Sinbad the Sailor

Sinbad the Sailor
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1947
Director: Richard Wallace
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Sinbad the Sailor

After making The Corsican Brothers in 1941, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. joined the U.S. Navy for five active, dangerous, and much-decorated years. After his wartime service, returning to mere movie-making must have seemed anticlimactic, and he took his time in picking the vehicle that would re-launch his acting career, finally settling on Sinbad the Sailor. He also decided to make the movie a conscious homage to his late father, who’d died in 1939, performing a lot of his own stunts, and adopting some of Doug, Sr.’s exaggerated silent-movie gestures and mannerisms. Unfortunately, the result feels forced and affected, and Fairbanks’s performance doesn’t jibe well with the more naturalistic approach of the rest of the cast, marring an otherwise perfectly-fine fantasy swashbuckler.

Strangely, though there had been a couple of animated two-reelers in the ‘30s, this film is the first live-action Sinbad movie. It’s amazing that it took until 1947 for that to happen, especially considering how many there’ve been since, but the success of A Thousand and One Nights had established the Arabian fantasy subgenre as a dependable money-maker, and from this point on they’ll come thick and fast. The story here follows the Arabian Nights convention of telling a tale within a tale, with a framing sequence in which Sinbad purports to tell his buddies in Basra the story of his hitherto-unknown eighth voyage. Unknown or not, it’s a familiar story, a treasure hunt built of standard elements, mainly useful as a setting for the lead actors to show their chops. Fairbanks was lucky in his co-stars, and it’s in their performances that this movie really shines. And so let us now once again praise Maureen O’Hara, the Queen of the Swashbucklers, who plays the clever and conniving Shireen, a Kurdish beauty with brains to spare. She’s proud and ambitious, but must somehow choose between wealth, power, and love (for Sinbad, of course!).

Now further, O Best Beloved, let us praise the worthy Walter Slezak, he of the waggling eyebrows, who as the barber-surgeon Melik (among other guises), serves as the evil genie of this morality play, a corrupter and tempter so cunning and sly you can’t help but admire him, though you know he’s up to no good. As usual with Slezak, the best part of his acting is the way he shares how much fun he’s having with us, the audience. O’Hara’s intelligence lights up her performance, but Slezak’s razor wit gives his a darker edge. His Melik knows he’s a villain and will probably come to a bad end, but he accepts that as his nature and revels in it.

Which brings us to the movie’s other villain, the ominous Emir of Daibul, as played by Anthony Quinn in his best rôle yet. Usually cast till now as a sidekick or second banana, here he comes into his own as a charismatic ruler of men and women, a confident commander both smart and ruthless. Quinn’s Emir—like Sinbad, Shireen, and Melik—is after Alexander the Great’s treasure on the lost island of Deryabar, and he means to have it. So do the others, of course, and between them there are plenty of temporary alliances and inevitable betrayals along the way, as well as romantic intrigue, stolen maps, virulent poison, Greek fire, and much waving around of those long, curved katar knives they all seem so fond of. Ultimately this is a fable, of course, so expect the ending to turn on a moral, before we return to Sinbad’s framing sequence where we started—Allah’s blessings be upon you!

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
Rating: ***
Origin: UK, 1977
Director: Sam Wanamaker
Source: Viavision Blu-Ray

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

After the success of Golden Voyage, Columbia Pictures and Ray Harryhausen decided to up their game by shooting the third Sinbad movie at eye-popping locations in Spain, Malta, and Jordan, including the actual ruins of Petra. Then I guess they figured no further improvements were needed, because they hired mediocre director Sam Wanamaker, a journeyman unable to mitigate the pacing problems of the story, which was already burdened by a dull and generic script by Beverly Cross. The cast is bland as well, featuring the charisma-free Patrick Wayne (son of John) as Sinbad, and the vacant Taryn Power (daughter of Tyrone) as Dione, the wizard’s telepathic daughter. Jane Seymour as Princess Farah gets to do some decent acting in a couple of early scenes, but then the movie forgets she has any character and demotes her to the role of not-much-clothes horse. The best actors, as usual, are cast as the magicians, Margaret Whiting as the transforming sorceress Zenobia, and Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) as Melanthius, gray and looking just like Gandalf minus the hat. The film’s saving grace, as always, is the stop-motion artistry of Harryhausen and his wonderful creatures.

The plot follows the tried-and-true quest structure, with Sinbad and company on a perilous journey to find a cure for Farah’s brother, Prince Kassim, whom Zenobia has transformed into a baboon. This animated primate, with its humanlike gestures and expressions, is entirely convincing, and ranks with Harryhausen’s best work. Zenobia also gets a first-rate animated companion in Minaton, a bronze minotaur golem with a clockwork heart and an endless reservoir of superhuman strength. With the baboon in almost every scene with Sinbad, and Minaton ever-present with Zenobia, Eye of the Tiger probably features more onscreen creature-time than any other Harryhausen epic.

