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Every fantasy film fan remembers their first encounter with Ray Harryhausen. Growing up in the late 50s, Savant's first exposure was The Three Worlds of Gulliver, followed quickly by Mysterious Island, which came out on a double bill with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Mysterious we liked. Sinbad took our heads off. I literally ducked when the big orange Cyclops stomped out of its cave. It was immediately alive, real, and just plain scary. Like thousands of other ten-year olds, I immediately rushed home and started drawing pictures of it.
Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine became Savant's conduit to the world of Ray Harryhausen, who seemed to have been a local LA kid who started making his own movies in his garage w-a-a-y before such behavior became popular. When they showed his stop-motion fairytale Hansel and Gretel in the fifth grade, Savant instantly spotted Harryhausen's style .
Who isn't familiar with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? It was Harryhausen's first Dynamation film in color, a commercial necessity which presented all kinds of technical problems. Harryhausen had just perfected the effects process in B&W in 20 Million Miles to Earth. But the few dupe and intermediate color film stocks available in 1958 required Ray to rethink all of his tricks in order to get a finished image with colors that could be timed to look normal. Except for the occasional conventional travelling matte shot Harryhausen did all of his movie magic in the camera through multiple exposures; he was lighting, animating, and compositing all in one go.
Producer Charles H. Schneer's push to work in color was only part of his plan to kick their Morningside productions into a higher production bracket. Their earlier Science Fiction films were somewhat ghetto-ized in boxoffice potential and largely ignored by Hollywood. By striving to crash the commercial mainstream Schneer gave Harryhausen producer support unequalled in movie history. What other special effects man was allowed to be the auteur of his films? Schneer's support made all the difference, especially when one contemplates the frustrated, unproductive career of Ray's inspiration, Willis O'Brien. Sure, Schneer's taste in scripts often hurt their films together, but through him Harryhausen was able to make scores of films in an intensely productive 20+ year relationship, a remarkable record.
Harryhausen loved fantasy more than science fiction, and 7th Voyage shows his love of the earlier Korda production The Thief of Bagdad, which probably remains the best-realized show of this type. But 7th Voyage makes up in excitement and intensity for what it lacks in whimsical magic; the island of Colossa teems with bizarre monstrosities that jolt and dazzle the audience.
Nathan Juran's lowbudget direction has plenty of style and pace, unlike the studiobound earlier Schneer films (and some of Juran's own domestic embarassments like Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman). The episodic a-new-monster-every-ten-minutes formula is here held together by a solid plot hook, Sinbad's quest to restore the shrunken Princess Parisa to her full height. The always impressive Torin Thatcher anchors the menace on a human level while providing his best remembered performance as the magician Sokurah. Bernard Herrmann's A-Class music score gives Sinbad the magical feel of classic fantasy and helps the various critters come to ferocious life. Some of Herrmann's best work is here, and that includes his work for Welles and Hitchcock. There is a pounding action theme, when the blinded Cyclops #2 is chasing Sinbad's drunken sailors, that builds with bells and drums to an extremely intense pitch.
Even more than other redblooded American kiddie movies of the fifties, Sinbad is also incredibly violent. Luckless sailors are roasted, impaled, knocked from craggy cliffs and gleefully crushed under tree trunks. The blinding of the Cyclops is particularly traumatic, as is the slaughter of the Roc's cute Kingsize Canary chicks. Just anticipating another nightmarish appearance of the Cyclops kept us all white-knuckled in our 1961 theater seats, Savant doesn't mind admitting. There was no telling what gruesome thing was going to happen next.
Agreeably bland Kerwin Matthews actually carried his role well, and the pregnant Kathryn Grant has considerable appeal as the teeny tiny Parisa: Attack of the 50mm Woman? Richard Eyer is the only actor who seems out of place, possibly the result of a few too many Savant screenings. His dour genie is kind of a killjoy, even if he is written that way. We feel neither his yearning to be free of the magic lamp nor his joy when it comes to pass, especially when compared to the exultations of Sabu and Rex Ingram in Thief of Bagdad. Some viewers blanche at the stock shots used for Sinbad's ship, which seems to be a different vessel every time we see it. The last shot looks exactly like a garden variety Spanish galleon.
College screenings of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad invariably had their proto-MST3K moments. Matthews chanting magic words while abstractedly stroking some object just out of frame naturally reminded dormie wiseasses of something other than magic lamps. Harryhausen and Juran's blocking fails hilariously in the scene when the dinky Parisa frees Sinbad and Co. from a wooden cage. She unbolts the latch and tells her fiancée he can come out, whereupon Sinbad pops the cage lid up like a flapjack. The audience got the idea that Parisa should have been launched into the air, to splat on a neighboring rock.
