An Arabian Nights fantasy whose auteur was the self-made, Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda, The Thief of Bagdad lost its race to finish shooting before England declared war on Germany (it was completed in America), but won a place as the British Wizard of Oz and Star Wars of its era, and took Oscars for its eye-popping Technicolor cinematography, art direction and special effects. Korda and collaborators, including his brothers Vincent (production designer, abetted by the legendary William Cameron Menzies) and Zoltan (like Alex, an uncredited co-director), a pair of scenarists, and the three official directors, remade a 1924 Hollywood hit for the three-strip color era, splitting the silent version’s Douglas Fairbanks hero into romantic Prince Ahmad (John Justin) and young thief Abu, played by the teenage Indian actor Sabu with a bounce and brio that will still draw kid spectators in (mischievous scamps, to the front). The result is a fable light on condescension—it opens in the chronological middle of the narrative, with the heroes in the guises of blind beggar and dog—but committed enough to the pleasure principle that the audience is served one giddy act of visual sorcery after another.
An innocent ruler endeavoring incognito to know his people, Ahmad is swiftly usurped and imprisoned by his wicked minister-magician Jaffar (Conrad Veidt, making for a more textured and iconic villain than his Casablanca Nazi three years later), but soon flees Bagdad with the adventure-hungry and loyal Abu. As Andrew Moor writes in the Criterion package booklet, the “infantilized” pre-sexual playfulness of Sabu’s character makes him unthreatening despite the athletic prowess he displays with only a green loincloth covering his brown skin; the fine-boned Justin, whose lithe royal longs for and seeks to rescue June Duprez’s kidnapped princess, is a safely recognizable Anglo actor. (Still, for a late-colonialist artifact the film is substantially less squirmy than Gunga Din, and far more sensual.) Sometimes traveling with Ahmad but often striving to aid him from afar, Abu memorably liberates a mercurial but helpful djinni (Rex Ingram, with the most infectious laugh in the annals of gigantic beings) from a tide-washed bottle. A piecemeal-assembled flying horse, a pink elephant in the princess’s caravan, a multi-armed female “toy” dubbed the Silver Maid (the downfall of the Sultan of Basra, a jolly perv played by writer Miles Malleson), Abu’s entanglement in a giant spider’s web, Grand Canyon rock walls that conceal a ghostly court, and a climactic airborne carpet all figure in the top-shelf matinee-style fun.