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 (1958). Or perhaps I saw it first on WABC-TV’s “The 4:30 Movie,” or late at night, on “Chiller Theater” or “Creature Feature.” In any case, 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, filled with matte paintings, stop-motion photography, and blue screens that outlined actors against projected wonders.
No, this is not a typical middle-age belief that things were better in ‘ye olden days.’ The computer graphics these days are far smoother than Harryhausen’s antiquated system. But it was the very artificiality of those effects of yore that made them all the scarier, for dreams and nightmares are not mere reflections of reality but refractions or distortions of it, 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 feel truer and scarier because of their very artifice.
Yet, I forget even the very name of the little old theaters where I first saw such films. The Ridgewood Theater offered 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 and its sequels, the Hammer horror films, or movies 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, at age five or six, started sneaking into theaters so it may have been some later Harryhausen productions, such as Jason and the Argonauts, that I first saw on the big screen. But no matter where I first saw it, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – one of Harryhausen’s early forays into color – has stuck with me. Re-watching it as part of Columbia Pictures’ five-film DVD set “The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Monster Series,” I was again caught up in the hokey adventures, as much for the film itself as to what it represents to me – something as irrevocably lost as the myths themselves.
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, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad became a smash hit upon its initial release in late 1958. This success started the Harryhausen sci-fi-horrror decade that lasted throughout the 1960s, when his films, all produced by Charles H. Schneer, entranced 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.
True, the film’s plot is nothing like the real “Seventh Voyage of Sindbad” (note the “d” after the “n”), from the tales of Scheherazade found in the Persian Book of a Thousand and One Nights, as it mixes up Arab legendry with Greek mythos – such as the race of Cyclopes and a two-headed bird called Roc, from tales like The Odyssey, as well as several other myths involving fire-breathing dragons and the living dead. It’s also worth noting the rather sophisticated portrayal of Arab society in the film – even if Europeans are playing the Arab characters. The tales of Sindbad, while first collected a couple of centuries after the rise of Islam, are not Islamic myths but folk Arab tales 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 all that mixing of different myths and legends, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad works remarkably 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. After a storm, they land at the island. 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 is also happens to be a giant with cloven hooves. 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’ 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 of 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 sword-fighting 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 rip-off, choreographically, of Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien’s fight scene from King Kong, in which Kong slays a Tyrannosaurus 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.
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 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but it is a hoot – without 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’ 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 percent 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.
However, the real star of the 87-minute film, aside from Harryhausen’s monsters, is Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic blaring brass score – one of his best non-Hitchcock projects. From the film’s first scene, the viewer is sent on a thrill ride which, aside from a twenty or so minute lull in Baghdad, is truly non-stop. The soundtrack even became a bestselling album in its day. Even so, the most frightening moment in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad comes not from anything we see on-screen; that takes place 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 undergoes a phantasmagoric experience after descending into the infinite black obelisk around Jupiter.)
The DVD contains both the full-screen and widescreen versions of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. There are also some other extras, including an original theatrical poster, two ten-minute interview segments with Harryhausen – the first called “A Look Behind the Voyage” and the second on Jason and the Argonauts. Additionally, there are two segments found on all of Columbia’s Harryhausen DVDs: the three-minute featurette “This Is Dynamation,” which focuses on the stop-motion process, and the hour-long featurette “The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles.” Also included are talent files and several Harryhausen film trailers.
Movies such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are terrific precisely because they are not great and they are not ‘cinema.’ They are brief excursions from the dullness and frustrations of reality – nothing more. As such, even almost half a century on, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still succeeds in that mission as well as any other film to ever lighten human eyes.
© Dan Schneider.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Director: Nathan Juran. Screenplay: Ken Kolb. Cast: Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Richard Eyer, Torin Thatcher.