This is the first of a series of posts looking at classic cinema and mining it for elements that may have inspired elements in D&D.
According to Peterson's Playing at the World (2012), the Thief class was developed by players at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA in 1974. They shared the concept with Gygax, who wrote up his own version and published it. There's no mention of what the original concept was like mechanically, but Gygax's published version is what we had from OD&D through 2E. Weak in combat, without spells, but with percentile-based unique skills that could be used more or less at will.
Plot Summary (spoiler warning...if that's necessary for a movie nearly 100 years old)
The Thief of Badgad (1924) is a black & white silent movie starring Douglas Fairbanks as the titular thief (he goes by the name Ahmed when he's pretending to be a prince, but it's not stated if that's the character's actual name or a pseudonym). The thief plies his trade in the streets of Bagdad, and one day decides to rob the Caliph's palace. But while doing so, he sees the princess and falls in love with her. Shortly thereafter, several princes arrive to woo the princess, and the thief pretends to be a prince to try and kidnap her. But a prophecy tells the princess that the thief is the man destiny has chosen for her, and she falls in love with him. She devises a plan to test the princes. Whichever returns with the most unique treasure will win her hand. We see the thief go on several adventures to win a magical chest with a dust that creates whatever he desires. This is interspersed with scenes of the Prince of Persia (fat and lazy, nothing like the video games) finding a flying carpet, the Prince of the Indies prying a magic crystal (crystal ball) from the eye of a giant idol statue, and the Prince of the Mongols acquiring a golden apple that cures poison. The Prince of the Mongols left spies in Bagdad and with the other princes, and secretly amasses an army. When he fails to win the princess with the magic apple, his soldiers mount a sneak attack and take the city. The thief arrives just in time, uses his magic dust to create a huge army, and attacks the Mongols. Using a cloak of invisibility, he gets into the palace and manages to stop the Prince of the Mongols from abducting the princess on the magic carpet. Huzzah!
As you can tell, if you've never seen it, it's a very D&D sort of movie, made 50 years before D&D was released.
The following are moments where I noticed something in the film that seemed like something in a typical D&D game. I started out only recording what seemed like the classic Thief Skills in action, but later took notes of anything vaguely game-like. Time stamp markers are based on the free version of the film available here. The run time is 2 hours 20 minutes.
2:07 Right at the beginning, we see the thief picking pockets.
5:25 He doesn't climb sheer surfaces, but the thief uses a strategem to climb to a balcony to steal some food. He makes a pulley from a long sash looped over the balcony railing and tied to a donkey which pulls him up.
6:55 The Magic Rope of Ispahan, made from witch's hair in a djinni cave. A rope of climbing. After some hijinks, the thief steals it and uses it later.
13:56 We see him picking pockets again
22:30 We see that in addition to guards, the Caliph uses tigers and an ape to guard the palace.
23:30 The thief's "evil companion" forms a cloak into the shape of a jar to hide while the thief enters the palace. Not quite Hide in Shadows, but hiding in plain sight.
24:20 The thief moves silently through the palace of the Caliph.
26:06 The thief uses his wits to open the treasure chest. He doesn't pick the lock with thieves' tools, but he does use some wits to get the key (attached to a guard's belt) into the key hole.
30:00 Another case of not quite "hiding in shadows" as the thief hides under a blanket at the foot of the princess's bed.
38:11 and again at 50:45, we see the thief scaling trees with ease. Again, not quite "climb sheer surfaces" but there is an awful lot of climbing in this movie.
1:10:42 We see a secret door, as the princess has the thief smuggled out of the palace before he's imprisoned.
1:19:37 The thief goes to a mosque where he had earlier insulted the worshipers. The mullah forgives him, much like the atonement spell.
1:20:12 A royal alchemist consults a gigantic spell book, turning pages by magic.
1:23:38 The "Mountains of Dread Adventure" begins. This card marks the start of a LOT of D&D-like action in the movie, and a much faster pacing of the film.
1:24:14 The thief (and the audience) are warned of "devouring flames, foul monsters, shapes of death" ahead.
1:24:14 The thief is given a talisman and told to use it on the center-most tree in the Cavern of Enchanted Trees.
1:26:32 The thief enters The Valley of Fire, and has to jump many pits with flame bursts coming out of them.
