Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... THE THIEF OF BAGDAD

Only now does it occur to me... that while Raoul Walsh's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is commonly and accurately posited as the great-granddaddy of the modern action-adventure genre, rarely mentioned is its influence on... vintage video games!

Before I begin drawing somewhat absurd comparisons, I'd like to offer some sincere words of praise.  THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly something special, a magical fusion of the irrepressible star quality of Douglas Fairbanks, William Cameron Menzies' spectacular art direction, imaginative staging, and innovative special effects– it's truly the perfect blend of adventure-fantasy-comedy-romance, and its shadow lays heavy across the canon, from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, to the STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, and LORD OF THE RINGS trilogies.  I could go on.  But I, devoted to bizarre 80s pop culture minutiae, shall now draw parallels (with increasing specificity) between THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and classic Nintendo games (specifically SUPER MARIO BROTHERS and the CASTLEVANIA series), whose makers were likely inspired by this classic of silent cinema.

The General:

It might seem fairly broad to draw a parallel between Douglas Fairbanks sliding down a magic, freestanding rope

and a similar action in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS,

but then there's his propensity for popping in and out of pipe-shaped wells,

his battles with dragon-like foes,

and his skillful dodging of fireballs by timing his jumps through a now-stereotypical "Cave of Danger"

which easily compares to a similar trope seen in nearly every sidescroller.

Pictured here from CASTLEVANIA I.

These are all fairly commonplace ideas, and not necessarily tied to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD,  though the film's latter "quest" half is neatly divided into levels with "bosses" at the end of each scene, with creepy enchanted forests and spider-monsters

killer man-sized bats,

and dangerous spiked gates.

The Specific:

The similarities become stranger and more explicit when we examine the NES game, CASTLEVANIA II: SIMON'S QUEST.  The ignominy of this notoriously bad sequel (best described by James Rolfe, "The Angry Video Game Nerd," in his two reviews of the material) centers on the oppressive interruptions of the action with intertitles announcing day/night transitions, as well as its cryptic puzzle-solving (including an infamous scenario where you must kneel in a precise spot in a graveyard with a specific crystal equipped in order to summon the conveyance of a traveling tornado).

I first thought of CASTLEVANIA (and the ZELDA series, too) when Fairbanks encounters a old man who offers obscure puzzle-solving advice,

which later became a cliché in Nintendo adventure gaming:


But then I began to think about the day/night transitions.  THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has a greater magnitude of these than most comparable silent films.  The transitions become a plot point, too, as the Princess summons her suitors to bring her the world's most magical treasures within "seven moons."  

And after each moon, we're privy to a transition:

This continues throughout:

et cetera, 
et cetera...

While these title cards are not narratively bothersome in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, it is my belief that the makers of CASTLEVANIA II, in attempting to pay homage, inadvertently peppered their game with this kind of action-pausing distraction:

Finally, for those not yet convinced, I present the coup de grace.  In THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, Douglas Fairbanks acquires a "Cloak of Invisibility."  When he wears it, he is transformed into a mostly-invisible energy tornado, and speeds along on his merry way.

Now, compare this to the aforementioned cryptic "traveling tornado" in CASTLEVANIA II:
Simon kneels in the cemetery with the crystal,
 summons the traveling tornado,

becomes invisible,
 and travels on his merry way.

I'm certain that this exercise has been incredibly enlightening to the two or three of you out there who are scholars of both silent film and NES gaming.


Ben said...

I'm a scholar of neither silent film nor NES games, but I'll be damned if this wasn't a spot on comparison. I'm sold. But, unfortunately, it comes in a close second in my list of greatest "Only Now Does It Occur To Me..." series favorites, followed by the amazingly poignant Crocodile Dundee/Pretty Woman smasher.

Great stuff!

John said...

I didn't even know I *was* a scholar of silent film and NES gaming until I read this.
That in itself makes it worthwhile.
Big, big fan of the site.

Sean Gill said...


Very glad you enjoyed; obviously I'm a big fan of the oddball, incredibly specific comparison.


Glad you dug it– Nice to meet a fellow scholar!