By G. Michael Dobbs
We go from the sublime to the ridiculous in this week's film review column.
The Thief of Bagdad
The Cohen Media Group is starting its release of restored silent films with Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad" from 1924 and it's an auspicious beginning.
One of the landmarks of the silent era, "Thief" is both a charming fairy tale with a message and a technical achievement.
The Blu-Ray I watched came with an informative booklet giving some context for the film and its filmmaker. For audiences who haven't seen any silent films such context is definitely needed.
Contemporary audiences need to understand, for example, the florid acting style adopted by Fairbanks is designed for the material essentially a fairy tale and was not representative of Fairbanks who could certainly be much more subtle.
The story may be known to audiences, thanks to the many remakes over the years. Fairbanks is a shallow thief, happy to steal anything and exhibiting not a moment of remorse. All of that changes, though, when he gains entry to the daughter of the caliph of Bagdad who is choosing a suitor. Disguised as a prince, he charms the princess and they fall in love. That love changes him and he is no longer interested in stealing. Instead he wishes to legitimately earn her hand.
The princess wants him as well and to delay the process she asks her suitors to travel to faraway lands and bring her back the most rare and valued treasures they can find. The thief does this as well, but his journey is a life-threatening one through an underground cavern.
The special effects were state of the art for their time and are still charming today, especially the magic carpet, which was rigged with wires for its flights.
The film has an amazing look with huge sets and a cast of hundreds. It is truly an epic film.
The print is amazingly sharp and is tinted for mood, a typical silent film convention. The musical score by Carl Davis draws on the musical themes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to great effect.
Ultimately, the film's attention centers on its star, an immensely appealing performer. Fairbanks started as a light comedy star, but with the success of "The Mark of Zorro" in 1920, Fairbanks embarked on a new phase of his career that utilized his athletic abilities. These are on full view in "Thief" with Fairbanks doing most, if not all, of his own stunts.
Many people are put off of silent films because they have title cards conveying dialogue. I've never had that problem, but I do think that people watching silent films for the first time must understand they actually have to pay attention to the screen all the time because nearly all of the story information is being conveyed just one way: visually. A silent film is a much more intense movie-watching experience.
War of the Dead
I was on the phone with my buddy Steve Bissette, nearly legendary cartoonist and fellow film maven this weekend and we wondered just how many movies have featured Nazis and some form of zombie. We devised a list that included "The Frozen Dead" (1966), "Shock Waves," (1977), and "Dead Snow " (2009).
So, the idea of combining the most durable villains of the 20th Century with the most popular monster of the 21st Century so far is nothing original and I'm afraid this latest film doesn't contribute much to the sub-genre.
The story, such as it is, involves a Finnish army unit sent to destroy a Nazi bunker close to the Finnish border with the Soviet Union in 1941. Along for observation is a small group of American soldiers. Naturally the bunker is the location of Nazi experiments that have produced zombies and naturally these lonely woods are now crawling with the athletic undead ready to eat someone.
What results is a chase of the rapidly diminishing group of good guys by an increasing number of zombies to the bunker. Although well shot with some good action set pieces, the film doesn't make a lot of sense, including the ending.
Gorehounds should note the film is actually pretty mild and will be disappointed if they are expecting some brain chomping.
It's not worth your dollar at the Red Box.