Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 21, 2013)
While probably not as well-known these days as a 1940 adaptation by the same title, 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad was a huge hit in its era – and also regarded as a classic. We meet the title character (Douglas Fairbanks) as he plies his mischievous ways. Smart and agile, he evades capture and punishment, and he lives only for himself.
That’s the case until he meets a princess (Julanne Johnston), the daughter of the caliph (Brandon Hurst). The thief decides he must have her, so the film follows their romance and related adventures.
While modern audiences often find it tough to get into any kind of “old movies”, I believe silent films require the biggest leaps. Granted, one must readjust expectations when one sees any film from earlier eras; styles vary so much that one has to understand and adapt to those shifts to enjoy the efforts.
But silent movies go to an extreme due to the lack of speech. With no ability to say lines, the actors often had to go tremendously broad to convey thoughts and feelings. For audiences accustomed to more natural performances, it can be hard to get used to these stylistic choices.
Which is why the silent movies that have endured the best tend to be comedies. Those films could utilize physical gags that still amuse today, so they hold up much more easily.
Logically, the genre second-best suited to the silent screen should’ve been action/fantasy. There’s a reason Hollywood action flicks sell well in non-English markets: they don’t need to translate much dialogue. This means silent films should also be able to give us fun despite the lack of speech.
Theoretically, that is, but in the case of Thief, I can’t say I come away from it terribly entertained. When I go into silent movies, I really do try my best to get into the spirit of the era and its styles. As I alluded, I don’t expect performances that would work today, and I certainly don’t demand visuals that match modern efforts.
Though the production design of Thief actually holds up pretty well. Of course, the effects look clunky, but they’re strong for their age and never force us out of the film; while primitive, the effects still work.
Thief looks great in other ways, too. It comes with elaborate production design and seems to put its budget on the screen. Even though we can tell we’re stuck in soundstages, the sets offer lush environments that allow the movie to come to life in a fanciful manner.
Too bad the film itself takes forever to go anywhere. At times, I wanted to ask if we’d get any action or fantasy in this action/fantasy, as we must wait a long time to find much of either element. The flick lasts almost two and a half hours, but the thief doesn’t embark on his quest until around the 90-minute mark.
That forces a slow build-up. I realize that silent films often need more time to progress than “talkies” because the dialogue cards add to their length, but the plodding nature of Thief really does make it drag. Actually, the cards aren’t even a big factor in the running time here; with a general lack of dialogue, Thief uses fewer than expected, so the sluggish pacing is the biggest problem.
Once the thief does go on his merry way, the story improves a bit, but to a large degree, it feels like too little, too late. We’d need some truly splendid action/fantasy pieces to compensate but I don’t think what we find here really qualifies. While I like the fantasy scenes well enough and think they’re good for their era, they don’t elevate the movie to the necessary degree. They show some sparkle but can’t force the tale out of its rut.
I also admit that Fairbanks did little for me. Oh, he looked great, as the actor was in amazing shape, but I think he was too old for the part; then 40, the role seemed better-suited for someone half that age.
In addition, Fairbanks went awfully broad as the thief. Even for silent films, his performance felt hammy and over the top. Take the absurd way he rubs his stomach to indicate hunger; acting like that seems more at home in a pantomime play for two-year-olds than in a feature film. Of course I accept and expect broad performances from the silent era, but Fairbanks plays everything to the 10,000th degree.
It’s probably not helpful that the thief lacks much of a personality. In truth, he comes across as a bit creepy, such as when he leers at the princess; I suppose this is supposed to connote love, but Fairbanks just looks like a perv. The character never becomes engaging in the slightest; if we root for him, it’s because we’re supposed to do so, not because we like him.
On the other hand, Sôjin’s turn as the evil Mongol Prince works quite well. The best performance in the flick, he exudes menace and intelligence. Sôjin brings the film to life whenever he appears.
It’s too bad Thief isn’t about him, as that would be a much more interesting experience. While I can respect and appreciate some aspects of Thief of Bagdad - especially in the technical domains – the film just doesn’t entertain me. Even when I attempt to see it through “1920s eyes”, it leaves me cold.