When the Mongol army, led by Hulagu Khan (Kurt Katch), invaded Baghdad they proved themselves ruthless conquerors, with their leader proclaiming that if the Caliph (Moroni Olsen) was not handed over to him then a thousand citizens would be put to death each day until he was. The Caliph recognised the gravity of the situation, but would not give up as his right hand man Prince Kassim (Frank Puglia) wished him to do. Yet Kassim had plans of his own, and his concerns hid a scheming nature as he gave away the location of the Caliph. However, there was one survivor of that ensuing attack: the deposed ruler's son, Ali...
By the time Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was released, its stars had been set in their place in Hollywood's firmament; not because they were terrific actors, but because Jon Hall and Maria Montez embodied the escapist fare that nations suffering the war were just in the mood for. There are nods to the world conflict here, but not so much that they were in your face - Kassim's wish for appeasement would not have gone down well in this decade, and so it is that he is revealed as a traitor early on. In addition, the drive to rid the land of vicious invaders would have appealed to many of those forced from their homes or living under the yoke of repression due to the war.
But mainly, Hall and Montez were there for the ladies left behind while their men went fighting to swoon over a perfect romance that could see its way through major upheavals and remain solid and respectful, as well as passionate within the bounds of the production code of censors. Not for nothing does Hall's Prince Ali interrupt Montez's Princess Amara twice while she is bathing, and likes what he sees: if this was racier than what movies set in contemporary times could get away with, we were never any doubt that as an exotic nobleman Hall's character's intentions were forever honorable. But this is meant to be based around the old Arabian Nights tale of Ali Baba, so how did that work out for them?
It appeared that the best way they found to adapt the material was to forget most of it and invent a fresh plot which could show off the stars in the formula that had done them so proud in earlier efforts such as, well, such as Arabian Nights, which had set the duo onto their path to stardom. Sadly, once the war was over new stars swiftly emerged to take their place and they both ended up in lower profile movies, with Montez dying tragically young at just 31 around five years after her biggest successes. Even Turhan Bey, who unlike his co-stars could claim authentic Middle Eastern roots, found his services not wanted after these fantasies fell out of fashion, in spite of being every bit the matinee idol that Hall had been.
The reason these films endure today is twofold: first, for nostalgists appreciating the sincerity of the approach, with nary a nod nor a wink to tell us that this should not be taken less than seriously, and also for lovers of camp, who appreciate them for the same reason, but with a sense of irony. There certainly wasn't much intentionally humorous about this one, with only Andy Devine, as one of the thieves, providing anything resembling comic relief. The Forty Thieves are the good guys in this incarnation, having brought up Ali and carrying out raids on the Mongols, although while they like to belt out a rousing song while on the hoof, they do somewhat disappointingly consist of a bunch of hairy old blokes, presumably not to take away from the dashing good looks of Hall and Bey (who plays Amara's manservant). As for Maria, nobody could have mistaken her for a great actress, but there was something about her glamorous artficiality that was ideal for a film that had only passing connection with the troubles of the real world, and her fans wouldn't have had it any other way. Music by Edward Ward.