The nature of the exile: discourse and power in The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Gergely, Gabor (2012) The nature of the exile: discourse and power in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Journal of British Cinema and Television . pp. 159-176. ISSN 1743-4521

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Although made primarily in England, the production of The Thief of Bagdad was completed in America and as such has much in common with Hollywood cinema. As Street points out (2002: 58), it was one of the top-grossing films of 1940 in the US market, and with the eminently recognisable backdrop of the Grand Canyon where some of the exteriors were shot it is easy to mistake it for an American film. This was by no means accidental: Alexander Korda’s commercial ambitions meant that his placed an emphasis on the spectacular in an effort to improve their chances at the American box office. Moreover, The Thief of Bagdad is a loose remake of Raoul Walsh’s 1924 silent spectacular starring Douglas Fairbanks. While the use of Technicolor dictated a reliance on the technology, expertise and creative talent of Hollywood; associate producer William Cameron Menzies , for instance, is to be credited with the look of the film as much as the uncredited set designer, the youngest Korda brother, Vincent.
The film’s Hollywood flavour is reaffirmed by the near-universal silence surrounding it in British film historiography. It is totally absent in key works on British cinema by Ashby and Higson (2000), Sargeant (2005), Barr (1986) and Drazin (1998); while those by Aldgate and Richards (1999), Murphy (2001), Armes (1978) and Low (1979) afford it only the most fleeting mention. In a recent article Drazin gives an overview of Korda’s Technicolor films in which The Thief of Bagdad appears, almost as an afterthought (2010: 18). And even Glancy’s (1999) book, When Hollywood Loved Britain: the ‘Hollywood’ British Film 1939-1945, omits any mention of the film. Indeed, the most ‘exhaustive’ analysis of The Thief of Bagdad in overviews of British cinema is a paragraph devoted to it by Landy (1991: 110), who remarks on the film’s focus on the spectacular and the problematic representation of foreigners and women (Sabu and Duprez), but, puzzlingly, has nothing to say about Veidt.
It is this critical silence around the film, and more generally around the star body of Conrad Veidt, that I seek to redress here. While it may be a stretch to argue that Jaffar is the hero of the piece, I will consider his character as victim, as the rejected, denied and excluded ‘other’. I read Veidt’s star body as an exilic body, and analyse Jaffar, his actions, motivations and representation, through a cultural studies approach concerned above all with the issue of exile. This essay offers, then, a detailed textual analysis of a key performance by a significant exilic actor in the starring role of a Technicolor super-production in order to show that there is more to cinema and exile than the tragic irony of exilic actors playing their own persecutors (Garncarz 2006: 103-114), or the counter-hegemonic inflection of the film style of ‘accented’ filmmakers (Naficy 2001: 4). The Thief of Bagdad (re)presents the exilic body in hitherto unconsidered ways, contributing to a normative discourse constructing the nation within a binary system best described as ‘us versus them’.

Keywords:British Cinema, Conrad Veidt, The Thief of Bagdad, Exile, Alexander Korda
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P303 Film studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
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ID Code:22837
Deposited On:09 Apr 2016 21:59

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