DVD Review Of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/29/07
Perhaps I was five or six when I first snuck into one of the cheapo movie theaters off of Myrtle Ave, in Queens, to see The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. Or, perhaps I saw it first on WABC-TV’s The 4:30 Movie, or late night, on Chiller Theater or Creature Feature. Regardless of when I first saw it, I was immediately hooked on the Ray Harryhausen special effects. Even in this day of CGI effects, I still prefer the older films, replete with blue screens that outlined actors against projected wonders, matte paintings, and stop motion photography. No, this is not a typical middle age belief that things were better in ‘ye olden days.’ The computer graphics these days are far better and smoother than Harryhausen’s antiquated system. But, it was the very artificiality of those effects that made them all the more scary, for dreams and nightmares are not mere reflections of reality, but refractions or distortions of reality, where things ripple, don’t quite make sense, and are just a bit off. This more aptly describes the Harryhausen monsters, whose movements are a bit more herky-jerky (technically known as strobing) than those conjured up in the cyberworld for the screen. Thus, for me, those films will always be truer and scarier nightmares because of their very artifice.
Yet, I forget even the very name of the little old theaters I first saw those films in. The Ridgewood Theater was the theater that had all the first run hits, while a handful of cheapo theaters, with names like The Paramount, The Odeon, and the like, were where my pals and I would sneak in to see the older films that were revived- be they Godzilla films, Hammer films, or films from a decade before that were being revived for another go-round. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad was already over a dozen years old by the time I started sneaking into theaters when I was five or six, so it may have been some later Harryhausen films, like Jason And The Argonauts, that I first saw on the big screen. Yet, wherever I first saw it, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad- one of Harryhausen’s early forays into color has stuck with me, and re-watching it on its Columbia Pictures DVD, part of the five film The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Monster Series, I was again caught up in the hokey adventures, as much for itself as to what it represents to me as irrevocably lost as the myths themselves.
The film, directed by Nathan Juran- director of classic sci fi and horror crapfests like The Brain From Planet Arous and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and written by Ken Kolb, was first released in late 1958, and became a smash hit. This success started the Harryhausen sci fi-horrror decade of the 1960s, when his films, all produced by Charles H. Schneer, dominated lowbrow action/adventure film lovers. When one thinks of monster films from that era, they are either Harryhausen monsters, or the classic Japanese imports. I loved both. And, yes, the actual tale is nothing like the real Seventh Voyage Of Sindbad (note the d after the n), from the tales of Sheherazade, from the Persian The Book Of A Thousand And One Nights, as it mixes up Arabic legendry with Greek mythos- such as the race of Cyclopes, and a two-headed bird called a Roc, from tales like The Odyssey, as well as assorted other myths involving fire-breathing dragons and the living dead. It’s worth noting the rather sophisticated portrayal of Arabic society in the film; even if Europeans are playing the Arabs. This is because the tales of Sindbad, while first collected a couple of centuries after the rise of Islam, are not Islamic myths, but culturally Arabic ones that were filtered through an Islamic prism. A similar process occurred with the Arthurian mythos of Britain, which started out as a pagan warrior-king mythos that was only later infused with the Christianized Grail mythos.
Despite that, the actual film works really well. It starts off in media res, with Sinbad and crew journeying to an island to refuel for their trip home to Baghdad- city of wonders. When they land at the island, after a storm, they are reloading when they encounter a magician and his magic genie filled lamp being chased by a huge Cyclops. This is all within the first seven minutes of the film, which was one of the earliest examples of what Hollywood would later call a ‘nonstop thrill ride.’ Unlike the Greek myth, this Cyclops is more creature than human, and has no power of speech. He also has cloven hooves, and is a giant. It’s doubtful whether this is the noted Polyphemus from the Olympian mythos. The genie saves the magician and crew, but the Cyclops comes into possession of the lamp, which forces the magician to blackmail Sinbad into helping him return to his island to recapture it. He tries many persuasions, but finally succeeds when he shrinks the Princess to a few inches in height. Oddly, Sinbad does not realize that the magician is behind her shrinkage, even though the magician has made the Princess’s old handmaid into a half-woman, half-cobra. So, back to the island of Colossa they go. There, many wonders await, and many of Sinbad’s crew are killed, after surviving a mutiny of Sinbad’s criminal crew, recruited from prison for the journey. Meanwhile, the magician is pulling many strings as he tries to recover his magic lamp and genie; a little boy named Baronni (Richard Eyer-The Invisible Boy), who would properly be called a djinn, since genie means a female djinn. These strings include several double-crosses of Sinbad, murdering one of his men, capturing the Princess, and then unleashing a swordfighting skeleton against Sinbad, in the film’s most famous sequence; a precursor to the even more elaborate swordfight with multiple skeletons in Jason And The Argonauts.
