Ray Harryhausen was a mainstay of my childhood. His movies were regular features on the Saturday matinees — on television, not in theaters; I’m not THAT old! — and they sucked me in every time. How could they not? No sane young boy would be anything but engrossed by giant creatures slugging it out with heroes in sandals, and Harryhausen’s creatures were AWESOME.
So not too long ago, I decided to revisit a handful of his movies, among them The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
As a kid I had no real affection for the Arabian myths, so Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films never quite connected with me despite my huge love for his work and Harryhausen liberally mixing in monsters and myths from others cultures. I was all about the Greek and Roman myths, so Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans were way, way in my wheelhouse. Sinbad, not as much (though I did enjoy them).
Revisiting this Harryhausen classic now, as an adult who has developed some fondness for the style and tone of the Arabian fantasy landscape, I see that my problem may not have been the myths at all.
In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a lily-white Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad must travel to an island inhabited by Colossa so that an evil wizard can save Sinbad’s fiance from a dire fate. There is a gorgeous princess (Kathryn Grant is adorable here), giant birds, a dragon, and plenty of other cool shit.
So far, so good.
Unsurprisingly, the movie is filled with fantastic creatures and some very impressive visuals. The cyclops is a fearsome beast with great animation (based on the critter from 20 Million Miles to Earth) and fantastic integration into most scenes. This guy ranks right up there with the best of Harryhausen. A climactic skeleton battle is also highly impressive, with stunning choreography providing some damned impressive integration with real actors. It’s a stunningly well-realized scene. Check it out:
It’s a good thing the visuals are cool, though, because the movie is a little messy. The first portion of the story starts abruptly and features several abrupt jumps that result in uneven pacing. You don’t real get the sense of this being a journey or focused adventure until the halfway mark.
There are some inexplicable story elements as well. Some are nit-picky, so I’ll leave them alone — why was the wizard fleeing to the beach with the lamp, for instance, when he had a whole fortress with a frickin’ DRAGON right there on the island? — but others were kind of jarring.
For instance, Sinbad recruits a bunch of convicts to fill out the crew of his ship. The convicts mutiny, only to steer themselves towards an island inhabited by Sirens, which inevitably drive them mad with their wail. This whole stretch of the story is senseless.
First, the convicts kill almost all of Sinbad’s crew, leaving about three or four of them alive in the end from what we can see, but later a full crew miraculously appears on the beach. Where the hell did they come from? Also, the convicts are driven mad by enemies we never actually see (and dear lord is the screaming of the crew obnoxious). Is there anything more pointless in a Harryhausen movie than a fantastic enemy that never appears on screen? So Sinbad and the survivors wax their ears and retake the ship, tossing the convicts overboard. Sudden quick cut and we’re back on Colossa with a full crew again.
What the hell happened? Did they kill all the convicts? Where did his renewed crew come from? And what was the point of this digression, anyway?
Pointless time-filler is all it was.
And don’t even get me started on the all-American Kerwin Mathews playing an Arabian sailor. Oh, but he’s got dark hair and a tan, so that will do, right? Really did no favors for convincingly setting the tone of Arabian fables.
So mostly you’re watching this for the Harryhausen stuff, i.e. the monsters. Most are very good, and one, the cyclops, is damned fantastic. The dragon looks like a lump of clay straight out of those Davey and Goliath morning kids shows and is some of Harryhausen’s least impressive work (though its fight with the cyclops is great), and the four-armed dancer is a touch primitive, but overall the visuals still look cool and exciting and can briefly transport you to somewhere else. This is most evident with the cyclops and the damned impressive skeleton fight.
Plus, Grant (who would go on to marry Bing Crosby) is an absolute delight as the princess, the kid playing the genie in the lamp should have been annoying but was actually quite a charming little tyke, and Torin Thatcher is wonderfully bombastic as the evil wizard Sokurah. They help carry the human element of the movie in a way Mathews’ Sinbad never does.
In fact, Kathryn Grant’s princess character deserves some particular praise here. More times than not in films from this era, characters like this was damsels in distress and little more. Not so with this movie. She begins as helpless, but eventually becomes as brave as any other character and plays an integral role in moving the plot along. Against the expectations of the day, it’s her who insists on entering the lamp to find out more about the genie. She puts herself at risk rather than having a man chose that fate for her. And later, it’s her who decides that the right thing to do is to live up to the bargain she struck with the genie.
In fact, if you think about, when Sinbad and his men are stuck in that cage, it’s the woman who comes to the rescue of the men rather than the reverse. She still has the surface image of a frail, cute princess there to be cute and get saved, but she plays a pivotal role in the plot, too. That’s worth noting.
That said, as a film, this narrative is messy and the lead is all wrong. As spectacle, however, there is enough going on here to make it worth watching if you’re into the animatronic monster thing.