Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Buckle that swash, part IV: The rarest treasure


One of the silent form's most flawless beauties, this dream voyage through Arabian nights must be counted as the masterpiece of not only one but two great filmmakers—and even three, if you go so far as to count its director.

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by James T. O'Donohoe, Lotta Woods, George Sterling, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (based on The Thief of Bagdad, by Achmed Abdullah, in turn based on 1001 Nights, by Arabia)
With Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Thief), Snitz Edwards (His Evil Associate), Julanne Johnston (The Princess), The Mongol Slave (Anna May Wong), Charles Belcher (The Holy Man), Brandon Hurst (The Caliph), The Prince of the Indies (Noble Johnson), The Prince of Persia (Mathilde Comont), and The Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Thief of Bagdad is not subtle about its moral: it writes it in the night sky.  The film is framed as a tale told by a father to his son.  "Happiness," he says, "must be earned."  To illustrate his point, he turns to the story of the thief—who became a prince.

But first he was a thief.  Presently, he lazes atop a public fountain.  When roused from his slumber, he steals and cheats.  When he's caught, he tangles with his marks.  We are certainly impressed by his leaping and climbing—but when he happens to hide in a mosque, we become unsure of the purity of his heart.  The imam preaches hard work; the thief, disgusted, laughs at the holy man's pretty, foolish words.  He outlines his philosophy: "What I want—I take!"  He then merrily commits apostasy, declaring Allah a myth, and only the holy man's indulgence saves him from being torn apart by the mob.

The thief—whose name could be Ahmed, or it might be naught but a convenient alias—has heretofore occupied himself with petty crimes.  But, having stolen a magic rope that stands up straight all by itself, he conceives a more ambitious strategy.  That night, he breaks into the palace itself, to take whatever treasures he might find within.  What he never expected to find, however, was the greatest treasure of all—the Caliph's beautiful daughter.  He resolves to steal the princess.

To this end, the thief infiltrates the castle a second time—now posing as one of the princess' suitors.  Alongside the thief arrive the humorless prince of the Indies, the effete prince of Persia, and the terrifying prince of the Mongols—whose designs upon Bagdad go well beyond conquering just its princess.  Meanwhile, the princess herself has consulted a soothsayer, who prophesies that the man she shall marry shall be the first to touch the roses in the garden—and who, but the thief, is the first to pluck a blossom from its branches?  When she meets her would-be kidnapper, the princess falls in love—and the thief has a change of heart.  She chooses "Ahmed" as her groom—but the Mongol prince reveals his identity to her outraged father.  The thief barely escapes, with the princess' help.

For her part, she pines for Ahmed, cleverly avoiding marriage to any of the other princes with a demand that they compete for her affections, sending them on a quest to find the rarest treasure.  They make their way across all the lands of Islam.  When they return, it's with a scrying crystal, a flying carpet, and a golden apple that holds the cure to death itself.  The thief, meanwhile, turns to the imam, repenting his wicked ways.  The holy man sends Ahmed on a quest of his own, to retrieve the treasure of the Moon, imbued with even more powerful magic than the suitors' nuptial gifts.  But now, with the Mongol prince having smuggled 20,000 of his warriors within the city walls under the ruse of courtship, the fate of all Bagdad depends upon his success.

Following the unaccountable profitability of his third action film, Robin Hood, Douglas Fairbanks began production on another, and his fourth swashbuckler would have been a sequel to The Mark of Zorro, wherein the Mexican vigilante tangled with pirates.  Both a Zorro sequel and a pirate movie would figure into Fairbanks' future; but those plans were put on hold the moment Fairbanks started reading The Thief of Bagdad, a lushly-illustrated contemporary edition of that celebrated collection of Islamic and pre-Islamic myths, 1001 Nights.  The Arabian folktales first made their way West through Antoine Galland's translation in 1706, to the delight of all Europe; in the third decade of the 20th century, they'd once again come back into vogue.  Fairbanks read through the night.  In the morning, he cancelled the preparations for any second Zorro feature.  Instead, he began the long process of bringing his own Thief of Bagdad to life.

Eight months were spent in research, including a careful study of the Ballets Russes' Scheherezade, an adaptation of the Arabian Nights' central tale, and the second key inspiration for Thief's Art Nouveau orientalist aesthetic.  (Of course, Fairbanks himself needed no inspiration to incorporate his own personal brand of slapstick-ballet, and Thief was—literally—built to satisfy his legendary addiction to adrenaline.)  In July 1923, production finally began.  And, in the end, no less than 1.135 million dollars, 480,000 feet of film, 3000 extras, 65 weeks of shooting, and six and a half acres of studio space were devoted to the creation of Fairbanks' magnum opus.  Little expense was spared, and maybe less effort.  For perhaps the most famous of Thief's many famous images, the undersea world, a whole clan of glass-blowers worked three months, crafting elaborate jellyfish.  For perhaps the most famous of Thief's stunts, the jar-hopping sequence, Fairbanks spent weeks training on trampolines so he could do the trick in one take.  Listen: what I'm saying is, Thief was lavish, and Fairbanks wanted it to be perfect.  Fairbanks even sought famous artists for help.  George Sterling, the poet, was brought aboard to perfect Thief's intertitles.  Maxfield Parrish, the great illustrator, was hired as Thief's art director.  And they weren't good enough.  Sterling would grouse in his letters that the final film used very few of his words, and Parrish sufficiently disappointed Fairbanks that he fired him.

