The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) robs as he pleases in the city of Baghdad. Wandering into a mosque, he tells the holy man (Charles Belcher) he disdains his religion; his philosophy is, “What I want, I take.”

That night, he sneaks into the palace of the caliph (Brandon Hurst) using a magic rope he stole during ritual prayers. All thoughts of plunder are forgotten when he sees the sleeping princess (Julanne Johnston), the caliph’s daughter. The princess’s Mongol slave (Anna May Wong) discovers him and alerts the guards, but he gets away.

When his associate (Snitz Edwards) reminds the disconsolate Ahmed that a bygone thief once stole another princess during the reign of Haroun al-Rashid, Ahmed sets out to do the same. The next day is the princess’s birthday. Three princes arrive, seeking her hand in marriage (and the future inheritance of the city). Another of the princess’s slaves foretells that she will marry he who first touches a rose-tree in her garden. The princess watches anxiously as first the glowering Prince of the Indies (Noble Johnson), then the obese Prince of Persia (an uncredited Mathilde Comont), and finally the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama) pass by the rose-tree. The mere sight of the Mongol fills the princess with fear, but when Ahmed appears (disguised in stolen garments as a suitor), she is delighted. The Mongol slave tells her countryman of the prophecy, but before he can touch the rose-tree, Ahmed’s startled horse tosses its rider into it.

That night, following ancient custom, the princess chooses Ahmed for her husband. Out of love, Ahmed gives up his plan to abduct her and confesses all to her in private. The Mongol prince learns from his spy, the princess’s Mongol slave, that Ahmed is a common thief and informs the caliph. Ahmed is lashed mercilessly, and the caliph orders he be torn apart by a giant ape, but the princess has the guards bribed to let him go.

When the caliph insists she select another husband, her loyal slave advises her to delay. She asks that the princes each bring her a gift after “seven moons”; she will marry the one who brings her the rarest. In despair, Ahmed turns to the holy man. He tells the thief to become a prince, revealing to him the peril-fraught path to a great treasure.

The Prince of the Indies obtains a magic crystal ball from the eye of a giant idol, which shows whatever he wants to see, while the Persian prince buys a flying carpet. The Mongol prince leaves behind his henchman, telling him to organize the soldiers he will send to Bagdad disguised as porters. (The potentate has sought all along to take the city; the beautiful princess is only an added incentive.) After he lays his hands on a magic apple which has the power to cure anything, even death, he sends word to the Mongol slave to poison the princess. After many adventures, Ahmed gains a cloak of invisibility and a small chest of magic powder which turns into whatever he wishes when he sprinkles it. He races back to the city.

The three princes meet as agreed at a caravansary before returning to Bagdad. The Mongol asks the Indian to check whether the princess has waited for them. They discover that she is near death, and ride the flying carpet to reach her. Then the Mongol uses the apple to cure her. The suitors argue over which gift is rarest, but the princess points out that without any one gift, the remaining two would have been useless in saving her life. Her loyal slave shows her Ahmed in the crystal ball, so the princess convinces her father to deliberate carefully on his future son-in-law. The Mongol prince chooses not to wait, unleashing his secret army that night and capturing Bagdad.

Ahmed arrives at the city gate, shut and manned by Mongols. When he conjures up a large army with his powder, the Mongol soldiers flee. The Mongol prince is about to have one of his men kill him when the Mongol slave suggests he escape with the princess on the flying carpet. Ahmed liberates the city and rescues the princess, using his cloak of invisibility to get through the Mongols guarding their prince. In gratitude, the caliph gives his daughter to him in marriage


I do believe it has been awhile since I’ve visited the grand world of silent pictures, so with The Thief of Bagdad, I’m making a return trip to that bygone, and somewhat forgotten, era. Before I begin, please don’t confuse this with the 1940 film of the same name. While there are similarities, these two films are quite different.

What is this about?

