Saturday, November 30, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Growing up as a child in the 80s and early 90s, the legendary figure of Sinbad the Sailor, was something of a hero of mine. I don't remember at what age I first saw a Sinbad film, but it must have been young enough, because when I was freshly 6 years old, I got my first dog, a fluffy white terrier mix that I named Sinbad. Clearly, the character was in my kindergarten age consciousness enough, that I chose that name, and was aware who the mythical sailor was.

I'm going to venture a guess, that the first Sinbad movie I ever saw, was not one of Ray Harryhausen's masterpieces. Instead, it was probably a film that I'll get to in a few moments. To start with, of course, the stories of Sinbad, for the unfamiliar, originated as late entries into the infamous "1001 Arabian Nights" story collection. The same collection that characters such as Aladdin, and Ali Baba came from. If you actually look at the old stories, much like actually looking at the stories of Greek heroes like Jason, Heracles or Perseus, you'll see a character who looks far less virtuous and heroic than what we know and think of in modern media. Let's just say that I'm glad I didn't read his stories as a kid, for I likely wouldn't have been nearly as big a fan of him.

Animation innovator Ub Iwerks' take on the character.

Fellow innovator Max Fleischer's unique, villainous take.

The first two depictions of Sinbad on film, were actually cartoons. The first, produced by Ub Iwerks studio after he had (temporarily) parted ways with Walt Disney, was a 1935 theatrical short, which featured the typical "Disney-like" whimsy that Iwerks brought to his productions. A year later, Disney's primary competitor on the theatrical short front, Fleischer Studios, led by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, released their own, more unique take on the character. Max Fleischer had been an innovator on the animation scene, pioneering advanced techniques like Multi-Plane and Rotoscoping. With his biggest success of the time, predating his great Superman cartoons, Popeye (along with Betty Boop and others), he was giving Disney a run for his money. And when he saw that Disney was preparing a feature-length animated film, something risky and unheard of at the time, he saw that his own dream of an animated feature was possible.

So he took his top star, Popeye the Sailor, and set him up against his rival, Bluto, playing the part of a more vain, villainous take on Sinbad the Sailor. A duel, if you will, of which great sailor was better. The 1936 Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, was a double-reel cartoon, clocking in at about sixteen and a half minutes. Fleischer would continue to use Popeye in other short films, where he would continue to experiment and up the ante, in stories based on Ali Baba and Aladdin, working his way towards his 1939 feature release, Gulliver's Travels. Of the three extended Popeye "specials", however, the original Sinbad one was and remains the most popular. Personally, what stands out in the Sinbad Popeye cartoon, aside from the usual humor, was Bluto's great turn as a boastful, bully Sinbad, and his island of various animals and monsters. The one thing the two very different Sinbad cartoons had in common, was the giant mythical monster bird known as Roc, said to be big enough to carry off elephants in its claws. The Roc featured in one or more of the original Sinbad stories, and would be important in a certain future film.

The first live action Sinbad.

Sinbad would first see representation in a live action film, in the more comical 1942 Arabian Nights, from Universal Studios. There, he was played by Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame, of all people, and was more of a minor character. His first, true debut to feature movies, was in the 1947 RKO film, appropriately titled Sinbad the Sailor. Starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the titular role, with Maureen O'Hara as the beautiful Shireen, this story is much tamer than the later Sinbad adventures. The plot focuses on Sinbad learning of the treasures of Alexander the Great, and his adventures trying to find them. There is little to no real magic or supernatural happenings in this film, which makes it lesser in my eyes (and many other fans', most likely). But it's still a solid film for what it is, and Fairbanks makes a good Sinbad. A few years later, in 1955, RKO released another movie entitled Son of Sinbad, which featured western cowboy star Dale Robertson in the role of the legend's alleged son. It too featured no real magic or epicness. I wouldn't see either movie until my adult years anyway, which is just as well.

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!