1:27:59 The Prince of Persia's men go to the Bazaar of Shiraz and discover the magic carpet in a shop whose owner obviously does not have access to a detect magic spell. The Prince buys the carpet for cheap.
1:29:59 In the Valley of the Monsters, the thief has to battle a dragon/dinosaur that breathes smoke. He kills it by stabbing its vulnerable belly.
1:31:09 In the Cavern of Enchanted Trees, the thief uses the talisman to awaken the central tree. It's sort of like a treant, but smaller. This may have been inspiration for the Wood Golem in Classic D&D. After getting a map from the tree, the thief fights a giant bat.
1:33:42 The Prince of the Indies has a servant climb a giant 6-armed idol (Climb Sheer Surfaces).
1:34:01 The servant pries the gem out of the idol's eye (familiar image, right?) then falls to his death.
1:35:22 The Prince informs us that the gem is in fact a "magic crystal"
1:35:56 The Old Man of the Midnight Sea sails the thief out to the middle of the sea. Does he give the thief a water breathing spell?
1:36:32 The thief retrieves a star-shaped key from an underwater chest.
1:37:33 The thief fights an underwater spider
1:38:41 Sirines/Nixies tempt the thief to stay with them (and he definitely either has water breathing or there is air in their undersea lair) but the thief thinks of the princess and saves vs spells.
1:40:54 The thief reaches the Abode of the Winged Horse and rides off into the sky on the pegasus (there is a tale in The 1001 Nights about a winged horse like this).
1:41:04 This winged horse sequence includes more climbing.
1:41:49 The Prince of the Mongols arrives at the island of Wak (Japan?) to visit a court magician and a secret shrine.
1:43:31 The Prince of the Mongols' henchmen find a secret door and claim the magic apple.
1:44:34 The henchmen use a "snake staff" (a staff with an intricate cage containing a poisonous snake at the top) to poison a fisherman. His poisoned body turns dark - is it from the poison, or is he turning to stone? The magic apple restores him to life.
1:47:03 The thief reaches the Citadel of the Moon. A ghostly dwarf gives a warning that the silver chest is hidden by a cloak of invisibility (elven cloaks in D&D are obviously taken from Tolkien, but the same idea is here first, under a different name). The thief retrieves the cloak and the magic chest.
1:49:00 The Mongol slave girl poisons the princess (on the Prince of the Mongols' order). The princess fails her save vs poison.
1:51:25 The Prince of the Mongols convinces the Prince of the Indies to use the magic crystal, and they see that the princess is poisoned. Then the Prince of Persia uses the magic carpet to fly the three to Bagdad, and the Prince of the Mongols uses the magic apple to neutralize poison on the princess.
1:55:27 The thief uses the (dust of creation?) in the magic box to create a horse (create monsters or summon animals), fancy new clothes (change self), and some bread (create food & water).
2:01:17 A Mongol soldier backstabs a Bagdad guard.
2:02:52 More backstabbing by the Mongol invaders as they launch their sneak attack.
2:03:09 Lots of Mongol soldiers Climb Sheer Surfaces to get up the wall of the palace.
2:07:59 The thief arrives at the gates of Bagdad and uses the dust in the magic chest to summon soldiers ... and then more ... and still more ... and many, many more.
2:14:06 Blocked by Mongol soldiers, the thief uses the cloak of invisibility to sneak into the palace.
2:14:37 The thief "backstabs" the Prince of the Mongols and his men while using the cloak of invisibility, and rescues the princess.
Judging from all of this, I'd say it is plausible that this movie (and some others I'll be viewing later, including the 1940 remake) may have exerted an influence on the development of the thief class. I say this especially due to the picking of pockets early in the movie. I don't remember Bilbo Baggins, Cugel the Clever, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser often picking any pockets, if at all. There are some stories where F&GM climb things, but again it's not something they do all the time. So the Thief class's climb skill may also have been an influence taken from this movie.
This is a very speculative post, but it was a fun thought exercise and it may inspire a few people to watch this really fun old movie if they haven't before. I'd also say that with modern special effects/CGI, this would be an excellent time for Hollywood to try and remake this movie. But with the live action Aladdin coming out soon, and the animated Aladdin lifting characters and situations heavily from the 1940 remake, I doubt that will happen soon. Hollywood would probably mess it up anyway.