As Sinbad rescues the Princess, and leaves the magician’s castle, he is pursued by the magician’s pet dragon, which slays a second Cyclops. The first was blinded by Sinbad, and fell to his death in a canyon. This second most famous sequence, the fight between the dragon and the second Cyclops, ends with the dragon victorious. It’s a blatant ripoff, choreographically, of Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien’s fight scene from King Kong, where Kong slays a Tyrannosurus Rex. The gestures of the Cyclops are almost exactly the same as Kong’s, and far more emotive than any CGI creature I’ve ever seen- another plus for the Harryhausen method, for his creatures actually act and are just not ‘there.’ The only difference is that the more humanoid monster, the Cyclops, loses this time. Yet, Sinbad’s crew kills the dragon with the very giant crossbow weapon the magician invented, and the beast falls on and crushes the magician, as Sinbad and his remaining sailors head home to Persia, with the treasure of the Cyclops safely brought aboard by the freed genie, who now wishes to be Sinbad’s cabin boy.
There is no logic to much of the film, but it is a hoot, and has not an ounce of pretension in it. Who cares if the magician, who can animate skeletons, would seem to have no real use for a genie? Who cares if the genie could have wiped out the monsters and magician easily, if commanded, since he so easily moves the prolific Cyclops’ treasure? Who cares if the Princess’s father is ready to declare war on the Caliph of Baghdad for shrinking his daughter, when clearly the magician is to blame? And, who cares if the acting is all 100% cheeseball? B film hunk Kerwin Mathews, as Sinbad, is vapid and hammy, spouting off silly apothegms like, ‘Allah knows many ways of dealing with hungry men.’ Perfect. Sexy Kathryn Grant- soon to marry Bing Crosby, is also perfectly ridiculous as an All-American Arab Princess Parisa. The only one of the three main characters that comes off with a modicum of respectability for his art is Torin Thatcher, as Sokurah the bald cross-eyed magician.
Yet, the real star of the 87 minute film, aside from Harryhausen’s
monsters, is the fantastic blaring brass score by Bernard Herrmann, in one of
his best non-Hitchcock projects. From the first scene of the film, the viewer is
sent on a thrill ride which, aside from a twenty or so minute lull in Baghdad,
before the return Colossa, is truly non-stop. The soundtrack to the film even
became a bestselling album in its day. Yet, the most frightening moment in the
film comes not from anything actually seen onscreen, but when a storm rages at
sea and the shrill chirping of unseen monsters drives Sinbad’s criminal
mutineers insane. Oddly enough, the sound seems to have been recapitulated a
decade later by Stanley Kubrick in his coda for 2001: A Space Odyssey,
after astronaut Dave Bowman descends into the infinite black obelisk around
Jupiter, and has a phantasmagoric experience.
The DVD contains both a full screen and widescreen version of the film, in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. There are also some other extras, including an original theatrical poster, two ten minute long interview segments with Harryhausen- the first called A Look Behind The Voyage, and the second on Jason And The Argonauts. Then there are two segments that are on all the Harryhausen DVDs from Columbia, a three minute long featurette called This Is Dynamation, on the stop motion process Harryhausen used, and an hour-long featurette called The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles. There are also talent files and several Harryhausen film trailers.
Movies such as this are terrific precisely because they are not great and they are not ‘cinema.’ They are brief excursions from the dullness and frustrations of reality, and nothing more. As such, and almost half a century on, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad still succeeds in that mission as well as any other film ever to lighten human eyes. There are certainly far worse claims one could make for Arabs these days.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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