Being a big Star Wars fan from a fairly young age, I used to think of that trilogy as being what turned me into the obsessive lover of film I am today. However, a few years ago when I watched Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan I realised there was a set of films I fell in love with before I discovered George Lucas' world of lightsabers and space battles, and those were the fantasy films featuring the work of the great stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen. Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the Sinbad trilogy were mind-blowing to me as a young pre-teen and I made sure I watched all of them whenever they showed up on TV, which was quite often back in the late 80s and early 90s. Nostalgia can be a cruel beast though, so although I was thrilled to hear that the amazing team at Indicator were set to release Harryhausen's Sinbad Trilogy on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD, I was slightly worried that the films wouldn't live up to my high expectations. There was only one way to find out, so I marathon watched the three films over three nights on a borrowed projector to get the full big screen experience. Here's what I thought of each film:
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Ken Kolb
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Torin Thatcher, Richard Eyer, Alec Mango
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: U
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first of producer Charles H. Schneer and special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies. They'd worked successfully on a trio of sci-fi monster movies in black and white and wanted to make the move into fantasy films in colour that explored great ancient myths. So the pair conceived the film that would become 7th Voyage. In it, we open with Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) sailing the seas on his way home to Baghdad, to meet his wife-to-be Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant). Their marriage is to help bring peace between Baghdad and Chandra. However, before they reach their destination, Sinbad and his crew land on a mysterious island and save an equally mysterious man, Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), from being killed by a giant cyclops. You'd have thought Sokurah would be grateful, but instead he's more concerned by the fact he's lost his magic lamp during the escape. He begs with Sinbad to go back to the island to retrieve it, but Sinbad refuses due to how dangerous it would be and his eagerness to get back to Baghdad.
Sokurah won't take no for an answer though, and once back in Baghdad he hatches a cunning plan to force the Caliph of Baghdad (Alec Mango) to order Sinbad and his crew to go the island with Sokurah in tow. He secretly shrinks the princess, which angers her father, the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket), who threatens to wage war if she isn't returned to normal. Of course, Sokurah knows how to fix the curse, but needs ingredients that can only be found on his island. So the whole group head back over there, facing numerous foul and dangerous creatures along the way.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the oldest of the trilogy by a good 15 years, but it probably holds up the best. This is largely down to the direction. Harryhausen's effects are always the selling point of these films and his work in all three is fantastic, but here the drama holding the set pieces together is more effectively handled and it has better pacing. There's an energy and charm that's not quite as evident in the other two films. Mathews' take on the lead role is key to this too as he makes a charismatic Sinbad even if he doesn't look or sound particularly Middle Eastern. Grant is lovable too as his endlessly chirpy fiancée and Thatcher makes a wonderfully hammy villain.
Also standing out here is Bernard Herrmann's incredible score. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's one of the greatest fantasy scores ever composed, although he wrote the music for a number of Harryhausen's films and they're all brilliant. From the main theme to the skeleton fight, it's filled with memorable cues with unique orchestration and styles (at the time – it's been ripped off since). Herrmann's music for Hitchcock and Welles is often celebrated, but his work in the fantasy genre is equally as groundbreaking and impressive.
What really matters here are Harryhausen's special effects though and he truly delivers in spades. The cyclops, who makes several appearances in the film (or at least a couple of different cyclops' do), is one of the most memorable characters he created here. Like a lot of Harryhausen's creations, you really feel for him, despite him causing carnage and squishing some of Sinbad's crew with a tree stump. His fight with a dragon at the end is especially exciting yet ultimately tragic.
Another incredible sequence comes near the end, when Sinbad battles a skeleton brought to life by Sokurah. Predating Jason and the Argonauts by 5 years, it may only have one skeleton instead of 7, but it's a stunningly realised set piece that still thrills to this day.
