Sinbad the Sailor (1947) *½
I, and many others before me, have commented in the past that the one truly unforgivable sin a movie can commit is to be boring. Surely that goes double for adventure films, and by that reasoning, everyone involved in the creation of Sinbad the Sailor has much for which to atone. Take the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad, strip away all the magic and monsters, and replace Fairbanks Sr. with his rather less charismatic son, and you’ve got a fair idea of what this movie is all about.
Those who know Sinbad primarily from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its sequels will likely be taken aback by RKO’s version of the character. Instead of the conventional fantasy hero to which they are accustomed, this movie gives us something more along the lines of an Arabian Baron Munchausen. He himself is the foremost purveyor of the stories of his adventures, and the better one knows him, the less inclined one is to believe in the tales’ veracity. When we meet him, Sinbad (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom we’ve seen as an old man in Ghost Story) is holding forth once again on the subject of his second voyage, recounting for what must be the thousandth time the story of his narrow escape from the roc’s nest. His audience is not impressed. They’ve heard the story before, along with all the other yarns about the sailor’s seven voyages, and they’ve noticed that Sinbad’s supposed adventures seem to become grander and more perilous with each retelling. At this point, they’d appreciate it if Sinbad would shut the hell up and leave them alone. That merely inspires the loudmouthed liar to regale them with the story of his recently concluded eighth voyage…
It all begins with a ship. Now you’d think that a sailor would already have one of those, but with a sailor as chronically full of shit as Sinbad, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to see him reduced to landlubbing at some point. The vessel in question is a bagala (a type of single-masted sailing ship) called the Prince Ahmed, which is drifting helplessly toward a bunch of jagged rocks when Sinbad and his longtime companion, Abbu (George Tobias) spot it from the shore. It’s really a very nice ship, and since it’s apparently unmanned, Sinbad and Abbu look forward to making it their own by right of salvage. Imagine the would-be salvagers’ surprise when they hoist themselves onto the deck and discover that the original crew is still aboard after all— it’s just that every single man among them is dead from poisoned drinking water! Then, while investigating the captain’s cabin beneath the sterncastle’s upper deck, Sinbad discovers a couple of things above and beyond the murdered crew to make him think the Prince Ahmed is worth far more than its market resale value. First, there’s a chart of the Sea of Oman, on which somebody has traced what they claim to be the route to Deriabar, the fabled lost treasure island of Alexander the Great. Then there’s the design of the stained glass window looking out from the stern, which exactly duplicates that of the medallion Sinbad has worn since before he can remember. The chart trips Sinbad’s greedy switch, while the unexpected connection between the Prince Ahmed’s rear window and the pendant around his neck inspires a fanciful notion that he is in fact destined to find Deriabar and help himself to its treasure. But to Sinbad’s astonishment, the chart is no longer in the captain’s cabin when he calls Abbu in to look at it. Did Sinbad imagine the map? Or was somebody hiding in the cabin all along, waiting for the sailor’s attention to wander elsewhere so that he could make his escape with the priceless parchment?
Either way, Sinbad is going to have to observe the formalities of a legal salvage before launching the Prince Ahmed on any sallies of adventure. He has a rude awakening in store for him in Basra, however, for the local potentate has taken such a liking to the ship (and more to the point, to the money it would surely fetch at auction) that he has decreed on the spot a revision to the laws of salvage, to the effect that the vessel is crown property, with its salvagers entitled only to one fifth of its ultimate sale price. This would put a rather serious kink in Sinbad’s plans, but the wily sailor manages to convince His Excellency to return the Prince Ahmed to him in the event that no bidders can be found. Then he and Abbu take it upon themselves to “help” the royal auctioneer sell the ship, exhorting the prospective buyers not to be put off by the death-curse that supposedly hangs over it as a result of the original crew’s horrid fate. (“Have her golden lintels lost their sheen because Satan breathed on them?”) The ruse seems to be having its intended effect, but then a beautiful woman in a veiled litter makes a bid after the rest of the crowd has fearfully dispersed. This woman is Shireen (Maureen O’Hara, from RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), a noble lady of Kurdish extraction and fiancee of the emir of Daibul (Anthony Quinn, of The Ghost Breakers, who played Quasimodo in a later and rather less highly regarded Hunchback film), a personage even more exalted than the present city’s meddlesome ruler. Now Sinbad has no alternative but to outbid the lady, playing while he does so upon his overwhelming Fairbanksicity to charm her into backing down. It works well enough to stop the bidding war at 20,000 dinars, after which a little sleight of hand involving the auctioneer’s purse and Abbu’s baggy trousers enables Sinbad to produce the enormous sum. (“You sell me my own ship, and I pay you with your own coin!”) A clandestine visit to the palace that night convinces Sinbad both that Shireen is potentially available to a man who is as smooth as he is sleazy, and that there’s something extremely fishy about her interest in his new ship. All that will have to wait, though, for on the morrow, the Prince Ahmed sets sail for the Sea of Oman with a hastily assembled crew of lowlifes and scoundrels.