While it came it several years later than the movie we're here today to discuss, the first Sinbad movie I probably saw as a child, on TV, was 1963's Captain Sindbad. I'm not entirely sure about the alternate spelling of the name, perhaps they just wanted to be different. But all the same, THIS was the kind of Sinbad tale the character deserved. While it lacks, and seriously could have benefited from stop-motion magic like Harryhausen's, this MGM production is still packed with all of the magic, and wonder, and adventure you could want in such a fantasy feature. Starring Guy Williams as "Sindbad", the tale includes threats such as an arena battle with an invisible monster, a deadly Hydra, and a magically guarded tower. I think this film deserves its own article someday, but for now, it's enough to say that it is likely this that left the impression on me as a child, and inspired me to name my dog after the hero.

The cover of my VHS copy.

As I've explained in previous articles, my love of both Godzilla and Harryhausen films, really both exploded thanks to our finally getting a VCR player around 1989/90 or so. Just as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster was likely the first of his films that I got to own, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was definitely the first (and only) Sinbad movie I owned in my childhood. I would get to see Captain Sindbad again on TV somewhere around this time, and I would see Harryhausen's two other Sinbad greats (The Golden Voyage and Eye of the Tiger), along with his others epics like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, thanks to my childhood obsession, TNT's MonsterVision.

But while I love all of those movies dearly, both in equals parts because of childhood nostalgia, but also because it's a truly great and wonderful film, 7th Voyage to this day is still my favorite Sinbad film, and live action fantasy film in general.

The film's two starring heroes.

Ray Harryhausen had, up until this film, pretty much exclusively done science fiction movies, including standouts The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. He started teaming with producer Charles H. Schneer on the 1955 monster film It Came From Beneath the Sea, and they began regularly teaming from then on. So it was Schneer who helped bring about this first true fantasy epic Sinbad tale to the screen. Nathan Juran, who had worked with the pair on their previous project 20 Million Miles to Earth, was hired to direct, while composer Bernard Herrman, who had done great work with Alfred Hitchcock, and would go on to score other Harryhausen films like Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts, would bring the action to life with fantastic music.

To play the titular hero, they cast actor Kerwin Matthews, in his first starring role. They cast the young Kathryn Grant as Princess Parisa, Sinbad's love, and Torin Thatcher, in a marvelous turn as the mysterious magician Sokurah. As the Genie of the magic lamp, they cast child actor Richard Eyer, who had previously starred in the only other film to feature the great Robbie the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame), 1957's The Invisible Boy. All told, the cast, the music, the production, the locals and sets, and of course Ray's stop-motions magic, were all on point. The film released in 1958, becoming a financial success that would not only boost Ray Harryhausen's career, but also help lead to something of a surge in fantasy films.

Sinbad, and tiny Parisa.

The core of the plot, sees Captain Sinbad and his crew, caught in a storm, which has blown them far off course. They are trying to reach Baghdad with the Princess Parisa on time for their wedding, which will also help avert a war with her country of Chandra. The storm blows them off the shore of mysterious Colossa Island, where they disembark to gather food and fresh water. Unfortunately for them, they run afoul of a giant Cyclops, who is chasing an enigmatic magician called Sokurah, for he has stolen from them the prized and powerful magic lamp. He uses the lamp to create a barrier between Sinbad's men and the Cyclops, to aid both their and his own escape, but the Cyclops has other ideas, hurling a great boulder over the barrier, capsizing their rowboat, and causing Sokurah to drop the lamp into the sea, which the Cyclops then retrieves.

Beside himself with grief, the sorcerer is obsessed with getting that lamp back, as the genie's power is immense. To that end, he offers Sinbad a bag full of precious gems, worth a fortune, stating there is many times that treasure hidden by the Cyclops back on his island. But Sinbad refuses to turn the ship around, knowing they are already running late for he and Parisa's wedding. The wedding is set to take place, but Sokurah, unable to convince the Caliph of Baghdad to grant him an expedition back to his island, casts dark magic to make Parisa shrink to the size of a living doll. This causes her blustering father to declare war on Baghdad, and Sinbad manages to convince the exiled magician to stay and help them return Parisa to her rightful state, not knowing it was Sokurah who has caused it.

