The 1940 Alexander Korda production of ’The Thief of Bagdad’ remains to this day the definitive treatment of the classic ’1001 Arabian Nights’ fables. Created at a time of looming global warfare, the film must have offered a great escape from the horrors of the time for 1940s theatergoers. Combining breathtaking visuals, ground-breaking special effects, and excellent performances, this fan favorite has at last been released on DVD by MGM and the quality of this new disc is truly a sight to behold.
As the film opens we meet a blind beggar who is invited to tell his tale to a group of harem girls. The story he tells concerns one Prince Ahmad (John Justin), the rightful ruler of Bagdad who was blinded and deposed by the evil Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Escaping from the dungeons with the help of the agile thief Abu (Sabu), Ahmad makes his way to Basra where he falls in love with a beautiful princess (June Duprez). But Jaffar also has an eye for the princess and once again uses his black arts to hinder Ahmad. But Ahmad and Abu won’t go down without a fight and their quest for justice leads to all sorts of grand adventures involving a giant djinni (Rex Ingram), flying carpets, and mechanical horses.
If this story sounds a bit familiar it’s because not only is the source material well-known to most audiences but this particular production was such a hit that all subsequent Arabian Nights films have tended to follow the same pattern — Disney’s ’Aladdin’ being the best known.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format, ’The Thief of Bagdad’ looks nothing short of amazing on DVD. An Academy Award winner for color cinematography, this Technicolor production jumps off the screen as if it were a brand new feature film. From the opening shot of the colorful blue eye adorning a ship, it’s clear that this presentation is top-notch. Colors are amazingly vibrant and stable while only a few minor blemishes and dropped frames mar the image. Some of the special effects shots don’t blend in very well but that was likely the case in 1940 as well. All in all, ’The Thief of Bagdad’ looks far better on DVD than anyone could have possibly hoped.
Audio is presented in English and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes. Unfortunately the audio doesn’t fare quite as well as the video. Recorded at a very low level, the track displays some frequent distortion and harshness that would probably have gone unnoticed but for the higher expectations brought about by the sheer quality of the video.
The only extra on the disc is a very fine theatrical trailer.
Concocted by a stable of directors and produced at a time of great unease and even greater budgetary constraints, it’s a wonder that ’The Thief of Bagdad’ came off at all. The fact that the film became an instant classic and remains a favorite to this day is a testament to the quality of the script and the strength and enthusiasm of the cast and crew.
Featuring an absolutely impeccable video presentation, MGM’s new DVD is must-have for fans of classic fantasy and adventure films. Still the standard against which all subsequent Arabian Nights films have been compared, ’The Thief of Bagdad’ is pure cinematic magic.