© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

The Thief of Bagdad is one of British cinema’s most magical films, something like a British answer to The Wizard of Oz, made in America just one year earlier. It is very much a collaborative effort, with different scenes shot in different locations and with different directors, including Michael Powell, one of the most important directors in British film history. But this film is held together by the vision of its producer, Alexander Korda, who managed to coordinate all of the different parts into a smoothly functioning whole. Using what were then state-of-the-art special effects and what was at the time one of the most effective uses of color in the history of film[1], The Thief of Bagdad uses modern technology to create a truly magical world, one in which young viewers, in particular, could completely lose themselves, mesmerized by the story and by the stunning visuals with which the story is presented. On the other hand, viewed through twenty-first century eyes, The Thief of Bagdad is a problematic film because its magical setting is superimposed over the real-world Middle East, with most of the action taking place in real cities (Baghdad and Basra) located in modern-day Iraq. And these real-world settings are made magical via the use of a panoply of traditional Orientalist images of a kind that were long used to support the domination of the Middle East by Britain and other Western powers. On the other hand, the film appropriates a number of images from Eastern cultures in a mode that is not as much as a prop for colonial exploitation as it is simply a means of entertaining Western audiences and increasing its box-office appeal.

The basic story of The Thief of Bagdad surrounds the efforts of the Grand Vizier (and evil magician) Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) to usurp the throne in Baghdad from Ahmad (John Justin) the rightful ruler, while at the same time stealing away Ahmad’s true love, the Princess (June Duprez). Most of the plot involves Jaffar’s initial success and the subsequent efforts of Ahmad and his sidekick, the young thief Abu (Sabu), to fight their way through various exotic obstacles (sometimes with the help of a giant genie) to win back Ahmad’s throne and to rescue the Princess from Jaffar so that she can join him. It’s a rollicking adventure, filled with exotica. And its magical texture is such that, even twenty-first-century audiences, accustomed to much more sophisticated computer-enhanced special effects, are able to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story.

The giant genie confronts the relatively tiny Abu.

This story will seem familiar to many American viewers, largely because the popular Disney animated film Aladdin (1992) was largely inspired by The Thief of Bagdad. In addition, this story itself has been committed directly to film several times, beginning with the 1924 American silent film classic of the same title, in which silent-screen legend Douglas Fairbanks plays Ahmed, the swashbuckling thief of the title—and also wins the hand of the Princess, thus combining the roles played by Ahmad and Abu in the 1940 film. Versions of the same story were also adapted to film in various countries in 1952, 1961, and 1978, suggesting the lasting appeal of the story.

The story itself originates in the Arabian Nights (also known as One Thousand and One Nights), a well-known collection of folk tales that forms a key part of the cultural traditions of the Middle East—though the settings of the stories range throughout the Eastern world. Compiled over a period of several centuries in various languages by various people in various parts of the Middle East, One Thousand and One Nights is held together by a frame story involving a king, Shahryār, who rules lands ranging through India and China. Disappointed by his unfaithful wife (whom he has had executed), Shahryār adopts a misogynistic attitude toward all women. Seeking revenge against all women, he marries a series of virgins (procured by his vizier), then has each of them executed the morning after the wedding night, thus assuring that they can never be unfaithful to him. When the supply of available virgins eventually runs out, Scheherazade, the daughter of Shahryār’s vizier, offers herself as the next bride. She then endeavors to prevent her execution by telling the king an entrancing story each night, but always leaving the story unfinished so that the king will keep her alive until the next night so he can hear the conclusion. She then starts a new story each night, for a series of 1001 nights, until the king finally falls in love with her and makes her his permanent queen.

Arabian Nights, which compiles Scheherazade’s stories,was first translated into French in the early eighteenth century and into English in the 1880s, though translations were complicated by the fact that the work is a loose collection of tales that accumulated over time, so that there is no definitive original edition. The first English translations were also complicated by the fact that some of the sexual imagery of the tales was considered offensive to the conservative sensibilities of Victorian England, so that the translations either had to be bowdlerized or published in special editions for private subscribers only, thus avoiding the strict obscenity laws of the time. Nevertheless, One Thousand and One Nights has maintained an important place in Western culture since its first translations—partly because the stories are so compelling and partly because the exotic nature of the stories was so perfectly suited for conscription by a European Orientalist discourse that already though it knew everything worth knowing about the Middle East.

