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The 7th Voyage of Sinbad Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 30, 2008

    The 7th Voyage of Sinbad Review
    “From the land beyond beyond... from the world past hope and fear... I bid you, Genie, now appear.”

    The first Dynamation feature-film from the creative team of FX-legend Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer, 1958's evergreen-favourite The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad was an immediate success. Taking a loose thread of Greek mythology and embroidering it with Arabian Nights romanticism and high adventure, 7th Voyage created a template for a series of stop-motion extravaganzas to come - their trademark of wooden performers out-acted by fantastical creatures, extremely literal screenplays and quasi-Eastern-cum-Western yarn entwining not tarnishing their innate sense of childlike innocence and sheer cinematic magic. Of all the colourful and entertaining romps that Harryhausen made, 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and Jason And The Argonauts - the second of his mythological canon - are the best and most cherished. But whilst Jason is the better film and the one most fondly recalled, it was his nautical buddy Sinbad's 7th escapade that was the most profitable, at least initially. Riding the crest of a wave that was begun by the first risible Italian Hercules saga, starring Steve (Superman) Reeves, Sinbad came at just the right time and captured the public's thirst for swords and spectacle in exotic lands. Film Noir was still hugely popular, but costume dramas had been deemed to have had their day, yet the exploits of these bygone heroes entranced audiences, young and old, the world over with their incredibly simplistic, vacuous and fast-paced desire to provide nothing more than mere escapism. Harryhausen was the complete opposite of the dark detective stories then filling the box office listings and his brand of garish and opulent fantastica, furnished with a single-minded devotion to a special effects process that would, despite wonderful re-interpretations from Tim Burton and even Sam Raimi in latter years, be doomed under the duel banners of “quaint” and “nostalgic” by many cinemagoers a relatively short time after their audacious and groundbreaking debuts.

    Yet, for many - myself included - these unbridled cavalcades of wild creative fancy remain just as inspiring, exhilarating and downright entertaining as when first viewed through the wide-agog eyes of childhood.

    Returning home to Baghdad with the daughter of a neighbouring Sultan, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) hopes to foster good will and peace between the two nations, after suspicions and long-held disputes threaten to topple over into all-out war, by marrying her. But, en route, he and his crew contrive to arrive on the foreboding island of Colossa, home not only to the vicious Cyclops, but also to the evil sorcerer, Sokurah (Tobin Thatcher), whose magical lamp grants him incredible power. Fleeing for his life from the monocular brute, Sokurah drops the lamp in the surf and is rescued by Sinbad before he can retrieve it. Taken with them back to Baghdad, the wizard can think of little else but getting back to his island and getting back his lamp. Thus, after instigating a heinous metamorphosis that reduces the betrothed Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) to the size of a biro, he inveigles the employment of a reluctant and angered Sinbad to sail him back to Colossa where, he assures the two countries, who stand poised on the brink of conflict, that he can restore her back to her normal self. But with violent mutineers, a fire-breathing dragon, wailing sea-witches, the mighty two-headed Roc, a skeleton whose seen too many Errol Flynn movies and, of course, the dreaded, man-eating Cyclops prowling about, it won't be an easy trip. In fact, Sinbad's seventh voyage will turn out to be anything but lucky.

    “What of my daughter's wedding?”

    “There will be no wedding. Mysterious and evil forces are at work and the wedding rejoicing will be turned to mourning!

    By far the most memorable character is that of Torin Thatcher's devious warlock Sokurah. Oft-seen in costume dramas and piratical escapades before he shaved his bonce and donned the villainous black robes of the wicked sorcerer in 7th Voyage, Thatcher was quite a dominant persona whose overt theatricality naturally lent itself to such dark characters. Looking like Robert Shaw with fledgling David Hemming-style eyebrows, Thatcher cuts a dastardly dash across the rugged Majorcan hillside, his expression either a perma-scowl of such glowering magnitude that it could give a gorgon a run for its money in the petrifying stakes, or a sinister knowing smile that is possibly even more frightening. His gruff voice and weird on-off accent also enhance his sense of mystery and menace and even, at times, evoke memories of good old Bela Lugosi. When he tries to kid the Caliph of Baghdad (Alec Mango) and the visiting Sultan (Harold Kasket) that their two nations will soon be at war, his bogus whimpering as he stares into his crystal ball, “I see ... but I cannot tell!!!” is hysterical given that we can all, including the royal idiots, see exactly what he is up to. But Thatcher runs the gamut of emotions and produces a villain that is far from one-dimensional. We see him enraged and frightened at the loss of his lamp and we see him courteous and informative when he needs the help of others to overcome obstacles and, most assuredly, we see him malicious and diabolical. When he captures the poor shrunken Parisa in what, to her, is his giant paw, the look on his face is pure boo-hissable. And what about when he just smirks and leaves a pleading Sinbad locked in a cage at the mercy of the Cyclops? Sokurah is a fabulous villain, indeed, and it is Thatcher's own skill at manipulating the hammy dialogue that brings him so smartly to life.

