Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Odd Odyssey of "Jack the Giant Killer"

The Cormoran.
Heard the one about the 1962 fantasy adventure that was re-edited into a musical in 1976? If so, then you're familiar with the plight of Jack the Giant Killer, an entertaining--albeit modest--variation on the Sinbad films made by Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer. Indeed, its similarities with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is what led to its conversion into a musical. But, before we get to that, let's take a look at the original version of Jack the Giant Killer.

For her birthday, the beautiful Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) receives a large music box from a myterious visiting dignitary--who is actually the evil wizard Pendragon (Torin Thatcher). When she opens the music box, a 12-inch jester emerges and dances until the music stops. The princess is delighted. That night, though, the little jester (who looks downright creepy) grows into a two-horned Cormoran (a Cornish giant) and abducts Princess Elaine.

Jack (Kerwin Matthews) gets knighted.
En route to a waiting ship, the Cormoran--still clutching the screaming princess--rumbles though a small farm owned by a young man called Jack (Kerwin Matthews). Determined to rescue Princess Elaine, the resourceful Jack uses a rope, a mill, and a scythe to kill the Cormoran. Once the princess safely returns to the castle, Jack is hailed as a hero and knighted by the king.

However, still concerned about his daughter's safety, the king asks Jack to escort Elaine to a convent in another kingdom. Love blossoms between Jack and Elaine during their shipboard voyage. However, their happiness is short-lived when Pendragon sends a bunch of ugly, fire-producing witches to kidnap Princess Elaine. It's up to Jack to rescue his love again.

Good princess; bad princess.
Loosely inspired by a Cornish fairy tale (which has nothing to do with a beanstalk), Jack and the Giant Killer borrows liberally from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Wizard of Oz. Like the 7th Voyage, it features: a quest to rescue a princess; battles with stop-motion animated creatures; an evil wizard; warriors that sprout from teeth; and a helpful magical companion (an imp in a bottle instead of the genie-boy from Sinbad). Jack the Giant Killer also recycles the director (Nathan Juran) and two stars (Matthews and Thatcher) from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. As for The Wizard of Oz, its fans will notice that the evil wizard monitors our heroes with a crystal ball, employs witches that like to burn things ("How about a little fire, Scarecrow?"), and uses an hourglass.

Pendragon's castle.
Despite its derivative nature, Jack the Giant Killer is an appealing picture targeted at kids. It lacks the classy production values of the Sinbad movies and the special effects can't compare to the masterful work of Ray Harryhausen. The Cormorans (a second two-headed one appears near the climax) are impressive, but the other creature models look pretty juvenile, especially the Kraken that emerges from the sea. The actual stop-motion animation is pretty good, which is no surprise since some of it was done by Jim Danforth. Over his career as a special effects wizard, Danforth earned two Oscar nominations; his best work is probably When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1971).

Jack the Giant Killer was produced by Edward Small, who had turned down The 7th Voyage of Sinbad three years earlier. That fact, plus the obvious similarities between the films, led to Columbia Pictures (which distributed Sinbad) to file a copyright infringement suit to prevent the release of Jack the Giant Killer. It was released anyway (some sources claim the suit was filed too late). However, legal concerns popped up again when the film was being considered for a video release in 1976. To avoid a lawsuit, Small retitled the film Jack the Giant Killer: The Musical and redubbed it with songs. Here's a clip featuring the song "We Have Failed," in which Pendragon's henchman explains how the original kidnapping was botched.


Fortunately, the original version of Jack the Giant Killer eventually found its way to release on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD. Still, it's interesting to ponder other classic films that could be converted into musicals. Casablanca--The Musical, anyone?

4 comments:

  1. True, it's no Harryhausen but "Jack" has its own charms. Judi Meredith is a lovely heroine, though she does look better when she turns bad. Kerwin is a might dull and not altogether worthy of her. The castle is pretty spectacular and the witches are spooky. I remember it fondly from when I was younger.

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  2. Rick, I enjoyed reading your very timely review of "Jack the Giant Killer." This is not a very well know movie but I think it is rather sweet. The Cormorants are a bit scary, especially due to their size, yet Jack is able to use his wits against them. I liked your comparison of "Jack" with "The Wizard of Oz" and do enjoy fantasy films. Excellent post!

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  3. This film is a guilty pleasure for me. I have always seen it as the film that should have been a Schneer/ Harryhausen film. The cast is wonderful, especially Judi Meredith. Evil wizard Torin Thatcher is always a treat, but I do not find Kerwin Mathews dull as Jack at all. Producer Small hurt himself trying to copy elements from 7TH VOYAGE too much. He should have trusted his talented production personnel to develop an individual look for the giants and other too similar elements gleaned from the Schneer/ Harryhausen predecessor.

    A wonderful piece Rick, one correction though: Cormoran was the first giant's name not his genus, which comes from the original tale. The second, two-headed giant was called Galligantua by the production, though I don't recall that name is ever actually mentioned in the movie. It is rather like the creature from Venus in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH; Ray Harryhausen called him ''the Ymir'' (pronounced ''EE-meer''), but the beast is never really referred to as such in the film.

    ~Scott Gamble

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  4. In some ways I also prefer "Jack" to "Sinbad", mainly in the Cornish background--for me the whole Arabian Nights shtick had been run into the ground by the time "Sinbad" came out. But "Jack's" herky-jerky animation and crude creature sculpting were primitive, especially compared to Ray's. A note about the closeness of the 2 flicks: Small dictated that the landing of the bug-eyed dragon on Jack's boat should duplicate the roc's landing from "Sinbad" frame for frame. No wonder Columbia sued! But the musical version was awful. Torin Thatcher as a basso produndo? Gahh!

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