Ray Harryhausen – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Sinbad opens with the sailor tightly gripping the ship’s wheel, his gaze hypnotic. The men are hungry and nervous but have faith in their captain. To be merely lost and low on supplies is misery enough, but these are haunted, mysterious waters. Despite the fog surrounding his vessel, he’s able to maintain course, wherever he may be going, and look beyond the shrouds to see land, even before the poor fellow in the eagle’s nest. Immediately the desperate tone is set, and with only a few meager grains of dialogue are our hero’s key characteristics established: brave (maybe to a fault), determined, and possessing heightened senses. The men are relieved at the sight of the island, and Sinbad heads down below deck to relay the good news to his passenger…and get off the zinger “I’d invent a whole continent for that kiss” when he smooches her up. In addition to possessing all the characteristics of a roaring good captain, he’s also quite a hit with the ladies.
I love old adventure movies — buried treasures, shady weasels lurking in the backs of bars, lost temples guarded by vaguely Asian natives, old legends — and having never seen The 7th Voyage of Sinbad before now, this first watch was an utter delight. Even if Harryhausen weren’t handling the special effects, it’d be a good entry into the genre, but Harryhausen is handling the effects, and they, along with Bernard Herrmann’s vaguely Middle-Eastern score, Kenneth Kolb’s sharp screenplay that takes inspiration from 1,001 Nights, Homer, Indian mythology, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Torin Thatcher’s sterling performance as Sokurah, elevate the film to something fantastic.
Granted, Sinbad’s a pretty classic hero, one we’re supposed to admire for their strong moral compass, even, especially, under immense pressure. He’s clearly inspired by Odysseus — the cyclops and screaming demons being the other obvious steals from The Odyssey — but while Odysseus is one of the most complex characters in western literature, Sinbad’s as wooden as the ship’s wheel.
That’s not too surprising, as screenwriter Kolb had come from television, scribbling up teleplays for big-name shows like Peter Gunn, Have Gun Will Travel, Dragnet, and the like. In fact, according to IMDB, this was his first film, so it makes sense that the protagonist lacks an arc and the bulk of character development is given to the “guest star” — or at least the guy whose name isn’t in the title: Sokurah the Magician. Sokurah is the precise opposite of Sinbad — whereas Sinbad is moral, Sokurah is devious and underhanded; whereas Sinbad is loyal, Sokurah will switch allegiances when it suits him; whereas Sinbad will forgo self interest for the greater good in marrying the princess of a rival kingdom to maintain peace (and granted the princess is the gorgeously winsome-eyed Kathryn Grant, but I think I read somewhere that all princesses were like that in those days), Sokurah will incite war to retrieve his lamp. Even superficially, Sokurah gets his power through magic and trickery; Sinbad’s derives from physical strength — and Sinbad’s perfectly at home upon the sea, Sokurah, clearly, is not. Most importantly, Sokurah is endlessly fascinating, and whose side he’s really on is the puzzle that sustains most of the film. He’s the film’s Long John Silver, the fellow you can’t bear to hate while knowing you probably should, after all, he’s far more interesting than lumpy old Jim Hawkins. (And I wonder if he were any inspiration at all for John Locke from Lost — aside from the character parallels, Thatcher and Terry O’Quinn also look somewhat alike.)
And where does Harryhausen come in? Two minutes after the opening sequence, the men have landed their boats on a mysterious island, immediately fearful of the strange tracks in the sand — they’re big and the gait is wide, again, all we need to know. A man runs from the cave, screaming for help, followed by Harryhausen’s entrance, the cyclops.
I’m not going to be the only one in this series to say Harryhausen’s effects are captivating, but geeze, these grab you. As opposed to a giant lizard or flying saucer, a creature with a mostly human anatomy, I’d think, would be the hardest to pull off because it’s something everyone in the audience knows intimately. We’re still debating how dinosaurs appeared and even still, you can fudge the design without too many noticing or even caring — aliens give you free reign to create what you want. But humans, you have to be dead on or people are going to notice. Though no one is going to believe the cyclops is anything other than a special effect, there’s a phenomenal artistry to its construction — the musculature of the torso, the stilted walk of its furry goat legs, and the sense that this thing has the sensibility of an animal but a flicker of consciousness. Technically speaking, the armature was recycled from 20 Million Miles to Earth‘s Ymir, as was much of the design and style of movement (and for that matter the snake lady herself would be cannibalized into the Medusa for Clash of the Titans) — sure, it may have been reused, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
In researching Sinbad, I came across an obituary for Harryhausen written by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker, and Goppie, after sneering at the rest of Sinbad‘s elements, goes on to speculate what’s so captivating about Harryhausen’s work. His answer is that we appreciate the struggle — the strive to persevere with limited resources, regardless of whether one does or not. That I think is part of it (further elaboration on that thought is lost amid the lyrical restatement and repetition New Yorker articles are prized for), and he goes on to (I think more accurately) surmise that the imperfections of the craft reveal the human hand behind it, which is the other aspect we admire. But he says nothing about what set Harryhausen apart from his peers.