The term “Orientalism” these days is closely associated with the work of the eminent scholar Edward Said, whose 1978 book of that title extensively documents the ways in which Western (especially French and British) scholars, writers, and artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to describe the Middle East through a consistent series of stereotypes designed to demonstrate the superiority of the West to the East and to define the West through opposition to an inferior East. Easterners, according to the discourse of Orientalism, were lazy, illogical, and given to fits of passion; Westerners, on the other hand, were hard-working, rational, and responsible. The East (viewed as a homogenous realm that included essentially everything but Western Europe and its direct cultural spinoffs, such as North America and Australia) was mired in ancient beliefs, resistant to change, yet also in a state of decay, having reached its peak centuries ago but now having slid into decadence and moral and political weakness. The West, in contrast, was vibrant, democratic, open to progress.

The Orientalist discourse described by Said is closely aligned with the phenomenon of colonialism. Indeed, for Said, the existence of this discourse was a crucial part of the mindset that made colonialism possible in the first place. Colonialism, after all, centrally depends upon a sharp sense of polar opposition between the colonizer and the colonized, with the colonizer assuming an innate superiority, which the colonized are supposed to recognize. However, despite the element of contempt that is built into Orientalist attitudes toward the East, there is also an element of fascination. Because of the licentiousness of the East, there is a possibility of exotic sexual experience there that simply cannot be imagined in the West, and Oriental women (whether they be brazen courtesans, undulating belly dancers, or coyly veiled virgins) know sexual secrets that no Western woman would dare to know. There also potential treasures to be found in the East that are unrivaled by anything in the West. Finally, there is danger and violence in the East, but the very lack of order there also means that there are adventures to had, obstacles to be overcome, opportunities for a Western man to prove his worth and his superiority.

The Thief of Bagdad includes a panoply of standard Orientalist images, including camels and elephants, cruel beheadings, magical treasures, mysterious women in harems, exotic castles with minarets, a number of magical contraptions, the giant genie, and the treacherous villain. The film is a visually impressive spectacle that puts a great deal of emphasis on the way things look in order to build a magical, exotic atmosphere. It also thematizes this emphasis on the visual by calling attention to the motif of looking within the film. As the film begins, for example, we see a ship arriving at the docks, a giant eye painted on its bow. Then we immediately see a cut to the face of Jaffar, arriving on the ship, his mouth and nose covered so that we see only the sinister, piercing glare of his eyes. Indeed, Jaffar’s magical powers seem to emanate from his eyes, and many shots throughout the film emphasize his and other characters’ eyes—as in the shot of Ahmad’s widening, smitten eyes when he first sees the Princess. Later, Jaffar will exert his dominion over Ahmad by rendering him blind, while Sabu is able to locate and ultimately save Ahmad by consulting the “All-Seeing Eye,” which he acquires in a daring theft.

Alan S. Weber details some of the Orientalist inclinations of The Thief of Bagdad, as well as Powell’s later Black Narcissus (1947), concluding that, in these films Powell “presents an unproblematic and traditional British Orientalism replete with 19th century notions of the East as sensual, feminine and exotic” (103). And Weber is right to recognize the Orientalism of these films, even if he (wrongly) seems to want to attribute all of the Orientalism of The Thief of Bagdad to Powell, treating the film as if it were solely the product of Powell’s imagination, when in fact his role in conceiving the film was clearly secondary to that of Korda. But Weber is also wrong to see the Orientalism of this film as a mere extension of traditional nineteenth-century Orientalism.

The Thief of Bagdad certainly presents the East as a mysterious, sensuous, exotic realm, with is consistent with traditional Orientalism. However, the film’s attitude toward the East is not a simple one. There are certainly hints in the film of Oriental cruelty and treachery, but even Jaffar (partly thanks to the performance of Veidt) has a sympathetic, even tragic side: he is portrayed as loving the Princess but as lacking the power (despite his skills as a sorcerer) to make her love him in return. Meanwhile, it is certainly the case that The Thief of Bagdad is directly related to the colonial adventure narratives that are described elsewhere in this volume and that had been such a popular part of British culture since the late nineteenth century. In general, however, the film partakes less of the “colonialist” form of Orientalism described by Said and more of the newer form of “consumerist” Orientalism recently described by Booker and Daraiseh.

