The Thief of Bagdad (1940 film)

The Thief of Bagdad

Directed by Michael Powell
Ludwig Berger
Tim Whelan
Alexander Korda
Zoltan Korda
William Cameron Menzies
Produced by Alexander Korda
Written by Lajos Bíró
Miles Malleson
Starring Conrad Veidt
John Justin
June Duprez
Rex Ingram
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography George Perinal
Edited by Charles Crichton
Distributed by United Artists (UK/US)
Release dates
  • 5 December 1940 (1940-12-05) (US)
  • 25 December 1940 (1940-12-25) (UK)
Running time
106 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office over $1 million (US/Canada)[1]
5,134,653 admissions (France, 1946)[2]

The Thief of Bagdad is a 1940 British Technicolor Arabian fantasy film produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan, with additional contributions by Korda's brothers Vincent and Zoltán, and William Cameron Menzies. The film starred child actor Sabu, Conrad Veidt, John Justin, and June Duprez. It was distributed in the US and the UK by United Artists.

Although produced by Alexander Korda's company London Films in London, due to the outbreak of World War II, the film was completed in California and was then distributed by United Artists.

Thief of Bagdad won the Academy Awards for Cinematography, Art Direction (Vincent Korda) and Special Effects (Lawrence W. Butler, Jack Whitney)[3] and marks the first major use of bluescreening in film. It was also nominated for Original Music Score.[4]

Although this production is a remake of the 1924 version, the two films have differences, most significantly the thief and the prince are separate characters in the 1940 version.

The backstory for Thief of Bagdad is told in flashback, mimicking the style of the Arabian Nights.


Ahmad (John Justin), the naive sultan of Bagdad, is convinced by his evil Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) to go out into the city disguised as a poor man to get to know his subjects (in the manner of his grandfather Harun al-Rashid). Jaffar then has Ahmad thrown into a dungeon, where he encounters the young thief Abu (Sabu), who arranges their escape. They flee to Basra, where Ahmad meets its Princess (June Duprez). Jaffar journeys to Basra, for he too desires the Princess. Her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson), is fascinated by the magical mechanical flying horse that Jaffar, a skilled sorcerer, offers; he agrees to the proposed marriage. Upon hearing this, the Princess, now deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away. Confronted by Ahmad, Jaffar magically blinds him and turns Abu into a dog; the spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.

The Princess is captured and sold in the slave market. She is bought secretly by Jaffar, but falls into a deep sleep from which he cannot rouse her. Ahmad is tricked by Jaffar's servant Halima (Mary Morris) into awakening the Princess. Halima then lures her onto Jaffar's ship by telling her that there is a doctor aboard who can cure Ahmad's blindness. Jaffar informs the Princess about the spell, so she allows herself to be embraced; Ahmad's sight is restored and Abu returned to human form. They pursue in a small boat, but Jaffar conjures up a storm that shipwrecks them.

Abu awakes alone on a deserted beach and finds a bottle. When he opens it, an enormous genie (Rex Ingram) appears. Embittered by his imprisonment, the genie informs Abu that he is going to kill him, but Abu tricks him back into the bottle. The genie then offers to grant Abu three wishes if he will let him out again. The hungry boy uses his first wish to ask for sausages. When Abu demands to know where Ahmad is, the genie flies Abu to the top of the highest mountain in the world, where inside a temple is an enormous statue with a large jewel, the All-Seeing Eye, set in its forehead. The genie tells Abu that the Eye will show him the location of Ahmad. Abu fights off a giant spider while climbing the statue to steal the gem.

The Princess persuades Jaffar to return her to Basra; she implores her father not to force her into the marriage. Furious when the Sultan agrees, Jaffar presents him with another mechanical toy: the "Silver Maid" (also Mary Morris), a many-armed dancing statue which stabs the Sultan to death.

The genie then takes Abu to Ahmad. When Ahmad asks to see the Princess, Abu has him gaze into the All-Seeing Eye, where he sees Jaffar arranging for the Princess to inhale the fragrance of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, which makes her forget her love. In agony, Ahmad lashes out at Abu. During the ensuing argument, Abu unthinkingly wishes Ahmad to Bagdad. The genie, freed after granting the last wish, abandons Abu in the wilderness.

Ahmad appears in Jaffar's castle and is quickly captured, but seeing him restores the Princess's memory. The furious usurper sentences them both to death. Abu, unwilling to watch further, shatters the All-Seeing Eye and is transported to the "land of legend", where he is thanked by the Old King (Morton Selten) for freeing its inhabitants. As a reward, he is given a magic crossbow and is named the king's successor. To save Ahmad, however, Abu steals the king's magic flying carpet and rushes to Ahmad's rescue.

Abu's aerial arrival in Bagdad (which fulfills a prophecy cited a few times during the course of the film) sparks a revolt against Jaffar. Abu kills the fleeing Jaffar with his crossbow, and Ahmad regains his kingdom and his love. However, when Abu hears Ahmad telling the people of his plan to send Abu to school to train to become his new Grand Vizier, Abu flies away on the carpet to find fun and adventure.