OK, so the story isn't anything to write home about, the performances and dialogue can be rather dated and cheesy (“10,000 devils, what evil sorcery is this!”), but The 7th Voyage is good old fashioned fun with some stunning special effects sequences that are a joy to behold.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Director: Gordon Hessler
Screenplay: Brian Clemens
Based on a story by: Brian Clemens, Ray Harryhausen
Starring: John Phillip Law, Caroline Munro, Tom Baker, Douglas Wilmer, Martin Shaw
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 105 min
BBFC Certificate: U
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad sees the titular hero (now played by John Phillip Law) happen across a golden tablet dropped by a strange flying creature. The evil magician Koura (Tom Baker), who created the flying creature, wants the tablet back and proceeds to chase Sinbad. Curious as to why Koura wants this tablet so badly, Sinbad meets the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has another part of the tablet and tells him there is a third part and that when they are brought together they can unlock a great power. Koura of course wants this power for his own evil means, so Sinbad and the Vizier journey to get there first. Also tagging along is a slave girl who has a mysterious tattoo on her palm that matches that of a vision had by Sinbad after claiming the first piece of the tablet.
Now, I had actually seen The 7th Voyage not too long prior to this revisit on Blu-Ray, but I hadn't seen the other two Sinbad films for probably a good 20 years. From what I'd read, the quality of the films went downhill as they went on, so I was worried the two 70s instalments wouldn't hold up. Luckily, although they're not quite as good as 7th Voyage, I enjoyed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger quite a lot.
Being 15 years older than the first Sinbad film, Harryhausen ups the ante with the effects sequences. They're all cool, with a nice array of creatures causing problems for our heroes, but one scene in particular blew me away. When Koura arrives on an island inhabited by a savage tribe, he brings the stone statue of their God, Kali, to life. At first the 6-armed deity just dances to placate the tribesmen, but when Sinbad arrives on the scene, Koura turns it into a killing machine. Brandishing 6 swords, Kali takes on Sinbad and his men in what must have been a tremendously difficult scene to shoot and then animate. It works exceptionally well, delivering an incredibly exciting action sequence that holds up remarkably well today.
Away from the set pieces, the film falls a little short of 7th Voyage though, as mentioned. For one, it takes a little while to get going, with the more impressive scenes not appearing until later in the film. Law's Sinbad isn't the best either. He's the only actor to have a go at a Middle Eastern accent and he has a likeable charm, but he's not as charismatic as Mathews. Baker makes a great villain though and hams it up nicely. There's more humour than in the previous instalment too, with quite a few amusing lines lightening the tone. There's a fun nod to the era when the film was produced too, as a character is described as “one who enjoys the hashish”.
It may not quite be as good as its predecessor then, but with set pieces equally as strong as before, if not better in some cases, and with a score by Miklós Rózsa that almost matches that of Herrmann's, it's a worthy follow up. It's still a lot of fun to watch and I don't think that's just the nostalgia talking.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
Director: Sam Wanamaker
Screenplay: Beverley Cross
Based on a story by: Beverley Cross, Ray Harryhausen
Starring: Patrick Wayne, Jane Seymour, Margaret Whiting, Taryn Power, Patrick Troughton
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 113 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger sees our courageous hero (once again played by someone else - Patrick Wayne) face yet another challenge involving a member of royalty that has been transformed against his will. This time it's Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas), who has been turned into a baboon just before his coronation. You see, the evil witch Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) wants her son to be king, but he's only next in line after Kassim. Sinbad is good friends with the prince and owes him his life, plus he's in love with Kassim's sister, Farah (Jane Seymour), so of course he will help restore order. This involves a dangerous voyage to a mysterious island full of mythical creatures (of course!) after first consulting with a legendary mystic, called Melanthius (Patrick Troughton), who comes along for the trip with his daughter Dione (Taryn Power). Hot on their trail is Zenobia, her son and her powerful bronze Minotaur slave.
