The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) -***
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad marked something of a turning point in Ray Harryhausen’s career. Most of the movies he had worked on prior to this one were in the 50’s-style monster rampage mold, involving a single creature on the loose in the modern world, destroying everything in its path. Even Mighty Joe Young, the most conspicuous departure from this pattern, isn’t much of a departure, both because it was his first feature film and because, apart from the “monster’s” basically benign disposition, it actually sticks pretty close to the formula already established by The Lost World and King Kong. After The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, though, Harryhausen would leave this familiar territory behind for the most part, and concentrate instead on projects of a more fantastic, mythological character. This proved to be a wise move on his part, both because these films afforded him much greater visibility by packing in a far greater number of his creatures, and because the monster rampage movie would soon be entering its waning days, while the heroic fantasy film was about to be catapulted to prominence by the phenomenal international success of Italy’s Hercules.
In that light, it is particularly interesting that this early “sword and sandal” film is set in the mythic world of The 1001 Nights, rather than the more commonly used Greco-Roman mythos (though I hasten to point out that it uses quite a few ideas from The Odyssey, and even one monster out of medieval Northern European folklore). It begins with Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews, who would go on to appear in Hammer’s Maniac and, of all things, Octaman), that most famous hero of Arabian legend, landing on the island of Colossa to replenish his ship’s stores of food and water. Almost immediately upon landfall, his crew is attacked by a cyclops, which seems intent on keeping them away from a huge stone edifice that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Polynesian tiki god. While Sinbad’s men hold the creature more or less at bay by peppering it with javelins, a black-robed man with a shaven head comes charging out of the peculiar building’s doorway/mouth. The man’s name is Sokurah (Torin Thatcher, from Jack the Giant Killer and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and he is a powerful magician. He also appears to be the reason the cyclops is in such a bad mood, for he has stolen the obligatory magic lamp from the creature’s cave. Sokurah calls forth the genie from the lamp (some genie-- he’s a twelve-year-old boy!), and orders him to stop the cyclops. The genie then compliantly erects some sort of force field between the monster and Sinbad’s men, who are grateful enough to the wizard that he scarcely needs to ask before they haul him aboard their dinghy and begin rowing him back to the ship with them. But that cyclops is smarter than it looks; the genie’s force field is shaped like a fence, rather than a bubble, and the monster takes advantage of this fact by lobbing a huge rock over the barrier. The boulder smacks into the sea only inches from the dinghy, overturning it and dumping Sinbad, his sailors, the wizard, and the lamp into the drink. And because Sokurah can’t swim very well, he is unable to keep both himself and the lamp afloat. The cyclops then wades out into the breakers and retrieves its stolen treasure.
Sokurah understandably wants to return to the island right away, but Sinbad has better things to do. He was on his way to Baghdad when he stopped to provision his ship, and his mission is one of the greatest urgency. I’m not exactly sure how, but the presence of him and his betrothed, the Princess Parisa of Chandra (Kathryn Grant, of The Night the World Exploded), in Baghdad is all that stands in the way of war between Parisa’s father, the sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket), and the caliph (Alec Mango, from The Strange World of Planet X and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver). Sokurah realizes it’s pointless to argue, and instead begins trying to think of a way to get either of the aforementioned potentates to finance an expedition back to Colossa to get the lamp.
When his efforts to hire a ship and a crew of fighting men through the traditional channels fail, Sokurah tries instead to capitalize on his sorcerous powers to win the attention of the two rulers. He gains an audience with both at the banquet where Sinbad’s impending marriage to Parisa is announced, and puts on quite a show. For his first demonstration, he combines Parisa’s handmaid and an Indian cobra into a four-armed serpent-woman, which then dances for the amusement of the dinner party. Then he turns to prophesying the future. But Sokurah makes a tactical error when he foretells war between Chandra and Baghdad, and then offers to use his magic to avert this grim future. Naturally, all he wants in exchange for this invaluable service is the rulers’ backing for the expedition to Colossa, a favor which has already been refused him. The caliph sees through Sokurah’s ruse, and orders him out of Baghdad by sundown the next day, promising to have his eyes gouged out if he does not obey.
But Sokurah, as befits a sorcerer, is one tricky bastard, and that night, he pays a little visit to Princess Parisa, the result of which will be sure to change the caliph’s tune. The magician casts a spell on the girl as she sleeps, shrinking her to a height of perhaps five inches. When her father the sultan sees what has become of her when she was ostensibly under the caliph’s protection, he flies completely off the handle, and storms out of the caliph’s palace, threatening to return with an army to raze Baghdad. Sokurah’s magic has thus suddenly become far more interesting to the caliph, and he brings in the wizard for a consultation on possible cures for shrunken princesses. Wouldn’t you know it, Sokurah knows of just such a spell, but it requires a certain very rare ingredient-- the powdered shell of a roc’s egg. Naturally, the only place where the giant birds are known to nest is the isle of Colossa; that this is also the place to which Sokurah had been pestering the caliph to send him is, of course, merely a fortuitous coincidence.
But by this point, the story of Colossa’s monstrous inhabitants has circulated all around Baghdad, and the only way Sinbad can raise a crew for the journey is by going to the city’s prison and offering freedom to 25 condemned men in exchange for their participation on the voyage. It sounds like a pretty bad idea, and sure enough, the moment Sinbad’s ship gets within shouting distance of a major trade route, the men mutiny. That, my friends, is what you get for hiring sailors on death row. But what the mutineers don’t realize is that, to get to that trade route, they’re going to have to sail past an island inhabited by siren-like demons, whose infernal screeching drives anyone who hears it quite mad. Sokurah does know this, however, and he, Sinbad, and Sinbad’s first mate Harufah (Crack in the World’s Alfred Brown) stuff their ears with rags and wax, allowing them to re-take the ship once it comes within earshot of the screaming demons. Then, without further delay, it’s off to Colossa, for a busy day of monster fights and double-crosses, leading up to Sinbad and Parisa squaring off against Sokurah in the basement of his underground hideout on Colossa to determine the fate of the magic lamp and its boy genie.
Obviously the principal attraction in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is Harryhausen’s fabulous stop-motion monsters. The cyclopes are terrific, as is Sokurah’s pet dragon, but my personal favorite is the roc hatchling, which looks like nothing so much as a 15-foot-tall Cornish game hen (as it would appear in the grocery store, mind you) with two heads. But this movie has something even more entertaining that most commentators completely neglect to mention-- non-stop overacting on a truly heroic scale. It never lets up, but nowhere is it so striking as the scene in which the mutineers attempt to sail Sinbad’s ship past the Island of the Screaming Demons, a scene to which no description could possibly do justice. Next to this staggering display, such things as the sight of the sailors tossing the cyclopes’ gold up over their heads like a bunch of chimpanzees look like models of taste and decorum. The hilarity is considerably advanced throughout by the smorgasbord of phony accents served up by the cast. Kerwin Mathews, as Sinbad, is content with his natural American accent, but he is entirely alone among the actors in his restraint. Kathryn Grant seems to be aiming for some variation on upper-class British, while Torin Thatcher tries for what I suspect he thought was Arabic. As for the minor players, it’s hard to imagine what they were thinking. One notably indecisive man switches haphazardly between a Mexican accent of the “We don’t need no steenking badges” variety and something else which could perhaps be interpreted as a stab at French Canadian. It’s a good thing for this movie’s reputation that most people see it for the first time when they’re seven years old; without that nostalgia factor working in its favor, there’s just no way The 7th Voyage of Sinbad could ever have earned as much respect as it has.