52 Before 62 — #51 The 7thVoyage of Sinbad (1958)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958 poster).jpegDirected by Nathan Juran

Screenplay by

Starring Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, and Torin Thatcher

This is fact: all special effects will eventually look like shit.  No matter how good they appear in the moment to audiences of the time, or how cutting edge they may have been, they will all come to look janky, threadbare, and horribly laughable.  The only unknown is the amount of time it takes, and the size of the laugh they get.  For The Scorpion King, that turn happened instantly, literally the moment the images left the computer.  For 2001: A Space Odyssey and Zodiac, it hasn’t happened yet.[1]  And maybe in that juxtaposition we can learn a valuable truth: the best VFX are those that don’t reach beyond their capabilities,[2] while the worst try to live out there just beyond the cutting edge.

But even those that don’t reach beyond the capabilities of the time still have an expiration date, which is probably why George Lucas felt it necessary to go back more than once to touch up the effects in the original Star Wars trilogy — to their detriment, in my opinion.  Which leads me to this point: just because special effects may eventually come to be bad, that doesn’t mean they are ineffective.

Consider The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad | George Eastman Museum

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a fantasy film telling a story populated by all manner of mythical creatures that do not exist in reality.  Which means if you want to see these creatures on film, they have to be created.  Physically created.  And because using genetics and bioengineering to create a goat-legged cyclops, and a giant two-headed eagle, would take too long, that left Ray Harryhausen to create them in miniature out of wire, foam rubber, and some sort of plasticine.  Then, to give them life, he eschewed the Victor Frankenstein approach of giving his creations life, and instead painstakingly animated them in stop-motion, eventually marrying the stop-motion film to the live action film to give us images of Sinbad sword-fighting with skeletons.

In the standards of the day it was released, the effects of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are impressive.  No, they don’t look exactly photo realistic, but they are effective enough the disbelief can be suspended.  Certainly, when watching them there is no way anybody would ever think they were watching an actual cyclops, but they look good enough that the effects work.  Of course, for the modern viewer the creatures look plastic, their movement is herky-jerky, and the marrying of the stop-motion to live-action is clunky and comes with the obvious halo you see in most photographically composited elements.  Many times the two elements of the film — stop-motion and live-action — don’t seem to be interacting with one another at all, but are instead shadow-boxing on different planes, without causing any danger to the other.  In other words, even as we watch it, we see the flaws.

Yet, even as we see this, and can intellectualize it, that intellectualization misses the point.  By always expecting a level of reality on film that can never be achieved,[3] no matter the time and money invested, we are asking films to be judged by some unattainable standard.  It is the ultimate catch-22 — expecting a level of perfection in the creation of the unreal, then criticizing the lack of reality in the unreality.  It’s a strange sort of hypocrisy that can be solved simply by learning to just shut up and go with it.

Classic Film and TV Café: Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Parisa and Sinbad

What’s It About?

Returning to Baghdad by ship, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) stops for provisions on a remote island.  There, he finds a mysterious magician, Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) who is busy trying to steal a magic lamp for a goat-legged cyclops.  Sinbad and his men — and the magician — barely escape for their lives.  The magician, though, is obsessed over this lamp — and the genie within — and is constantly scheming to return to the island to steal it.  Eventually, in Bagdad, he casts a spell on Sinbad’s betrothed, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), shrinking her to just about six inches tall.  The cost to restore her?  Return to the island and get that genie’s lamp.  Along they way they battle the cyclops, a two-headed eagle, and reanimated skeletons.

The INCspotlight - The INCspot

Kathryn Grant (r)

Any Good?

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is not a great movie.  At least, not in the terms of 12 Years a Slave, or Moonlight, or Sunset Boulevard, or Rebecca.  It is not high art.  Intentionally not high art.  And is basically a kid’s film.  Yes, the filmmakers bristled at the notion their film was really a kids film, which is why they said the film featured ‘Dynamation’ and was not simply animated.  But at the end of the day, no matter how much of Kathryn Grant’s heaving cleavage and bare midriff we get, the cartoonish plot and B-movie tropes makes this a kids film.  Even if it is also one adults can enjoy

And adults can enjoy it.  After all, you do get the previously mentioned cleavage and midriff, and because the film is built like an elevated B-movie, the plot has plenty of forward momentum, and behaves efficiently — there is little that feels extraneous, or cluttered, or busy, much to the films benefit.

What a drag: Amazing behind the scenes photos from the set of ...

One of these two people is pretty convincing as a woman

In its original release, the likely selling point for the film was the Ray Herryhausen stop-motion animation, and the animation is impressive, even as it also feels a bit primitive by today’s standards — this is a movie where a digital touch up would greatly benefit the film.  Even so, the effects themselves are fairly groundbreaking and required a big step up from films like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, movies that had the benefit of shooting in black and white, while The 7th Voyage has to deal with color.  And while the difference between color and black and white seems trivial, there’s a reason why Some Like It Hot was made in black and white and not color — it’s easier to sell many of these effects in black and white than in color.  But Herryhausen’s work sells the effects quite well and clearly the reason they persist to this day has to do with the wit Harryhausen brings to his work, not merely his technical proficiency.

But one of the often overlooked factors contributing to Harryhausen’s, and this films, success is the ability of the actors to play the scenes against nothing.  After all, during filming the actors were acting against a mark on the wall, or a stick, or some other sort of rudimentary placeholder, with the creature or other items to be placed in later.  If the actor cannot sell their half of the scene, the believability and the selling of the other half of the scene fails.  This is why even though neither Mathews nor Grant gives what you’d call a great performance, in terms of the film they are great.  They make what we’re seeing believable, such as the sword fight with the skeletons, even if it is not.

Classic Film and TV Café: Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Toroin Thatcher

In contrast to Mathews and Grant, co-star Thorin Thatcher, as the double-dealing magician Sokurah, does give a great performance.  All three clearly understand the sort of movie their playing, and none act above it, but Thatcher alone relishes it.  He plays the treacherous, dangerous Sokurah with all the ingratiating sliminess you’d want, and it’s too bad that the character is completely bald, because it feels like a real missed opportunity that he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl.

Bing Crosby

This movie has an unexpected Bing Crosby connection in Kathryn Grant — at the time she made this movie she was newly married to Bing Crosby, remaining married to him until his death in 1977.

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[1] If you want to blow your mind, Youtube the Zodiac VFX reel — you will not believe how much of that movie was generated in the computer.

[2] You’d be surprised to learn that most special effects today are used on mundane thing, like erasic shadows, wires, or fixing Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours, which hardly look like effects at all, owing to those things being well within the FX wheelhouse.

[3] FN After all, as these creatures do not exist we can never know what they really look like.

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