Saturday, March 02, 2013

From the Archive: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)


"When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it's commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you're inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals."

- Ray Harryhausen, in an interview at Bright Lights Film Journal with Damien Love, entitled "Monsters Inc." (2007)

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For a certain generation of filmmaker and film-goer, special effects artist and art director Ray Harryhausen remains a seminal influence. 

Talents as diverse as Tim Burton,  Dennis Muren, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, and Sam Raimi count the gentleman as such, and have honored Harryhausen's impressive career and talent in numerous cinematic tributes and homages across the years. 

What is Army of Darkness (1992), after all, but a twisted appreciation of Harryhausen-esque tropes and techniques?

Harryhausen himself has given the world such memorable fantasy films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but for many Generation X'ers, he is also very fondly remembered for his Sinbad franchise: a troika of adventure/fantasy films (spanning 1958 - 1977) that, in many significant ways, represented the best fantasy game in town for swashbuckling kids in an era pre-Star Wars (1977).  

In the last several weeks, I've introduced my five-year old son Joel to the Sinbad films, and he's become an avid fan.  We're a little bummed, actually, that there are only three Sinbad movies to watch together, so the final "Saturdays with Sinbad" installment here will include a look at arguably Harryhausen's best film in this vein, 1963's Jason and the Argonauts ,just to cap things off in style.

But our topic here today is the first Sinbad movie, entitled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  Rated G and lasting a scant 88 minutes, this classic adventure film is a collaboration between Harryhausen, producer Charles Schneer and director Nathan Juran. Harryhausen's first color film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was made on a then-healthy budget of two-million dollars.   Released by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed over six million dollars and was considered a huge hit...and one that led to many further Harryhausen fantasy films in the next decade or so.

Longtime readers of mythology will recognize the name "Sinbad" as having come from Middle Eastern sources.  A Persian, Sinbad the sailor was a mythical sea-goer who countenanced magical and monstrous adventures on the sea and on the land in and around Africa and South Asia.   He was known to have had seven famous trials, or voyages.  In Hollywood, Sinbad appeared in such films as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., before becoming the iconic fantasy hero headlining Harryhausen's trilogy.

In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) returns home from sea to marry lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) and seal the peace between his nation and hers. 

Unfortunately, this love affair is disrupted by the diabolical presence of Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), who needs Sinbad to return him to the island where he was found, and where he lost a magical genie's lamp to a monstrous cyclops.

To assure Sinbad's loyalty, Sokurah uses a wicked spell to shrink Parisa down to the size of a doll, and then informs the sea captain that he can "cure" her, but only on the island of the Cyclops.  Sinbad has no choice but to comply with Sokurah's plan.  With the Princess and his crew in tow, he sets sail for the island of Colossa. 

There, Sinbad and his bride-to-be face challenges from the cyclops, Sakurah's fire-breathing dragon, a two-headed roc, and even an ambulatory skeleton.  To help win the day, Sinbad and Parisa must free the entrapped Genie, who appears to them as a young boy (Richard Eyer) longing to escape his imprisonment.

Short on dialogue and that romantic mushy "stuff" but long on thrilling battle sequences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a spectacle for the eyes, especially if one is an admirer of stop-motion animation, or "Dynamation" as it is termed here. 

In short order, the filmmakers trot out a variety of impressive mythical giant beasts, and the coordination between the live-action components and the film's animated components remains breathtaking.   I can't imagine the discipline and patience required to painstakingly match the two media, least of all to the accomplished degree on display here; one which affords breath, dimension, life and personality to the creatures, most notably the cyclops. 


Here is the up-and-downside of the Harryhausen special effects techniques as I countenance them.

Pro: the monsters generally move more convincingly than with CGI, in part because they must obey real life gravity -- just as we must -- rather than some computerized approximation of gravity. 

On the negative side, in terms of color balance and integration in the action, CGI -- at least today's CGI -- may get the nod as superior.  In this film, for instance, it's always obvious that the monster and the humans who share the same shots exist in two separate dimensions, a back one and a front one.  This realization takes away from the overall impact of the effects. 

