What sorcery is this?


A great good friend having sent me one of Twilight Time’s lush Blu-rays of SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, we decided to watch it. This was the first Harryhausen film Fiona and I saw on the big screen, but we had already had our minds invaded by his imagery, via TV screenings of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. I hid behind the sofa from both Talos and the cyclops, while Fiona, made of sterner stuff, pressed her barely-formed eyeballs against the cathode ray tube in order to squeeze more detail out of those fascinating, fluttering harpies. Only decades later were we told that the models used were so tiny, they basically didn’t HAVE any more detail than you can see in long shot.

S&TEOTT being the penultimate Harryhausen, the inspiration is a little frayed in places. None of that bothered me as a kid — I didn’t find the giant walrus preposterous, for instance. For their sequels, Harryhausen and regular scenarist Beverley Cross basically re-used the story of their first SINBAD film, and did it a little less effectively each time. In all three films, someone close to Sinbad is bewitched and he must travel to a mythical land to cure the victim. In film 1, it’s Sinbad’s bride-to-be who’s miniaturized, rendering any future nuptials a grotesque rather than romantic prospect. There’s no improving on that, although maybe giving Sinbad a kid and having the kid bewitched would ramp the emotion even higher. Instead, a couple of faceless rulers we never even meet properly get the whammy put upon them, and we’re duly unengaged.

But as a kid I didn’t notice the writers’ repetitive strain injury, nor did I notice the crummy direction in the human-centric scenes. Sam Wanamaker was supposed to class up the acting, but he shoots inept coverage and can do nothing with the pasteboard characters. The editor gets bamboozled into frantic cross-cutting to try to escape each terrible shot as soon as possible, but he has nothing better to cut to. Editors — when stuck with two bad angles, pick one and linger, since you can’t motivate a cut to a new shot that doesn’t show the action any more clearly or attractively.


Thankfully, the direction improves whenever a monster appears, since for reasons of economy such sequences have to be storyboarded in advance, so Haryhausen is directing those. Suddenly the angles are lucid and dramatic. A couple of years after I saw the movie, my Dad brought a copy of Harryhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook home from the library, and I was able to read all about his film-making and his thinking. It was at that point that I realized that several of the set-piece scenes in S&TEOTT were conscious reworkings of successful bits in earlier Harryhausens. Notably the ghouls attack is a rip-off of the skeleton fight in JASON — Harryhausen thought it could be improved by setting it at night. In fact, the bug-eyed skeletoids are pretty spooky, and the scenes in the tent are excitingly colourful. When it devolves into muddy day-for-night outside though, it’s a disappointing drop in intensity.

Trog still fascinates. The most characterful of the creations (“They’re not monsters, they’re mythological creatures”), even with a silly horn on his head, Trog is charming and uncanny. The film lingers on his un-subtitled exchanges with the baboon prince (yes, there’s a baboon prince) for great stretches, autistically mesmerised by their monkey discourse.

As a kid, I *was* disappointed that Trog never fought the Minaton, Harryhausen’s brass automaton version of the minotaur. I suspect I may have already been exposed to Godzilla double features at the Odeon, Clerk Street, and could imagine nothing better than two humanoids battering hell out of each other, especially in Dynamation. Instead we had to settle for Trog’s battle with the rather fluffy sabre-tooth tiger (you may have noticed that none of these animals have a whit to do with the Arabian Nights) while the putative heroes of the film stand around scratching their underpaid arses.


Children have terrible taste and great taste at the same time, so I admired Pat Wayne’s shirt. Otherwise, human interest was confined to the glimpses of Jane Seymour’s skin, and a chance to see Patrick Troughton, whom I knew had been Doctor Who, but before my time. He plays the stupidest wise man ever put on celluloid — watch how he interrogates his arch-enemy and contrives to tell HER everything she needs to know, while learning nothing and then allowing her to escape and almost getting himself killed. All of that would have been lovely if the film had established its genius “Melanthius the Greek” as doddering and senile, but the writers seem to want to accept his behaviour as merely unfortunate. Still, the giant hornet he creates successfully freaked Fiona out.