A devil-may-care thief in Bagdad falls for a beautiful princess. In order to win her love and best his rival, he performs astonishing feats of daring in the Valley of Fire, Valley of the Monsters and Cavern of the Enchanted Trees.

What did I like?

Ahead of its time. As someone who loves watching old films that utilize stop-motion animation, I was taken aback by how well the creatures were used in this film. Keep in mind that this is some 20-30 years before Ray Harryhausen came on the scene and long before animatronics and CGI, but the creatures almost look real, especially the underwater spider. Dare I say they rival some of the stuff that Hollywood is doing today? This is a film from the 20s that is pulling this off! Wow!

Music. Silent films use music to create atmosphere and emotion, coupled with the performances by the actors, obviously. With no audible dialogue, something has to be there for the audience to listen to, right? With this film, the music is inspired by a major classical work. I want to say that it was Scheherazade, but don’t quote me. Hints of it can be heard here and there, but the overall feel of the music fits in with the Middle Eastern setting and does its job of creating atmosphere and conveying emotion to the audience.

Restoration. This is a film that is nearing 100 years old, if you can believe that. I can only imagine how damaged the original film has to be. It probably isn’t even watchable! While I am not a fan of restoration when it takes out the pops, shadows, etc., that make old movies special, in cases such as this, restoration is necessary. Without it, we lose great pieces of cinema. The people who restored this appeared to have done a good job. Having not seen the original, I can’t compare, but it looks great!

What didn’t I like?

Spray tan. Given the year that this was released, I shouldn’t get bent out of shape over the way they chose to color their skin, but I can’t help it. The spray tan that was used looked about as real as the stuff they use on Dancing with the Stars. I would have preferred they just left them the pasty white color they naturally are. Interestingly enough, I was reading an article about the upcoming film, Exodus, which stars white actors in Middle Eastern roles (biblical stuff…Moses, and such). According to the author, they didn’t even attempt to make them look authentic, then again, there other underlying racial issues with that casting that could be the reasoning, but I won’t touch that with a 10 ft. pole.!

Length. I am not really a fan of long films. For me, once you cross the 90-100 minute mark, it better be worth the extra time. That being said, had I have been around during this time period, I believe my attention span would be much different, as would everyone else’s. Remember, in the 20s, the only entertainment people had were movies and possibly radio. So, a film that it is 2 1/2 hours was nothing to them. Fast forward to today where people are having a cow over the length of something like Transformers: Age of Extinction and you can see how times have changed. Personally, taking into consideration the differences in the eras, I think this was bit long, but mainly because the last 30-45 minutes or so didn’t really go anywhere until the final scene.

A Whole New World. Not trying to say that this is a predictable film, but chances are you already know what happens, especially if you’ve seen Aladdin. The ending almost had me burst into “A Whole New World”. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but the fact that I knew what was going to happen beforehand is. Granted, nothing can be done about what I’ve seen/read before seeing this, and if I say they need to change it, then I become a hypocrite since I am always screaming that films need to stick with the source material. I felt that it was a nice ending, but could have been better.

I have to say that of all the silent films I’ve seen, The Thief of Bagdad kept my attention the most since Nosferatu, which is saying something. This is a film that is very well acted, has minor flaws, and draws the audience in with the action and magnificent special effects. Again, I must say that it ahead of its time when in comes to the effects and wonder how it is the industry took a step back until Harryhausen came on the scene. So, do I recommend this fine picture? Yes, very highly, but be warned those that have short attention spans, this is a 2 1/2 hour silent film. If you can’t handle that, best stay away.

4 out of 5 stars

2 Responses to “The Thief of Bagdad (1924)”

  1. In re Spray Tan: I enjoy noting that when I think of Iraqis, the first actors who would come to mind would be Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Anna May Wong. Nonetheless, rather a fine film.

  2. And, yes, that’s bits of “Scheherazade” in the commonly accompanying soundtrack in the versions I’ve seen.

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