Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
One Thousand and One Nights
Back in the early 1990s, when Turner Broadcasting’s TNT network had but little idea how to market itself, in traditional afternoon-TV-programming fashion, it would show a colorful array of B- and otherwise-forgotten fantasy features. These might be titles more widely known to folks older than myself who enjoyed real-life matinees, but then they might understand the overwhelming joy of seeing, say, all of the Sinbad voyages populated with Ray Harryhausen’s brilliant monsters, or the shaky but visually dazzling (and recently remade) Jack the Giant Killer, as a seven-year-old. I remember, in particular, one especially enchanting offering that stuck with me, and single-handedly ignited a lifelong obsession with basically any spinoff of the myriad One Thousand and One Nights fables—and all this before Disney’s version was ever known to me. The film was 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, directed, in part, by legendary British filmmaker, Michael Powell.
The movie opens with a fairly befuddling, achronological plot structure, assuaged instantly by powerful color palettes and an obvious, scarlet-turbaned villain, Jaffar, played by the magnificent Conrad Veidt (yet another actor I have a deep obsession with, and whose gifts merit his own installment of this column). What’s more, the film creates the same suspension of disbelief as a musical, beginning with a chantey from the nondescript dark-skinned sailors toiling among the ships in the harbor. From there, we enter into a garden of mystical delights: a brilliant blue-landscaped city, lots of men in wonderful eye shadow, vibrant and gravity-defying costuming, and a blind beggar (a rather wooden John Justin) accompanied by his hyper-intelligent dog.
We soon discover (via the beggar’s sob story) that he’s really the cursed and deposed King Ahmad, and his faithful cur is the similarly cursed young thief, Abu (the second-best actor in the bunch, the original Mowgli, Sabu, who does all his own stunts, of course). It’s Jaffar who has cursed them, in a ploy to capture the princess (June Duprez), and who is now using them again to wake the princess from her heartbreak-induced stupor. Luckily, shortly thereafter, Ahmad’s sight is restored and Abu becomes his boy-shaped spry self, and our true adventure can begin. Jaffar bribes the characteristically stupid sultan of Basra, who happens to be an avid collector of magical and creepy toys, with a wind-up flying horse, in exchange for the princess’s hand in marriage. Upon realizing how miserable he’s made his daughter, the sultan reneges on his promise, and Jaffar arranges for his assassination by gifting him a seductive, blue-skinned, six-armed woman, who plays the sitar and dances simultaneously, and whose embrace is, well, rather consuming. I can’t describe what an impression this death scene made on my young self, only that, to this day, I find blue-skinned, multi-armed women incredibly compelling (here’s looking at you, Kali).
But this is just the beginning! We still have to follow Abu as he captures an enormous, bellowing Djinn, or “genie” (played by the handsome African-American actor, Rex Ingram—another complicated, compelling figure who deserves a write-up of his own). The special effects here aren’t exactly up to the Harryhausen caliber, but they hold up astonishingly well after all these years—if you can ignore the green paint on Ingram’s face in favor of his giant, yellow, talon-like toenails. Also, it should be said that Djinn gets all the best lines. While the rest of the cast deals in melodramatic myth-speak (i.e. “What good are my eyes to me, without her?”), Ingram gets the chance to declaim perhaps my favorite monologue of all time, in his description of how the world remains intact:
Abu: Does the world have a roof?
Djinn: Of course! Supported by seven pillars, and the seven pillars are set on the shoulders of a genie whose strength is beyond thought, and the genie stands on an eagle, and the eagle on a bull, and the bull on a fish, and the fish swims in the sea of eternity!
From there, we get to enter the temple of the Goddess of Light, where Abu shimmies up a man-eating spider’s web (suspended above a giant octopus’s pool), surrounded on all sides by terrifying green-faced devotees of the goddess, in an effort to pluck out her all-seeing ruby eye. It’s easily the most memorable scene of the film, and despite latter-day battles with giant flesh-eating spiders (ahem, The Return of the King) it remains a pretty jarring depiction.
While being a light-hearted, Technicolor epic, it’s still a film that retains adult tones—Abu is, after all, a thief, and acquires everything through basic dishonesty. Moreover, characters like Djinn who are, in later iterations, reliable sidekicks, are totally untrustworthy, and even threatening figures. Not to mention the fact that almost all Western versions of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, including even the more critically accepted ones like Pier Pasolini’s lecherous romp, Arabian Nights (1974), never manage to escape racist stereotypes and the generally rape-y undertones of the plot.
However, I must also recommend two other spellbinding versions, one being the 1924 original, a silent epic of the same name (the 1940 film is considered, by many, a remake). Starring a bouncy, ferociously gesticulating, muscle-bound Douglas Fairbanks (whose entire career was just hat-tipped in The Artist) in blouse-y pants as Ahmed, an expert thief posing as a prince in order to win the hand of the (once again) nameless princess, the film was one of the most expensive of its day, and the elaborate costuming, palatial sets, and unprecedented special-effects thrills (like the underwater tumble with, again, a giant spider) make it an immortal piece of artwork. The film also stars another silent film great, Anna May Wong, in a markedly racist role as a treacherous Mongol slave. Unflattering depiction aside, Wong’s talent is so radiant, she renders the veiled and drowsy princess completely forgettable.
And, for a most special treat, I recommend another silent (but brief) feature: 1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This German picture is hailed as the earliest existing animated feature film (take that, Aladdin!), more over, it was helmed by a female animator and director, Lotte Reiniger. The animation technique is her highly stylized art-deco silhouettes—Reiniger employed a form a stop-motion animation involving paper cutouts contrasted against brilliantly colored backgrounds. It may sound like a misleadingly simple method, but the film’s visuals are easily as intricate as the set details in each of the other two films. Prince Achmed is, in fact, so beautiful, two of my Germanophile friends screened the film in the background of their wedding reception, and that’s a true story.