My God, I wish I could take you back in time to when I was 8 or 9, and watching monster movies on a Saturday afternoon in a small town in suburban Boston. I’m pretty sure it was the UHF Channel 56 showing of Creature Double Feature, which was the high point of my week (if I could escape the “Play outside” Command of Doom of my parents and be allowed to watch it). It was what made rainy days glorious. If I could take you back then, you’d get the same reaction I did, when I saw The 7th Voyage of Sinbad for the first time:
“This... is... the most amazing thing in the whole world! Ever!!”
If you were that at the time, that opening scene to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – where you’re P.O.V. in the snow-skimmer-jet-thing would feel so real, you would want flight insurance and coded orders. Much as in today’s CGI jaded world, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’s effects palate seem primitive and crude, but in its day it was all that, and a raw potato. They didn’t have “chips” in “bags” back then, not like you kids do today. You have it so easy, you don’t even know.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) is based on the title of a story about this guy Sinbad. No relation to the actual story. But again – no one will ever see this movie for the story or the acting. Think of it as the Jurassic Park of its day. Presented in the twin miracles of Technicolor film and Dynamation, this was the revolutionary style of stop-motion animation perfected by Ray Harryhausen, who was, back then, King of Creature Special Effects. The man behind such classic movies as The Clash of the Titans, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Mighty Joe Young. It’s Ray’s magic that makes this watching this atrociously acted, hilariously scripted mess still have some of the same sense of wonderousness that it did when I saw it through 9 nine-year old eyes. Back then I couldn’t care less about a story. The movie had a cyclops, a snake-lady, a two-headed Roc, a fire-breathing dragon... it even had a skeleton with a sword!
Story? I could turn the sound down and make up my own story.
But ok, so the story, such as it is, involves a bunch of sailors who get lost and find an island where they rescue Sokurah, a wizard with a magic lamp, from a cyclops. The magic lamp contains a genie who can only do non-lethal, defensive magic. The sailors and the wizard escape, but Sokurah loses the lamp in the process. Sokurah pleads with and tempts Sinbad to go back for the lamp, but Sinbad is on his way to get married - a union that will unite the kingdom he reps with the kingdom of his bride’s father. They all reach this destination (in an oddly anachronistic sailing vessel – I mean, seriously - it doesn’t match the times at all) and the planning for the Sinbad/Parisa’s wedding is underway in a highly overstated manner. Meanwhile Sokurah tries, unsuccessfully, to scare up a ship and eventually resorts to secretly shrinking the princess, and then saying that only he can help her, but he requires a special ingredient only available... guess where? The same island he lost the lamp on.
Funny thing that.
The trip there is fraught with danger: a mutiny, sirens, and enough betrayals you’d think Sinbad would catch on that Sokurah isn’t really his good friend [He doesn't - ed.]. From there we have the two-headed bird (that special ingredient is a piece of the shell from one of its eggs). Blah blah blah fight, blah blah blah betrayal, blah blah minor characters slaughtered, and Sokurah kidnaps Parisa. When Sinbad comes to her rescue, we get a cool-looking fire-breathing dragon, but sadly, it seems to have issues and just sulks in its cave a lot and though it breathes fire, it doesn’t do it at people. But the dragon figures in later, so we’ll come back to it.
The scene where Sinbad faces off against a sword-fighting skeleton is really the centerpiece of this movie. In a giant technical achievement in its time, Ray perfectly matches up the jerky movements of the skeleton to the jerky movements of actor Kerwin Matthews. Ray even makes the latter seem damn near life-like (Matthews, that is). The whole fight scene is set to some marimba and tuned percussion that is creepy-goofy and fits perfectly. Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane) did the score, and it (like Harryhausen’s animation) more than makes up for all the scene-chewing, monologue-gargling, bad-to-the-point-of-funny stage-fighting and expository dialogues combined.
Finally Sinbad and Parisa escape, by pitting the dragon against another cyclops. Here the dragon finds its stones, or ovaries (whichever) and puts a hurt down on the cyclops. Sad Dragon later takes a tree trunk-size ballista bolt for Sokurah, but falls on top of the wizard, killing him as well. So, our poor depressed dragon’s brief moment of shiny glory lands in a heap of fail in the end.
Besides all the stop-motion effects, Harryhausen was on hand for all the Sinbad movies, making sure actors’ motions would match his monsters', and generally keeping the whole mess going. It was really only Hollywood’s bizzare set of rules that kept Harryhausen from being credited as director and making even better money. Stupid Hollywood. I’m assuming that the only reason this short-sheeted quilt of a movie was spared “the treatment” by the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is out of respect and homage for Ray Harryhausen’s work. Check out this golden nugget of actual script from just after Sinbad, his men, and Sokurah escape from the first Cyclops:
Parisa: “If you are indeed a magician, why do you not use your great power to slay the one-eyed monster?”
Sokurah: “I had prepared a potion for just such a purpose, but I couldn’t persuade the cyclops to swallow it!”
Listen - One-eyed monster? Special potion? Ok, even at 9 years old, I knew there was a rich subtext there. I'll leave it at that.
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.