The sinister eyes of Jaffar.

Appearing in conjunction with (and as part of) the rise of consumer capitalism all over the Western world (but especially in Britain and the United States) at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, this new form of Orientalism again appropriates Eastern culture for the use of the West, but now does so in order to use exotic Oriental imagery, not as a tool of colonial domination, but as a tool of consumerist marketing. William Leach, in his impressive study Land of Desire, notes the rise of consumer capitalism in the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century. Describing the rapid spread of new marketing techniques as part of this phenomenon he notes that “perhaps the most popular of all merchandising themes in the years before World War I was the oriental theme, fashion from the bottom up, as it were, not, as with much of Paris couture, from the top down” (104). Leach notes that fashion based on Oriental (especially Middle Eastern) styles had an attractive hint of something “luxurious,” but also “impermissible,” certainly exotic and perhaps a bit risqué. And this phenomenon of employing Oriental motifs went far beyond clothing to include circuses, world’s fairs, movies, live theater, fiction, and even public parks. These themes were attractive to Americans because they suggested an air of something vital and energetic and mysterious that the increasingly routinized and commodified lifeworld of individuals under capitalism sorely lacked.

As Booker and Daraiseh note, these Orientalist marketing schemes spilled over into popular culture in a variety of ways but gained particular energy from the early-twentieth-century emergence of film as a major medium. Films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad clearly partake of many of the same energies that drove not only the colonial adventure narrative, but a variety of other popular genres of the period. From crime stories to ghost stories, these genres allowed readers to experience worlds that contained elements of the strange and the mysterious and the dangerous that were simply lacking in the modern capitalist world. Just as Western consumers enjoyed wearing exotic, Eastern-inspired clothing or smoking Turkish cigarettes, so too did reading escapist stories (or watching them on film) allow them to feel that, at least for a short time, they were escaping the boredom and banality of day-to-day capitalist routine.

In the case of The Thief of Bagdad, of course, the contrast between fantasy and reality is complicated by the fact that the exotic world it contrasts to a dreary England still suffering from economic Depression while tottering on the brink of war with Nazi Germany[2] is not a fantasy realm located nebulously “somewhere over the rainbow” but a fantasy realm supposedly based on the real Middle East. As the result, the fantasy is tainted by a legacy of racism and colonial domination that has done a great deal of damage to the people of the Middle East, and this legacy should certainly not be ignored when considering the overall implications of the film.

On one level, The Thief of Bagdad can be seen as an innocent romp designed to entertain children and perhaps to help insulate them from the troubles of a world going to war. But, viewed through the legacy of empire, The Thief of Bagdad becomes a colonialist fantasy that revels in the thought that, somewhere in the world, there exist exotic, magical realms where one can escape the tedium (and endless bureaucratic routine) of Europe. Granted, the film is an unconventional colonial adventure in that it features no English or other European characters, so that the principals are all nominally “Oriental.” However, it is also the case that the two central lovers, Ahmad and the Princess, are fair-skinned, with European features. They are, after all, played by British actors, and they speak perfect British English. The villain, Jaffar (played by the German actor Veidt), looks darker and more sinister and speaks with a slightly foreign accent. On the other hand, Abu (played by the Indian actor Sabu) is darker still and speaks heavily accented English.