My answer is in the challenges Harryhausen set before himself and in the detail that brings his creations to life. The cyclops, for example, is rightly held up as Harryhausen’s best work in the film — it could easily have been a giant, which the traditional cyclopses were, but Harryhausen, maybe showing off, tossed a pair of goat legs onto it. So half of the creature needs to be animated as a human, the other as a goat or cloven-hooved animal, and all of it has to move as a single entity. Its gait is awkward and the arms appropriately jointed, but the extra mile, the touch that gives the effect a personality, is the little sneer the cyclops gives a spear that’s lodged into its chest after pulling it out. Or the desperate flailing of its limbs when its blinded. Or how it cradles its eye after the same. Another half-man half-beast creation will show up later, when Sokurah conjures the snake woman, but where that effect seems all snake with its wobbly arms (and despite her being Harryhausen’s apparent favorite), it makes you appreciate the cyclops all the more.
It also helps that the actors are good at pretending the effect is there — that doesn’t require much, but to see them strain as they launch their weapons at the beast or scream as they’re crushed at least makes you believe they believe it. And the seamlessness of one spear going from the hand of a sailor into the cyclop’s chest is also very well handled.
Sinbad and his gang are saved by Sokurah’s genie, who whips up a glass wall between the cyclops and the men. And as they escape to their ship, the cyclops hurls a rock at their boats, tipping them over and causing Sokurah to lose his lamp, and, hence, genie. Hightailing it back to Bagdad (in those days it didn’t have the ‘H’), Sokurah wanders around town pestering Sinbad to return to the island so he can recover his lamp and performing for the court — which is where the snake woman is conjured when Sokurah places the princess’s handmaiden and a cobra together in a clay jar. Sinbad and the local Poobahs are hesitant, so Sokurah shrinks the princess to bite-size, blaming another magician for the deed (notice I didn’t say Sinbad was especially bright) and claiming that the only way to restore her is through a magical potion that requires a mythical Roc’s egg. And the only place to find Roc’s is, yup, the cyclops island.
Sinbad’s regular crew refuse to return to the island, so he recruits prisoners from Bagdad’s death row (again, not too bright). En route they mutiny but are neutralized by the wailing demons, a nod to The Odyssey‘s sirens, though here it’s the captain who stuffs his ears with wax. Eventually they land and, after constructing a giant crossbow to fight the cyclops are in turn captured and caged by it. Sokurah eludes capture and reveals his treachery by leaving the men to die. However, Sinbad, in an uncharacteristic bout of cleverness, uses the tiny princess to open the cage’s latch. They proceed to the cyclops’s treasure cave, the Roc’s nest, and finally to Sokurah’s lair. Kolb’s writing, as you can guess, keeps the pace swift, and I think that may come from his television background, since you could break the structure of the script down into four 20-minute parts or episodes — The Island, Bagdad, Return to the Island, and Sokurah’s Lair. Each segment has its own many twists and set pieces, and they all end up giving the film many more well-crafted action beats than you’d expect from a traditional adventure film.
Aside from the cyclops and the snake woman, the other three big effects are the Roc, the dragon guarding Sokurah’s lair, and the skeleton with whom Sinbad fights. The dragon I can’t say much for other than its fire-breathing was achieved through shooting a flame thrower at night and superimposing the flame. About the Roc I can say even less, but the skeleton, with its slanted sockets and haughty grin, is my second-favorite creature. Like the cyclops, the effect has its own personality, and was so successful that its look and the fight would be recycled for Jason and the Argonauts. Since the duel is one on one, the effect requires a lot more from the actor to pull off (and Kerwin Mathews handles the fight extremely well), as opposed to the cyclops, where the men can just run from it and scream. And Bernard Herrmann (who’d also come back for Argonauts)’s clickity-clack track does the double duty of adding tension and providing sound effects. However the skeleton itself, aside from the fact that it looks so damn intricate, not only fights dirty but handily improvises by throwing its shield. All of the parts total an outstanding sequence.
And that’s what makes The 7th Voyage of Sinbad so spectacular (and that’s not simply a fan’s ogling praise; it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) — each little bit from, of course, Harryhausen’s work to Herrmann’s bombastic score to Thatcher’s performance reflects a care and creativity you wouldn’t expect from a “B” picture. Moments such as Sokurah smashing the red globe to destroy the bridge or the setup to conjure the snake lady are similarly inspired — the motions and images used to cast his spells are often more interesting than the payoff. And speaking of payoff, Sinbad pays off everything it sets up — the crossbow, the treasure, the genie — simply the crossbow was good enough and used right when you’ve forgotten about it, the same with the treasure, the same with the genie. Even the fight between the cyclops and the dragon (originally two cyclopses) is an unexpected but welcome treat. It gives the sense of such a fully realized world and delights in playing with the more fantastic bits — though in the back of your mind you know anything’s possible, did you think the princess would slide down that lamp?
Finally, I should also note that this was Harryhausen’s first color feature, as well as the first to use the term “Dynamation” for his work (and inspired from the dashboard of Buick, as most good things are). The process is described in detail at Harryhausen’s official site, so if you’re interested, I encourage you to read it. But before that, I suggest you experience the magic yourself — and don’t worry; the tricks will lose nothing of their enchantment once you know how they’re done. Not even the best magicians can boast that claim, But Ray Harryhausen can.