Some silents have aged better than others, though it does depend on the eyes of the beholder. The major American (or Anglo-American) comedians -- Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon -- are still funny to many people, and Keaton in particular is arguably the father or grandfather of the modern action movie. There are other directors whose standings have improved over time after having been ahead of their own time. Then there are those films or filmmakers that seem hopelessly alien to modern sensibilities or modern narrative expectations, which approach the stereotype of silent film that some people hold in their heads. Talking pictures rendered a certain style of silent performance and storytelling obsolete, because that style wasn't appropriate to sound film. But we'd be wrong to define silent film as a whole by standards set by talkies; that'd make silents look inadequate by default. The silents lasted long enough to be judged as a genre or medium on their own terms, and that's how we have to deal with Douglas Fairbanks.
The Thief of Bagdad enjoys life. Above, he responds to the smell of food. Below, he drinks from a water fountain.
Fairbanks had a stage background, but in silent cinema he practised pantomime. It's not the same as "mime" which nowadays has to do with the manipulation of non-existent objects. Pantomime is the business of expressing oneself without words, and its how many silent actors described their work. Gesture has a lot to do with it, and Fairbanks does a lot of gesturing. So do most of his cast. The Thief of Bagdad has a lot of arm raising in it. Today it looks stagy and fake, but beside its practical purpose of making emotions plain from a distance it's a matter of style. Thief is a very stylized film, and it's more Fairbanks's style than Walsh's. His own style is very balletic, or else it's the style of a man who, like Chaplin, has been told that he had balletic grace and agility. He's flamboyant to the point of camp in his movements and his costumes in a way that's probably more alarming now than it was 80 years ago. Fairbanks himself probably saw no contradiction between his prancing and posing and his role as a manly man. Pantomime doesn't usually aspire to naturalism, and if you insist on naturalism you may as well try a different movie. In any event, an Arabian Nights fantasy probably shouldn't be held to naturalist standards of anything.
After all, what's this all about? Thief is the story of a shirtless barefoot brigand who eventually calls himself Ahmed. He pads the polished pavement of Bagdad in a one-man crime wave, eventually pilfering a magic rope that'll let him climb the highest walls. There's only one thing to do with such a gimmick: rob the Caliph's palace. Inside, however, he falls in love at first sight with the Caliph's daughter. This puts the whole kingdom in play, because the old Caliph has decided that whoever wins his daughter's hand will be his heir, the girl herself being obviously incapable of rulership. A geopolitical showdown results as the Prince of Persia, the Mongol Khan and the Prince of the Indies all seek her hand. So does Prince Achmed, the Prince of the Isles and Seas and of the Seven Castles, i.e. our hero in stolen finery. He happens to land butt first in a rosebush in a way that fulfills the prediction of the Princess's fortune-telling slavegirl, and given the unlikely looks of the competition that's a fortunate thing. But eventually Achmed is exposed as a fraud and cast out, while the Khan plots to infiltrate an army into Bagdad (with the help of traitorous slavegirl Anna May Wong) and win the kingdom as well as the girl.
Meanwhile, after braving caves of fire, slaying a dragon, talking to a tree man, fending off a giant bat and resisting the temptations of mermaids, Achmed hustles back with his prize: a container of instant stuff. Instant horse! Instant princely clothes! Instant loaf of bread! Instant army of 100,000 men to liberate the captured city! And having earned happiness, he flies off on the carpet for his honeymoon.
The suitors: (l-r) Persian, Indian, Mongol.
William Cameron Menzies's massive sets, are still impressive. But it seems like the sets themselves were meant to be the most special effects. Many are so huge that Fairbanks has to make his gestures as big as he can just to be noticed. Walsh's camera is mostly immobile on the assumption that all you need to do is look at those sets and feel awe. When he fills those sets with hundreds or thousands of extras, it is awesome. It's certainly more awe-inspiring than programmers filling a digital screen with so many avatars or whatever you call them nowadays. It must be admitted that the presentation is little advanced in principle from the time of Georges Melies. On the other hand, the tableau isn't an automatically obsolete way of filming things, and there's something to be said for the way Walsh's images fill the screen. It may be the most appropriate way to tell the type of story Fairbanks wants, which is more a fairy tale than an action movie.