Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Tits & Sand: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

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Let’s go back to Tits & Sand movies with the mother of them all – the 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad.
And I know, there were Arabian Adventure movies before, but this one was and is, to me, the definitive item. Once again, this was a movie that was a staple of afternoon reruns on the telly in the ‘90s, and before that I saw it in a small parish cinema, and boy did it make an impression.
So be warned – I’ll wax nostalgic, or maybe not. But this is one of my favorite movies from way back when…

Thief_Of_Bagdad_(1940)One thing I did not know the first time I saw this movie was, this is actually a British movie. Due to the fact that Britain was being bombed during the shoot, production was transferred to the USA, with some interesting consequences.
Produced by Alexander Korda, the story was lifted from the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version – Fairbanks actually owned the rights to the title, and Korda had to woo him to buy them – and the movie was directed by a pool of directors: Michael Powell (half of the Powell & Pressburger team known as The Archers), Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan, with additional contributions by Vincent and Zoltàn Korda (the brothers of the producer) and William Cameron Menzies (the director of another fave of mine, 1936 Things to Come from H.G. Wells).
The title was actually misspelled, Bagdad instead of Baghdad, because of the number of Eastern Europeans involved in the production – they just used their spelling of the name.
Add to the mix the music of Miklòs Rozsa and the special effects of Lawrence W. Butler (who did effects for Things to Come, Casablanca and The Lady from Shanghai, among others) and you get a true dream team of artists.

The story (lifted from IMDB):

In Bagdad, the young and naive Sultan Ahmad is curious about the behavior of his people. The Grand Vizier Jaffar convinces Ahmad to walk through the city disguised as a subject to know his people. Then he seizes the power telling to the inhabitants that Ahmad has died while he sends his army to arrest the Sultan that is thrown into the dungeons and sentenced to death. Ahmad befriends the young thief Abu that helps him to escape from the prison. They flee to Basra and plan to travel abroad with Sinbad. However Ahmad stumbles upon the beautiful princess and they fall in love with each other. But the evil Jaffar has also traveled to Basra to propose to marry the princess. When they see each other, Jaffar uses magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog. Is their love doomed?

And yes, in case you wondered, Disney stole big time from this movie when they made Aladdin, from the costumes to the look of the characters – but of course their Jafar has only one F, so it’s not copyright infringement, I guess. Oh, don’t get me started…

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The casting process of The Thief of Baghdad was as adventurous as the rest of the production, and the cast includes a true colossus of the history of the movies – Conrad Veidt, whose career spanned both the silent era and the talkies, both Europe and America. Veidt was in such essential movies like The Man Who Laughs (where he basically created the look of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the seminal horror The Hands of Orlac and of course he was Major Strasser in Casablanca. His role as Jaffar is a distillation of evil and sensuality that can be surprising. Veidt’s Jaffar is as evil as they come and as smooth as silk, a true noir character in all of his manipulative, self-serving cruelty.
And he’s a magician. Now this is a top shelf bad guy!

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And Conrad Veidt (who got top billing for this movie, being the most famous actor in the cast) has class, so that when he makes a play for the Princess, he actually has a chance to get the girl. Which is scary and dramatic and suspenseful because, well, he’s the bad guy, right?
And it’s surprising that Veidt got the part but the producer actually wanted Henry Fonda to playing the part.

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Indian actor Sabu, a Korda regular, plays the titular role, Abu the Thief of Bagdad, and acts as a sidekick for the romantic lead, played by John Justin (who joined the RAF as soon as the shooting was completed). Korda had wanted John Hall – a star of many sword & sandal movies – for the part of the sultan, but Hall was signed to another company.

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The female lead is the stunning June Duprez, that had been the previous year the star of the colonial adventure The Four Feathers. Again, her role should have been interpreted by Vivien Leigh, but Leigh dropped out of the project when she got the part of Rossella O’Hara in Gone with the Wind1.

