Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong
Director: Raoul Walsh
Over 90 years since it was made, Douglas Fairbanks’ silent era swashbuckler continues to wow with its combination of gymnastic action, cheeky humour, inventive special effects and lavish scale. Although Raoul Walsh was the putative director, this was very much Fairbanks’ baby. After first considering famous painter Maxfield Parrish for the role of art director, he drafted in the young William Cameron Menzies to create a glittering, towering Art Deco vision of Baghdad on 6 ½ acres of the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio backlot. The result was a perfect setting for Fairbanks’ remarkable physical grace and strength.
At the start of the film, his Ahmed is a barechested idler and braggart – convincingly boyish despite the fact that Fairbanks was 40 years old during shooting – who filches while others toil and has a good laugh doing it. However, he rapidly grows up when he breaks into the Caliph’s palace and falls swooningly in love with Julanne Johnston’s Princess (although a modern viewer’s eye is more likely to stray to her scantily clad serving girls, in their pre-Code short shorts and bandeau tops). Intrigue and amiable comedy follow as he disguises himself as one of the princely suitors courting her, finding a deadly rival in Cham Shang, the treacherous prince of the Mongols who has designs on the whole of Baghdad.
Then, in the latter half of the movie, Ahmed goes into full heroic mode as he sets off on a quest to locate a magic chest and encounters a series of perils and wonders brought to life with the best trick shots and mechanical effects the era had to offer, including a creepy tree man, a zippy magic carpet and a green-tinted mermaid’s cavern complete with octopus chandeliers, a giant water bug and floaty slowmo swordplay.
Walsh’s direction is just a little static compared to, say, Murnau or Griffith, but the film bubbles with a wit and an intelligent eye for detail that keep it from feeling even remotely old and fusty. The characters are brightly sympathetic. The Princess, a modern girl under her gauzy draperies and nose jewellery, charms us by reacting with understandable horror when she catches sight of her suitors, wincing at their various flaws. At the same time there are touches of the full-bloodedly exotic, as in the way the Caliph’s palace is guarded at night by tigers and a huge, furious-looking chimpanzee.
The screen is also livened up enormously by some unusually brave and thoughtful casting in key roles – Japanese actor Sojin Kamijama gives a leanly malevolent performance as the Mongol Prince and the stunning, long-legged Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in all allure as the Mongol slave girl who is his spy in the Caliph’s palace. There’s even a bit of cross-dressing going on, with actress Mathilde Comont doing a comical turn as a portly Persian prince who is in the running for the Princess’ hand.
The HD transfer, taken from a 35 mm print, is very clean and sharp, with little in the way of dirt, grain or scratches. The textures of costumes, the sheen of skin, all come up very nicely, as do the spectacular set-pieces, such as the suitors’ procession into the Caliph’s palace, Ahmed’s visit to the Valley of Fire and the cast-of-thousands-style scenes of Mongol hordes towards the end of the movie. Extras include a 17-minute video essay (stills with captions) by Fairbanks’ biographer Jeffrey Vance with some nice technical info and some great behind-the-scenes shots, including one of the magic carpet suspended on steel wires from a giant crane.
Vance returns for an extremely informative and authoritative audio commentary. He talks about the various trick shots and practical FX that were employed on the movie – such as piano wire for the magic rope, and glass shots (a sheet of painted glass interposed between the camera and the scene) for the mermaids’ cavern – and about how influenced Fairbanks was by ballet, particularly Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (hard to imagine a modern Hollywood A-lister being quite so au fait with the avant-garde performing arts).