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…