Mohja Kahf reads The Thief of Bagdad as a battle between the Western man Ahmad and the Eastern man Jaffar over the body of the nameless Princess. There certainly is some of that in the film, and the Princess’s passivity certainly calls for some gender-based analysis. Kahf is also certainly right to point out that the film erases the reality and history of the Middle East in presenting it as a timeless, magical realm. But Kahf’s analysis is flawed by her own elision of the historical context of the film, which she treats as an American film, ignoring its British origin and the whole history of British colonialism that comes with it. Moreover, the politics of the film are not as simple (or as gender-centered) as Kahf sees them. After all, the real battle in the film is not between Ahmad and Jaffar at all, but between Abu and Jaffar. Ahmad is almost as passive in the film as is the Princess; he and the Princess are virtually observers in this film, and the real action is carried by Jaffar and Abu—Veidt and Sabu, in fact, received top billing in the film. The Princess, in this film, is a place-holder, a sort of fairy-tale maguffin. She is beautiful but virtually sexless. The real object of desire is not the Princess’s body but Abu’s loyalty. Though Kahf virtually ignores Abu in her analysis, he is the real center of the film. Not only is he a figure with whom child viewers can to some extent identify, but he is also the loyal colonial subject of British colonial dreams, those dreams being the true subject of this film. He is thus the true object of colonial desire in the film, not the Princess (who is, in any case, coded as Western and white in the film, not as an exotic Muslim woman as Kahf sees her).

Given the historical situation at the time of the production of the film, one is also tempted to see The Thief of Bagdad as carrying a subtly anti-German message. After all, while he is in many ways a conventional Oriental villain, Jaffar is played by a fiercely anti-Nazi German actor who had been driven from Germany by the rise of Hitler.[3] It is clear that he can be read as a figure of the dangers of Nazi expansionism, which threatened at the time to deprive Britain of its colonies, just as Jaffar deprives Ahmad of his throne in Bagdad. Meanwhile, Abu, by thwarting (and eventually killing) Jaffar via his loyal defense of Ahmad, becomes a fantasy figure of Britain’s loyal colonial subjects rising up to defend their British masters from the German usurper. Clever, resourceful, and heroic though he may be, Abu remains the subject (through much of the film he has been transformed into a dog by Jaffar) and Ahmad remains the master. That Abu is also a child (and a thief) carries strong reminders of the Orientalist stereotyping that informed the colonial mindset, in which colonial subjects were expected to be both childlike and larcenous. The fact that he is played by an Indian actor, rather than an Arab, suggests an attempt to appeal to British audiences who were accustomed to thinking of Indians as their most important colonial subjects (though, in good Orientalist fashion, many in the audience also probably saw little distinction between Indians and Arabs). Indeed, much of the film’s imagery seems more Indian than Arabic, and Abu (with the aid of a flying genie and a flying carpet) does seem to travel to locations far from Baghdad in the course of the film.[4]

A dangerous living statue. This image of the exotic feminine seems more Indian than Arabic.

The irrepressible (and somewhat impish) Abu might remind some viewers of Mowgli, the protagonist of Kipling’s 1894 story collection The Jungle Book. Indeed, Sabu would play Mowgli in the 1942 British film adaptation of The Jungle Book (also produced by Alexander Korda). But American viewers might also be reminded of Huck Finn, one of the best-known characters in all of American literature—and one, who, like Abu is more interested in fun adventures than in becoming a responsible citizen of the civilized world. One might recall that, at the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck sets out for the Indian territories (which played a somewhat similar role in nineteenth-century American culture to the one played by the colonies for the British) to avoid getting adopted and civilized. Similarly, once Ahmad is restored to his throne, with the Princess in line to be his queen, he proposes to send Abu to the finest schools so that he can receive the education needed eventually to make him the new Grand Vizier. In response, Abu frantically hops back on his magic carpet and flies away as the film ends, not wishing to trade the exotic land of adventure that he has explored in the film for the routinized (almost English) world that seems to await him with Ahmad.

To understand the contrast between drab England and the colorful, magical Middle East of The Thief of Bagdad, it is again useful to compare the film to the Wizard of Oz, which contrasts the dreary colorlessness of Depression-era Kansas with the brilliant colors, exciting adventures, and spectacular riches to be found in the land of Oz. The Wizard of Oz carries very different (and very American)political resonances. Here, Oz is largely a consumerist fantasy, rather than an Orientalist one, with the Emerald City standing as a shining citadel of capitalist wealth, though in this sense it should also be added that the 1939 film differs substantially (due the different historical circumstances in which it was produced) from the novel on which it was based, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). As Leach notes, this novel was written just as American consumer capitalism was gaining steam, and it clearly partakes of the energies of that phenomenon, taking a basic fairy-tale structure, then modernizing and Americanizing it to express the new spirit of consumerism that was sweeping the U.S. at the time. The Wizard himself, for example, is a sort of promoter figure, a “broker of other people’s dreams” (253).