The monstrous bird, Roc.

Naturally, the last ingredient for the potion to cure her, happens to be the shell of a Roc egg, which can only be found, you guessed it, on Sokurah's island of Colossa. With Sinbad's old crew mostly refusing to go back to that accursed place, Sinbad is forced to recruit criminals from Baghdad's prison, offering them freedom in return for making the voyage. Many agree to go, but as the voyage nears its destination, they try to mutiny, only failing because of a nearby island, whose demons' wails drive men mad, and drive their ships to smash on jagged rocks. Sinbad and company are freed to save the ship, and within little time, they are back on Colossa, gigantic crossbow in tow, to help them fend off any Cyclops.

The genie, Barani.

Not to give away too much of the plot, you could probably guess that when Sinbad's dwindling crew manage to secure a piece of Roc's eggshell, that bastard Sokurah snatches Parisa, in a bid to force Sinbad to come to his hidden castle and give him his precious lamp. Before this, however, Parisa had braved to venture inside the lamp itself, meeting the genie, who looks like a little boy. He is a slave to the lamp, though there is a prophecy inscribed which states he could possibly be freed some day. Parisa promises to try and free him, if he'll teach her the words to summon his aid, which she in turn taught to Sinbad. It is thus with the Genie's help, that Sinbad finds Sokurah's castle, and rushes to the final confrontation.

One thing that stands out about this film, to people who follow mythology and folklore, is that Harryhausen took some liberties with a couple of the film's primary monsters, namely the Roc bird and the Cyclops. He chose to give the Roc two heads, both the hatchling they run across and the angry parent, perhaps to make it more imposing. Though if you ask me, a ginormous bird with one head would be pretty terrifying. And for the Cyclops, he altered their Greek myth form, of essentially just being gigantic one-eyed people, to instead being more inhuman, satyr-like beings with cloven hooves, and a horn crowning their heads. Departure or not, I love his version of the Cyclops, and I think it is one of the single most iconic movie monsters of all time.

One of Ray's gorgeous concept drawings.

From concept to reality.

Additionally, while not AS iconic in most fans' minds as the infamous skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which came five years later, 7th Voyage features a duel with a single animated skeleton warrior, seen above, which would serve as Ray's prototype for the later, more ambitious scene. Still, nothing like this fight between Sinbad and the Skeleton had ever really been done before, and Kerwin Matthews had to train with a fencing master, to the point of getting down dance-like timing, to be able to act as if he were fighting an opponent who was not truly there. This was, of course, decades before such things would be attempted with the aid of computer graphics. Not only did Matthews have to get all of his movements precisely correct, but Ray had to match the skeleton's movements up precisely as well. The final product, is one of the coolest scenes in movie history, which still looks great and stands up to this day.

That sly devil, Sokurah.

To me, as a child, I was absolutely entranced by this movie, just as much in '89/'90 as I'm sure kids/people were when it originally released in 1958. That's not only a testament to how good Harryhausen's special effects were, but also a testament to how good the movie in general is. Trust me, I have seen some movies with cool stop-motion effects, which as MOVIES go, are garbage. But to my mind, everything about 7th Voyage stands out. The pacing and cinematography are on point, the casting and acting are great, and the story itself, while simple and fairy-tale-like, is also just really entertaining. And it needs to be said that Bernard Herrman's magical score fits the mood of every scene perfectly. From the very opening of the Columbia logo, the main theme of the film kicks in and really grabs you, holding on throughout. Scenes such as the magic snake dance in Baghdad, feature such wonderfully imaginative and fitting musical flourishes and refrains, and the score never feels off or out of place. Like a good movie score should, it helps tell the story as much as the visuals and acting do.

Perhaps the most iconic scene of the film.

Of course, while I loved the entire film and watched it a ton as a kid, at that age, the part that naturally stood out the most to me, "monster kid" that I was, were the monsters themselves. And the climactic battle between a Cyclops and Sokurah's protective dragon, was the main event! I liked, and still like, the Cyclops. But even as a child, I've always had a thing for dragons, which perhaps led to my love of dinosaurs, and Godzilla, etc. One of my favorite childhood films, even though it was goofy, was the original Pete's Dragon, with me of course wishing I had a dragon friend like him. So it probably goes without saying then, that I rooted for the dragon in this fight.

