When it’s on: Friday, 10 July (12.30 pm)
As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m a complete sucker for matinee flicks and today’s entry, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, is about as good as they get. From the start, it reminds me of misspent youthful Bank Holidays, idling in front of the television, letting the simple fantasy and imagination wash over me. There’s just nothing to dislike here, from the winning lead performance of Kerwin Mathews, Torin Thatcher’s villainy, winsome Kathryn Grant, through to Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score and, of course, the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen. I remember catching it many moons ago and being impressed enough to wonder what the other six voyages had been like!
It’s easy to see Harryhausen’s stop motion work as looking hopelessly out of date, which it is obviously. But put yourself into the mind of someone going to see this in 1958, viewing these wonders for the very first time. Harryhausen was by this stage acknowledged as the master of special effects, his work producing giant gorillas (Mighty Joe Young), an artificially enlarged octopus (It Came from Beneath the Sea) and dinosaurs (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Real creatures, transformed into terrifying monsters. Whilst 1957’s 20 Million Miles to Earth toyed with his first creature wholly of the imagination, it was here that he really went to town, tapping into ancient mythology to provide the beasts that Sinbad comes across. The giant cyclops, dragon, roc and, naturally, a sword fighting skeleton, all brought to glorious life and featuring heavily in the story. Of these, I think I like the Roc the best for the thought that Harryhausen decided to insert an enormous eagle into his picture and then gave it two heads… just because he could. Then there’s the skeleton, to all intents and purposes duelling seamlessly with Mathews’s Sinbad. To make the scene more effective, the actor trained with an Olympic fencing master in order to look the part, thrusting and parrying with fresh air before his opponent was inserted into the film later.
The film was based on the character Sinbad from One Thousand and One Nights, though that’s about all retained from the account of his seventh voyage. Nevertheless, having read the book several years ago, I think it does a nice job of holding onto the spirit of its chance encounters leading to moral decisions that ultimately affect the outcome. Many of the creatures in the film appear at various points in the book, and Scheherazade’s imaginative outpouring of fantastical creatures is certainly present and correct.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was not the first cinematic appearance of the title character, yet it hurls him straight into action as a seaman and adventurer of distinction, charged with transporting the Princess Parisa (Grant) to his home land of Persia. The two are to be married, which will secure peace between his realm and that of her father’s. On the way, they stop at the island of Colossa to pick up supplies, and as a ‘bonus’ find a magician, Sokurah (Thatcher), who’s busy fleeing from a Cyclops, armed only with a lamp. Obviously it’s magic, Sokurah explaining it contains a genie that can be summoned to make his wishes come true. With the genie’s (Richard Eyer) help, they escape the Cyclops, but not before it recaptures the lamp. This scene works well because whilst the genie has erected a kind of invisible force field that separates the Cyclops from Sinbad’s crew, it’s hardly stupid and figures out that it can hurl a rock over the barrier to capsize their rowing boat.
Back in Baghdad, Sokurah’s pleas to return to Colossa with Sinbad’s help and retrieve the lamp are met with refusal, so he uses his magic to miniaturise Parisa and advises the only way she can be restored is via materials that can be found in just one place. And so they return, with a tiny princess on board and a crew that is now augmented with condemned men from the Persian jails. The prisoners revolt, take over the ship, and after further adventures hit Colossa and its various creatures.
It’s obvious that at some stage Sinbad will figure out Sokurah’s treachery, find a way to return Parisa back to her natural form and escape with the genie, which takes the form of a small boy longing to be just that, working a future as the sailor’s cabin boy. But getting there is such fun, thrill after spill crammed into less than ninety minutes of action directed breathlessly by Harryhausen’s regular collaborator, Nathan Juran. Mathews, unlikely ever to be considered an acting great, is fine value as Sinbad, interacting well with the creatures and buckling his swash to suitably dramatic effect. He was no one’s idea of the new Errol Flynn, but he was handsome, lithe and knew how to look good wielding a sword, and that’s what mattered here. The cross-eyed Thatcher is a great villain, affecting a vague Middle Eastern accent and shaving his head, all adding to an inscrutable performance of rather subtle evil that only becomes more explicit later in the story when the stakes are raised.
Mathews and Thatcher played against each other once more in 1962’s Jack the Giant Killer, again directed by Juran but this time utilising the effects work of Jim Danforth. Harryhausen struggled to forgive the director and had the last laugh when the film’s stop motion animation wasn’t up to scratch, although the overall effect was somewhat scarier than the family friendly work produced for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In the meantime, Harryhausen went on to even greater heights with his designs for 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, in which the hero had to fight not one skeleton but seven, though not before encountering the titanic iron colossus, Talos, arguably the greatest creation of them all. What worked well in Jason was just as effective here, the interactions between actors and beasts. The scene with the Roc is brilliant because its attack comes with wings flapping, sending gusts of wind to assault the men. Even better is the skeleton fight, a bonus extra on the disc showing Mathews attacking nothing before it was spliced into the picture, the effect virtually perfect and the action rousing enough to quash any attempt to spot the ‘joins’. It’s a great film that never loses its sense of fun.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: ****