Fairbanks must have felt stranded, until salvation arrived in an unexpected form.  The savior was a young man who had worked for Fairbanks before, on both The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood, as well as for his wife, Mary Pickford, on Rosita.  He had little managerial experience, but he radiated talent and enthusiasm, assaulting his nominal boss with the stack of drawings and plans that he'd already made.  His name was William Cameron Menzies—and need I say more?  In the decades to come, Menzies would formalize the credit of production designer, which he considered the highest calling in filmmaking.  Yet long before he ever had a name for it, let alone a theory to explain it, he was already doing it.  Thief amounts to Menzies' announcement to the whole world, "This is what cinema can be."

And, eventually, a director was hired too.  Now, Raoul Walsh was hardly some meaningless nobody; in the sound era, he'd go on to helm durable pictures like White Heat and High Sierra.  On Thief, however, Walsh was but the vessel through which the film's pair of truly indispensable men worked their art: Fairbanks, his gift for comedy matched only by his gift for high-flying stuntwork, each borne in a different register by a physique which—considering that he was already 41—will make you sad that your parents ever thought they were eugenically fit enough to breed; and Menzies, with his unequalled capability to render impossible vistas with the coherence, delicacy, and artistry of a master architect, master painter, and master photographer all rolled into one.

To call the result of their collaboration "fantastic" would hardly do it justice.  This is fantasy itself.  It would be trivial to call Thief one of the most imaginative movies of all time; let us go a bit further, and be a lot more specific.  This is perhaps the most aesthetically rigorous film ever made, never deviating—not once, not slightly—from its single, splendorous style.

To gaze upon Thief is not just to be impressed—it's to be transported.  The sets are detailed with arabesque flourish, but the effect is one of dreamlike minimalism.  Their defining feature is their soft, curvilinear grace.  Fairbanks' and Menzies' impossible ambition was to realize a reverie.  The techniques employed were going to have to be innovative.

The central setting is naturally Bagdad, but when Robin Hood's redressed Nottingham Castle looked too much like what it was—an imposing structure, built of false stone and real steel—Menzies had to all but reinvent the art of set design.  The new, rebuilt Bagdad was to look weightless, as if ready to float off into the sky.  But Bagdad remains unmistakably physical.  Walsh and Menzies cannily position actors atop their battlements and balconies, and we are directed to look at these human beings, lofted up atop these magnificent edifices, so that we can know the scale of what we see, and that what we see is actually there.  The denouement of Thief involves a piece of steel plate, pretending to be a carpet, hoisted into the air by piano wire and then swung over thousands of extras while Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston ride atop it.  Its shadow flies across Menzies' titanic cityscape.  And this, too, is actually there.  Thief, in short, is what production design can be at its very best: it cannot possibly be real—it is too perfect be real!—and yet, through the most primordial movie magic of all, it becomes real.  In some films, you need to make an effort.  In Thief, to witness the illusion is to complete it, for it's only barely an illusion in the first place.

But if criticism must be applied, if there must be a flaw, then that flaw is this: Thief is fucking interminable.

Thief positively embodies Fairbanks' two great problems as a scenarist—a willingness to repeat action beats to the point of irksomeness, sitting uneasily alongside an allergy to remotely efficient first acts.  Allow me to compare Thief to one of its descendants.  As you know, Thief was enormously influential.  It was the germination of a century-long cinematic interest in the Arabian Nights; it would be remade and reinterpreted many times.  The best of these reinterpretations—superior even to Thief's original—is surely Disney's Aladdin.  Well, by the time Ahmed has finally undertaken his quest, Aladdin is already overyes, including the credits.

But Fairbanks' weaknesses don't much matter here.  They are compensated against: Menzies' ecstatic design rescues the thief's repetitious (and unsuspenseful) struggles across alien landscapes, so distinct in their loveliness that the effect is altogether hypnotic, rather than simply dull.  (Oh, let me just spit it out: Thief can easily put you to sleep—but this is no sin.  It's the kind of film that for long stretches becomes practically inert, yet remains so wonderfully, warmly easy-going that it's altogether impossible to hold this fact against it.)

Meanwhile, Fairbanks rescues himself in the film's extended first act—that is, its first hour and a half—just by being so damned charming.  (I doubt his penchant for broad mugging was ever funnier than it is here.)  And even when he presses a knife against a slave girl's back, to keep her from alerting the Caliph's guards, it quickly becomes playful—she's not really threatened.

Of course, to the modern viewer, the idea that the hero planned to abduct the princess in the first place—and, one might presume, subsequently ravish her, ransom her, or both—is a little troubling.  But Thief is the consummate fairy tale, rendering it harmless: who wouldn't consent to be stolen by Douglas Fairbanks—at least in their dreams?  The charge of orientalism sticks, obviously, but by now 1001 Nights is as much our mythology as anyone else's.  At least the Asian parts are filled by Asian actors, and Thief gave Anna May Wong her big break, too.  (Whereas the vilification of the Mongols is frankly apt, considering that it was the sack of the real Baghdad by the Ilkhanate Horde which ended the Islamic Golden Age.)  The least ideologically sound aspect of Thief will forever remain its facile American Gospel, an equation of hard work with class mobility.  It hasn't gotten the least bit fresher since we've evolved from the late-stage capitalism of 1924 to the even later-stage capitalism of 2015.

And the climax of Thief—dependent as it is upon what amounts to an omnipotent wishing box, with neither a personable genie nor any limit to his wishes in sight—must also count against the film.  Thief's thrills may be substantial, yes, but you won't find them in its story.

Again, it's of no real consequence.  The Thief of Bagdad is so utterly unique as a work of art—of pure artfulness—that the story, like the events of a dream, recede into insignificance before the mood, the imagery, and—sure, I'll say it—the magic.  Fairbanks considered it his greatest work.  The whole world has agreed.

Score: 10/10

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