At the time of its release this was the most expensive movie ever made, and it’s easy to see why. The sets are enormous and finely detailed and there are lots of special effects. Some shots emphasize the height of the sets by keeping the camera far enough away to take in the full expanse of the construction: the actors take up less than a third of the screen height. The film was directed by Raoul Walsh, and William Cameron Menzies was the Art Director. For this restoration Carl Davis composed the music based on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov.
The film begins with a teacher and a young student out under the stars, and the stars spell out, “Happiness must be earned.” It’s kind of the motto of the movie. Then a title card: “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three Worlds! – The Koran” Then another title card: “Verily the works of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel (sic) other folk and may there-from take warning. – Introduction to The Arabian Nights”
In Bagdad the thief (Douglas Fairbanks) is at his work – he steals a purse, then outwits the complaining owner, making a fool of him in front of the guard. He steals food, and he steals the magic rope of Ispahan, which can be thrown up and will stretch out and stay in place so you can climb up it.
He interrupts a prayer service at the mosque while making a getaway, and announces to the men there, but especially to the Holy Man (Charles Belcher), “What I want, I take. My paradise is here. Paradise is a dream and Allah is a myth.”
Cut to a Mongol Prince (Sojin Kamiyama) in his palace at Ho Sho. He is being shown a model of the Palace of the Caliph of Bagdad, and he says, “It shall be mine. What I want, I take.”
Then a lackey says, “Celestial Majesty, at the next moon suitors do go to Bagdad, seeking in marriage its royal Princess (Julanne Johnston).”
So the plot is set. Three suitors show up representing India, Persia, and of course China. But our thief has fallen for the Princess himself, so steals enough fine clothing for himself and his sidekick (Snitz Edwards), and appears as “Ahmed, Prince of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces”. As the thief and the princess fall more and more in love, he confesses and explains why, “…when I held you in my arms, the very world did change. The evil in me died.” It’s kind of corny, sure, but it’s also very powerful. She quietly cries, and he says,”I can bear a thousand tortures, endure a thousand deaths – but not thy tears”
After the choice of a husband devolves into who can bring back the rarest, most valuable treasure, there are plenty of adventures, and a whole lot of duplicity from the Mongol prince, who is being aided by one of the Princess’s slaves (Anna May Wong), and is planning to take Bagdad by force.
But the happy ending is fully guaranteed when Ahmed (I think that’s really his name) returns to the mosque and is told, “Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it.” And… “On the bedrock of humility thou canst build any structure.”