An Arabian Night All Too Often Forgotten

Minarets.

It is widely understood that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the very first feature length animated movie. This is only half-true. It is still believed to be the first cel-animated feature, but there is another film that predates it by more than a decade. I had the good fortune to stumble upon a lost treasure several years ago. This treasure is Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's...a flying horse.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s…a flying horse.

This delightful fantasy is exploding with impeccable visuals and imagination and is really a lot of fun. Prince Achmed has some amazing spectacles; monsters, witches, demons, magic, flying horses, wizard battles, romance, genies, sword fights, etc. So why is it so obscure? Could it be that it’s German? Could it be that it’s silent? Could it be because it was directed by a woman? More likely this hidden gem is often overlooked because of the method of animation that was used to make it all happen. When Snow White came out it spawned a whole movement of cel-animated movies (headed by folks like Disney and Fleischer) that lasted for a good six decades plus, but Prince Achmed was not cel-animated and its style was not much mimicked.

Lotte Reiniger achieved the immensely intricate and breathtaking artwork of Prince Achmed by manipulating pieces of cutout cardboard shapes. Prince Achmed is an amazing technical example of a form of art that never really caught on like cel. Like the rest of Reiniger’s canon, this film was made via stop-motion shadow puppet animation (a style that has been most recently recaptured in Michel Ocelot’s Princes and Princesses in 2000 and the 2005 Anthony Lucas short The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello). Every object, character, joint, ruffle of fabric, leaf, and curtain is little more than overlapped two-dimensional silhouettes.

A woman's work is never done.

A woman’s work is never done.

This technique (invented and perfected by Reiniger) is fascinating to watch and creates an atmosphere and energy all its own. When you observe stills from Prince Achmed you can get an idea of the complexity of the images, but until you see it in full motion you do not get the full emotive power of Reingier’s creation. And it’s in color too! It’s so captivating that I forget I’m only watching silhouettes whenever I watch it. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a special treat, not just for animation-enthusiasts, but also for anyone interested in experiencing an epic fantasy adventure in the spirit of The Arabian Nights.

The story is exotic and magical. The evil African Magician deceives the young Prince Achmed and sends him on a harrowing adventure into the heavens on a magic flying horse. The evil Magician is really after Achmed’s sister. Prince Achmed figures out how to maneuver the horse and lands in the Isles of Wak-Wak, where he falls in love with the beautiful Pari-Banu, but the demons of Wak-Wak are very protective of their Princess. Achmed steals the Princess away, but is confounded by the shape-shifting evil Magician (who has escaped from prison). Achmed travels to China, where the Magician has delivered Pari-Banu to the lustful Chinese Emperor. Achmed must rescue his beloved, but again is hindered by the evil Magician’s trickery.

Hero time.

Hero time.

Luckily, Achmed makes powerful allies along his quest. He befriends a wild Witch in the heart of a volcano who is also enemies with the evil Magician. With the help of the Witch, her magic, and her army of monsters he pursues Pari-Banu, but meets an impossible obstacle when the mountains of Wak-Wak close on him, trapping the beautiful Pari-Banu in with the demons.

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Fortunately for Prince Achmed, he stumbles upon Aladdin—who is in love with Achmed’s sister, the Princess—and together they recruit the Witch to battle the evil Magician and get the magic lamp back so that they may enter the gates of Wak-Wak. A spectacular shape-shifting showdown ensues between the Magician and the Witch (in a scene I suspect Disney ‘borrowed’ for Merlin’s duel with Madame Mim in 1963′s The Sword in the Stone because I don’t recall that event from T. H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King). The lamp is retrieved and together Achmed, Aladdin, the Witch, and all of the genies in the magic lamp wage a fantastic battle against the demons of Wak-Wak to save Pari-Banu and return to the kingdom where Aladdin can marry the Princess and Achmed can marry Pari-Banu. Needless to say, it all ends well for our brave hero. The whole adventure is a dazzling, intoxicating journey that never ceases to amaze or fill with wonder. I loved it from stem to stern.

Wizards' cat's cradle.

Wizards’ cat’s cradle.

As the earliest surviving animated feature, the serious film buff cannot afford to miss this one. Not to slight the movie itself, however, I must add that in addition to being a significant piece of film history, Prince Achmed is also first-class entertainment. It’s a visual pleasure and a fun ride with more charm and adventure than you might suspect. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a beautiful technical marvel that Sheherazade herself would be proud of. It would even make for a great double-feature with 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. This reviewer strongly recommends.

