Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad
seen on TV @ TCM

Being a child of the 80s, I tend to think of that decade as the time when the action movie - and the action movie hero - came of age. Arnie and Sly, of course, but also Bruce, Clint (to a certain extent), and Norris, Russell, Ford and Bronson. Most of these guys were part of my moviegoing experience as a child. When it comes to action heroes, though, there's one guy who predates them all, and he goes way farther back.

I can't say I knew a great deal about Douglas Fairbanks other than the basics: silent film superstar, married to Mary Pickford, co-founded United Artists. Lately, though, I've been reading about the silent era (more about that in a future post) and his was one of the many stories I've been learning about, which is why I watched The Thief of Bagdad [sic] yesterday, to see him for the first time. It's basically a story in the Arabian Nights tradition: hood rat and career thief makes good by winning the hand of the princess through struggle and great quests.

Fairbanks was known for his great athleticism, and indeed, he does a whole lotta running and jumping and leaping in Thief. Needless to say, he usually did all his own stunts. Like many silent film actors, his acting style is expressive to a degree which we might think of as excessive today, but it's only because they didn't have sound back then. Meaning of thought and emotion had to be made clear, so you get things like Fairbanks throwing up his arms a lot, in surprise or joy, depending on the context. The medium was still new, after all, and everyone was in the process of creating a visual language.

Can anyone today be compared to Fairbanks? Tom Cruise has the dedication and the variety of action settings, but he doesn't have Fairbanks' infectious joie de vivre. In his prime, Cruise's on-screen persona tended to be more cocky than boisterous. Jackie Chan has that exuberance, but Fairbanks, of course, never knew martial arts. Truth is, action stars are cut from a different cloth. They tend to be glowering and humorless most of the time, and in the absolute best shape of their lives. Fairbanks was obviously not a 98-pound weakling, but he looked like a guy you could see in real life, as opposed to a bodybuilder. And he wasn't afraid to smile in his movies.

Thief simply bowls you over and knocks you the hell out with its scale. Today we think of movies like Avatar or the Lord of the Rings movies that create these fully realized worlds almost entirely through computers, creating a virtual environment of the imagination. Back then, though, Hollywood did it the old-fashioned way - by hand - and Thief is startling in its sheer size. The palace of the caliph, the Bagdad streets, the fantasy realms that Fairbanks travels through, they're all tremendous! They dwarf the human actors at every turn, and of course they were all hand-built and are therefore solid and physical. 

It's spectacle of the kind you don't expect from such an old movie. After awhile, I stopped thinking about the plot holes and leaps of logic and just gave in to the splendor - which also included the costumes, the props, the makeup, the primitive, yet surprisingly effective visual effects, and the cast of thousands. It's not perfect, but for what it is, it's impressive.


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