As The Golden Voyage of Sinbad begins, the fabled nautical adventurer (John Phillip Law) and his crew are sailing on the open sea when they spot a strange flying creature. Frightened by an arrow fired by one of the sailors, the creature drops a small golden tablet. After Sinbad ties the object around his neck he has several nightmarish visions of a tall man dressed in black and a dancing girl with an eye tattooed on the palm of her hand. When a storm blows the ship off course, Sinbad is sure the land they come upon is connected to his dream somehow. Going ashore alone he encounters the man in black from his vision. The dark man (Doctor Who's Tom Baker) identifies himself as Prince Koura, a sorcerer who claims the golden tablet as his own and demands its return. Escaping into a nearby city, Sinbad is met by the benevolent, golden-masked Grand Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who explains Koura's bid to obtain ultimate power. To gain this power, the wizard must unite the three separate pieces of a magical sign. The golden tablet Sinbad wears about his neck is one of these pieces, while the Vizier controls another. When combining their two segments they discover a map that can lead them to the third and so together they vow to foil Koura's evil scheme. A rich man's wastrel son and the slave girl Margiana (Caroline Munro), whose tattooed hand may play a part in stopping the Prince, join Sinbad on the journey. They set sail for the legendary isle of Lemuria with Koura and his henchmen in close pursuit.
Of the three Sinbad movies made by Ray Harryhausen, Golden Voyage has always been my favorite. Most people prefer 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and I can understand that, but I feel the story in Golden Voyage is better and I really like John Phillip Law in the lead role. He seems much more suited to the character and even affects an accent to add to his performance. It also helps that Caroline Munro — one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen — is the only female on display here, giving us more time to stare longingly at her tanned body and lose ourselves in her lovely eyes. (And she's not even a special effect!)
Although Jason and the Argonauts will always be Harryhausen's greatest film, this one gives him plenty of moments to shine and he capitalizes on all of them. Each creature brought to stop-motion life here is a wonder to behold with beautiful details and amazing, flowing movement. I'll never get over my original childhood fear of the prow of Sinbad's ship, which comes to life under Koura's power. It's a combination of the blank, unchanging face of the wooden woman and the creepy sounds of her moving that send chills down my spine.
There are two showstoppers in Golden Voyage that rival the skeleton fight in 7th Voyage. One is the grotesque one-eyed centaur that battles a mighty griffin, the other the living, six-armed statue of Kali. The fight between Kali and Sinbad's crew is a masterful bit of action that bears repeated viewings. With all these pyrotechnics you might expect the film to be a bit too broad, but my favorite moment in the film is the quiet scene of Koura's new homunculus awakening to life. The detailed facial expressions and body language of the small winged beast is mesmerizing; this is one of the best animation sequences of Harryhausen's career. Moments like this make Golden Voyage a wonderful film that will go on entertaining audiences for generations to come.
It's often said that 'They don't make 'em like they used to' and this film is a perfect example of that statement's truth. The clearness of purpose that can be felt behind Harryhausen's fantasy films is almost never evident in cinema today. Each of his movies feels as if it were crafted by people who cared very much about making the best possible film they could create. These stories weren't shaped by committees, vetted by a legal department or altered by businessmen looking for a good Happy Meal tie-in. These films were put together by people in love with the stories and in love with filmmaking. Any story changes were done for budgetary or time constraints, not because the vice-president of marketing thought his kids would like a blue monster instead of a green one.