#24. The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

thief-of-bagdad-posterThe Thief of Bagdad
is a beautiful movie but, alas, it was made in the 1920s and is therefore probably rife with offensive stuff that, given my near-total ignorance of Eastern culture, I didn’t pick up on. The thing that really stuck out to me, though, and that I did look into was the use of the word “Mongol,” as in Mongolian, because characters in the movie keep referring to the “Mongol prince” and I kept thinking, Can you say that? It sounds like you can’t say that. So I went online and saw that “mongol”, as shorthand for “mongoloid”, is a derogatory way of referring to somebody with Down syndrome. I found this interesting essay, though, by a woman from Mongolia who had grown up using the word Mongol to refer to her people “the same way you would refer to a Scot, Turk or Pole. It’s fine.” Then she had a son with Down syndrome and, as she puts it, “the two meanings collided for me”.

So that was interesting.

There’s a particular scene at around the halfway point of Thief of Bagdad where our titular thief (Douglas Fiarbanks) is talking with the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston), they’ve just met, and she tells him right away that she loves him.

They just met.

I’m not seeing anybody at the moment and I’m telling myself that it’s cool, that I’m not really interested in getting tied down right now anyway, but in writing these response essays I think I’m definitely showing an obsession with romance that maybe belies my whole anti-dating conviction. Like maybe I do actually wanna be in a relationship but don’t wanna say so. Or maybe it’s just that I’m terrified of dating and so I bring it up constantly as like an effort to cope? My parents’ very-recent divorce probably definitely has something to do with it but, anyway no, the reason I’m focusing on that quick little scene of what strikes me as a, um, rather hasty declaration of love is because it does seem like people back then, in the 1920s and whenever this movie takes place, had way lower standards for compatibility than we do today. I suspect lust had something to do with this. The idea that it was indecorous or sinful to have sex outside of wedlock probably made wedlock look pretty cool.

Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg released a book in 2016 called Modern Romance and in it they describe going to a few retirement homes in order to speak with the elderly (mostly widows, if I’m remembering correctly) about their marriages, the men they’d loved, et cetera. When these ladies in their seventies and eighties were asked what they’d loved most about the men with whom they’d built families, spent decades of their life, they gave answers like, ahdunno, any man is better than no man at all.

I was afraid the book would just be funny, at the least, and not that interesting, but it's both. Lots of info. I recommend it.
I was afraid the book would just be funny, at the least, and not that interesting, but it’s both. Lots of info. I recommend it.

A lot of them confessed that since the pay gap was so big, and since women couldn’t buy a house without a male cosigner, they tended to leap into marriage at 19 and 20 because it was the only way they could get out of their parents’ house. Then they stayed with their husbands because, sure, some of them were in love, they’d cultivated comfortable lives with their Dude of Choice, but it seems like a lot of these “conventional” romantic unions were predicated on the suppression of women’s rights, that the relationships “worked out” because men could be as monstrous as they pleased without any fear of their wife’s reproach (to where could she flee?) – and yet I hear so many of my peers bemoan the fact that their relationships are inexplicably more turbulent than those of their parents and grandparents. It seems to me like this popular notion of marital bliss is what a marriage looks like when one person subjects themselves entirely to the whims of the other and then keeps their misery a secret. I don’t know. Maybe not. But a friend of mine is currently in Hell trying to untangle a five-year relationship. He and his girlfriend are broken up but still living together because they’ve got seven months left on their lease. He’s 28, she’s 26. Another friend of mine, 29, is getting divorced after three years and two kids because he found his wife trading nudes with a colleague and then there’s my parents’ own divorce, after thirty-one years, which was just finalized a couple months ago and feels, at times, like it’s either not-quite-real or like it’s always been this way. Both of my aunts are divorced, and both sets of grandparents are divorced (one of my grandparents is on a fourth marriage), and the last four women I’ve dated have all revealed while lying in bed, sweaty and buzzed and blanketed in the dark, how much their parents seem to hate each other. Old friends now confide stories like, “Yeah I didn’t say anything at the time but my dad moved out for eight months when we were sixteen,” and about being nine years old and helping their drunk mother into bed while she wept about the father’s affair. Fist fights in the kitchen, furniture overturned. So maybe I’m biased? I’m at an age where whenever I find somebody attractive I look immediately at their ring finger and, more and more each year, there’s a rock on it. My Facebook feed reports an engagement nearly every month among the people I grew up with, three or four at a time in December, and meanwhile I’ve got all these acquaintances, ages 30 and older, who are getting divorced and spewing spite for their ex at every turn.

I’ll say, “Oh that’s a nice sunset.”

They’ll say, “I hope it’s setting on my ex-wife’s career.”

Like horrible shit from the mouths of people who just three years ago were posting their rapturous lovesong all over Facebook.


The Thief of Bagdad is a pretty good movie, though. I enjoyed it. Thought it was a little long, at two and a half hours, but when I skimmed through it again after an initial viewing I didn’t feel like there were any frivolous scenes. I guess it’s pretty trim in that respect. Wouldn’t be surprised if the first cut was twice as long. The sets are gorgeous with what look like black marble floors permeating the city of Bagdad. The thief’s adventures to find a rare gift for the princess, his confrontation with a dragon and a deepwater spider (?) as well as Sirens and a gigantic bat, are really fun and charmingly low-tech. Consider this a tentative recommendation.


  • I love how your reviews often went off on an entirely unrelated but interesting tangent. This review convinced me, not to watch The Thief of Bagdad, but to buy and read Modern Romance as soon as possible.

    And I can’t tell you how much I relate to seeing friends getting married, engaged, and having babies one by one on my Facebook feeds, meanwhile being terrified to enter a serious relationship myself. Kept wondering whether I really want to get married or just feeling left behind because I haven’t achieved this mid 20s life goals that everyone seems to have achieved at ease of getting married and having babies.


    • Modern Romance is in paperback now and well worth the price of admission, glad I could turn you on to it! And yeah, Facebook is really exacerbating these worries, isn’t it? I guess that’s just the way things are now.

      Thank you so much for reading, and for the kind words about all the tangents. I hope you’ll stick around!


  • Well, I for one do recommend the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks having a great time in this 1001 night fairy tale. This is about as far from those miserable relationships as you can get.


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