I fully realize that such a conclusion probably reads much like heresy to a whole generation of dedicated film goer, and I once read the memorable phrase (in regards to The Land That Time Forgot [1975] that Hell hath no fury "like a stop-motion animation fan scorned," but it's still likely the truth.  The special effects in this film are amazing and that's why they inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, but it's foolish and unnecessary to argue that they surpass something like Avatar, for instance. 

Like all films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a product of its time, and must be judged in the context of its time.  And in its time, it was simply the very best.  That fifty-four years later we have moved on from the stop-motion animation triumphs of Harryhausen in no way reflects negatively on what the film achieved, the impact it garnered, or the fervor it provoked.

What The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still possesses in abundance is...innocence.  This is a a good-humored family adventure in the best sense, immensely enjoyable and appropriate for both parent and child.  There's some fun swashbuckling adventure here, most notably in a climactic chasm swing that forecasts a trademark moment in Star Wars (1977).

There's also a subtle "family" message underneath all the action in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  In particular, by film's end, Sinbad, Parisa and the child genie have joined forces to form an unconventional family unit.  They have pulled together, and will face the future together.

Watching the film as an adult, I especially enjoyed Torin Thatcher's performance as the evil sorcerer, and Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, pulse-pounding score, which in a very authentic sense also affords breath and life to Harryhausen's fantastic stop-motion creations.

As a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.  Watching it in 2012, I enjoyed it, but it certainly seems a bit simplistic in terms of storyline and presentation.  It is what it is: an entertaining screen adventure and spectacle from an age when such films weren't commonplace.  The high point of the movie likely remains the intense, splendidly-choreographed and executed battle between Sinbad and the skeleton warrior.  But even that triumph was greatly expanded upon in Jason and the Argonauts.

I realize it is probably apocryphal to write such words, but Joel and I really got on-board the Sinbad bandwagon full swing with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).  That film -- made during the "new freedom" of the 1970s -- is a little edgier, a little sexier, a little darker, and allows Sinbad to actually be a Muslim, rather than simply an American cowboy hero transposed to the Ancient Middle East, replete with nuclear family.  I first saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in theaters back in 1974 as a five year old, so I have an affinity for it as "my" Sinbad, but judging from Joel's reaction, he definitely feels the same way.   The characters are a little better differentiated in Golden Voyage, and the quest (to assemble a golden tablet out of three segments) definitely captures the attention better than the elementary, nay rudimentary, plot of 7th Voyage.

History may record 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the best Sinbad movie because it came first in the cycle, but at this point, I recommend you also give The Golden Voyage a second look.  I'll be reviewing that film right here next week for "Saturday with Sinbad" installment # 2.

1 comment:

  1. I have been a Harryhausen fan since I was a kid. He inspired me so that I purchased an 8mm movie camera in the 1970s with single frame capacity so I could do my own stop-motion animation. Sadly the wheels were in motion even then for the next steps in technology to replace this great art form.

    The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is one of my favoriate Harryhausen films, perhaps even over the often-cited Jason and the Argonauts. The Cyclops is a particularly frightening and fascinating creature, and the battle between him and the dragon at the film's climax makes a WWE or UFC bout pale by comparison.

    I would disagree over your analysis of CGI. Not in terms of comparison of quality, but the appropriateness of comparing the two at all. Special effects must be considered within their historical, cultural, and technological context, and in my view it is unfair to contrast such forms of SFX, just as it would be inappropriate to contrast early forms of sound in film with Dolby.

    Finally, I've enjoyed Golden Voyage of Sinbad over the years, but in my view it still does not hold up to Seventh Voyage. True, the context of the 1970s permitted greater freedoms in the representation of Sinbad and darker explorations, but with the exception of Kali, much of the creatures seemed an attempt at repeating the glory of Seventh Voyage that could not be reclaimed.

    A while back I ran into two young boys with plastic swords and shields. When I asked them if they were playing pirate, they said no. Their mother told me that their dad had introduced them to Harryhausen's Seventh Voyage and Jason and they were living out these fantasies. It is good to see your children exploring these things too, and it would seem that these films still have a special magic.

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