They’ve made very little headway, however, before the lookout spies a naval galley pursuing them at a speed which the Prince Ahmed can’t possibly match. On a hunch that Shireen must have a hand in it, Sinbad orders the helmsman to steer a course for Daibul— after all, if she isn’t back home in Basra, then there’s a good chance that she’ll be found in the city of her fiance. What follows is practically a word-for-word reprise of the garden scene in The Thief of Bagdad. Posing as Ahmed, Prince of Deriabar, Sinbad sneaks into the harem of the emir’s palace to woo Shireen, and extract from her while he’s at it an explanation or two. Where the new version differs from the old is in the central place which the treasure of Deriabar holds in everybody’s motivations. Shireen is every bit as materialistic and glory-hungry as Sinbad, and the emir has them both beat by a country mile. She wants Sinbad because of the wealth she believes he possesses, and she isn’t terribly particular about whether she gains access to it directly through him or by helping the emir find the legendary land and incorporate it forcibly into his domains. Sinbad, for his part, thinks that Shireen had one of her agents steal the chart from the cabin on the Prince Ahmed, and that she therefore knows where the island is. In the end, Sinbad abducts Shireen from under the emir’s nose, and the two rivals find themselves racing each other to the southernmost reaches of the Sea of Oman. Meanwhile, all of the contestants are being stalked by a shadowy figure known only as Jamal, who evidently has designs of his own on the treasure. And as if all that weren’t enough, among all of Sinbad’s new crew, only the hulking and slow-witted Yusuf (Mike Mazurki, of Dr. Renault’s Secret) seems at all trustworthy, with Moga the deckhand (John Miljan, from The Ghost Walks and Queen of the Amazons) and Melik the barber (Walter Slezak) almost certainly representing the interests of either the emir of Daibul or the mysterious Jamal.
Sinbad the Sailor sorely needs a faster pace, more action, and a considerable infusion of either magic or grit. The legends of Sinbad, after all, are full of the fantastic— this is a guy whose first voyage brought him to an island that was really the back of a titanic, dozing sea monster, and whose third voyage hinged upon a reworking of the Polyphemos episode from The Odyssey. To make a Sinbad movie with a tone of fairy tale adventure and yet ditch all the hocus-pocus is a terrible waste of the material. Or, on the flipside, to demystify Sinbad while shying away from the ugly realities of piracy on the high seas is a chickenshit cop-out. Sinbad the Sailor tries to have it both ways by having it neither way, and nothing good comes of it. It’s especially shameful because there are indeed a few interesting things going on in this movie, even in the absence of rocs and sea serpents and man-eating giants. The unexpected portrayal of Sinbad as, first and foremost, a prodigious liar would make a fine jumping-off point for a deconstructionist take on the familiar tales, and the personalities ascribed to most of the supporting characters would lend themselves equally well to such an undertaking. There’s much talk throughout the film of wealth and power as impediments to happiness, and everyone left standing inexplicably sprouts scruples toward the end of the final act, but up until that point it really is all about the Benjamins (or the Harun al-Rashids, I suppose) for this lot— even for the “good” guys. I just wish the filmmakers had the nerve to admit that we’re dealing with a bunch of sleazebags, and to proceed accordingly.