CLASSIC REEL : The Thief of Bagdad

Cast: Sabu, John Justin, Conrad Veidt and June Duprez

Year of Release: 1940

Directed by: Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan

Plot: A deposed king and his unlikely but loyal ally- Abu the thief- join forces to reclaim his kingdom and his future wife from the clutches of his evil former Vizier.

This beloved 'Arabian Nights'  fantasy classic is actually a remake of the 1924 movie of the same name, which starred Douglas Fairbanks and was the debut film of John Justin, who played the deposed King Ahmad, grandson of Harun al- Rashid. Playing the titular character was Indian actor Sabu Dastagir (simply known as Sabu), the only non-European cast member, as most of the cast were English; with the exception of Conrad Veidt who was German and Rex Ingram who was American.

As with most 'Arabian Nights' tales, expect to see magic,  a  flying carpet, a Djinn (Genie), a sorcerer, a flying horse, nasty executioners and a monster and of course a very beautiful princess. Considering it was the 1940s, the special effects are mindblowing hence why the movie deserved its Oscar for Special Effects, besides one for Best Cinematography and Art Direction. It is also the first film to make use of blue screen and one of the early films to tell its backstory via flashback, not surprising since that was the style of the Arabian Nights.

This movie also has a rich Arabian feel, compared to the many years later 1992 animated movie- Aladdin. While it is a tale from the Arabian Nights, old and new fans of this movie can't fail to notice how Disney borrowed several things from it, like the names Abu and Jaffar- more so with Jaffar as Aladdin's Jaffar looked and sounded exactly like the Jaffar here. And don't get me started with the American accents and the rather too western genie... no offence to the late Robin Williams who we miss terribly! And Abu was also a thief and the main character's sidekick, except that he was a monkey. Plus... Sabu's real life daughter's name was, believe it or not, Jasmine Sabu-  who passed away in 2001. 

While Sabu was amusing as the irrepressible and resourceful thief, it was actually Viedt who stole the show as the evil and sinister Jaffar, who not only turned the people against Ahmand but tricked him out of his throne  and sort to have Ahmad's beloved, the princess (played by June Duprez; we never find out her character's actual name, oddly enough) as his wife. She is the daughter of the Sultan of Basra (Miles Malleson), who was the film's comic relief and clueless to the type of man Jaffar was, his sad end leaving the fans in tears. Viedt was so sinister as Jaffar, giving his lines in that creepily quiet tone most of the time, which was a lot scarier than if he actually raised his voice- which he hardly did for most of the movie and looked a lot more eastern than John and June.

John Justin's film debut was memorable as the dignified and dashing deposed king, even in his plain clothes and period of blindness, dramatically telling his story to Halima and the other handmaidens. He had great camaraderie with Sabu and while he and June didn't have a lot of scenes together, their characters were actually cute together and we find ourselves rooting for them.

And there was Sabu. Sabu was only 16 at the time, making him the youngest cast member of the movie and he was excellent! From his first appearance fleeing a crowd after a funny prank to the final battle, Sabu had heart-stopping moments and acted through all of them like a pro. Sabu may have been young but even Viedt did not completely overshadow his performance. Sabu was charming, adorable and very funny.

The Thief of Bagdad is a timeless classic, comedy, romance and fantasy... all rolled into one. A must see and a must have!


Sabu's next role was  Mowgli in Jungle Book (1942), directed by Zoltan Korda, whose brother Alexander produced The Thief of Bagdad.

The role of the princess previously went to Vivien Leigh but she turned it down after she was chosen to play Scarlett O' Hara in Gone With The Wind (1938).


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