrace her. She submits, and the spells are lifted from both Ahmad and Abu. Jaffar prevents the two from following him by raising a storm that shipwrecks them. Returning to Basra, Jaffar uses a mechanical dancer to kill the Princess's father, then goes back to Bagdad with the Princess.

Abu awakes alone on a deserted beach, where he finds a bottle and opens it, releasing an enormous genie intent on killing the boy. Abu, though, tricks the genie into submitting to him and granting him three wishes. The first wish is wasted, but the genie helps Abu to steal a magical jewel that enables him to find Ahmad. With his second wish, Abu is reunited with Ahmad. With the jewel, Ahmad sees Jaffar using his magic to make the Princess forget her true love. Despondent, Ahmad quarrels with Abu, who inadvertently uses his third wish to send Ahmad back to Bagdad, alone.

In Bagdad, Ahmad is reunited with the Princess, who remembers him. They are imprisoned by Jaffar and condemned to death. Abu helplessly witnesses all this with the jewel's aid. In anger, he destroys the jewel, which results in his freeing the "Old King" of the "Land of Legend." Abu is given a magic crossbow as a reward, but he also steals the king's magic carpet and flies on it to Bagdad. Abu's appearance sparks a revolt against Jaffar by the city's inhabitants, and Abu kills the fleeing Jaffar with the crossbow. With Ahmad restored to power and reunited with the Princess, Abu avoids the sultan's plans for his future by hopping back on the carpet and flying off in search of fun and adventure.


Duprez's character is unnamed; she is simply referred to as "The Princess", and addressed as "Princess", "my dear", etc.

Korda had intended to cast Vivien Leigh as the Princess, but she went to Hollywood to be with Laurence Olivier.[6]


Producer Alexander Korda, after a search for a director, chose German filmmaker Ludwig Berger in early 1939, but by the early summer became dissatisfied with Berger's overall conception of the movie—which was too small-scale and intimate—and, specifically, the score that Berger proposed to use. Essentially behind Berger's back, British director Michael Powell was brought in to shoot various scenes—and Powell's scheduled work grew in amount and importance whilst, in the meantime, Korda himself did his best to undercut Berger on his own set; and while publicly siding with Berger on the issue of the music, he also undercut Berger's chosen composer (Oscar Straus) by bringing in Miklos Rozsa and putting him into an office directly adjacent to Berger's with a piano, to work on a score. Eventually, Berger was persuaded to walk away from the project, and American filmmaker Tim Whelan, who had just finished work on another Korda-produced movie (Q Planes) was brought in to help augment Powell's work. However, work was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, for Powell was taken off the picture and put to work on a morale-boosting documentary, The Lion Has Wings.

By the end of the year, Korda found himself running out of money and credit, and in the spring of 1940 he arranged to move the entire production to Hollywood (where some shots of the movie's young star Sabu had to be redone, for he had grown more than 3 inches (76 mm) during the year since shooting had commenced). Powell had remained in England, and so direction was taken up in Hollywood by Menzies and Zoltan Korda during the summer of 1940—including shots of the heroes in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon[7]: 287  and the Painted Desert; the scenes in the Temple of the Goddess of Light, among the last to be written, were done late in the summer, and the film was being edited and re-structured into the fall of 1940.[citation needed]

At some point during production, the film was being written as a musical. The finished film has 3 songs, but others were written, with recordings of some surviving, including one verse of Rex Ingram singing a song written for the genie.


Lobby card showing the Princess and Ahmad imprisoned and awaiting their execution

The film was Korda's most successful in the US.[1] The film was also a success in Europe, selling 5,135,145 tickets in France and becoming the seventh most attended film of the year.[8]

The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther enthused that the film "ranks next to Fantasia as the most beguiling and wondrous film of this troubled season". Crowther praised "its truly magnificent color" and the performances of all five main actors.[9]

Roger Ebert added The Thief of Bagdad to his "Great Movies" list, calling it "on a level with The Wizard of Oz". According to Ebert, "it maintains a consistent spirit, and that spirit is one of headlong joy in storytelling". He praised the performances of Sabu and Veidt ("perfectly pitched to the needs of the screenplay"), though he was less impressed with the chemistry between Duprez and Justin ("rather bloodless").[10]

While its 1924 predecessor holds a 96% "fresh" rating from the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the 1940 Thief of Bagdad has a 100% rating based on 29 reviews, with an average score of 8.70/10. Its consensus states, "Dashing, dazzling, and altogether magical, The Thief of Bagdad is an enchanting fantasy for children of all ages".[11]