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It was Roger Ebert, I find out, that described as rather bloodless the love story between Justin’s Ahmad and Duprez’ Princess (the character actually has no first name). Their scenes together are probably to cold and stylish. And indeed, the romantic element takes the back seat and the action and magic come to the fore.
Right from the start, with a big chase scene across the rooftops of a city, and then on…

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For his time, this was a colossal effects-fest, the Star Wars or Jurassic Park of its time.
The film, the first to use a blue screen technology, features a flying carpet, a flying mechanical horse, a sexy and deadly six-armed mechanical doll (with blue metallic skin), a giant genie and a colossal spider. A man is turned into a dog by magic, and then turns back into a human.

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The djinn, or genie, is suitably unreliable…

Genie: You’re a clever little man little master of the universe, but mortals are weak and frail. If their stomach speaks, they forget their brain. If their brain speaks, they forget their heart. And if their heart speaks [laughter] … they forget everything.

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Korda had planned some shots in Africa, but the war forced him to reschedule the scenes and film them in California.

Tower 6And then there is the Conan connection.
Many have noticed some striking similarities between the scenes in which Abu the Thief steals the All-Seeing Eye and the Robert E. Howard story The Tower of the Elephant.
Were the scriptwriters Lajos Bíró & Miles Malleson familiar with Conan’s exploits? It seems unlikely.
The most logical explanation for the similarities is probably that Howard had seen the original, 1924 Douglas Fairbanks movie.
But still, it’s pretty neat.

And finally, there is the issue of… ehm, tits.
Which is quite fitting, considering we are talking about a proto-Tits & Sand movie. Because you see, as we said the film started shooting in the UK, but then the production relocated to the US of A, and fell therefore under the bailiwick of the Hais commission.
Female costumes had to be redesigned, to cover as much as possible the graces of June Duprez, that the original wardrobe had happily revealed in all their glory.
The soul of the young – and not-so-young – Americans was safe.
As a consequence, when watching the movie, you can play a game, and determine which scenes were shot in Britain and which in America, based on the amount of cleavage exposed.

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Re-watched for the umpteenth time just before I wrote this post, The Thief of Bagdad still holds up wonderfully. The set pieces and the effects are great, the scenes breath-taking and the story is fun. Granted, there is an element of naivety to the plot, but as far as fantasy films go, this movie, while being almost eighty years old, is an absolute charmer.
And it was shot in critical conditions, during a war.
They don’t make’em like this anymore.

And yes, I am convinced this movie should be mandatory viewing for anyone that loves the House of Mouse’s Aladdin.

And here’s Miklòs Rosza’s soundtrack. Enjoy.


  1. so yes, there is a parallel universe in which The Thief of Bagdad features John Hall, Vivien Leigh and Henry Fonda as the evil Jaffar. Just imagine… 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Tits & Sand: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

  1. Yes! Could not agree more about Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar as having a huge amount of silken class. NOw he’s a VILLAIN. Darth Vader, and for that matter his master Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious? Tchah! They are nothing and they are nowhere by comparison!

    And as Harlan Ellison (he’s really missed) once wrote, Jaffar reveals a touch of identifiable humanity in the scene where he demonstrates how his love for the princess has hit his weak, vulnerable spot — which makes him an even more effective villain.

    In passing, it irks me a bit, the way these Occidental movies always make the vizier the conniving, treacherous villain. In actual history, the viziers (government ministers, in our parlance) were the hard working administrators who kept the kingdom functioning. The sultans they served were generally merciless warlords everlastingly ordering out their armies, or degenerate sots who couldn’t run a dog hospital, and either way, a vizier who displeased them, usually by failing to obey some impossible command, was likely to face the attentions of three strong eunuchs with a bowstring.

    Someday I’d like to see a movie in which the Sultan is the villain and the vizier is the much-put-upon honest bloke trying to prevent injustice and disaster, and finding it uphill work!

    Liked by 1 person

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