Importantly, Baum’s novel was the first of a series of novels in which Oz is stipulated to be real—and to be much preferable to Kansas, which Dorothy eventually abandons to live permanently in Oz. Kansas thus serves as an emblem of traditional agrarian life set in stark opposition to the modern consumerist world of Oz, and the novel clearly regards Oz as the superior of the two alternatives. In the film, however, Oz is imaginary, ephemeral, the stuff of dreams, a get-rich-quick land where one’s existence can never be secure. It thus emphasizes the precariousness of a capitalist system that can lead to things like economic depressions. Here, the more solid, dependable, and down-to-earth Kansas is clearly preferable. The film’s no-place-like-home message counsels Americans, inured to hardship after a decade of Depression, to be patient, to eschew the dream of quick riches (represented by Oz) in favor of an ethic of hard work and determination (represented by Kansas). Stay in your place, don’t rock the boat, keep your nose to the grindstone, and whatever other conservative clichés might apply.

And yet, everything in the film’s sumptuous visuals of Oz seems to privilege that magical land and to make it seem infinitely more attractive than the colorless Kansas. The lure of consumerism shines through in the film regardless of the efforts of the filmmakers to suppress it. This same contradiction would seem to be at work in The Thief of Bagdad, as well. No matter how much the film might be built on an Orientalist foundation that insists on the ultimate superiority of Britain, the richness of its visuals still acts to make the East seem extremely attractive as an alternative. Part of this comes from the inherent contradictions of Orientalist logic, with its combination of horror and fascination toward the East. Similarly, the contradictions in The Wizard of Oz arise partly from the inherent contradictions that lie at the heart of capitalism—with its insistence on equality for all amid a competitive ethos that insists on the fairness of some being very, very rich, while others are very, very poor.

In the case of The Thief of Bagdad, however, the central contradiction arises primarily from the fact that two different forms of Orientalism are simultaneously at work in the film.A strain of traditional colonialist Orientalism certainly still exists in the film—though, oddly, more in the characterization of Abu as a loyal servant than in the presentation of the Middle East as a spectacle of sensuous Technicolor riches. The latter is primarily a matter of the more modern consumerist form of Orientalism, designed not so much to support the colonization of the East as to appropriate recognizable, romanticized Eastern images to entertain Western audiences and enrich the Western film industry. As Booker and Daraiseh note, both forms of Orientalism include elements of both horror and fascination; colonialist Orientalism, however, emphasizes the horror, while consumerist Orientalism emphasizes the fascination.

The Thief of Bagdad, then, is a particularly rich film—both in its lavish visuals and in its extensive, but complex, thematic implications. A glorious adventure that strongly appeals to the sense of wonder in its principal intended audience of young viewers, it also has serious things to say to older viewers and even to advanced students and professional scholars of British culture and of film in general. It is an important cultural marker of its time that clearly reflects the mood of Britain on the eve of World War II. But it is also a landmark in the history of filmmaking that clearly anticipates the growing importance of special effects in the films of subsequent decades.


[1] As a testament to the technical sophistication of the film, it might be noted that it won Academy Awards for Cinematography (Georges Périnal), Art Direction (Vincent Korda), and Special Effects (Lawrence W. Butler and Jack Whitney).

[2] Indeed, the war erupted in the midst of the making of the film, causing the production to have to shift to Hollywood for the final stages in order to avoid German bombs.

[3] The film’s top-credited director, Ludwig Berger, was a German Jew, also in exile from the Nazis. Meanwhile, it might be noted that Veidt appeared as a Nazi in several anti-Nazi American films, including Casablanca (1942), one of the greatest classics in American film history.

[4] Powell, during his work on the film, had just returned from a stay in Burma, and his experience there seems to have influenced the depiction of the Arab cities of Baghdad and Basra in the film.