Saturday, March 30, 2013

All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 20 - The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

We've covered a lot of movies so far on All-Out Giant Monster Attack, but for the most part they've all comprised a single genre of science fiction horror.  They all share the same general concept of "what would happen to ud if a giant creature more powerful than any human power were to break into our reality?"  But "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" is a very different kind of film, this is a classic fantasy adventure, taking place in the a magical and exotic chapter of history:  the Islamic Golden Age as envisioned by the "One Thousand and One Nights".  With its setting in the land of pure imagination, "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" marks a moment of artistic maturity for our dear Ray Harryhausen, now moving beyond mere horror to create a film rich with his distinctive animated style.  With this movie, Harryhausen found the genre he was made to create, and would spend the rest of his career creating fantastic adventures that has inspired every aspect of modern special effects.

"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" is first film to be advertised featuring a new stop-motion technique called "Dynamation".  Dynamation wasn't actually a new style, Ray Harryhausen had been using it since "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", but it certainly made for a catchy phrase for trailers.  Essentially, it wasn't anything particularly new, it was still the same classic stop-motion effects from Willis O'Brien, but the method of combining that animation with the live action footage was slightly easier and cheaper.  Actually explaining the details of Dynamation is pointless since its extremely technical, basically it was a marketing tool that sounded cool in trailers.  However, the marketing was correct in that "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" was a major new plateau for stop-motion animation, being the first Harryhausen film to be made in color.  And the first film since "King Kong" to feature an entire world full of giant monsters which our human-sized protagonists must explore.

Interestingly, "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" is actually a very-well respected classic fantasy film amongst film critics and would be absolutely beloved amongst the next generation special effects artists who would create films like "Star Wars", "Jurassic Park", and "Indiana Jones".  The movie starred Kerwin Matthews and Kathryn Grant as Sinbad and the Princess, respectively, but the most popular character by far was actually Ray Harryhausen's cyclops.  Despite being directed by Nathan H. Juran, a mainstay of cheap Z-movies like "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman", the film actually had a very large budget of six-hundred thousand dollars.  And for that reason, the effects, budget, and quality are all considerably higher than the usual American giant monster productions.  You may not have heard of this movie, but trust me, its a beloved classic of the fantasy film genre.

Now, as great as Ray Harryhausen's work is, unfortunately the story and characters are terribly flat.  Most of the actors do their jobs playing either the scheming villain, or dauntless swashbuckler, or scheming wizard, but that's all they bring - a mechanical sense of characters roles being filled not because these are real people with interesting characters, but rather because a fantasy story needs a hero, a princess, and a villain.  Harryhausen's cyclops is a masterpiece of personality and subtly, while the two leads cannot have a romance more complex than simply repeating endlessly how much they love each other.  Sinbad and the Princess start the movie already completely in love, so all their scenes are simply flirting with no real mystery as to where this relationship is going to go.  There are a few great action scenes and some stunning set pieces of Dynamation (which even today are amazing), but that's all you're going to get out "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad".

The movie opens with Sinbad and his crew already in the midst of a voyage (presumably his sixth), trapped in a darkness with almost no supplies and completely lost.  Sinbad's cargo is none other than the beautiful Princess Parisa of some kingdom called "Chandra" who he is taking back to the Caliph at Baghdad for a wedding to create peace between the Abbasid Caliphate and this Chandra Sultanate*.  Unfortunately, everybody on the boat is starving, so they need to land at the nearest island, a mysterious place called Colossa.  Colossa is similar to "King Kong"'s Skull Island, being a place full of ancient structures but terrible giants.  Such as the Cyclops that starts attacking the sailors almost immediately.  This is the real star of our film:

 This still picture really doesn't do Harryhausen justice, the 
animations on this cyclops are truly sublime.

The Cyclops is chasing after the Wizard Sokurah, played by Torin Thatcher.  Sokurah is a bald schemer, obviously evil, who spends the entire movie looking for the Magic Lamp, and the child Genie within that he seeks to control.  Though Sokurah is able to steal the Lamp and create a magical wall using the Genie's powers, the Cyclops simply throws a huge stone into the ocean, forcing him to drop the Lamp.  Sinbad refuses to go back on the island, and instead takes everybody back to Baghdad for his wedding.

Sokurah tags along, trying to get patronage from the Caliph to fund his voyage back to Colossa, but finds no luck.  Even after turning Parisa's maid into a beautiful Lamia, the Caliph still refuses.  This means he needs to go with Plan B, which is to proclaim a vision of war on Baghdad.  Then he uses magic to turn to shrink the Princess down to pocket size.  The Princess doesn't seem too worried about it, but her father, the Sultan, is so pissed by this insult that he declares bloody war on the Caliphate.  It never occurs to anybody that they Super Trustworthy magician who last night turned a woman into a blue four-armed snake-creature could possibly be behind this transformation.  Heck, they even go to Sokurah for advise on how to save the Princess.  Turns out they need a piece of eggs from the Roc bird, a legendary giant... who happens to live on Colossa.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, I need to talk about this Lamia effect, because it is something incredible:

Swoopy Loopy arms.

The Lamia was actually Ray Harryhausen's favorite monster from this movie.  And though it never becomes a direct threat to our heroes, its definitely an unsettling piece.  The arms move jointlessly, like two pieces of rubber spinning around in a bizarre belly dance.  This is pretty freaky, but it gets much scarier than Sokurah's magic starts to break down.  The handmaiden and the snake parts begin to fight against each other, and the snake tail starts to strangle her.  I'd call this scene one of the visual highlights of the entire movie, both mesmerizing and strikingly unreal.  Which is the very essence of fantasy.

