Monday, June 22, 2009

The Thief of Bagdad

I have a tendency to watch a lot of depressing, or at the very least serious, movies. The Thief of Bagdad is an exception. It's an adventure, over the top, riddled with plot holes, big budget, fun. The movie is is a remake -- I'd guess one of the first -- made in 1940 based on a silent movie from 1924. The characters, settings, and plot have been further liberally borrowed from (Disney's Aladin will be the most apparent example to modern viewers). As children we watched both the 1924 version and the 1940 version (we were pretty confused by the fact that there were two). Watching it as an adult though there are some elements of discomfort particularly to do with race.

Watching older films is interesting partially because of the insight into the culture and worldview of the time. This has a tendency to feel uncomfortable to us most when it applies to race. We don't mind seeing a world in which people see religion or strangely enough even gender very differently, but when it comes to race it tends to provoke a reaction. The Thief of Bagdad is nowhere near the embarassment level of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it is still there. The titular Thief of Bagdad -- Abu, played by the indian actor Sabu, is really representative I think of the roll of the "person of color" as sidekick in a lot of early cinema (and literature for that matter I suppose). He is the loyal, sexless, man-child -- the noble savage. The white man's fantasy of a servant who wants nothing but to help.

The Ahmed, Abu, Princess interactions reminded me of the similar situation in Casablanca with Rick, Sam and Ilsa. I think what seems so strange in both cases is that Sam and Abu clearly have a relationship with the hero's love interest, but it has been so drained of any kind of possibility of anything flirtatious or sexual that it seems unrealistic. The utter absence of anything sexual feels unnatural. The princess is supposed to be this incredible beauty who for both Ahmed and Jaffar one glimpse of her means falling in love forever. Abu sees her and registers no reaction whatsoever even as Ahmed is instantly and permanently head over heels. He is utterly sexless and innocent-- when he finds manages to outwit the genie and secure his 3 wishes he spends the 1st on sausages. Hunger being his only appetite is a recurring theme in the film.

The story begins with a flashback, Ahmed has been blinded and Abu has been very appropriately transformed into a dog (an incredibly cute and well trained dog). Having transformed him Jaffar says, "Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!" I can't imagine that the symbolism could have been lost on the audience -- particularly at the moment when the curse is lifted and there is Abu shaking the water from himself like a dog and still wearing his leash and collar. Before thinking to remove it he calls to his master to make sure he is ok (Ahmed also doesn't seem to think to remove his friend's collar and leash). I suppose Jaffar's temporarily transforming Abu into a dog is not so bad when you consider that Disney permanently transformed him into a monkey.

In the end though it is Abu who does all the real work of the hero. He's the one who helps Ahmed meet the princess, he's the one who guards her as a dog, he's the one who outwits the genie, steals the eye, wishes Ahmed to Bagdad, rescues Ahmed from certain death and kills Jaffar. And yet Ahmed is the one who ends up with the kingdom and the princess.

The final scene is a coronation/wedding -- all three are beautifully dressed though Abu is clearly uncomfortable with any clothing at all. Ahmed is speaking about how he is going to send Abu to schools so that he can become wise and be made Vizier. Upon hearing of his planned civilized future Abu escapes on his magic carpet to go "have some fun". The happy go lucky, loyal, non-threatening native doesn't really want any power or influence. He just wanted to make his master happy.

The other major non-white character in the film is of course the Genie. He is very different from the genie in the Disney movie, and perhaps if Abu is the white fantasy of the loyal, unthreatening servent, then the genie represents their fears. After all when Abu frees him he attempts to kill him. Abu asks him, "How can you be so ungrateful." To which the genie replies "Grateful? Slaves are not grateful. Not for their freedom!"

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