Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

"From the land beyond, beyond; From the world past hope and fear, I bid you, Genie, now appear!"
Billed as the 8th wonder of the screen, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), was the first collaboration of Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer to be filmed in colour.  It was directed by Nathan Juran whose film career had begun in the 1930s as an art director.  He would go on to direct many episodes of Irwin Allen television series which also used unique and fun special effects.
The first time I saw this film I was about 13 years-old and it aired on TVOntario as part of a program called Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost.  Yost introduced me to all the great films of Hitchcock, Harryhausen and others.  The 7th Voyage really captured my imagination and was one of the films that got me interested in becoming a filmmaker.  I built a little studio in my parents' basement where I experimented with special effects make-up and model-making and sought out all of Harryhausen's other films on VHS to be my guides.
The 7th Voyage is definitely a product of its time.  Shot in Spain for about $650,000, it does bow to a lot inappropriate racial and cultural stereotypes of medieval Arabia that were prevalent in the 50s (and sadly, still are).  However, I think the filmmakers did try to be respectful of Islam.  They were at least conscious enough to include appropriate references to Allah.  The La Alhambra Palace in Granada provided a great location with architecture that at least feels like it's right for the period.  The costuming is elaborate and beautiful.  Unfortunately, no one is credited for it so we don't know who to thank!  One costuming criticism might be that Sinbad's costumes are a bit too clean-cut and elaborate for a medieval sailor but somehow, his look sort of works.
My major criticism of the film is in the casting.  The cast is so white-washed that it's a tad offensive.  Kerwin Matthews plays Sinbad.  He was under contract to Columbia Pictures and was probably the best choice at the time but he's clearly not from the Middle East.  Nor is his Princess Parisa, played by Kathryn Grant.  Matthews is a good actor.  He's athletic and handsome enough to play a hero and once you get 15 minutes into the film you can sort of forget that he's out of place.  Not so with Grant.  She's entirely too cheerful and bubbly throughout the entire film (even when she's in mortal danger!).  
The greatest casting, and my favourite character in the film, is the evil magician Sokurah, played by Torin Thatcher.  Thatcher is fantastically theatrical.  His grand gestures and command of his voice make him a perfect magician.  He's also great at conveying sinister darkness.  He's one of the all-time great screen villains and one of the reasons this film is as successful as it is.
Most people are familiar with the Saga of Sinbad from its inclusion in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.  The stories are actually much older and were heavily influenced by Greek literature like Homer's The Odyssey.  The 7th Voyage combines elements from a few of Sinbad's voyages with new elements from the screenwriters, Kenneth Kolb and Ray Harryhausen.  The story begins when Sinbad and his crew land on the island of Colossa and are attacked by a Cyclops.  They are rescued by Sokurah who uses a Genie from a magic lamp to help protect them.  In their escape, the Cyclops takes the lamp back to his treasure trove.
The amazing Cyclops is probably my favourite Harryhausen creation.  He's incredibly striking and his design and the animation are as wonderful today as they were in 1958.
Back in Baghdad, Sokurah performs great feats of illusion and magic to please the Caliph and continually asks for help in putting together an expedition to return to his island and retrieve the magic lamp.  The Caliph refuses on Sinbad's advice that the island is too dangerous.  Sokurah then sneaks into Princess Parisa's chamber at night and casts a spell which shrinks her to the size of a doll.  He tells Sinbad that he can cure her only with a potion for which the ingredients are on his island, thus launching the voyage.
On the island, Sinbad and his crew fight a giant Roc to get a piece of its eggshell for use in the potion.  They also have another encounter with a Cyclops.  Parisa is small enough to join the Genie in his lamp.  She befriends him and promises to help him gain his freedom if he will help them escape.  Together, they best the Cyclops and follow Sokurah to his underground castle that is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon.
There, Sokurah restores Parisa and then turns on Sinbad.  He calls upon a living skeleton that battles the hero in one of the all-time great fantasy sword fights.  This sequence would pave the way for the amazing skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts  a few years later.  Sinbad defeats the skeleton only to find the entrance to the cave blocked by another Cylcops.  Sinbad releases the dragon and there is a titanic struggle between the two monsters that is beautifully animated by Harryhausen.
Finally, Sinbad and Parisa escape and Sokurah is defeated.  The Genie is freed and joins Sinbad's crew as a cabin boy.  
The film moves at a great pace.  The story is engaging.  It's well-directed and the effects are masterful and groundbreaking.  Bernard Herrmann's score is incredibly memorable.  The whole package is really an amazing piece of entertainment that is as enjoyable today as it must have been in 1958.

The DVD that is part of the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection is definitely worth checking out.  It includes some great old interviews with Harryhausen and Schneer, an original advertising trailer for the process of "Dynamation," and a great documentary called The Harryhausen Chronicles which is narrated by Leonard Nimoy.  If you haven't seen this film, you really must check it out!

1 comment: