As fantasy films go, they don’t get much better than this. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was also the seventh big-screen voyage of Ray Harryhausen, whose magical stop motion creatures populated Mighty Joe Young (1949, alongside mentor Willis O’Brien), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), The Animal World (1956 – a brief dinosaur sequence for Irwin Allen’s documentary), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). The chief difference was that Harryhausen was now shooting in full color widescreen, which presented the artist with new technical challenges, and which allowed producer Charles H. Schneer to rebrand the process as “Dynamation” as a marketing hook. It was a low budget film for Columbia Pictures that had a first-class sheen. With location shooting in Spain and a score by Hitchcock favorite Bernard Herrmann at the peak of his career (this was the year of Vertigo), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad became a landmark fantasy film, every bit as influential – if not more so – than the film which inspired Harryhausen, Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940). It was the film that launched a thousand monster kids, and now it’s finally received the treatment it deserves in a U.K. Blu-ray/DVD limited edition box set that can also be called landmark, Indicator’s The Sinbad Trilogy, which bundles 7th Voyage with its belated but very fun sequels The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Sourced from a new 4K restoration, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the jewel of the set, but the whole box is as fan-friendly as imaginable: finally the movies are stuffed with extras, including new and vintage interviews, promo clips and documentaries, the Super 8 versions, and a thick booklet with detailed production notes on each film. Best of all, it’s region free, so American fans should jump on this box set while they have the chance.
Harryhausen had been trying to get 7th Voyage off the ground for years, but was unable to convince studios that audiences would be interested in his brand of Arabian Nights spectacle, the genre having been run into the ground. He was stuck instead in the 50’s giant-monster rut (admittedly producing some of the best examples of its kind). A talented draftsman, he had produced a number of detailed drawings of key sequences from the film to help sell it: the cyclops roasting a sailor on a spit and crushing another with a tree; a giant baby Roc being dragged from its egg; Sinbad battling a living skeleton on a spiral staircase; a confrontation with a dragon. He didn’t have a story, though, and when Schneer was able to convince Columbia to finance the film at last, TV writer Kenneth Kolb was hired to tie those drawings together into a coherent Arabian Nights pastiche. You might think that story should come first, but this approach became key to the film’s indelible appeal. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is chock full of wondrous set pieces which originated in those imaginative drawings. Whereas a fan of SF and fantasy in the 50’s was accustomed to suffering through long, tedious dialogue scenes for brief glimpses of a disappointing-looking monster, 7th Voyage puts its bestiary front and center. Its iconic creature, the giant cyclops with a satyr’s body, appears mere minutes into the film, striding onto a beach on the isle of Colossa in pursuit of the evil sorcerer Sokurah (Torin Thatcher, The Robe) and his magic lamp. This approach significantly separates Harryhausen’s picture from the film which he cited as his career inspiration, King Kong, which slowly built up to its Skull Island revelations.
7th Voyage thus has a completely different feel than his Kong-inspired monster movies of the 50’s. It’s a family friendly Orientalist romp, actually delivering on those false promises that appeared on so many 50’s B-movie posters. Even watching the film today, you can feel Harryhausen relishing the opportunity to make the kind of monster movie that fans wanted but which stingy studios were so reluctant to provide (it’s tragic to follow O’Brien’s post-Kong career and the number of missed opportunities, and Harryhausen is eager to put the art of stop-motion animation front and center in fantasy filmmaking once again). This is the film that would launch Harryhausen’s golden age, which crested with the technical achievements and pure joy of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), a movie that was also structured around its special effect set pieces – Sinbad in ancient Greece. In fact, 7th Voyage seems to draw more from Greek mythology than the original Sinbad stories, with its cyclops battle closely mirroring Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus. The genie is borrowed from the tale of Aladdin, though Harryhausen and Schneer decided to make him a young boy (Richard Eyer), cleverly giving little boys in the audience their own wish-fulfillment stand-in. The casting also draws parallels between the genie’s enslavement to the owner of the lamp and any child’s chafing against parental authority. (At the end of the film, he’s thrilled to become a cabin boy, and overjoyed when Sinbad lets him take the wheel of his ship like handing a teenager the keys to the car.)
The cast is uniformly appealing, with Kerwin Mathews – young, athletic, and full of conviction – making the best of the series’ three Sinbads, and well paired with Kathryn Grant (soon to be Mrs. Bing Crosby) as a most beautiful Princess Parisa. Grant is so irrepressible that she’s not even put out to find herself shrunken to doll-size by the scheming Sokurah, who’s looking for an excuse for Sinbad to mount an expedition back to Colossa (where Sokurah was forced to abandon his magic lamp). In retrospect the miniaturization effects feel like a dry run for the next Harryhausen/Schneer film, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), which would also star Mathews. Thatcher’s performance as Sokurah strikes the right balance between false humility and sinister plotting, his true nature coming to the fore when his eyes glow with blue light as he brings a skeleton to life, his hands miming like a puppeteer’s as he draws the undead creature forward. The Spanish location shooting provides striking backgrounds – steep cliffs and thick forests – that match Harryhausen’s original Doré-style sketches. It’s the sort of setting that seems natural for the lair of a cloven-hoofed cyclops or a fire-breathing dragon. Miniature sets are optically matted in to enhance the environments, most notably for Sokurah’s castle constructed inside a mountain. Scenes at sea were shot on an anchored ship, and during the storm sequence, the contents of the filthy harbor were blasted at the poor cast with hoses.
Nathan Juran, who had directed 20 Million Miles to Earth, was an Oscar-winning art director who had no issue accommodating Harryhausen’s unusual technical demands (Harryhausen had to be on location to help the actors interact with his invisible creations). Juran would go on to direct the 7th Voyage clone Jack the Giant Killer (1962), which also starred Mathews and Thatcher and which featured stop motion effects by future Clash of the Titans animator Jim Danforth. Herrmann’s score for 7th Voyage is one of his very best, which is saying something, considering that this is the man who scored The Day the Earth Stood Still, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. A fan of fantasy eager to embrace the subject, his music invokes the exotic world of the Nights in much the style of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But it is also lively and changeable, providing different cues for the various characters and creatures, most notably in the propulsive duel with the skeleton. Herrmann enjoyed the collaboration so much that he reunited with Harryhausen and Schneer for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island (1961), and Jason and the Argonauts. So in many ways The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the start of something – a new chapter in Harryhausen’s career and for fantasy film in general. It was also a reminder that the genre should not be afraid to embrace the elements that make it fantasy. The new Indicator Sinbad set belongs on the shelf of every fan of imaginative cinema.