Following up on their rather good double feature presentation of Battle Beyond the Sun & Star Pilot, Retromedia graces us with a pair of Russian fairy tale fantasies in their altered American versions. Purchased outright by American entrepreneurs, both were redubbed and their stories changed considerably to better market them for audiences expecting more definable genres: one became a "Sinbad" epic, and the other a science fiction film.
In the early 1990s Video Watchdog magazine had a series of interesting articles on the original Russian movies, identifying their maker as Alexsandr Ptushko, a camera veteran that had worked since the 1930s. His biggest release in America was The Sword and the Dragon, a redub of a vast saga called Ilya Muromets. Although the originals may have seen screenings in arthouse theaters in their original forms, the Yankee redubs obscured the films' source by giving the actors and technicians Anglicized names in the credits. For instance, in its transformation to The Magic Voyage of Sinbad by Roger Corman's acolyte Francis Coppola, Ptushko's directorial credit was changed to "Joseph Moss," with the whole film listed as being produced by a company called "Mossfilm."
The Cold War seems to have provided an excuse for all kinds of cultural piracy. Today these titles are slowly being released on Region One discs by the Ruscico company - in their original versions. Retromedia gives us a good opportunity to see how they were vandalized for American screens.
The film Sadko did receive a New York run through Artkino in 1953. Ten years later, it returned from obscurity disguised as a Sinbad picture even though all the leading characters dress and behave like medieval Ukranians. Lavishly produced in delicate color (I presume), the episodic adventure moves in fits and starts but has a couple of truly wonderful sequences that are worthy of The Thief of Bagdad. The sincere hero seriously wants to help his people and moves Heaven and Earth to bring them contentment, even if he has to steal it from some other country in the form of a legendary Bird of Happiness. In a combination of Jason and the Argonauts and The Wizard of Oz, Sadko/Sinbad scours the world for a magical treasure, only to find that happiness was always right back in the sunny city he came from.
Assuming for the moment that there might be a political message in the movie (the 1953 Soviet Union? Do you think it's possible?) and that the English language script is similar to the original, Sadko basically tells the story of a natural leader who learns that happiness cannot be bought, found or stolen. The Truth is that leaders need to inspire the people first and provide for them second.
After a slow start, the film does indeed work up an impressive fantasy atmosphere. Bathed in a shimmering aura of light, a beautiful water fairy rises from a lake to inspire and advise Sadko. The opening reels concentrate on dialogue in front of impressive sets representing the city walls but tend to be static, and a brief battle with Vikings early in Sinbad's voyage isn't all that special either. But the India sequence is a stunner, making use of what must be a large cast of circus performers. Elephants dance and pose, and then fall asleep in a magic spell along with the Maharaja's armies. Sinbad cruises through the market place on a majestic prancing horse, and plays a crucial game of chess with his devious host while a bevy of harem girls try to interrupt his concentration.
A forbidding passage to a secret tower is a creepy view revealed through huge iron doors. At the top of a vertiginous staircase is revealed a unique creation, a Phoenix-bird with a female head that speaks in riddles and can hypnotize with its voice. The scene has some phenomenal design and special effects that make excellent use of color and rear projection. When the Phoenix tells the intruders they are getting sleepy, the walls seem to melt and waver in subjective harmony with her voice. The placid, sphinx-like female head atop the body of a vulture is an excellent effect similar to the malevolent alien mastermind of Invaders from Mars.
A visit to Neptune's lair under the sea is decorative and jolly, with the king and his wife Neptuna dancing to the music of Sinbad/Sadko's little harp. The water fairy reveals herself as one of Neptune's daughters. She obligingly helps him escape back to the world above after he speaks of the girl he left behind. Even in this dubbed version it's a touching scene. Although broadly acted, the performances are sincere and the original film is probably very affecting.
It looks as if The Magic Voyage of Sinbad was originally duped from a print or a so-so negative of the original film, for the color is subdued and the picture slightly soft and contrasty. Savant should have gone to see these pictures several years ago when the American Cinematheque showed export prints; I'd imagine the Phoenix scene is a stunner in an original print if it looks so good here.
The sound and image are clear and unbroken, indicating that this might indeed be Roger Corman's own print of the film, re-jiggered in a rush for a 1962 release. The lone extra is a combined gallery of stills and theatrical artwork for both films in this double bill.
If Coppola sought to rip-off the success of 7th Voyage of Sinbad by retitling the very non-Arabian Nights tale Sadko, American International followed up with an even less defensible stretch. Sampo takes place in a fairy tale setting and follows the strife between an evil witch and a peaceful village; AIP sold it as The Day the Earth Froze, making it sound like the popular science fiction movies The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.
Sampo is from 1959 but is just as basic in its storytelling as was Ptushko's previous fantasy. The AIP version appears to have been trimmed by a couple of reels and uses narration by Marvin Miller to hold its story together. The hero this time has no particular distinction except being blonde and skilled in running river rapids while balanced on a log. The similarly golden-haired Annikki is straight out of the fairy tales. Wild animals come from the forest to cuddle with her and birds perch happily on her fingers. When she walks, flowers instantly grow out of her footprints, much to the ire of Louhi's gnome-like henchmen.
The film is darker and less lavish than Sadko but still has many impressive sets in the witch's polar kingdom under the Northern Lights, where trolls and wizards labor in underground workplaces. The theme has been updated from the Joe Stalin years ("I'm your leader, don't ask for favors") to the yearning for consumer goods in the Khruschev period. Everyone desires a Sampo, a kind of magical crystal heap that provides material goods (salt, flour, gold) by verbal command. One can't help but remember the Premier standing before some washing machines in NYC with Richard Nixon trying to be a friendly host; the message of Sampo seems to be that wishing for luxuries to make life easier is just asking for trouble and that people should stay in their little villages and stop grousing.
The witch Louhi wants a Sampo as well, and her kidnapping of Annikki puts into motion a series of fantastic events. The special effects are managed more through clever design than hi-tech means. Louhi sends one of her evil black cloaks into the skies, and it becomes a black sail on the boat that whisks Annikki away. Her blacksmith brother forges first a glowing scarlet horse to plow the field of snakes (a nice effect), and then a sturdy iron boat with a masthead that looks like Bullwinkle the Moose. The Sampo itself is a crystalline oven with animated colored glows dancing about it.
Even more interesting is a huge chamber where the imprisoned Annikki finds the four Winds held captive, bound up in canvas and heavy chains. They speak, imploring Annikki to set them free. It's a unique fantasy situation given a good treatment. Some effects are simply functional but the occasional scene can be very surprising. At one point a character leans up against a stone door and turns to stone as well. Lemminkšinen uses a magic sword to hack the door in two, and the person splits in two at the same time.
The source story is said to be Finnish and the movie is a Soviet-Finnish co-production. It has been cut down by quite a bit, so presuming much from it about the original is probably not wise. American fans are going to relate to the title through a parody version shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the funniest episodes ever. All the characters keep whining about the lack of a Sampo ... I just remember my kids thinking it was terrific. If the MST3K is how you relate to old movies, you'll have to supply your own jokes for this one.
Retromedia's double bill of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad and The Day the Earth Froze is a good encoding of good transfers of what appear to be original materials in good condition. It's not going to substitute for seeing the originals, but fans of bizarro import mutations of the kind usually available only as gray-market tapes, are going to be pleased.
The cover art duplicates the key poster for Magic Voyage that puts Sadko in an Arabian Nights costume and gives the Phoenix bird a drastically altered plunging neckline. Sorry, but in the movie the humanoid buzzard doesn't have breasts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,