A Hero in the Making: Raoul Walsh’s “The Thief of Bagdad”
A close look at Raoul Walsh’s action classic lays out the prototype of the Hollywood hero.
In Dave Kehr’s indispensible essay on the films of Raoul Walsh, Kehr writes about “the redemptive power of action” in Walsh’s films. The Walshian hero is a “hero in crisis” whose task, as Kehr puts it, is to “invent himself” through his actions and forge a new heroic identity. The opening title card of Walsh’s 1924 classic, The Thief of Bagdad expresses this ethos in so many words: “Happiness Must Be Earned.”
An early film in Walsh’s career, Thief is as much a Douglas Fairbanks Sr. movie as it is a Walsh movie, yet the character of the thief is in fact a very Walshian hero. Though Walsh’s visual style had not fully developed by the time he made Thief, the “hero in crisis” theme that typifies so much of his later work is clearly evident. The thief exemplifies several qualities typical of the Walshian hero:
Watch The Thief of Bagdad on Fandor.
1. Walsh’s heroes are all about energy, movement, action.
In the opening sequence, we see the thief traipsing through Bagdad: scaling walls, stealing money bags, hopping in and out of large pots, and climbing up and down a magic rope. He embodies fluidity, constant movement and unhindered energy.
2. Walsh’s heroes have a dark side informed by inertia.
The thief’s moral weakness is apparent from the beginning as he is busy picking pockets. Feigning sleep, the thief engages in very little movement in order to steal the man’s purse. It is through action that he will come to discover his heroic nature.
3. Walsh’s heroes are “fluid, still open to change and influence.”
In the beginning of the film, the thief lives only for himself and takes what he wants when he wants it. Though he doesn’t know it, he is still open to change. The process begins when he meets a princess, for whom he’s willing to change his appearance. He transforms himself into “Prince Ahmed.”
But this outward transformation will lead to a deeper transformation, a deeper crisis in the hero.
4. Walsh’s heroes are in personal crisis, running from the past.
Disguised as a prince, the thief manages to gain access to the princess. Yet in finally gaining her love, he finds himself deeply distressed. He wishes he could escape his past as a disreputable thief and villain.
Now dealing with a personal crisis, he is ready to take action to change himself completely and forge a new identity.
In order to earn this new identity, however, he must take action.
5. Walsh’s heroes do battle with the world.
Walsh’s films are very much concerned with the individual and his/her struggle to “wrest an identity from the world,” in Kehr’s words. In the case of The Thief of Bagdad, the thief is matched up against a trio of antagonists who represent three of the great empires of the eastern world: The Mongol prince, the Persian Prince, and the Indian Prince. They represent “the world” in a sense.
The thief must also go on a quest to the far reaches of the world to battle monsters and win a treasure. In order to change himself, he must do battle with these forces of the world and triumph.
As Kehr points out, often at the climax of the action, Walsh shifts things to a literal “higher plane.” Thief of Bagdad makes this shift, taking the thief literally into the clouds with the winged horse, and then later with the flying carpet.
Though not typically thought of as a “Raoul Walsh” movie, the Thief of Bagdad, nevertheless, give us the quintessential Walsh hero.