The DVD release also features a very informative documentary about Lotte Reiniger and the making of this and other stop-motion shadow puppet films from Reiniger.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 5, 2010

Sabu of Bagdad

Sabu

Sabu

The actor, Sabu, born in India in 1924 and tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 39 in 1963, was a staple in my house growing up. He acted in such films as Black Narcissus (1947), Elephant Boy (1937), The Drum (1938), and The Jungle Book (1942). The film version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” was especially a big influence on me growing up (we had taped it off AMC in the late 80s) and it’s still a pretty good movie, complete with talking snakes, wild animals, murder, mayhem, and a largely white cast painted brown (typical of the era, you should see the 1937 movie adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth). Today I would like to profess my love of my favorite Sabu movie and one of my favorite movies of all time, The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

This was one of my favorite movies growing up (again, taped off TNT in the late 80s) and it’s still first class entertainment. This version, directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelon, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda (director of Jungle Book by the way), and William Cameron Menzies, I actually prefer to the great silent era Thief of Bagdad (1924) directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and with Anna May Wong in a supporting role (this version is good too though).

Gorgeous Technicolor matte paintings.

Gorgeous Technicolor matte paintings.

The Thief of Bagdad is a wonderfully colorful movie that starts out as a flashback as the blind Ahmed (John Justin) pets his dog and recounts to a curious harem the tale of a time before he was blind and the dog was a little thief named Abu (Sabu). The story follows the lives of Ahmed and Abu and how they met. When Prince Ahmed’s evil grand vizier, Jaffer (played by the great Conrad Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Man Who Laughs, and Casablanca), tricks the naive prince into venturing out among the commoners. There he hears how everyone hates him (although it is really Jaffer who is pulling all the royal strings). Jaffer has Ahmed arrested and thrown into prison. There he meets the mischievous vagabond, Abu. Both sentenced to death, they think of a plan to escape.

They take a boat to  another kingdom where Ahmed falls in love with the Princess (June Duprez) the moment he sees her. Abu wants to take the boat and explore the world with Ahmed, but Ahmed now only wants the Princess. Naturally their friendship suffers some duress.

Star-crossed lovers.

Star-crossed lovers.

The evil Jaffer is controlling the king (Morton Selton) of this kingdom too (and it’s not too hard when he’s a blithering idiot obsessed with toys). Jaffer seeks to marry the Princess but when Ahmed and Abu prove too troublesome, he curses them both and separates them. Now Ahmed is blind and Abu is a dog.

The film suddenly snaps out of its flashback (about halfway through the runtime) and one of the harem girls tells Ahmed she knows the Princess and that she is in an enchanted sleep. From then on Ahmed tries to reach the Princess and regain his sight.

After several more chance encounters and motivational misgivings about what’s more important—adventure, the girl, or their friendship—Ahmed and Abu are shipwrecked by an enchanted storm that Jaffer sends after them. The two heroes wash up on separate shores. Here’s where the movie kicks into high gear.

Be careful. Djinn not always so friendly.

Be careful. Djinn not always so friendly.

Abu runs along the beach looking for Ahmed and stumbles across a bottle that contains a gigantic djinn (or genie, played with gusto by the great Rex Ingram). With three wishes and a huge, powerful, and somewhat independently-minded magical djinn, Abu sets out for a lost empire to retrieve the All-Seeing Eye from a strange cult of goblin creatures in order to find his friend. The djinn only takes him to the gate and sets the little thief loose inside the temple. Inside Abu discovers true adventure as he battles giant spiders and tries to avoid the giant octopus.

Needless to say, Abu succeeds and finds Ahmed. But after a little spat upon the discovery that Jaffer has tricked the Princess into falling in love with him, Ahmed returns to Bagdad, the djinn departs, and Abu is left alone in the wilderness while his friends get arrested and sentenced to death at the hands of Jaffer. But the once side-kick, Abu, is about to become master of the universe in a strange turn of events and he hops a magic carpet back to Bagdad to save the day.

The Temple on the Roof of the World

The Temple on the Roof of the World

The last act of this movie is especially enjoyable. Adventure never tasted so good in my opinion and it all ends well. Aladdin (1992) definitely borrowed a lot from this movie. There’s a bit more going on in this movie than what I’ve mentioned and the pioneering special effects, fantastic Technicolor, and the performances of Sabu, Veidt, and Ingram really make Thief of Bagdad something special. Anyone in the mood for a fun adventure in the spirit of the Arabian Nights should look no further. After over 70 years this classic still offers film lovers a wonderful adventure.

I love this movie.

jaffer

Magic, flying mechanical horses, djinn, wizards, flying carpets, giant spiders, and this evil blue robot lady with all the arms!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on July 28, 2009.