This one finally landed on the top of my Netflix list and I had a chance to watch it last night. Made during the height of the “Orientalist” craze, this must have been the Lawrence of Arabia of its time.

It begins like most silent films of the era – a downtrodden fellow looking for luck and finding love. There is great gesturing, a little comedy and some archaic phrases on the quaint title cards. But after about the first 15 minutes, the story really got rolling and the hero (Douglass Fairbanks) shows off some great athletic skill. He is like watching a cartoon character. His demonstrative gestures and bouncy demeanor seem unreal. Yet he is strangely captivating. Somehow his aggrandized characterization does not seem over-the-top or out of place.

The story follows very closely the tale of Al-addin in 1001 Arabian Nights. He is a likable scoundrel who contrives Wile E. Coyote-like pulleys and traps to climbs walls and pick pockets. Using the rope trick one night, he gains entrance to the palace and is about to make off with a great deal of treasure, when he sees the innocent and lovely princess sleeping and falls in love. When the princess announces that she will choose a suitor to marry from the princes of the East, Fairbanks must disguise himself as a royal to gain admittance. Choosing him from the lineup of stuffy rajahs and khans makes the others jealous. They expose him as a fraud and break the princess’s heart. Wishing to buy time for her rescue she sends the suitors off on a quest to find her the more rare of all treasures. When they return, she will marry the one whom she finds to be the best. Fairbanks sets off on his own magical quest to beat them all.

What makes this film so special are the sets and camera tricks. The movies are still so young at this point in history that seeing this as a member of the audience must have been stunning. The sets were enormous – probably 70-80 feet tall, using the scale of a person standing at the bottom and estimating. Everything is decorated with scroll work and carved in minarets. And although it doesn’t approach a sense of realism, it is one purpose. It favors a stylized version of things, making it all the more a moving picture of a storybook illustration.

The magical special effects are surprisingly good as well. They convincingly pull off the rope trick, a cloak of invisibility, underwater sea monsters, and a flying carpet. All of these are shot beautifully.

The final scene on the flying carpet is so well done that it is not immediately obvious how it was shot. Remember, there are no green screens and CGI at this time. As they leave over the palace walls and across the city, a shadow of the carpet is visible over each individual minaret – meaning that something really was suspended over the set, and each tower was separate and three-dimensional.

In addition, even though this was shot in black and white, each scene was hand-tinted – so, at night the palace has a blue hue, the princess’s bedroom is rose, the garden is green, the streets are yellow.

Clocking in at about 2 hours and 15 minutes, this was truly an epic production. I highly recommend the film, especially if you want something a little different. Maybe by watching this you will see where all the fancy blockbusters of today got their ideas.