The Thief of Bagdad (1940) Pick

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-Ray Edition) (2003) Pick

New this week from the Criterion Collection, The Thief of Bagdad is a beloved family-adventure standard, though not quite as charming or as magical as the original silent classic starring Douglas Fairbanks.

In this version, the romantic lead who falls in love with the princess is not the titular thief but a beggar named Ahmad (John Justin) who is actually the rightful king of Bagdad. He has been deposed by his treacherous Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). The thief, on the other hand, is a mischievous, resourceful lad named Abu (Sabu).

Although enjoyable, this Thief of Bagdad isn’t quite the classic it’s cracked up to be. Justin is wooden as the boring Ahmad, and his love-at-first-sight romance with the princess is far less romantic than that of the silent version. Abu is a far livelier character, but why is he wasting his time with this guy? The film’s final image says it all.

Still, the remake includes parallels to many of the best elements in the original, including the flying carpet, the flying horse (here a mechanical horse without wings), the climb up a giant statue to steal a magical crystal eye and a battle with a giant spider. Best of all are Abu’s adventures with a baleful genie (Rex Ingram), whose meeting on the beach with Abu is an unforgettable highlight.

New this week on Blu-Ray and also available on standard DVD, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is an almost unheard-of rarity: an intelligent, adult swashbuckler, a period adventure free from pandering anachronism. It’s got characters who talk and think and argue like grown-ups and like men of their time and place.

Based on the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian, the story centers on the remarkable friendship of Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), serving in Nelson’s Navy in the days of Napoleon.

An important part of the historical context is the characters’ matter-of-fact Christian milieu. In the books, Aubrey is Anglican and Maturin Roman Catholic and, though neither is devout, their Christian heritage is part of who they are — and this is carried over into the film.

Maturin, an enthusiastic naturalist, is fascinated by the varieties of animal life on the Galapagos Islands. He has a line of dialogue suggesting the compatibility of faith and science, creation and evolution. Later, Aubrey leads the crew in the Our Father and invokes the hope of resurrection as part of a burial at sea. All of this is presented simply and matter-of-factly, without comment or judgment. Even in a disturbing episode involving a superstitious rumor of a Jonah-like curse, the film refrains from religion-bashing.

Content advisory

The Thief of Bagdad: A few menacing and scary scenes; stylized violence; mild but disturbing sensuality; fictionalized Islamic setting. Master and Commander: Bloody scenes of battle violence and field surgery; a suicide; somewhat profane language, a couple of rude jokes, brief obscenity. Mature viewing.