After a difficult journey filled with Sirens and a mutiny of the criminals Sinbad impressed to join him, we're back on Colossa.  For the journey on land, Sinbad keeps the Princess in his pocket, so that he can take her to Sokurah's island castle and magic her back to normal size.  Sokurah, however, is immediately untrustworthy, leaving Sinbad to die at the very first opportunity.  Sinbad and his men do an excellent job of getting captured by the Cyclops, and Sokurah walks right on past them to get his Lamp.  The tiny Princess does come in handy though, as she's able to climb on top of Sinbad's cage and open the bolt.  Then she goes back inside Sinbad's pocket is just as useless and female as ever.  Left essentially on his own, Sinbad fights the Cyclops, blinds it with his torch, and leads it over a cliff.  Poor creature.

The heroes then climb up to the top of a mountain to find the Roc eggs.  (I should point out that the Roc is the only creature in this film that actually comes out of a Sinbad story.)  Continuing my theme that all humans are nothing but detestable awful savages, Sinbad's men crack open a Roc egg and murder the Roc chick inside.  And they cook its corpse!  Then the mother appears, very upset:

What a Harryhausen-produced "The Giant Claw" might have looked like.

The heroes escape that peril, and finally reach Sokurah's cave.  By this point, all of Sinbad's men have died except for a group left on the beach equipped with an anachronistic Leonardo Da Vinci giant crossbow.  We've now reached the final level.  And as trustworthy as Sokurah has been this entire movie, he proves just as kindhearted as ever, by kidnapping the tiny Princess and demanding that Sinbad give her over in exchange for the Lamp.  But now Sokurah makes a tactical error, by regrowing the Princess too soon, and Sinbad holds onto the Lamp.  The Princess throws the Lamp into the lava, freeing the Genie.  Sokurah is filled with bald rage, and summons a skeleton to fight Sinbad.  The skeleton fight is another one of the most famous scenes from this movie, becoming something of an iconic moment for the entirety of Harryhausen animation.  Kerwin Matthews did a brilliant job fencing against an invisible foe, allowing Harryhausen to fill in the blanks with a skeleton creature.

However, that monster is human-sized, so clearly of no interest to this Giant Monster series.

What is of interest to our series is the final boss of the movie.  Sokurah's cave is guarded by a giant dragon.  Sinbad unleashes it upon his escape to fight another Cyclops.  And then we have the best moment of the film:  a firebreathing dragon vs. a cyclops.  Heck, the entire movie should have been about the cyclops and the dragon.  Let's watch:

Stop-motion effects might be dated, but let's see a modern CG
master try to recreate the pure personality of these creatures.

The fight is very impressive, as you'd might expect.  We haven't had giant monsters brawling since "Godzilla Raids Again", so this was a great moment for me.  Because of all his personality and expressions, most people seem to root for the cyclops at this point, at least Industrial Light & Magic's Dennis Muren was really sad to see it lose.  Sokurah's beast proves victorious, but his design for a giant crossbow turns out to be his own undoing.  Because the heroes run to the beach, and use that very weapon to kill off the dragon.  Sokurah, thanks to choosing the single worst place to stand while a dragon dies, gets crushed.  Then Sinbad, his normal-sized Princess, and his new cabin boy, the Genie, all sail off into the sunset to a glorious future and two sequels, "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger".  Well, actually none of them show up in those movies, because Sinbad is played by new actors every time, the Genie disappears without word, and I guess despite how lovey-dovy Sinbad and Parisa seemed, it didn't work out as Sinbad keeps finding new love interests.

"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" is a classic of sword and sandal films of the 1950s, and obviously better than most movies of that genre, and most movies of the giant monster category.  There isn't a single giant monster, but rather a whole pantheon, yet the Cyclops comes off as clearly the most heavily impressive and sympathetic.  There is a great deal of adventure to be found in this movie, which is only an hour and a half long, but yet filled with as many set pieces as a modern three hour epic.  Still the characters are inexcusably bland, with no real arc to any of them.  I really wish Sinbad and Parisa had a more complex relationship, rather than just being in love... because.  Its so badly-written that it feels like a warmer and very pleasant version of Edward and Bella's empty flirting.

Ray Harryhausen would go on to create another near half dozen fantasy films.  I've heard very good things about them, especially "Jason and the Argonauts".  But I don't think I'm going to cover them on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!  There are hundreds of giant monster films to watch already, and I'd rather focus on things that are more traditionally giant monster movies, not just movies that have giant monsters as set pieces.  As for the cast of "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad", most of them would reunite four years later to create "Jack the Giant Killer", the film that inspired last month's "Jack the Giant Slayer".  See how everything is linked together?

On the next episode of All-Out Giant Monster Attack!  Toho creates a scaly flying squirrel in "Varan the Unbelievable".


* History Nerd Moment:  Sinbad's story is set during the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was pretty much the high point of Islamic Civilization and can be considered the Arab version of our Roman Empire.  The claim of being "Caliph" makes the Abbasid dynasty the successors to the Prophet Muhammad's Empire, and thus rulers of the most powerful and sophisticated empire on Earth at that moment.  There has never been a kingdom called "Chandra" but towards the end of the Abbasid period, the Caliphs had lost a great deal of their power and the Caliphate had broken up considerably.  It is conceivable that there were states strong enough to declare war on Baghdad and destroy the city like the Sultan of Chandra threatens to do.  Though, I really don't know why he would want to destroy such an important cultural center and symbol of power, when he could just as easily turn the Caliphs into a puppet ruler like some many other Turkish powers did.

Of course, this is all Fantasy Theme Park version of the Arabian Nights, so none of this historical knowledge really matters at all.  Though if you were looking for a place to live in the 8th century, there were few places on Earth as cosmopolitan, as wealthy, and as peaceful as the Abbasid Middle East, which was a far greener place back then as well.

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