Within the next couple of years of my young life, as TNT started their marathons, and other stations played late-night monster movies as well, as I said before, I was able to see Captain Sindbad again, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Tiger's Eye. But while I think those are all excellent films, and I love them all a lot, to my mind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still the best of the lot. As awesome as Tom Baker and Margaret Whiting are as Koura and Zenobia, or even Pedro Armenderiz as the vile El Kharim in "Sindbad", to me Torin Thatcher as Sokurah is the perfect villain. He may not even be as purely evil as those others, but his obsession with power and specifically with owning the magic lamp, push him to deliciously dastardly ends.

The Princess saving the day.

Or, for example, while the other Sinbad movies feature some genuinely gorgeous, and even cool leading ladies, for my money, Princess Parisa rocks. Not only was she beautiful, but she wasn't your typical damsel in distress. When she is shrunken to tiny size, and her whole world is ruined and her father flies off into a warmongering rage, she doesn't freak out or cry, she keeps her cool and even comforts a mourning Sinbad. And twice during the tale, it is she, using her size to their advantage, who displays great courage and resourcefulness, saving Sinbad and his crew from a cage, and later braving the magical unknown to try talking to the Genie of the lamp. She is also incredibly honorable, as even though they could use the Genie's magic late in the story, she remains steadfast in her promise to try and free him instead.

For that matter, as much as I love ALL of Harryhausen's monsters, especially the ones from the Sinbad films, none of them are AS classy or as classic to me, as the Roc, and the Cyclops, and the Dragon. And while I think that all of those Sinbad actors, from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 40s, to Guy Williams, John Phillip Law, and Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne), are good and they all owned the role in their own way, they ALL made good Sinbads. I would still argue that Kerwin Matthews was the best in the role, and at the very least, he's my personal favorite Sinbad, and always will be.

Ray and his babies.

While in many ways, the later two Harryhausen Sinbad epics, both of which feature a Doctor Who (Golden has Tom Baker and Tiger has Patrick Troughton), are even more elaborate and epic films with arguably superior effects work, 7th Voyage still stands above them as the most charming, whimsical, and complete of Ray's unofficial "Sinbad Trilogy". And while a majority of film fans and historians seem to agree that Jason and the Argonauts is Ray's greatest work, and I myself call 1981's Clash of the Titans, sadly his final feature film, to be his magnum opus, his masterpiece. I would still ultimately say that to ME, for my money, in my heart of hearts, 7th Voyage is his best overall film. And again, at the very least, it is MY personal favorite Harryhausen movie.

It actually stands the test of time in my Top 5 Favorite Films ever, which have fluctuated in position a bit, even since I wrote that article talking about them. For one thing, Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal arguably belongs in my Top 5, instead of merely Top 10. If you were to ask me right now, while the movies themselves remain the same, the position for my Top 10 favorites of all time, would look more like this:

1. The Hobbit (1977)

2. The Dark Crystal (1982)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
5. Big Trouble in Little China (1985)

6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)

7. Ghostbusters (1984)

8. Throw Mama From the Train (1987)

9. The Goonies (1985)

10. The 'Burbs (1989)

But 7th Voyage has, and will continue no matter what, to remain in my personal Top 5, even over a Godzilla film, for the rest of my life.

As I always seem to say, if you've never seen this film, or ANY Harryhausen movie for that matter, then please, do yourself, your kids, your pets, everyone a favor, and watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It is, in a word, delightful. And if the word "wholesome" should ever be attached to any fantasy/adventure epic, this would be it as well. It is, I'm not afraid or ashamed to state, at least as far as I'm concerned, the best (live action at least) fantasy film ever crafted.

THE master of movie magic and special effects, 1920-2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome Retro Revolutionaries! Feel free to leave your own thoughts or feedback on these fantastic retro memories!