Monday, April 2, 2012

Classics Revisited: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

(1958) Directed by Nathan Juran; Written by Kenneth Kolb; Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Richard Eyer and Torin Thatcher; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: ****

What’s It About?

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is pure Saturday matinee fodder, best experienced in a movie theater with an enthusiastic crowd.  About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to watch it on the big screen with my family in a packed theater – The Alamo Drafthouse.  To the uninitiated, the Alamo Drafthouse is an Austin, Texas institution, and just about the best thing to happen to movie theaters in a long time.  The Drafthouse hosts numerous retrospectives throughout the year, but one of my favorites is the Saturday Kids Club matinee, featuring an eclectic mix of vintage films for families and anyone else who loves movies.  There’s always something magical about seeing a classic flick in a packed movie house with an eager audience consisting of people who are intimately familiar with the film, along with kids and parents who are probably watching the movie for the very first time.  But enough about the Drafthouse; I’m here to talk about the movie…

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his crew as they’re completing a perilous voyage.  While fleeing the Cyclops on Colossa, they’ve unwittingly picked up a new passenger, Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher).  Sokurah promises great wealth if Sinbad will assist him with retrieving a magic lamp with a genie (Richard Eyer) inside, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.  Sinbad isn’t interested in riches or further adventures, but getting back to Baghdad in one piece, with his beloved Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) who has accompanied him on this journey.  All he wants is to settle down with Parisa and enjoy the peace between Baghdad and Chandra, symbolized by their impending union.

You can tell Sokurah is bad news from the first reel.  He exudes treachery from every pore, thanks to Thatcher’s spirited performance, which appears almost effortless.  You never feel that he’s winking at the camera or hamming it up – just having a good time with his character being bad.  Sokurah’s only goal is to recover his magic lamp, and he’ll do anything he can to get it back.  Lies and deceit are his way.  When he fails to convince Sinbad to assist him, he tries to ingratiate himself to the Sultan of Baghdad, but to no avail.  He attempts another (more forceful) tact, which ultimately backfires.  Not to be deterred so easily, he resorts to using his sorcery to shrink Parisa to the size of a doll.  Sokurah claims he can restore Parisa to her original size, with a piece of eggshell from an enormous two-headed bird called the Roc, which of course can only be obtained on Colossa.  Saddened by his fiancé’s current state, and fearing war between Baghdad and Chandra, Sinbad reluctantly agrees to return with Sokurah to Colossa.  Due to the island’s nasty reputation, however, he’s forced to recruit a ship of convicts.

As with the other Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen collaborations, the main attraction is the impressive stop-motion animation, or “Dynamation, as it’s called here.  With The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen was firing on all cylinders, introducing a host of inspired creations, from the fearsome Cyclops to the aforementioned Roc, to a cantankerous dragon.  This film marked Harryhausen’s first time using the Dynamation process in a color film.  He was initially apprehensive about the challenges of matching the action to the background as he had previously accomplished in black and white, but the results speak for themselves.  In one perfectly choreographed scene where Sinbad battles a skeleton, the action appears seamless, even though Mathews was forced to fight nothing but the air.  It’s easy to see how this scene served as the prototype for the famous sequence in Jason and the Argonauts where multiple soldiers fight multiple skeletons.  In an era when it’s commonplace for CGI effects to involve actors acting against nothing, it’s important to note that the effects in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are the work of one dedicated individual, rather than a team of people.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is at once a product of an earlier time with a different set of sensibilities, as well as a blueprint for adventure movies that were to follow.  There’s a pervasive sense of naïve innocence about the characters that’s refreshing.  The effects look dated by today’s standards, but that’s the point.  They’re a joy to behold.  As Harryhausen stated in a recent interview he wasn’t aiming for realism, but a more dreamlike appearance.  There’s something about this approach that makes everything seem more intimate and personal, like hand-drawn illustrations in a storybook.  Harryhausen’s effects work represents a genuinely handmade quality that computers could never duplicate.  Modern effects people could probably benefit from a dose of unreality, instead of striving for the photorealistic imagery that dominates most science fiction and fantasy films nowadays.

Some films lend themselves to a shared experience more than others, and this is definitely one of them.  Not to say that it’s not fun watching at home, but watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the big screen with an audience takes on another dimension (and I don’t mean 3D!). 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is one of those movies that’s probably best described as “critic proof.”  It was never meant to be overly scrutinized or dissected.  There are no deep messages to be found here.  It’s not a thinly veiled satire about cold war politics or an historical treatise on ancient oligarchies.  It’s no more or less than escapist entertainment for entertainment’s sake, intended to transport us to a faraway, fictitious period when magic was reality and good always prevailed over evil.  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad endures as one of the best Schneer/Harryhausen collaborations (perhaps just below Jason and the Argonauts), and will continue to entertain for generations to come.


  1. Barry, I am super jealous that you got to see this in a theater. That must have been a awesome experience. I just watched a documentary on Ray Harryhausen and of course I can't recall the name of it. Memories of that Cyclops and those skeletons are still etched in my mind from seeing these films as a young boy.

  2. Gave you all a shout on the main HBA page and
    have given you a HBA Gold Member status...

    Thank you all again!

    Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
    HBA Curator

  3. Thanks again for stopping by!

    I think seeing The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in the theater was a reminder of how different it can be watching something in the theater vs. TV (no matter how big the screen is). Of course, you can't replace your earliest memories of certain movies, no matter where you first saw them.

  4. It would have been interesting to see this in a theater. I watched it on my TV a year or so ago because I wanted to see the Harryhausen work. Like you, I ended up being entertained by the movie.

    1. Thanks for reading, Chip! Yeah, I lucked out by catching it at just the right time.

      I think we're very fortunate to live in an age when so many older films are so accessible, considering how movies were once considered to be a "disposable" medium.