Directed by Raoul Walsh, but produced by the highly independent Fairbanks, Thief tells the story of Ahmed (Fairbanks) who encounters danger and adventure in equal measure in a purely studio based film. Featuring ahead of its time special effects such as the famous climatic flying carpet ride, the film is indicative of one man's vision. In stark contrast to the stringent Hollywood studio system that was still 10 years away from its heyday, this was a film full of invention and imagination.
We are still ten years from Capra's coming out party with It Happened One Night, 15 years from John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939, the same year as Hitchock's final UK film before he came to America in 1940 under David O. Selznick to make Rebecca. In the mid 1920s three years before the advent of sound in cinema, the art form was following theatre by making the actor the star. The stars knowing this wanted more creative control of their final product.
Fairbanks was a contemporary of the other two Hollywood darlings of the mid to late 1920s, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. The three of them helped form United Artists; the independent production company that allowed the three stars to make what films they wanted and give them the power to produce and in Chaplin's case ultimately direct. It gave them the freedom to pursue artistic endeavours of their own volition.
In Fairbanks case it was a chance to do something of this scale, a film with vastness of a Cecil B. DeMille film but with the imagination of Melieres whilst embracing a key central performance by the featured actor. In a way you could say Thief is the first actor led film who was not reliant upon the name of a director be it Griffith/Lubitsch above the title.
If that's the case the Thief of Baghdad is an amazing Hollywood product - larger than life, fantastical, amazing and hugely entertaining. The reason a silent cinema featuring the problem of a white man play a Muslim is accepted due to the sheer photogenic presence of Fairbanks himself. Like his contemporary Chaplin, there is a magnetism about his performance the way he moves and does his own stunts all with a charm burning from his shirtless torso and a smile beaming from whiter than white teeth set against the vast production and set design.
While the case this could be made as an actor's auteur film, the work of Walsh who would go on to direct such classic Hollywood fare as High Sierra and White Heat, should not be ignored. Coming to the set as a somewhat novice, this was his first major production and he does a great service to the film by keeping the tempo and tone throughout the work.
From shimmering up a rope out of a basket to the carpet ride, there are thrills and spills a plenty in this brisk 140 minute running time. It would be a great introduction for many to the joys of silent cinema, helped by the sprightly new score by Carl Davis and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The dual format Blu-ray/DVD edition has an accompanying 40 page booklet by Laura Boyes from the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The Thief of Baghdad will be released on Blu-ray/DVD dual format on Monday 24th November at £14.99 rrp