The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) silent animation
What’s it about?
This silent animated fantasy is based on a story from the Islamic Golden Age One Thousand and One Nights aka Arabian Knights collection called The Story of Prince Achmed and the Fairy Peri Banu. It features a conniving sorcerer who conjures up a flying horse, which he rides to the city of the Caliph. He offers the horse to the ruler in exchange for his choice amongst his treasures. So - what does he pick? None other than the Caliph’s beautiful daughter Dinarsade of course.
Dinarsade’s brother Achmed doesn’t want to see his sibling end up with this evil man, so he tries to get in his way. However, the Sorcerer lures him onto the flying horse and sends him high up, far away into the sky. Eventually Achmed works out how to bring the horse down again and ends up in one of the magical lands of Wak-Wak where Peri Banu, a beautiful woman disguised as a bird, lives.
The pair fall in love and fly away to China. Unfortunately, the demons of Wak-Wak are in pursuit - and the only way to save themselves is to become married, hence receiving the blessing of Allah. To make things worse, the Sorcerer has decided to implement another nefarious scheme whereby he distracts Achmed with a huge snake and captures Peri to sell to the Emperor Of China.
Can Achmed rescue both his sister and the woman he loves from this villainous magician?
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
The Adventures Of Prince Achmed was one of the earliest feature-length animated films. It is certainly the oldest one still surviving today.
During its production (between 1923 and 1926) around 250,000 stills were created using figures composed from pieces of cardboard joined together with thread, around 96,000 of which were used in the final film. What makes this feat so remarkable is that all of these stills were assembled by one woman - Lotte Reiniger. Her husband Carl Koch was the director of photography.
While the original negative was destroyed during the WWII bombing of Berlin, luckily the BFI had made their own copy for a London screening which was eventually (in 1999) exhumed from the vaults and restored to its original hand-tinted glory. The restoration also used the original musical score which was preserved by the Washington Library of Congress. It is now available on BFI DVD and Blu Ray releases (the latter of which also includes a number of Reiniger’s short animations created in a similar style). It has also toured arthouse cinemas, sometimes with a live score.
How does it hold up?
While the film’s aesthetic - a distinctive 2D silhouette-based style - could arguably be created with much greater ease nowadays via CGI, there’s still the undeniable sense of a talented artistic voice here. It all manages to come to life so convincingly thanks to the painstaking attention to detail. Each character has believable gestures that bring out their personality so well despite limited facial features and an absence of dialogue. Their physical reactions to the film’s various perils (in particular Prince Achmed’s own reactions) convey a sense of real people straining to deal with the situations; witness the titular character’s careful negotiation of a steep cavern wall as he seeks the genie’s lamp. It feels so natural and unforced that it seems effortless, entirely belying the amount of work gone into putting the movements together.
It’s not just the various characters populating the film that are realised so well. The representations of magical powers - humans morphing into one animal after another, a palace assembling itself before the viewer’s eyes - manage to touch a special part of the imagination via the creative ways in which they unfold onscreen. Water reflections use multitudes of cardboard crescents rippling together in a pleasingly organic manner. The use of coloured tints is apt throughout, be it the vivid sand-yellow background of the Caliph’s city in the sand under the blazing sun, or the deeply shimmering red of the volcano-based scenes.
After watching The Adventures Of Prince Achmed I really wish I had seen it as a child. That’s not to say it’s an unsatisfying film to watch as an adult - it’s a fast paced and cinematically rich experience for viewers of any age. However, I feel that its magic would have been all the more resonant when sinking into my youthful memories.
Runtime: 81 mins
Dir: Lotte Reiniger
Script: Lotte Reiniger