Producer Alexander Korda, after a search for a director, chose German filmmaker Ludwig Berger in early 1939, but by the early summer became dissatisfied with Berger's overall conception of the movie—which was too small-scale and intimate—and, specifically, the score that Berger proposed to use. Essentially behind Berger's back, British director Michael Powell was brought in to shoot various scenes—and Powell's scheduled work grew in amount and importance whilst, in the meantime, Korda himself did his best to undercut Berger on his own set; and while publicly siding with Berger on the issue of the music, he also undercut Berger's chosen composer (Oscar Straus) by bringing in Miklos Rozsa and putting him into an office directly adjacent to Berger's with a piano, to work on a score. Eventually, Berger was persuaded to walk away from the project, and American filmmaker Tim Whelan, who had just finished work on another Korda-produced movie (Q Planes) was brought in to help augment Powell's work. But with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, work was suspended as Powell was taken off the picture and put to work on a morale-boosting documentary, The Lion Has Wings.

By the end of the year, Korda found himself running out of money and credit, and in the spring of 1940 he arranged to move the entire production to Hollywood (where some shots of the movie's young star Sabu, had to be redone since he had grown more than 3 inches (76 mm) during the year since shooting had commenced). Powell had remained in England, and so direction was taken up in Hollywood by Menzies and Zoltan Korda during the summer of 1940—including shots of the heroes in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the Painted Desert; the scenes in the Temple of the Goddess of Light, among the very last to be written, were done late in the summer, and the film was being edited and re-structured into the fall of 1940.[5]


Alexander Korda had intended to cast Vivien Leigh as the Princess, but she went to Hollywood to be with Laurence Olivier.[6]


The film was Korda's most successful in the US.[1]

New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther enthused that the film "ranks next to Fantasia as the most beguiling and wondrous film of this troubled season."[7] Crowther praised "its truly magnificent color"[7] and the performances of all five main actors.

Roger Ebert added The Thief of Bagdad to his "Great Movies" list, calling it "on a level with The Wizard of Oz."[8] According to Ebert, "it maintains a consistent spirit, and that spirit is one of headlong joy in storytelling."[8] He praised the performances of Sabu and Veidt ("perfectly pitched to the needs of the screenplay"), though he was less impressed with the chemistry between Duprez and Justin ("rather bloodless").[8]

Unlike its 1924 predecessor, which holds a 95% "fresh" rating from the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the 1940 Thief of Bagdad has a 100% rating.[9]


Although it was a remake of a 1924 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks, this film has been highly influential on later movies based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights setting. For example, the Disney film Aladdin borrows freely from it, particularly the characters of the evil Vizier and the Sultan, both drawn with a marked similarity to the characters in The Thief of Bagdad. The thieving monkey Abu in the Disney cartoon is obviously based on the boy played by Sabu.[10] Richard Williams, speaking about his film The Thief and the Cobbler, said that one of his interests was in creating an Oriental fantasy that did not copy from it. The Prince of Persia video game franchise also shares similar characteristics with the film.

Some think that various plot elements of The Thief of Bagdad—most notably, the theft of the ruby from a high place and the battle with the giant spider—derive from the 1928 short story, "The Tower of the Elephant", by Robert E. Howard.. However, in the original 1924 version, the Thief does indeed steal a crystal ball from the head of a giant statue of a multi-armed deity. Likewise in the '24 version, the Thief battles a giant spider, but it is under the sea in a scene separate from the one featuring the giant idol.

Larry Butler invented the first proper chroma key process for the special effects scenes in this film, a variation on the existing "traveling matte" process. This technique has since become the standard process for separating screen elements and/or actors from their backgrounds and placing them on new backgrounds for special effects purposes, and has since been used in thousands of films.

Home media

The film was released on DVD by MGM on 3 December 2002. That version is now out of print. The Criterion Collection released a two-disc DVD release on 27 May 2008 that includes a commentary track by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who are both longtime fans of the film (their comments were recorded separately and then edited together).

It was released by Network Distributing on Blu-Ray on 16 January 2015, as a Region B-locked disc.[11]

See also


  1. 1 2 Balio, Tino (2009). United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-23004-3. p172
  2. French box office of 1946 at Box Office Story
  3. "The 13th Academy Awards (1941) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
  4. "NY Times: The Thief of Bagdad". NY Times. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  5. "Bruce Eder (The Thief of Bagdad's Criterion Collection Notes)". Barnes & Noble.
  6. Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies
  7. 1 2 Bosley Crowther (6 December 1940). "'The Thief of Bagdad,' a Delightful Fairy Tale, at the Music Hall". New York Times. Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  8. 1 2 3 Roger Ebert (6 May 2009). "Thief of Bagdad (1940)". Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  9. "The Thief of Bagdad (1940)". Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  10. An episode from Aladdin: The Series also uses the Rose of Forgetfulness in the episode "Forget me Lots". Foster on Film – Fantasy: The Thief of Bagdad
  11. "The Thief of Bagdad Blu-ray (United Kingdom)".


  • Leibfried, Philip; Willits, Malcolm (2004). Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, An Arabian Fantasy. Hollywood, Calif.: Hypostyle Hall Publishers. ISBN 0-9675253-1-4. 
  • The Great British Films, pp 55–58, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 0-8065-0661-X
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