    Director Nathan Juran had already helmed some fantasy pictures, such as The Deadly Mantis for Universal and Harryhausen's own 20 Million Miles To Earth, both in 1957, but 7th Voyage would mark something of a turning point for him. His cheerfully episodic sensibilities would find a more secure home on the smaller screen with genre shows for the unstoppable Irwin Allen like The Time Tunnel, Lost In Space and Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. He would even work with his Sinbad star again on Jack The Giant Killer and the rarely-seen The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, but nothing would top this flamboyant spectacle. The thing is, it doesn't really matter who is directing a Ray Harryhausen picture because it inevitably all boils down to the creature-crafter calling the shots - quite literally. It has been said many times, and quite justifiably, that these films are merely set-pieces with some tenuous and usually poorly-conceived stories to link them together. And, in your heart of hearts, no matter how much you love these imagination-banquets, you know that they are, indeed, very slight and often mediocre movies wrapped around some admittedly excellent special effects. But, be that as it may, fun and adventure are the order of the day and both Harryhausen and Juran know exactly how to cram their film with the stuff. Barely a scene goes by without something magical, beastly or daring taking place and the ripe escalation of jeopardy is electrifying. Confrontations are raw and visceral, traps are frequently sprung and for many of Sinbad's crew, there won't be a return voyage. Although I adore the mighty man of bronze, Talos, in Jason And The Argonauts, I am always somewhat let down by his lack of kills. But here, with Sinbad, there are no such qualms. The bodycount is actually quite high and the plentiful deaths suitably grisly. This is where 7th Voyage comes into its own. Despite its colourful scale and often light-hearted approach, the film is actually quite dark and demonic. People can't be trusted and life is cheap. When Sinbad isn't warding off monsters, he is battling his own crew and the sense of unpredictability that this “every man for himself” ethic causes is one of the most rewarding aspects of the film.

    “If you harm her ... you die!”

    I actually like Kerwin Mathews' portrayal of Sinbad. It's wooden as hell and blandly American, of course, but there is also a rugged, no-nonsense approach to his heroism that doesn't have that gasp-shock-awe façade that Todd Armstrong, as Jason, brought into his plentiful monster-confrontation close-ups. His simple do-or-die stance is marvellously wrought during the violent mutiny sequence - love that bench-smash into a renegade's mush - and his stoic lack of expression when faced with dragons, skeletons, Cyclops and the mighty Roc is an inspiration for us all. Harryhausen cites that he likes Mathews because of his ability to play alongside nothing with some skill and, indeed, I would have to agree. His tender moments with his miniaturised lover and his marvellous synchronisation during the skirmish with the skeleton are testament to this most uncomfortable of acting experiences - that of reacting to an effect that will be put in later on. There is a vigour to his fighting that, whilst not “lusty” in the style of Flynn, Fairbanks or Rathbone, is intense and pleasingly dramatic enough to imbue the action with a keenly aggressive spirit. Yet, Mathews's Sinbad doesn't come across as unbeatable either ... which lends a bit more tension to the fracas that he keeps getting involved in. His very impetuosity humanises him.

