Thief of Bagdad, The (1940): Glorious Technicolor, Oscar-Winning Version by Korda

A spectacular Technicolor Arabian fantasy film, The Thief of Bagdad was produced by the brilliant Hungarian Jew Alexander Korda, and directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan.

Korda’s brothers, Vincent and Zoltan, also made major contributions to the technical aspects of the production.

The large ensemble includes the naturally charming child actor Sabu, German actor Conrad Veidt, Hollywood’s greatest villain, the handsome John Justin, and the beautiful June Duprez.

Although the film was produced by Korda’s company in London, after the outbreak of WWII, the shoot was moved to California.

Marking the first use of blue screen, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning the Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction (Vincent Korda) and Special Effects (Lawrence W. Butler, Jack Whitney).   It lost the Original Music Score Award.

A remake of the 1924 silent, this version differ in many ways, the thief and the prince are separate characters.

Detailed Plot (Scene by Scene)

The movie is more plot than character-driven, with twists and turns that capture the tradition and spirit of the Arabian Nights.

Ahmad (John Justin), the handsome and naive King of Bagdad, is talked by his evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), to disguise himself as a poor man to in order to get familiar with his residents.

Jaffar then throws Ahmad into a dungeon, where he is joined by the young thief Abu (Sabu). Joining forces, they escape to Basra, where Ahmad meets and falls for its Princess (June Duprez), a woman so beautiful no man can look at her.

Jaffar journeys to Basra to pursue the Princess, and her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson), is absolutely intrigued by the magical flying horse that Jaffar offers. Upon hearing of the impending marriage, the Princess, deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away. Confronted by Ahmad, Jaffar magically blinds him and turns Abu into a dog.  The spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess.

Captured and sold in the slave market, the Princess is bought secretly by Jaffar, and she falls into deep sleep at his house. Jaffar’s servant Halima (Mary Morris) manipulates the Princess’s awakening and then lures her onto Jaffar’s ship, promising a doctor to cure Ahmad’s blindness. The ship sails, and when Jaffar tells the Princess about the spell, she agrees to be embraced so that Ahmad’s sight be restored and Abu resumes his human self. They chase after the ship in a small boat, but Jaffar conjures up a storm and shipwreck.

Abu wakes up on a deserted beach, where he finds a bottle, within which Djinn-genie (Rex Ingram) appears. Embittered by imprisonment, the genie plans to kill his rescuer, but Abu tricks him back into the bottle. The genie then grants Abu three wishes if he will let him out. Hungry, the boy uses his first wish for food (sausages).

The genie flies Abu to the world’s tallest mountain, where a temple contains an enormous statue with a jewel–the All-Seeing Eye–in its forehead. The Eye will show Abu Ahmad’s location. In what’s arguably the film’s most visually spectacular scene, Abu fights off a giant guardian spider while climbing the statue to steal the gem.

The Princess pleads with Jaffar to return to Basra, and she begs her father not to force her into marrying Jaffar. Furious at the Sultan breaking his word, Jaffar gives him another mechanical toy, a dancing statue of the “Silver Maid” (also Mary Morris), which stabs the Sultan to death.

Ahmad asks to see the Princess, and Abu allows for a gaze into the All-Seeing Eye. Jaffar arranges for the Princess to inhale the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, which makes her forget her love.  Abu unthinkingly wishes Ahmad to Bagdad, and the genie, freed after the last wish, abandons Abu in the wilderness.

Ahmad is captured in Jaffar’s castle, but his presence restores the Princess’s memory. Unable to watch his friend’s impending doom, Abu shatters the All-Seeing Eye and is transported to the “land of legend,” where he is greeted by the Old King (Morton Selten) and thanked for freeing the inhabitants. Given a magic crossbow, he is named the king’s successor.  In order to save Ahmad, Abu steals the king’s magic flying carpet.

In another spectacular scene, Abu arrives in Bagdad by air, sparking a revolt against Jaffar. Abu kills Jaffar with his crossbow, and Ahmad regains his kingdom and his love. In the end, upon hearing Ahmad’s plan to send him to school to become his new Grand Vizier, Abu instead flies away on the carpet to find his own adventure–and fate.

Initially, Alexander Korda wished that Vivien Leigh play the Princess, but she opted to go to Hollywood to be with her then lover and future husband, Laurence Olivier.

The production values are so dazzling that they make up for the lack of strong chemistry between the two leads.


Conrad Veidt as Jaffar

Sabu as Abu

June Duprez as the Princess

John Justin as Ahmad

Rex Ingram as the Djinn

Miles Malleson as the Sultan of Basra

Morton Selten as the Old King

Mary Morris as Halima, Jaffar’s agent

Bruce Winston as the Merchant

Hay Petrie as the Astrologer

Adelaide Hall as the Singer

Roy Emerton as the Jailor

Allan Jeayes as the Story Teller


Written by Lajos Bíró, Miles Malleson

Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography: George Perinal
Edited by Charles Crichton
Distributed by United Artists
Release date: December 5, 1940 (US), December 25, 1940 (UK)
Running time: 106 minutes