The Thief of Baghdad
By Mike Derderian
Inspired by the Arabian tales in Arabian Nights: A Thousand and One Night, Clive Donner’s 1978 film The Thief of Baghdad recounts the adventures of the dethroned prince of Sakhar and his magician friend against the evil forces of the sorcerer. Brief as the adventures are in this version they are still enjoyable. The Thief of Baghdad, Taj (Kabir Bedi), sets out to save Baghdad from the clutches of an evil sorcerer and vizier known as Jaudur (Terence Stamp).
The original The Thief of Baghdad was produced in 1924 by Raoul Walsh and starred Douglas Fairbanks. However, Donner’s version depicts the hero, as apposed to Walsh’s original, as a real prince and not a thief as portrayed by the roguishly handsome Fairbanks.
This 104-minute fantasy stars Sir Peter Ustinov, Frank Finlay, Ian Holm, Pavla Ustinov, Daniel Emilfork, Marina Vlady and Roddy McDowall as the charming but not-so-lucky market magician Hassan.
Most people would remember McDowall as the boyish yet wicked Caesar Augustus Octavian in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 un-Shakespearian lavish production Cleopatra that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
To no surprise McDowall’s portrayal of Hassan was a show stealer and Bedi’s character Taj that started out quite audaciously suddenly turned flat especially near the end. The supporting actor ended up being the lead; and knowing McDowall’s formidable acting background I would not blame Bedi, who two years earlier brilliantly shone in the role of Sandokan the Tiger of Malaysia, a character created by Emilio Salgari, in a 1976 Italian television series based on his novel.
Did you know that Jordan television (JTV) aired Sandokan back in the 1980’s! However, Bedi’s austere stare and statuesque posture will forever be engraved in the minds of people thanks to his portrayal of Gobinda, Kamal Khan’s ruthless henchman in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy starring Roger Moore and Maud Adams. Bedi also had a memorable role in Kevin Reynolds’s 1988 political and military masterpiece The Beast of War.
In this movie Bedi was the charming gallant prince Taj Al Molouk, who was unjustly deprived of his throne by his father’s evil vizier. On his way to Baghdad to seek the hand of the Caliph’s daughter Princess Yasmin, Taj’s caravan is ambushed. The henchmen kill by mistake an innocent man.
Believing that Taj is dead, the Vizier poses as the ruler of Sakhar and heads out to ask for the hand of the princess. Taj miraculously finds his way to Baghdad. Upon being saved by Hassan in the marketplace he is more than ever determined to win the princess’s hand. So they pose as royalty.
What do you know? He meets Jaudur at the Caliph’s court and a conflict of interest ensues. Yasmin and Taj’s hearts click; however, some members of the court identify Hassan from the marketplace and thus Taj is deemed an imposter. The Caliph (Ustinov) then realizes that someone is lying so he asks all four suitors including Taj to prove their love to his daughter by brining the most expensive item in the world.
Now, The Thief of Baghdad is hardly ever a lousy movie but still it has its shortcomings. A critic might say that it was too bloody fast. Jumping around from one place to another did not allow the characters to evolve and become more credible. Then again, after movies like The Matrix, do we need credibility to enjoy a good film, and do we have to see the marks, touch them and feel them to believe? No.
The final confrontation between Taj (Bedi) and Jaudur (Stamp) was so ill-conceived. I mean as a kid, when I was almost 10 and when I first saw it on a video, I really loved it but now it looks like breaking an egg. I mean a man with Jaudur’s dark powers should have been given more screen time before pulverizing him. Yes this is a movie where good actually wins. The special effects were highly admirable considering the year it was made; so don’t push the technical envelope.
Terence Stamp’s performance was coldly evil and Jaudur as a result was the embodiment of both avarice and apathy. Let’s face it Stamp knows how to act buddies. The acting is enjoyable and sincere and the actors’ pronunciation and grasp of Arabic terminology is highly admirable especially on the part of Ustinov senior—yes my dear reader Pavla Ustinov is his daughter.
Must-see-scenes: Hassan’s magical antics and disappearance act that saves the life of Taj, who was being pursued by police for stealing a watermelon; Jaudar’s flying horsemen vs Taj and Hassan during their magic carpet ride; and the eerie passage that leads Taj and Hassan to the Temple of Wisdom, where the all seeing eye exists—the most expensive item.