What’s this? I don’t know! Or maybe I DO know and I’m not ready to say? Maybe that’s it? Hmmm…

22 Responses to “What sorcery is this?”

  1. Oh but I so loved these films when I was growing up. I don’t know about never look back. But maybe look back at some things with extreme caution?

  2. The thing is, the really magical bits are still magical. The actors and the sets and the dialogue and the shooting and cutting don’t hold up, but everything involving the creatures is well worth revisiting. And it is interesting to note how your perceptions have changed.

  3. Fee here – I was utterly fascinated by Trog, because to my mind he was the most ‘human’ Harryhausen creation I’d seen. I’d always been morbidly transfixed by the little, flailing people being attacked then consumed by the “mythological creatures”/dinosaurs/whatever The Big H brought to life (then inevitably, death). There was never enough detail to them to satisfy me, just like the Harpies. (I really did press my face to the tv to try and get a closer look at them flapping around!) Back to Trog. I love Melanthius’s description of the Troglodytes famed ” – gentleness with the female of the species.” Where did he pull that fact from? His great, wise arse?

  4. Fee again – As we re-watched this I was horrified at the casual way the film deals with the heroic Trog’s demise. After his death we don’t even see his body again inside the temple. “Where is he?!” I cried, traumatised, as the boring (but impressively shirted) Patrick Wayne took center stage again. As for the simian grunts between Trog and Baboon Prince, I think you should do another subtitling job like you did on the MGM lion. I dare ya!

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    The Baboon formerly known as Prince had a fine bromance with Trog, and was transformed back to human with the help of Trog’s sacrifice. Should’ve had human Prince rush up to dying Trog who’d look at him in puzzlement, then recognition…and then die. It wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with the rest of the picture, of course, but would’ve been a “moment”.

  6. I saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad when it opened at the Roxy in New York. Does anyone out there remember the Roxy?

    One of my classmates at Communist Martyrs High was a Bernard Herrmann fanatic and used to go on and on (and on) about his score for this film. His devotion alternately annoyed and inspired our music teachers.

    All that and Kerwin Matthews (an early crush). John Phillip Law was another fine Sinbad. Patrick Wayne was OK too.

  7. Kerwin is definitely the best of the Harryhausen Sinbad’s, and he has the best story and the best villain to help him. The others look the part but don’t have enough writing on their side.

    The soundtracks decline across the Sinbad series too — the majestic Herrmann, the typical Rosza (with a very tiny orchestra) and then, God bless him, Roy Budd, who was more suited to Get Carter. I quite like his comic baboon music, but really it’s supposed to be a tragic baboon. Herrmann would have understood that instantly.

  8. Definitely interesting to realise how you see things differently as you go through your decades.

    I’ve actually written about it recently on my blog, film and nostalgia.

    I’m not sure it that’s a plug. Maybe. A little

  9. Randy Cook Says:

    Wanamaker was clearly not the man for the job, having no feel for the material; this is a picture I wish Ray had directed himself (But could anything have saved this picture? “Who can say?”, to quote Zenobia and Bubble). Speaking of Zenobia, Ray wanted her to be played with a Bela Lugosi accent, which Wanamaker refused to do. So Ray, as producer, waited till principal photography had wrapped, then took Margaret Whiting into the dubbing stage and had her re-voice her entire role…with a Bela Lugosi accent.

  10. There is a restaurant in Edinburgh called Zenobia. I expect the portions are small: “Not enough…. not enough”.

  11. The Lugosi accent is fine, though it ties into a slightly suspect Arabian Nights movie tradition, where the baddie is usually a foreigner. Which doesn’r make sense: isn’t everyone in Persia a foreigner?

  12. I never cared as much for those last two Sinbads; they came at the moment when fantasy films (and films in general) were losing the lush, artificial studio look and not quite finding an aesthetic replacement. Also, there was a sense that these were nowhere near the top of Harryhausen’s wish list (the DVD documentaries show his tests for “War of the Worlds” and “Baron Munchausen”). As for “Clash of the Titans,” it had some nifty things (the half-actor, half-animated villain) but otherwise felt like a needlessly puffed-up, big studio version of “Jason.”

