At the holidays of 1958, a wonderful film called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It starred the heroic Kerwin Mathews and the lovely Kathryn Grant, and it was directed by Nathan Juran. However, that wasn't what made it stand out. The exceptional special effects and creatures of Ray Harryhausen, the greatest visual effects artist of all time, brought the fantasy film to life. If you've never seen the movie before, you need to check out this new, high quality DVD release.
In the classic Hollywood adventure, a ship has been blown off course by mysterious winds while on a diplomatic mission. The ship's captain, the mighty Sinbad (Mathews), is transporting his betrothed, Princess Parisa (Grant), from her country of Chandra to his home of Baghdad, or "Bagdad" as the intertitle says. After the storm, they stop on the mysterious island of Colossa to gather vittles. Before long, they are attacked by a huge monster, a humanoid cyclops, and forced to flee along with a mysterious stranger from the island, the magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). During the escape, Sokurah loses his magic lamp, which contains a powerful genie. He wants to go back for it, but the crew continues on to Baghdad and arrives safely. Before the union of Sinbad and Parisa, the treacherous Sokurah places a spell on Parisa that shrinks her to a few inches tall. The potion to heal her can only be concocted on Colossa, so a mission back to the island is planned and the real adventure begins, as more dangers reveal themselves on the island and Sokurah shows his true, evil colors.
The story deliberately sets up wonderful set pieces and magical encounters, all of which are done through formidable special effects. Not only do humans interact with cyclopses, but the miniature Parisa runs around in the same frame as full-sized Sinbad. In a veritable sequel to the King Kong versus a t-rex fight, a cyclops fights a dragon in the heavyweight bout. The power of the visuals creates the argument that this film, and many others, are actually Harryhausen's work, even though he didn't direct.
Despite the "7" in the title, this film was not part of a specific series, which is too bad because Harryhausen could have done wonders with the property. However, Sinbad was a recurring character in Hollywood productions, and this film illustrates the West's fascination with the Orient and its exoticism. Don't expect a cautious, politically correct film, however, as, among other things, all of the Caucasian leads are playing middle easterners.
I grew up on this movie, as did my father before me. I always used to watch it on an old, full-screen VHS, so this DVD is a marked improvement. By the way, my father used to be in love with Kathryn Grant when he was a boy, and this film will show you why.
This DVD is entitled "Ray Harryhausen Presents The 7th Voyage of Sinbad." It is a 50th anniversary edition released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. It is one disc in a typical, single-wide case.
This is a real treat for fans of classic Hollywood fantasy. Sinbad is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It is enhanced for widescreen TV's perfectly. Those of you watching on a 4x3 TV will have a slightly letterboxed image. But the 1.66:1 image is not as wide as 16x9 TV's, which are about 1.80:1, so the enhanced image is slightly window boxed. This is the correct way to view the image, yet if the black areas on the side bug you, you can turn on the cropping of your hi-def TV, and they will almost disappear.
The picture is as good as any home video transfer of this film will ever be. Sony has remastered it in high definition, and the Technicolor image is very bright. Many of the artifacts of the original film print have been taken out; this looks endlessly better than the old, 4x3, VHS version I watched as a kid. I saw blood on the cyclops from its wounds that I never knew were there before. However, an occasional speck of dirt can still be seen, and the film grain can really stand out when the transfer is this clear. Particularly in large areas of color, such as blue sky, you will see the grain, but it almost disappears in more crowded images.
I watched this upconverted onto a 720p TV, and I was extremely happy with it overall. You can't expect it to look as good as modern blockbusters shot in the last few years; no flawless print of this exists anymore. And I saw some low level noise during some of the dark scenes, like night shots on Sinbad's boat (this is nothing new for me; dark, misty shots often create noise in hi-def in my experience). However, most of the problems on the image are not DVD artifacts but artifacts from the original image. Frankly, I feel that this movie should look this way. You never forget that you're watching a classic.
The sound does this movie as proud as the video does. The options are English and French 5.1-surround, English stereo, and a commentary track. Both surround options sound absolutely spectacular. The wonderful music by Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo) has the necessary force behind it with surround, creating a conviction that the stereo cannot replicate. Sound design was not as complicated in the 50's as it is today, so there aren't a lot of subtleties to appreciate in the 5.1, but the immersion created by its use of the score and the sound effects, like the amazing roar of the cyclops, make it absolutely worth it. Please don't watch this without surround sound.
The Special Features
There are a lot of worthwhile special features, more than one would think can fit on one disc.
First of all, there is a wonderful commentary track with Harryhausen, authors Steven Smith (Bernard Herrmann biographer) and Arnold Kunert, and visual effects experts Phil Tippett and Randall William Cook. All five men speak at once and were recorded at the same time, which I believe is a better method than recording them separately and editing in their comments where necessary. They all address different aspects of the film, and it's nice to hear them joke around and enjoy the experience of watching the film 50 years after its release.
The first featurette is called "Remembering the 7th Voyage of Sinbad." It is made up entirely of Harryhausen talking about the making of the film. His on-camera interview is intercut with old footage and photos. This is wonderful stuff, especially if you want to know about how the special effects were done. The feature is 16x9, enhanced, and 22 minutes long.
The second featurette is called "The Harryhausen Legacy." It features dozens of on-screen interviews with filmmakers who were inspired by the work of Harryhausen. The people range from directors to visual effects artists and include Dennis Muren and Frank Darabont. The feature is 16x9, enhanced, and 25 minutes long.
The third featurette is called "The Music of Bernard Herrmann." It is an on-screen interview with Smith. To be honest, Smith's explanation of Herrmann's life and work will probably only appeal to big fans, but it was interesting. It is 16x9, enhanced, and 26 minutes long, which is going to be too much for most of you.
The next feature is a photo gallery, a slideshow that plays automatically and is accompanied by Herrmann's score. The photos are mostly black and white and consist of things like production stills and behind-the-scenes photos. The feature is 16x9, enhanced, and nine minutes long.
The fifth feature is a slide show set to a song called "Sinbad May Have Been Bad, But He's Been Good to Me," a 45 rpm. The song was used in 1958 as a promotional tool for the film, but doesn't have the flavor of the film, sounding like a stereotypical pop song from the 1950's. The slides shown are promotional posters from the film's release. The feature is 16x9, enhanced, and three minutes long.
The next featurette is called "A Look Behind the Voyage." This is an older, behind-the-scenes documentary made in 1995. It discusses Harryhausen's early career and the procces of making Sinbad. It features on-screen interviews with people like Harryhausen and Kerwin Mathews. The feature is 4x3 and 12 minutes long.
The seventh feature is called "This is Dynamation," and it is an old trailer for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Dynamation is what Harryhausen's effect used to be called. The trailer actually features some very interesting, behind-the-scenes footage that was used to explain how the effects were done. The feature is 16x9 and three minutes long, but it is not enhanced for widescreen TV's.
The final feature is an old interview with Harryhausen by director John Landis (The Blues Brothers). The interview was technically about Jason and the Argonauts, another of Harryhausen's greats. Landis and Harryhausen sit side by side in a room, surrounded by artifacts from Harryhausen's career, and reminisce about the old films and the trials of getting them made. The feature is 4x3 and 12 minutes long.
My Final Thoughts
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a great movie. It has spectacular music and special effects and production design, and it's family friendly. Buy this DVD, unless you decide that the Blu-ray is a better value. Read John Sinnot's review of that. After more than six months as a DVD Talk reviewer, I'm proud to name The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as my first nomination for the "DVD Talk Collector Series."