What keeps Harryhausen's films current in the imaginations of digitally obsessed fans is the artistry he applies to his creations. The Cyclops and dragon simply look colossal, never like puppets that can fit on a bookshelf. Unlike the Play-Doh plodding of the creatures in The Beast of Hollow Mountain or Jack the Giant Killer, Harryhausen's critters always seem to have heft and weight and balance. Gravity dictates their stance and movement. The tests of Harryhausen's early work have that tabletop clay-animation look that betray their tiny scale; Mighty Joe Young and the rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms have such a sophisticated pantomime to their movements that one has to conclude that mentor O'Brien's lessons went right to student Harryhausen's heart and soul.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on DVD is an excellent show. Meticulous work must have been undertaken in order to get the colors this good; earlier cassettes and lasers have been pretty poor and a Savant Columbia connection informs me that the original negatives were completely worn out decades ago. A theatrical reissue in 1975 looked miserable. Not only had the negative faded but Eastmancolor didn't have a chance of equalling the Technicolor process which in 1958 had been used to optimize Harryhausen's sometimes slightly grainy composites. The 16:9 framing isn't going to please fans who want their Harryhausen at 1:66, but it looks correct to Savant. Unlike the DVD of Jason and the Argonauts, no 1:33 version is included.
The sound is sharp mono, especially the entirely post-looped dialog that makes Sinbad an excellent teaching tool for ESL (English as a Second Langugage) classwork. An earlier Pioneer laser had a separate music-only track that highlighted the fave Herrmann score. The only regret with Columbia's otherwise excellent presentation is that the music could not be remixed in stereophonic sound for an addtional thrill. Was the 'stereo' on previous VHS and laser editions real or synthesized? Among the extras is an hour-long Harryhausen documentary with some rare footage that stop-motion freaks are going to want to see, including a test young Ray made for a proposed version of The War of the Worlds. With other studios relegating fan-based genre films to "No frills, just put 'em out as is" releases, Columbia Tristar's continued virtuosity deserves more commendation than it gets.
From the heights of 1958 we hit the commercial downgrade with the 1974 Golden Voyage of Sinbad. After the hopelessly out-of-touch The Valley of Gwangi fans had to wait five years to see another Harryhausen epic, and naturally we expected too much. It may have been a confluence of uninspired elements, or perhaps the magic was just levelling off, but Golden is neither a magical nor entertaining, even with an evocative score by Miklos Rosza (the composer of the classic Thief of Bagdad) trying its hardest to transport us back to the world of Arabian Nights.
To list the problems with Golden seems unfair -- it has lots of fans and Savant is sure kids still love it. But in terms of the career arc of the Schneer/Harryhausen teaming, it's the beginning of the end. John Phillip Law isn't the kind of actor one can expect to prevail over a script that makes him mostly an ineffective hero. He can't overcome the simplest swashbuckling challenge, and Brian Clemens' unending string of bad aphorisms that passes for dialog prevents any kind of magic from building. Thief of Bagdad turned simple, even corny dialogue (such as the lover's meeting by a lily pond) into timeless poetry. 7th's central romance had determination and sweetness, and a certain honesty. Golden acts as though it were embarrassed with itself and the fantasy genre in general.
The direction of Golden is the worst in any Harryhausen film. The camera never seems to be in a good position except in the effects scenes, and too many cheap optical zooms are used to hype the image. Tom Baker's Khoura is poorly written but he attacks the role with conviction and thus comes off the least compromised of all the players. On the other hand, Caroline Munro seems utterly charmless. Are her fans just ga-ga over her bustline? She does have a hard time keeping herself tucked into her ill-fitting costumes. A 1974 rumor in Cinefantastique opined that an unnoticed accident in an angle of her getting out of a boat made a shot substitution necessary. Apparently an errant breast escaped notice until well into preview audience screenings. Savant is also informed that there remains intact a scene where poor Caroline, following too closely, is accidentally poked in the privates by Law's sword, her reaction in plain view. And these are the highlights, folks.
Unfortunately, Ray Harryhausen's contribution to Golden is also on the tired side. The hodgepodge of cultural icons on Lemuria (Apocalypse Now-like Cambodian statues, Kali from India, Stonehenge) is pretty lazy, and their presentation largely flat and unimpressive. Compare the expressive modernist cave entrance in 7th to the cluttered views of the oracle's shrine in Golden.
The creatures on view are also variable and derivative, in contrast to Harryhausen's earlier work. The homunculi not only look like the Venusian Ymir but seem to be identically animated, as if to save time and effort. The Centaur makes two almost identical and unexciting clip-clop entrances from within a cave shaft. It and the Griffin are awkward and anatomically unconvincing. Their fight seems peculiarly unmotivated as well.
Only in the Kali sequence does the Harryhausen magic come through. The dance of the statue and the exciting Rosza score during the multi-armed swordfight that follows have a grandeur that places the sequence among the master animator's most interesting. It's an oasis of brilliance. Golden is almost a half hour longer than 7th, and has a non-pace that really drags. What sparkle there is needs to be savored, however. Compared to the later Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, this picture is a masterpiece.
1974 prints of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad were so poor that this new 16:9 Columbia transfer has no problem making the film look the best Savant has ever seen it. Many shots in the indifferently-photographed film are no longer murky-green, and the grain is deemphasized even on the shoddiest optical zooms. The presentation brings out the best in what was once a pretty drab show.
Golden is presented both flat and 16:9 widescreen and the array of extras and featurettes are the equal of the earlier film. The opening has a severely cropped Columbia torch lady. It looks as though Columbia slapped on a flat logo on this 1:85 film by accident. The rest of the show is composed very nicely. The Savant non-favorite was a pleasure to watch this time through.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad rates:
There is an earlier DVD Savant article that is relevant to this review, The Children of Ray Harryhausen.