    Before then, even in the B&W scifi days, Harryhausen’s films seemed to be generally better written and executed than the competition; those stretches between Dynamation set pieces were actually entertaining. Compare to “Jack the Giant Killer” (moxie award for throwing skeletons on strings at Kerwin Matthews, then incorporating an image of a skeleton duel on the poster) or the 1950s “From the Earth to the Moon” (the tatty AIP spectacle “Fantastic Flying Fools” is more entertaining).

  13. Probably on the whole it’s best that Sinbad on Mars never happened. But I’m sure it would have had good BITS. Titans has the really stunning Medusa sequence, a career highlight, and I recall liking the giant vulture a heck of a lot.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    I read 2 drafts of “Mars”: one by Cross and one by Kolb. Both suffered from a surfeit of ideas (trying to make sense of Mars having a civilization, one of ’em featured interplanetary travel BACK IN TIME). I think EYE OF THE TIGER was already a Sinbad too far, just as well they dropped it having never solved the story problems… & I think Ray was not to keen on the idea, overall.

  15. It is of course completely unnecessary for Sinbad to go as far as Mars to have fantastical adventures. I would love to have seen a Harryhausen John Carter though.

  16. “Patrick Troughton, whom I knew had been Doctor Who, but before my time.”
    Oh. Oh dear. Oh dear me. I was a fan of the first Dr Who series. With Hartnell. Which I saw on our much-loved old tv when it was first broadcast. I was 14. Oh dear, dear me.

    Anyhoo, here’s a thing – I saw 7th Voyage when it was first released in the UK. I was 8. It was released with an ‘A’ rating, which was of course a rough equivalent of today’s US ‘R’ rating. My parents, in other words, had to accompany me (that gets the emphasis about right. I insisted, they complied, usually quite cheerfully, although my dad took some persuading to show any interest in getting me into the cinema for B.I.G.’s Earth vs. the Spider, on a double bill with Escapement, AKA The Electronic Monster.)
    There I go again. Where was I?
    Yes, 7th voyage, at the Ritz cinema, in 1958, on a constantly windswept corner of Southend’s Pier Hill. Adored it, and was haunted by it (still am, adore the dragon). It was re-released some time later, 1959 I think, and I wanted to see it again (yes, Kerwin Matthews, oh yes *indeed*, whom as a gay boy of 8, but without any self-definition yet to explain my unusual longings, I quietly pined over).
    The odd thing was, it had been re-rated with a ‘U’ for universal, and imagine my confusion when I found that the skeleton fight had been removed in its entirety. It is very much worth reading Tony Earnshaw’s ‘Beating the Devil’, about the making of Night of the Demon, to get a real understanding of the insanity of the BBFC in the post-war years. Earnshaw reproduces the BBFC’s correspondence to prove it.

    And I was so happy as an adult, when Kerwin was finally identified as gay.

  17. The censor’s job continually pushes him into deeply insane stances. I’m still waiting for the definitive fiction film that shows the creeping psychosis that comes from looking at things and judging that other people mustn’t be allowed to see them…

  18. Sinbad suffered mighily not only from its own—not shortcomings really; what’s the word? Ah, yes—failures, but from opening later in the same summer as Star Wars, which blew everything else, good and bad, out of the theaters (Sorcerer was the only film from which I exited that summer not wishing I had gone to see SW again instead. I was taken aback when I attended a few Harryhausen appearances in the ’80s and after, when the list of standout titles was recited, and 7th Voyage, Mysterious Island and Jason received polite applause, while Eye was met with shouting and whistles from the youngsters 20 and 30 years my junior.

  19. Randy is achingly right in his wish for a proper resolution of the Trog/Baboon relationship, which would have certainly been the best thing in the film. This is one example of why Mr. Cook needs to get cracking and direct some films.

  20. anonymous Says:

    I never did like Trog. But I do like the the saber-toothed cat. Therefore, I’m pleased that that feline killed the humanoid. But I’m not pleased that it died in return.

  21. Well, it wasn’t really a sabre-tooth tiger, it was a frozen corpse possessed by Zenobia… a legal technicality, perhaps, but a sound defense against a charge of cruelty to extinct animals.

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