    Kathryn Grant brings a wide-eyed, all-American vivaciousness to the part of Princess Parisa, anachronistic to the times, the locale and, especially, to her own Arabian father, but totally credible as a heart-capturing damsel-in-distress. All eyes, pout and bust, she is certainly enough to bring tears to the horny Cyclops' one good eye ... if you know what I mean. And what genie of the lamp - no matter how young they may appear to be - wouldn't consider leaving the spectral confines of his Tardis-dimensional sanctum to follow the allure of such a vivacious vixen? Having said this, though, one of the most annoying facets of the film is the whiny Californian drawl of young Richard Eyer's Genie of the Lamp. Previously seen opposite Robby The Robot when the bubble-bodied machine absconded from his Forbidden Planet and struck up a relationship with him in The Invisible Boy in 1957, Eyer is the thing that makes you cringe every time he opens his mouth. Yet, for all his simpering cuteness and echo-chamber voice, he is as indelible a part of this yarn as the bellowing, cloven-hoofed giants roaming the island.

    “Out, hear me, or, by my sword, I'll run you through!”

    There is great brevity to the tale as well. The humour of the visiting Sultan when he contemplates the imminent magical display that will transform the witch-nosed Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a cavorting serpent is knowingly played. “May Allah have mercy on them ... both,” he mutters when the snake is lowered into the great urn housing the unwitting handmaiden. And the sweaty-jowled mutineer who wrestles the ship from a brawling Sinbad is also a grisly comic of violently taunting intimidation. And then we get the idiotic drunkards who have unwisely quaffed from a river of wine, cavorting merrily into a savage scrape with an irate Cyclops. It is also amusing to see Sokurah's patently transparent attempts to purloin himself a ship and a crew to return him to his island - via tricks, scams and bribery. And, although it is purely unintentional, I always get a giggle at the start of the film when Sinbad's lookout in the Crow's Nest keeps shouting down with ridiculously long-drawn-out words when his captain merely barks his own. You can imagine a Naked Gun style moment of the camera panning down from his lofty vantage point to reveal that Sinbad is actually only a couple feet below him.

    Yet, there is a much darker edge to Harryhausen's movie that goes beyond anything else he made, for the film is also notorious for its violence, and certain scenes were, in fact, trimmed in the UK during its initial theatrical run. The mutiny on board Sinbad's ship features a lookout getting clobbered and the overall viciousness of the cutthroats, especially their growling leader, although hardly gratuitously depicted, is never watered-down for the kiddies. You certainly get the impression that death at their hands will not be pleasant or quick. A later impalement of a trusted character is also quite sadistic and made all the more affecting when we see Kerwin Mathews' mournful reaction upon his discovery of the body. But the man-against-man conflicts are small potatoes when compared to the pure primal savagery of the mighty Cyclops on the rampage. Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's pulse-pounding percussion and the nerve-shredding bellowing of the behemoth, itself, scenes of poor sailors getting squished beneath the merciless base of an uprooted tree - you really feel the crunch during those gripping long-shots of wanton carnage - and, most infamous of all, the slow turning of Sinbad's mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) on the roasting spit as the Cyclops looks on and licks his lips, have a sensationally nasty air of chaos and the bravura. There is a genuine sense of dread with this particular creature that Harryhausen wasn't able to inject into all of his monsters, often opting to elicit a smidgeon of sympathy for his stop-motion devils as well, such 20 Million Miles To Earth's sulphur-nibbling Ymir, whom the Cyclops was partially based upon. But the rage and bestial ferocity of the Cyclops is the stuff of pure nightmare. The heart-lurching moment when he unearths the explorers rifling through his treasure-lair was an image and an experience that galvanised me as a child lucky enough to be able view the film on a re-release every night for seven days at the glorious (and now long-gone) Phoenix Cinema in Wallasey during the late seventies. And, best of all, that exact same frisson of terror and vulnerability is still just as galvanising even now, many years later. The fans always cite Harryhausen's ability to make dreams come true, but his skills for breeding nightmares were probably much more potent.