The journey is the usual parade of wonders interrupted by fantasy mêlées. It’s a tribute to Harryhausen’s skill—and an indictment of Wanamaker’s failings—that the animated combats are far better choreographed than the live-action fights. In the middle of the film, as Sinbad’s ship sails toward arctic Hyperborea, pursued by Zenobia in a bronze boat powered by the untiring Minaton, the pacing sags in a miasma of fog, stock footage of icebergs, and a dumb battle with a giant walrus, possibly the least-cool Harryhausen creation ever. The pace picks up again when they reach Hyperborea, where Sinbad and friends encounter an over-sized pre-human they call Trog. Instead of the expected combat pitting Trog and his great bone club against the scimitars of Sinbad’s crew, Kassim the baboon befriends the primitive creature, and it trustingly joins their party. The friendly nonverbal interactions between Trog and the baboon that follow are delightful, and the animated creatures establish an emotional connection stronger than any between the movie’s “real” actors.

As usual, the climactic scene is set in an ancient temple, an Arctic pyramid with a magic ever-swirling Jacuzzi inside. This confrontation between good and evil is overlong and entirely predictable, and some fine monster-wrestling notwithstanding, you just wish they’d hurry up and get it over with. The wrestling comes courtesy of an ice-locked saber-toothed tiger, which in accordance with the ironclad Law of Frozen Prehistoric Beasts gets thawed out to menace the heroes. Once the final fight is over the film blessedly cuts straight to the end credits, which play over the coronation of the rehumanized Prince Kassim, while the rest of the good guys smile in bland approval. That’s fine: we don’t really need any character closure with them anyway, since none of them have half the heart and soul of Harryhausen’s noble beasts.

Golden Voyage of Sinbad

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1973
Director: Gordon Hessler
Source: Viavision Blu-Ray

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Golden Voyage is beloved by fantasy film fans for its fabulous creatures animated in stop-motion by Ray Harryhausen, but its hallmark monsters aside, this is one strange movie. The story is a sort of stately parade of wonders with a plot that makes sense only in the terms of dream logic. Sinbad (John Philip Law, bland but with a nice smile) happens upon one-third of a magical golden amulet, and thereafter is led by visions and visitations on a quest for … what? Some goal that, despite a superfluity of prophecies and portents, is never really clear. Wealth? Power? Experience points?

Maybe it’s the latter, because Sinbad and company are basically a Dungeons & Dragons adventure party, his crew reminiscent of the clichéd squad members in every war movie, only with Arabian Nights names like Haroun and Omar. They’re joined by Caroline Munro as Margiana because she’s the hottest thing in harem pants, and because she has an eye tattooed on her hand that Sinbad saw in a dream, so she must come along because Fate or something. The party is rounded out by a grand vizier who conceals his features behind a golden mask because they were destroyed by a fireball from the evil wizard Koura. This vizier joins the quest because somebody has to utter portentous warnings and explain What It All Means.

Which brings us to the aforementioned evil wizard Koura, and here’s where the movie gets interesting. This sorcerer, Sinbad’s arch-rival on the amulet quest, is played by Tom Baker—the Fourth Doctor!—who’s almost unrecognizable in a black turban and face kerchief. But he does more emoting with just his eyes than the rest of the cast put together. Koura is the wizard who magically animates all the creatures that bedevil Sinbad and company, but every time he casts a spell he visibly ages, marching toward death, and soon it becomes clear that he wants the magical amulet’s prize because it will restore his lost youth and stave off his suicide-by-sorcery. This makes Koura the only character in the picture with clear and comprehensible motives, and Baker plays him with such energy and verve that about halfway through the film I found myself starting to root for the villain.

Koura won me over in the scene where, with a mandrake root, alchemy, and a dollop of his own blood, he animates a tiny, winged homunculus, and suddenly we see that the putative villain is the real heart of this fantasy: passionate, he breathes life into inanimate matter, creating wonder before our eyes. Yes, you’ve got it: Koura is really Ray Harryhausen himself, literally pouring his life into his creations. This is even more clear when Koura animates a statue of the six-armed goddess Kali, making it dance for him purely so he can revel in his artistry—or rather Harryhausen’s artistry, for whether dancing or wielding six swords against Sinbad, the slyly smiling Kali is a masterpiece, so good it’s easy to forgive the stretches where the film falls flat.

The script is by Brian Clemens, the English screenwriter behind most of the best moments of the British Avengers TV show, but this outing is weak work, recycled adventure-film tropes and Orientalist clichés. The dialogue is studded with phony wise sayings like “You cannot pick up two melons with one hand,” in which you can hear the snotty British intellectual sneering at the Wisdom of the East. It’s embarrassing. Eventually the quest leads to the long-lost island of Lemuria, which is cluttered with ruins evoking every ancient Asian culture at once: India, Tibet, Cambodia, China, and so on. It’s meant to imply that the questers have discovered the source of all the cultures of the Mysterious East, but it feels more like the message is all those bally foreign temples look alike to me, eh, what what? It doesn’t help that the Lemurians, when they find them, are a tribe of green-skinned ooga-booga cannibals with skulls on sticks. Ouch.

 

But those animated monsters, though! So fabulous. Plus there’s some wonderfully lush music by Miklós Rósza, who contributed one of his last great film scores, and a couple of epic dungeon crawls that I guarantee helped inspire Gary Gygax. Despite its lapses and eccentricities, as fantasy films go, Golden Voyage is still almost indispensable.