Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, as I wrote last weekend, is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself. 

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops. 

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.  

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.  

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface. 

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard. 

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my five year old son's favorite Sinbad movie too, and it was easily his favorite Harryhausen fantasy until last night when he encountered -- and fell head over heels in love with -- Jason and the Argonauts. 

This morning, he and I have already re-enacted -- with toy swords -- Jason's climactic fight with a skeleton army (spawned from hydra teeth...).   I have the bruises to show for it.

Next week: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)


  1. Anonymous4:37 PM

    It's interesting that you bring up the issue of Sinbad being shown as Muslim. A book published on anti-Muslim depictions in American films cites this film as one of the rare examples of positve portrayals of Muslims. A worthy accomplishment as even some top directors in Hollywood have used racist stereotypes of Muslims (Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, etc)in their films. Surely, this film must have been a treat for Muslim youths ...not having to cringe every time a Muslim is shown on screen. Of the three Harryhausen Sinbads, only actor Law uses a middle Eastern 'accent'; Kerwin Mathews and Patrick Wayne are 'American' voiced. His acting is better too. Caroline Munro makes a more convincing Middle Easterner than Kathyrn Grant (in 7th Voyage). I don't think I have to mention her physical assets either!

    This was the first Sinbad film I saw too (on tv, though). 'Clash of the Titans'was the first Harryhausen film I ever saw in a theater. Even as a kind , I could tell that Harryhausen films were different than most other fantasy films. The creatures were just cool, from their carefully crafted appearances to the surreal way they moved. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad doesn't disappoint. The eight-armed Kali is certaintly more spectacular than the live action Kali in 'The Thief of Bagdad'.

    Don't forget the 1963 film 'Captain Sinbad' staring 'Lost in Space's Guy Williams. It has creatures, though, not of the stop-motion variety.

  2. Very funny. You'll need to mend those bruises. You can't be down long. Joel will expect you in good fighting form for the next Harryhausen adventure.

    Enjoyed this lovely look back. I loved your point about the substance of this particular Sinbad. I remember the message well. You are right, these things stay with an impressionable child.

    Also, BAker is very good as you mentioned. He really gets lost in the material and the various exotic locations. He really feels like a villain. It's hard to imagine after it was all said and done he was working on a construction site with no work in sight until Barry Letts noticed his fine performance and hired him to be the Doctor. WHO knew? ha.

    So you're fine review has got me wondering now about my nostalga gene. Am I remembering Eye Of The Tiger more affectionately than I should? I was young.

    I will be very curious where you land on that one and look forward to reading your handle on it.

    Now, we know Joel's favorite is Golden or Jason [both are tough to beat], but has he seen Eye Of The Tiger yet? I'd love to see where he falls after that one.

    Just a real pleasure my friend. best, sff

  3. Hi JKM;

    I wonder if it's because I saw it at about the same age you saw "Golden Voyage", but I prefer "7th Voyage" even while recognizing that "Golden" is a better film. I think there's more of a "sense of wonder" conveyed through the earlier film, while the latter one seems to take place in a more real world. I do love the darker tone of the cinematography during GV; it's a beautiful-looking movie.

    I second Anonymous' recommendation for "Captain Sinbad" which is great cheesy Hollywood fun. Not in the league of the Harryhausens at all but a delight on a Saturday afternoon. Some other great genre films with clearly Muslim heroes would be "The 13th Warrior" and the 1944 serial "The Desert Hawk".

  4. Hi everyone,

    Great commentary on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad!

    Anonymous: I wholeheartedly agree with your points about the film, and the positive depiction of Muslims. It's not like a major issue in the movie, but it's notable that there is a respect there for another culture, and Sinbad's origins in that culture. I'm glad I wasn't alone in noticing that. The Sinbad movies take place in another time, in another place, so it is appropriate we should get some of that cultural color...yet Golden Voyage is the only one of the three films to get it right, I think.

    SFF: Joel loved Eye of the Tiger, but I must confess I had a harder time with it, upon adulthood. I saw it as a kid and loved it, but this time around, the film seemed overlong (it's nearly two hours, where the other Sinbads have the good grace to be more abbreviated), and kind of choppy.

    Also, the plot didn't seem to hang together as well as I would have wished, either.

    But like I said, Joel was totally into it, and right now, more than anything, wants an action figure of the "Minoton" robot that the sorceress enslaves in the film.

    Also, I was taken in the film with the humanity of the Troglydte character, another instance of Harryhausen imbuing a stop-motion creation with real personality and recognizable identity.

    DLR: I totally get it. I do think, in terms of Sinbad, Dr. Who and James Bond, we likely have an affinity for the film that characterizes our first experience with the franchise. I like 7th Voyage, and it does possess a spirit of wonder, to be sure, but as an adult, today, it struck me as overly simplistic and kind of vanilla.

    Again, I wanted to state my bias up front: Golden Voyage is "my" Sinbad, so I'm fully aware I'm viewing these films through my own distinct experience! This vision of Sinbad's world seemed more believable to me; both more spiky and more dangerous (or dark).


  5. Saw this one as a child too. Went with my parents and Grandparents. My Mom and I always get tickled at how Granddad was so smitten with Caroline Munro. Kali will always be one of my favorite Harryhausen creations ever. And it was also my introduction to Tom Baker who would be my intro into TV Doctor Who. Awesome stuff.

  6. SteveW11:30 AM

    This was my first (and only) Sinbad in the theater and your review makes me want to revisit it. (By "Eye of the Tiger" I had moved on to James Bond.) I confess that the main thing I remember about it was seeing "Dynarama" emblazoned on the movie poster and asking my dad what it was. Without blinking an eye he said "an advanced stage of diarrhea."

  7. Used to really love this movie in my younger days, and when I saw it on DVD I jumped to buy it. But I held off watching it for a long time because I was afraid it wouldn't hold up. Well, it does and for all the reasons you mentioned.

    I loved that they kept the muslim nature of the characters and world intact. As a kid I thought it added a cool touch of the exotic, and now it's just nice to see brave and heroic muslim characters.

    Your point about the crew getting some actual characters is something I noticed on a recent revisit to these films. I really liked that we got to know some of them and it adds to the thrill when they face the creatures and some of them get taken out.

    Kali is still my favorite Harryhausen creation, and her duel with Sinbad and the crew is one of the best scenes in the Harryhausen adventure series.

    I also have to say that the musical score by Mikos Rozsa is underrated. It's got great themes for the hero and the villain. Its got a great touch of the exotic to it. It even manages a bit of romance when needed. Just a perfect fit for the film and a great listen for fans of film music in the adventurous mode. Sure Rozsa gets a lot of accolades for "Ben Hur" and rightly so, but this work nearly as good and a lot of fun to boot.

  8. Hi Roman,

    I'm loving your comments on the Sinbad movies. We're in total agreement on Golden Voyage, for several reasons the best Sinbad movie of the bunch. It's funny how conventional wisdom insists that 7th Voyage is the best film, but it basically positions Sinbad as an American "cowboy" at sea, and builds a comfortable nuclear family around him.

    Golden Voyage is more exotic, more clear-headed in its presentation of dark magic, and the crew is more easily distinguishable.

    It really is the best Sinbad moive, if you can separate the critical aspects of the film from nostalgic ones, I think.

    Excellent insight...