Movies: The Thief of Baghdad

I read about this movie when I was doing my post on genies a couple weeks ago. It took some time to get it through interlibrary loan, but tonight we got to watch it. It’s hard for me to say what I thought of it as a movie – I kept reminding myself that, for it’s time (my parents were still teenagers when it was produced), it was spectacular. But it really is hard, when you’ve seen twenty-first century special effects, to appreciate a genie flying woodenly through the air.

The story is reasonably interesting, if not exactly believable. But what fascinated me was to see all the aspects that Disney borrowed from it in making Aladdin. I might not have recognized the face of Jafar in Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar, but the sultan was so clearly the model for Disney’s sultan. Everything from his appearance to his voice to the way he walks, his gullibility, and his fascination with toys. (I always wondered why Disney’s sultan had those toys.)

Aladdin turns out to be a mix of Ahmad, who starts out as king of Baghdad but then becomes a blind beggar, and Abu, who is not a monkey but an extremely skillful thief. The opening scene in Aladdin owes much to the similar thievery and escape of Abu. Disney makes Aladdin the thief, and Abu an animal companion – but even this is not completely unlike Ahmad being accompanied by Abu when the latter has been tranformed (by Jaffar’s sorcery) into a dog.

Aladdin’s entrance as Prince in a magnificent parade borrows from the Princess’s entrance to Basra. It is not Ahmad who brings a magic carpet and lets the sultan ride it, however, but Jaffar who brings a mechanical horse that magically becomes alive and flies for the sultan. In exchange Jaffar requests the princess as his bride – apparently not to gain a kingdom so much as because Jaffar really wants her to love him. (Unlike Disney’s Jafar, Jaffar refuses to use his sorcery to force her to submit to him.)

There is a genie, though he plays a relatively small part in this movie compared to Disney’s. He does long to be free, but has no interest in friendship with humans once he does gain his freedom. There is a flying carpet, though like other flying objects it moves very stiffly. I think some of the sultan’s palace in Aladdin was based on the architecture of the sultan’s palace in this movie, but except for the princess’s balcony I didn’t notice anything specific.

My husband comments that this movie would be a great story to do a remake with modern special effects. I don’t know whether today’s Hollywood could produce a love as innocent and pure between Ahmad and the Princess as in the 1940 production, but if one is made (or has been and I’ve missed it), we’ll certainly want to see it.


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