Saturday, January 10, 2015


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.

So much of what has been lost over the years in Hollywood is a plain unwillingness to admit that creativity needs both freedom and limits — the freedom to attempt new and untried things and the limits imposed by schedules and money. If a Sinbad movie were to be made today there would be more effort put into the toy and fast food tie-ins than on the script or pre-production. And you know what happens when that approach is used? The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, Spider Man 3, the Transformer movies and the 1998 Godzilla film... Empty marketing tools camouflaged as entertainment. But you won't find the folks behind those bad movies agreeing with me — each one made more than $100 million domestic. Who needs a good story, well told, when the audience seems perfectly happy with crap? Give the people what they want. Thank goodness that the Harryhausen films are still around to let us see the qualities we can hope for in a fantasy film.


Unknown said...

I can't decide which Sinbad movie I like the most between 7th and Golden myself. There isn't a bad Harryhausen film in my opinion. How would you rank his films?

Stephen D. Sullivan said...

7th Voyage is one of my all-time favorite films, and one of the most influential films in my life and career, perhaps only exceeded by (the original) King Kong.

I saw Golden Voyage in the drive-in when it first came out, and though I liked it a lot, I was a bit disappointed -- mostly because of the shadow of 7th. However, in the years since, Golden has grown and grown in my estimation, and now it ranks right up near the top of Harryhausens films -- which, without doubt, are my favorite film "series."

John Philip Law's Sinbad is my favorite, not just of the RH Sinbads, but probably of all of them -- though Kerwin Mathews and Guy Williams are close behind. Law's, though, feels the most "realistic." I always wish he'd reprised the role, rather than having Patrick Wayne (the weakest part of the final RH Sinbad). And his "Arabian" accent is part of what makes his Sinbad the best. (Caroline Munro is, of course, wonderful, too.) I often think of this as Harryhausen's last great film (though not his last great work; the Medusa tops all!)

As to the tops of my RH list, you know 7th is at the top, but this, Jason, and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are all within biting distance.

And we didn't even mention the score by Mikos Rosza -- one of the best of all time, only slightly hindered because budget (or was it a strike of some kind?) precluded him having a full orchestra. It, like 7th's score by Herrmann, is among my favorite soundtracks of all time.

Stephen D. Sullivan said...

PS -- For hand-crafted movies by people who care and love film, try the films of Christopher R. Muhm -- especially THE GIANT SPIDER.

Rod Barnett said...

I need to eventually check out Muhm's movies- I keep hearing good things and they seem right up my alley.

And my least favorite Harryhausen efforts are SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER which I think is a mess with some good moments and THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER is kind of dull with little of Harryhausen to goose it along.

Stephen D. Sullivan said...

It's Christopher R. MIHM (my fingers fumbled the spelling), and you'd enjoy his stuff. Start with THE GIANT SPIDER, 'cause it showcases what he's doing really well. He may still have his New Year Sale going, right now. 3 for $25 can't be beat!

I agree about EYE OF THE TIGER, though I think the big problem is Patrick Wayne. And RH's SFX are all over GULLIVER -- it's just more of his technical/matte work, rather than the animation we all expect. So, though I love the music and all the SFX, Gulliver does lack the monsters I crave.

(PS - The Gulliver copy they sell online that says its widescreen, isn't. There's currently no true-aspect-ratio print of the film available. TCM has a widescreen, but it's matted -- and the general release is Full Frame. Sigh! The original is somewhere in between, probably pretty close to 16x9.)

Rod Barnett said...

Yeah- Gulliver just seems so muted as a fantasy film for Harryhausen. And its hard to believe that one of his films has not been released well on disc. When I saw it on TCM (I think) it looked like there was a lot of variation in the quality of the various process shots - some fading and fuzziness. Could there be concerns about the film not looking as good as other movies of its type?

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

My absolute favorite movie from my childhood. They showed it at the theatre on the army base once every couple of months. This was in the days before videos so it was the movie I saw the most. I know it by heart and it never bores me.

Stephen D. Sullivan said...

I think perhaps Gulliver hasn't had a great video release because there's no one championing it, as it is one of the least-regarded of Harryhausen's films. But his size-changing work is pretty amazing, and it deserves a great release with a proper aspect ratio.