Monday, June 28, 2010

100 years, 100 films 15: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I really wasn't expecting to dislike this movie. I especially wasn't expecting to dislike it as vehemently as I did. The first ten minutes of the film were really good - Douglas Fairbanks playing a lovable asshole thief, using his amazing acrobatic skills to steal stuff from people in inventive and fun ways. "Oh good," I thought to myself, "this is some interesting character development. I assume by the end of the film, he'll have learnt not to be such a dick, he'll have won the hand of a beautiful princess, and he'll have put his fun and inventive acorbatic skills to the cause of the just. This should be a lot of fun." Well, I was right about everything, except the "lot of fun" part.

Most of the problem of the film comes from the fact that, after the good first ten minutes, the film grinds to a screeching halt for about an hour and a half for this unbelievably tedious romance bullshit between Douglas Fairbanks as the thief and I-Don't-Care-What-Her-Name-Was as the princess. This entire hour and a half should have been about ten, maybe fifteen minutes. The Princess has a bunch of suitors she doesn't really like, but her dad's forcing her to marry one of them. When things look at their worst, she spies a handsome rapscallion whoms she takes an instant fancy to. He takes a fancy to her, they fall in love, the father refuses the match, the thief runs off to become a proper Prince. That's what happened. And if it had happened in a reasonable length of time, it would have been fine. But this stuff, this stuff which should be purely setup for the adventures to come, takes up an hour and a goddamn half. This tedious bullcrap is most of the movie.

And once it finally gets to the adventure stuff, well, it's fine, but it certainly isn't good enough to make up for the unbelievably dreary shit that preceded it. Part of the problem with this part is that, yes, we have Fairbanks running around, being all swashbuckle-y, but we also have these stupid pointless scenes of the Princess's suitors, running around like dicks looking for precious items with which to win the Prencess's heart, and my god did I not care about them. Fairbanks would slay a dragon, then it would cut to some idiot buying a rug from a market stall. Cut back to Fairbanks talking to these legitimately awesome looking tree people, cut to some douche stealing a magical gem from some Hindi statue. These are characters who exist solely to be bested by Fairbanks. Why the hell would I want to see their non-Fairbanks related exploits? Why should I care at all? You manifestly failed to make them interesting during the goddawful palace romance stuff, why do you think I'd be interested now?

Even the Fairbanks adventure stuff isn't all that great. I mean, it's fine, but Fairbanks fighting a dragon just isn't as interesting as Fairbanks fighting a man. When he's up against a man, we see his swashbuckling fury, and he leaps and swings his way across the set like a brilliant madman. Here, he sees a dragon, he thinks, "oh shit, a dragon." He pulls out his sword. He stabs the dragon. He puts his sword away. That's all we get. No leaping around. No using crazy props. No real fun. And there's no real sense of danger, either. When Fairbanks swordfights other men, the battles sometimes make it look like Fairbanks might lose, or at least it might take him quite a while to get into a position from where he can win. Because the dragon is a big, cumbersome puppet, there isn't any actual fighting. He sees it, he stabs it, he wins. No back and forth. No tension. But I'll concede that most of my irritation with this stuff was probably because I was already bored out of my skull at this point, and it was going to take one hell of an awesome fight scene to make me not bored. If the film before this had been better, this stuff would have been fine. Not great, but fine.

There is a decent movie buried amongst the tedious muck here. I just wish Raoul Walsh, the director, had allowed his editor to find it. It's a concept that should run for eighty, maybe ninety minutes. But because Walsh was so in love with every single frame of his movie, he let it run on and on and on and on for an interminable two and a half hours. And I can see why. The art direction, set decoration, costumes, they're all glorious. The movie is great to look at. You could take any individual still frame from this film, and it'd be beautiful. But this beauty just doesn't translate into a good film. It just doesn't.

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