Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Written by: Brian Clemens, Ray Harryhausen
Directed by: Gordon Hessler
Starring: John Phillip Law, Tom Baker, Carline Munro

I seriously doubt there ever has been, and ever will be, another filmmaker as influential as Ray Harryhausen. His stop motion creations inspired not only generations of other filmmakers, but paleontologists, archaeologists, biologists, and all manner of scientists and engineers at an early age to pursue their dreams and broaden the scope of human knowledge. His work had such incredible character and made an indelible impact on the imagination of every awe-stricken child (and a good many grownups too!) who spent their weekend afternoons watching great fantasy heroes battle hydras and krakens and living statues. His career will stand forever as one of the great treasures of popular art and entertainment. There will likely never be another like him, and that's too bad. I hope that someday, out of the landscape of soulless digital animation that passes for special effects these days, another practical effects master may rise up and inspire my grandchildren or great grandchildren, but as long as Harryhausen's work is preserved and remembered, that great creative spirit will live on.

Our story opens as one of the crew members of Sinbad's ship spots a small creature flying near the mast and tries to shoot it down with an arrow. I think this is a neat touch, that the whole thing starts because of a one-in-a-million chance of the ship crossing paths with the homunculus in the middle of the open sea. Sinbad and his men weren't out looking for adventure. Hell, they were probably on the way home and ready for a little R&R, but adventure came and found them and being manly men of action, they sure aren't going to turn it down! The shot misses but the creature drops the gold medallion it was carrying onto the deck. Despite a warning from the men that it's an evil omen, Sinbad decides to keep the thing. You'd think the visions the thing gives him would be enough to make him throw the damn thing into the ocean, but his curiosity is up and when a terrible storm blows his ship to a strange land, he decides to go ashore and see if he can find out what the amulet is.

Almost immediately he runs afoul of the evil Prince Koura, the black magician to whom both the amulet and the creature carrying it belonged. Sinbad manages to escape his encounter with Koura and make his way to a nearby city, where the grand vizier has been trying to puzzle out the meaning of an amulet of his own that turns out to match the contours of Sinbad's perfectly. The vizier's king died mysteriously not long ago, although he's sure Koura had something to do with it, as well as the fireball that destroyed the king's treasury and burned the vizier's face off. By piecing their two amulets together, they discover that the whole will form a nautical chart, but even in its incomplete form there is enough information to point them in the direction of the legendary land of Lemuria.

While waiting for the tide to turn so Sinbad can get his ship out of the harbor, a local businessman offers Sinbad four hundred gold coins to take his useless layabout son on the voyage and try to make a man of him. Sinbad agrees, but not for the gold. The man's slave girl has a tattoo on her hand that matches one Sinbad saw in his visions aboard the ship, and he agrees to take the boy if he can take the girl too. They set off the next day, with Koura following close behind aboard a hired ship.

Lemuria turns out to be populated by what might be the most confused tribe of savages ever. They wear sort of African-looking face and body paint, but worship Kali, some of them wear masks that look like ceramic baby doll faces, and their witch doctor wears a head dress with the face of a Japanese-looking demon topped with some tiny human skulls and weird stringy hair that makes me think of some kind of voodoo fetish more than anything. Oh, and they're all very obviously white guys, but they have green skin and hair, which makes them look almost exactly like the Swampies from the Doctor Who serial, “The Power of Kroll”, from Tom Baker's run on the show.

Now they discover the reason Koura wants to complete the amulet set. Throughout the movie, every time he uses his black magic, he ages a little more, and he's looking pretty decrepit by the time the two parties reach Lemuria. When he brings the Swampies' statue of Kali to life in the movie's most impressive set piece, it nearly kills him, but somewhere on the island is a fountain that acts as a sort of holy vending machine. The completed amulet will guide the bearer to the fountain, and for each of the three sections a man throws into the waters, he will gain youth, a crown of untold riches, and a shield that turns the user invisible. Thing is, none of the pieces are marked as to which holy gift they grant. It's kind of like those nifty toys that come in a shell or bag that you have to put in hot water to discover which one you got. Sinbad manages to get one of the pieces away from Koura, but wouldn't you know it, it was just the lousy crown. Now Koura has the full power of his magic back, as well as the ability to turn invisible, and there's that pesky one-eyed centaur running around that he managed to gain control over.

I haven't seen this movie since I was a little kid, and it struck me while watching it again that it really doesn't differ that much from the big fantasy epics of today in terms of story. Everyone complains about how plotless the two new Titans movies were, just bouncing from action scene to action scene with just the barest story to motivate them. Well, these Sinbad flicks are exactly the same thing. The difference lies in the effects. Like I said earlier, today's digital effects might occasionally be more realistic, but they just look dull and lifeless compared to the bright, glorious Technicolor of yesteryear.

It's strange that John Phillip Law is so wooden and uncharismatic as Sinbad, and come to think of it, in a lot of his other roles as well. Listen to the commentary on the Danger:Diabolik! DVD some time. He's like the cool bachelor uncle everyone wants to have, with tons of great stories to tell about his kick ass life and he does it with such charm. You'd think someone who was so interesting in real life would have more than a handsome face and buff muscles to put in front of the camera (and speaking of putting things in front of the camera, Caroline Munro steals the show with the sweatiest cleavage in cinema history). Still, even if his line delivery is a little stiff it's more than made up for by Baker. I think it's interesting that instead of going full-on gonzo scenery chomper like most people would with a part like this, he gives Koura a very serious treatment, full of lethal intelligence and seething anger. He's not a mustache-twirling supervillain, he's just smarter than everyone else and he damn well knows it. There are better Harryhausen movies in terms of monsters (with perhaps the exception of the sword fight with the Kali statue, which is just flat out goddamned awesome), but this one wins hands down in terms of the human villain.

We've lost one of the greatest movie heroes of all time, but his influence and the happiness and excitement he gave us will never be forgotten. Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Harryhausen.

This review is part of a roundtable tribute to Ray Harryhausen.  Other entries can be found at:

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