Although it was a remake of a 1924 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks, this film has been highly influential on later movies based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights setting. For example, the Disney film Aladdin borrows freely from it, particularly the characters of the evil Vizier and the Sultan, both drawn with a marked similarity to the characters in The Thief of Bagdad. The villain Jafar is named after Jaffar, himself named after the historical (but not evil) vizier Ja'far ibn Yahya, who served Harun ar-Rashid.[12] Like the sultan of the earlier film, Disney's Sultan is obsessed with toys. The thieving monkey Abu in the Disney cartoon is based on the boy played by Sabu.[13] Richard Williams, speaking about his film The Thief and the Cobbler, said that one of his interests was in creating an Oriental fantasy that did not copy from it. The Prince of Persia video game franchise also shares similar characteristics with the film.[14]

Larry Butler invented the first proper chroma key process for the special effects scenes in this film, a variation on the existing "traveling matte" process. This technique has since become the standard process for separating screen elements and/or actors from their backgrounds and placing them on new backgrounds for special effects purposes, and has since been used in thousands of films.

This film later influenced the creation of the Malay film Abu Hassan Penchuri ("Abu Hassan the Thief", 1955) which was based in Baghdad.

A number of Indian Hindi-language films, were made under the titles of: Baghdad Ka Chor (The Thief of Baghdad) in 1934, 1946, 1955; Baghdad Gaja Donga (Thief of Baghdad) in 1968; and Thief of Baghdad in 1969 and 1977.[15] Baghdad Thirudan, a 1960 Indian Tamil-language film by T. P. Sundaram, was directly remade from the 1924 version. A television series, Thief of Baghdad, was also made in India, airing on Zee TV between 2000 and 2001.

Home media[edit]

The film was released on VHS by The Samuel Goldwyn Company. The film was released on DVD by MGM in 2002. The Criterion Collection released a two-disc DVD release in 2008 that includes a commentary track by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who are both longtime fans of the film (their comments were recorded separately and then edited together).

It has been released on Region B-locked Blu-rays in Germany (Anolis Entertainment, 2012) and the UK (Network Distributing, 2015).[16] The UK disc also includes image galleries and the original theatrical trailer. The German disc features the same extras, plus additional trailers, an audio commentary and a 53-minute documentary on the film's star, Sabu.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Balio, Tino (2009). United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-23004-3. p172
  2. ^ French box office of 1946 at Box Office Story
  3. ^ "The 13th Academy Awards (1941) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
  4. ^ Mark Fischetti (1 February 2008). "Working Knowledge: Blue Screens—Leap of Faith". Scientific American.
  5. ^ "NY Times: The Thief of Bagdad". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2012. Archived from the original on 17 October 2012. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  6. ^ Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies
  7. ^ D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 9781423605874.
  8. ^ "The Thief of Bagdad (1940)". JPBox-Office. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  9. ^ Bosley Crowther (6 December 1940). "'The Thief of Bagdad,' a Delightful Fairy Tale, at the Music Hall". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  10. ^ Roger Ebert (6 May 2009). "Thief of Bagdad (1940)". Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  11. ^ "The Thief of Bagdad (1940)". Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  12. ^ Rovin, Jeff (1987). The Encyclopedia of Supervillains. New York: Facts on File. pp. 168–169. ISBN 0-8160-1356-X.
  13. ^ An episode from Aladdin: The Series also uses the Rose of Forgetfulness in the episode "Forget me Lots". Foster on Film – Fantasy: The Thief of Bagdad
  14. ^ Jordan Mechner mentions that the Prince of Persia was "inspired by the Thousand and One Nights and by movies like the 1940 Thief of Bagdad in which an evil grand vizier has seized power and imprisoned the princess." How Prince of Persia Defeated Apple II's Memory Limitations; War Stories; Ars Technica. 17 March 2020.
  15. ^ Rajadhyaksha, Ashish; Willemen, Paul (1999). Encyclopaedia of Indian cinema. British Film Institute.
  16. ^ "The Thief of Bagdad Blu-ray (United Kingdom)".


  • Leibfried, Philip; Willits, Malcolm (2004). Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, An Arabian Fantasy. Hollywood, CA: Hypostyle Hall Publishers. ISBN 0-9675253-1-4.
  • The Great British Films, pp 55–58, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 0-8065-0661-X

External links[edit]