    On other fronts, the technical aspects of the film were a mixed bag. The scenes set in Baghdad don't convince at all, but they are still better than similar temple scenes in the later Jason, which truly looked like it had “borrowed” shots from other movies ... which it had, of course. Voyage does nick a couple of shots of the ship ploughing through the waves, though, to be fair. The interior of the Genie, Barani's lamp are like something out of Lost In Space or Star Trek, pink, red and purple mist swirls and harp and celesta sparkle, but the effect is actually more akin to a kids' ball-pond, what with Parisa sliding down the spout into it. The Majorcan landscapes, on the other hand - rugged valleys and high crags - are majestically fantastic, if one can ignore the roads clearly seen in the distance, and it is often easy to fall for its supposed isolation at the edge of the world. Sokurah's cave-chiselled fortress is a wonderfully eerie edifice of baroque columns and arches, shadowy pathways and medieval dungeon-like gothic splendour. Almost Disney-esque in style, the torch-lit lair of Sokurah is one of those environments that you just wish you could explore further. In fact, with such a colourful and satanic character, there is ripe material for more grim adventures by way of a prequel, perhaps. I, for one, would love to know why he chose to live on such a dangerous island in the first place and the remains of an ancient civilisation - for surely Sokurah did not fashion this castle out of the hard stone, himself - only adds further intrigue to the mystery of Colossa. The laboratory set is terrifically atmospheric, full of potions, flames, chalices and urns - oh, and a rather incongruous stuffed alligator. It is actually quite rare in a Harryhausen fantasy film to see such a detailed interior. Most of his mythically flavoured spectacles are depicted against the rolling waves, mystical plateaus, beaches rucked-up by giant feet - Cyclops here, Talos in Jason - and enchanted woods or swamps - Clash Of The Titans. Herein lies the essence of Harryhausen's own charter - he wants his creations to be seen, not hinted at. The overwhelming majority of his creatures - quite rightly - are marvelled at in bright daylight and in environments that can't obscure, can't mask their intricate invention. Whilst this is all perfectly acceptable when you consider the time and effort it takes to give them life on celluloid, it does also tend to limit the visual aesthetic that houses them. When Harryhausen does takesthem indoors it actually enhances their spectral and haunting qualities simply because it is so unusual to see them swathed in shadows - Medusa in Class Of The Titans, for instance, or the skeleton brought to bone-chinking, sword-wielding life here.

    Ahh, the skeleton.

    Perhaps more than any other monster he designed, Ray Harryhausen will best be remembered for his malevolent bony warriors. Although he dragged forth six grinning skull-faced soldiers to square off against Jason And The Argonauts and unleashed a gaggle of bug-eyed, alien-esque variations upon Patrick Wayne in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, he created the first indelibly etched skeleton for 7th Voyage. Perhaps even more frightening because it is alone and still so fiercely determined to skewer our hero, this bag of battling bones is a wonderful nemesis. Much better than the Roc, which I've never been a fan of.

    “I long to be free! To be an adventurer and to sail the seven seas like Captain Sinbad!”

    The Harryhausen fantasy films - the early ones, anyway - were bolstered by something else too, something that has had just as much of a cultural and genre influence as the effects themselves, and that was the phenomenal music of the great Bernard Herrmann. Composing for 7th Voyage, Jason, Mysterious Island and The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, some of Herrmann's most complex, atmospheric and highly regarded scores revolved around stop-motion beasts and simplistic derring-do. Yet, Herrmann discovered something so inspirational in the visuals and the concepts of these Americanised myths that his already colossal talents leapt up another notch or two. His scores for both 7th Voyage and Jason are absolute classics of brooding menace, cavalier spirit and wondrous adventure, his orchestration for both masterclasses in broad exhilaration and haunting intimacy. 7th Voyage is the most diverse of the two, featuring terrific clashing cymbals and ferocious percussion for the Cyclops, a thunderous main title theme comprised of stabbing lances of brass, and a lilting Arabian-flavoured romance to spice-up and cajole the quieter, more tender moments. But it is the incredible xylophone and woodwind combination that hails the duelling skeleton that sticks most prevalently in the mind. Even Harry Sukman attempted to emulate its eerie bone-clacking cadence and furious drive in his main title theme for Tobe Hooper's adaptation of 'Salem's Lot.

    The stuff of childhood legend, 7th Voyage is an evergreen example of rousing high adventure, diabolical villainy, sensational monsters and pure cathartic release. Overcoming such pitfalls as ill-placed Yankee accents, a threadbare script and some plywood performances with ease and visual panache, it steps into the Hall of the Icons with the positively unbeatable monster-mash of the Cyclops, the Dragon, the two-headed Roc and the swashbuckling skeleton. Oh, and the snake-woman, too. Delirious fun from mysterious start to thigh-slapping finale, Sinbad's 7th is one of the best examples of what cinema the land of dreams.

    Highly recommended.