This was Harryhausen and Schneer's penultimate film. The same year this was released, a little film called Star Wars hit the scene and from then on, the public didn't have a taste for old-fashioned fantasy films. They wanted space-bound sci-fi and a new kind of special effects. Harryhausen and Schneer tried to recapture their audience in 1981 with Clash of the Titans, but it didn't perform as well as they thought and they struggled to get anything off the ground after that, which is a great shame as they were still creating hugely enjoyable adventures that have since been classed as favourites in more recent years.
That said, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger isn't without its problems. The casting is definitely weakest here. Wayne (John Wayne's son – Tyrone Powers' daughter Taryn Power is in it too!) is terribly bland and wooden. Whiting isn't quite as scene-stealing as the villains in previous entries either. Seymour is pretty good though, particularly in the scenes between her character and her brother in baboon form. That's quite a feat, given how she will have been acting to a prop on location, something actors are probably more used to now, but not back then.
The film doesn't seem quite as cohesive as the others either. The creatures often just randomly appear and the plot is flimsier than ever. For instance, there's a clumsy scene when Melanthius gives away far too much information to Zenobia, rather idiotically for such a supposedly wise character.
This messier, more random approach worked in a way for me though. The wide variety of monsters is impressive here (a giant walrus, some alien-like skeletons, a sabre-toothed tiger etc.) and gives it an off-the-wall, anything-goes vibe that I enjoyed. There are more set-pieces than in previous instalments too, leaving little down time to cringe at Wayne's 'dramatic prowess'. There is a lot more effects work on display in general as there are a couple of fully animated characters that feature heavily in the film – the baboon form of Kassim and the Minotaur. The garish kaleidoscopic colour of the cinematography adds to the effects sequences too, creating a vibrant feast for the eyes.
So, it's a film that might fall apart if you analyse it too closely, clumsily written, running a little long and featuring a bland lead, but if you take it for what it is (an excuse to showcase some awesome special effects), it's a very enjoyable adventure.
The Sinbad Trilogy is out now in the UK, released by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their new Indicator label. I saw the Blu-Ray versions and the picture and sound quality are both excellent. I have the American Blu-Ray release of 7th Voyage and after comparing the two versions I can safely say that this new print is a notable improvement. The other two films look great too, with cold colours and crisp, sharp prints.
Powerhouse have also loaded the set with special features. These include:
- Mono and 5.1 surround sound audio options
- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad audio commentary with Ray Harryhausen
- The John Player Lecture with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer (audio only)
- BFI Interview with Ray Harryhausen (audio only)
- New interviews with actors Tom Baker, Caroline Munro and Jane Seymour
- New interview with SFX maestro Phil Tippett
- Original Super 8 cut-down versions of all three films
- Archival documentaries, interviews and featurettes
- The Harryhausen Chronicles documentary
- Original trailers and promotional films
- Isolated scores by Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa and Roy Budd
- Promotional and on-set photography, poster art and archive materials
- Box set exclusive 80-page book with new essays, and film credits
That list skims over some lengthy and superb features too. There's repetition of course and a lot of material has showed up on other releases (largely the American Blu-Ray I mentioned before), but to have it all here in one set (and in region 2/B) is fantastic. The Harryhausen Chronicles is possibly the best feature. At almost an hour in length, it gives a fairly detailed look into Harryhausen's life and work and is packed with clips - from early shorts to his later films and even test footage from films never made! One feature that doesn't look like much when listed here, the John Player Lecture, is particularly good too. Harryhausen and Schneer are on top form, delivering numerous anecdotes and cracking jokes in a natural and friendly manner. The two clearly had a good working relationship and it rubs off here. The new interviews are all very good too, with the Tom Baker one proving particularly enjoyable.
It's a wonderful package, topped off by another one of Indicator's fantastic booklets, which is filled with essays, interviews, behind the scenes stills and concept art. There's even an interview with Harryhausen about his proposed but abandoned fourth Sinbad film, Sinbad Goes to Mars!