Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad

The cyclops on Colossa.
"Nothing quite like its contents had been seen on the screen before."

That's special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen's assessment of his own 1958 fantasy adventure The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The usually modest Harryhausen knew what he was talking about --7th Voyage shines the spotlight on his incredible stop-motion animation. And for the first time in his feature film career, it was all displayed in glorious color and with a splendid music score to match, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann.

Princess Parisa and Sinbad.
The film opens with Sinbad transporting Princess Parisa to Bagdad (sic) where he plans to marry her and seal an alliance between their countries. Along the way, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) and crew land on an island where they encounter a magician who has stolen a magic lamp from a cyclops. They help the magician, Sokurah, escape, but he loses the lamp in the process.

Once they reach Bagdad, Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) tries to convince Sinbad to return to the island of Colossa to retrieve the lamp. Sinbad refuses--at least until Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) is mysteriously reduced to doll size. Sokurah claims he can restore the Princess to her normal height, but his potion requires the egg shell from a Roc...meaning that Sinbad needs to transport the magician back to Colossa. Once there, they encounter cyclopes (that's plural), a two-headed Roc, a fire-breathing dragon, and--most famously--a sword-wielding skeleton.
A cyclops and the dragon battle on the beach.
The credits for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad tout that it was filmed in Dynamation. The term was coined by producer Charles H. Schneer to describe Harryhausen's painstaking process of combining live action with his stop-motion animated creatures. At the risk of simplifying the process, it consisted of filming the actors alone and then projecting that footage one frame at a time as Harryhausen animated his creatures in front of it. Obviously, the actors' movements had to be precise, which makes Sinbad's swordfight with a skeleton the film's highlight.

Sinbad against the skeleton.
In an interview (included as a DVD extra in some boxed sets), Kerwin Matthews describes the complicated "choreography" of the duel. He and Italian Olympic fencing master Enzo Musumeci-Greco rehearsed the sequence until Matthews knew it by heart. Then, Matthews had to replicate it with precision and by memory without Musumeci-Greco. In post-production, Harryhausen animated the skeleton opponent. Matthews didn't see the finished sequence until he watched the film at a theatre in France the following year. It truly is an incredible sequence and Herrmann's music, which is synchronized with each physical movement, is the perfect complement.

Torin Thatcher as the magician.
Of course, a film with nothing but great special effects would grow tiresome eventually. Thus, it's fortunate that The 7th Voyage of Sinbad benefits from enthusiastic performances. Matthews makes an appropriately dashing hero (though maybe not the brightest...Sinbad doesn't seem to suspect Sokurah of shrinking the Princess). Torin Thatcher makes a delightfully evil villain and Kathryn Grant--the future Mrs. Bing Crosby--is charming as the plucky princess, whose resolve saves Sinbad from being a cyclops snack.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad isn't Ray's Harryhausen's most jaw-dropping fantasy adventure. That honor belongs to the excellent Jason and the Argonauts (1963), in which the hero battles an army of skeletons. However, it's a colorful, exciting fantasy adventure with enough visual marvels to make you feel the wonderment of childhood again.

3 comments:

  1. It may not be the most most jaw-dropping movie in Harryhausen's filmography, but it sure is one of the most FUN. Saturday matinee fantasy adventure at its finest! Thanks for writing about this classic that never fails to bring out the 10 year old movie fan in me!

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  2. What John V said!

    I love curling up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and losing myself in the FUN of this movie. I may not be consciously appreciating the work in the effects, but my enjoyment is a testament to its glory.

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  3. It always amazes me, the patience of Ray Harryhausen and crew. The skeleton fight in this film mesmerizes me every time.

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