The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Directors: Nathan Juran ; Gordon Hessler
By Roderick Heath
Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.
Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.
Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957).
Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements. Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work.
This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.
Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.
In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.
7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.
Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, he can simply leap into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.
The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.
The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.
The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.
The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.
The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).
Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.
Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.
Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.
Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind.
Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.
“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as the hero of Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.
The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What did become immediately passé was Harryhausen’s effort to produce special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work. Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.
It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.
18 thoughts on “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) / The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)”
Rod – While ostensibly reviews of two films, this is actually one of your best tribute pieces, and a more worthy subject you could not have picked. I am a huge fan of Harryhausen’s work, almost all of it, and was very, very fortunate to attend an evening with Harryhausen at the Music Box Theater several years ago with my brother. He brought the Medusa miniature and some of the skeletons with him, showed clips from his classic films, and shared a reel of his storybook shorts from the 40s and early 50s. He was very proud of his work, and the packed house showed its appreciation. Thanks for doing this.
Thanks, Mare. I truly wish I could’ve been there.
I was fortunate enough to grow up on Harryhausen films before they were heavily referenced in later films, and at that time, they stood alone as their own kinds of masterpieces. I had been lucky enough to see “Mysterious Island” on the big screen as a little boy, and other than “One Million Years BC”, and “Valley of Gwangi”, I saw the remaining films he made on release. I wish I could share the sheer awe and, yes, a little horror, at seeing the Skeletons fight in “Jason and the Argonauts” on the big screen as a boy – it became my favorite FX of all time, and I still think it, and much of his work, stands up today. The later Sinbad tales were actually a little more enjoyable, as I was a little older and more able to appreciate the amount of work involved, it must have been staggering compared to other methods – I always was a process enjoyment kind of kid. “Mysterious Island” has one of my favorite scores, as well, and the lifelike movements of the atomic-oversized creatures is amazing. The only thing that ever bothered me were his animated people, but when i look back on things, they had a kind of creepy alternate reality to them. Great remembrances, Rod, thanks.
Hi, Van the Man, and thanks for giving a personal sense of absorbing Harryhausen’s work blow by blow as a youth, and I am envious of your experience watching Jason and the Argonauts in that fashion. My childhood almost exactly spans the period between when Harryhausen retired and when CGI erupted with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park; in that time there was more of a sense of Harryhausen’s work being part of continuum, a pleasurable sense of perspective when linking it to the work being done then by others. I don’t know about other kids, but I could turn from Star Wars to King Kong without missing a beat; to me it was essentially the same thing, ingenious and fast-paced cinema that arrested me physically with the sensation of the fantastic. I like to think that many if not most kids are like that. Although of course it is ghettoising Harryhausen’s work to speak of it purely in terms of juvenile appeal. They’re great to watch as an adult too. His works have integrity as films.
A lovely and well written appreciation of Mr. Harryhausen’s work. I loved his films when I was a child, and as an adult my admiration increased when I understood the effort and craftsmanship that went into them.
One correction: The 1957 film featuring the Ymir is 2o Million Miles To Earth. Five Million Years To Earth was a later Hammer film with Andrew Keir and Barbara Shelley.
Ha, thanks for both the appreciation and for spotting that Martin. I’ve been getting those titles mixed up since I was five years old. Five Million Years to Earth was of course the American release title of the film version of Quatermass and the Pit. I like 20 Million Miles to Earth a lot, but I do find I my empathy for the Ymir does spoil my enjoyment of the film. Poor creature really does lose the raffle.
Very touching tribute Rod. I started watching Harryhausen’s films as a jaded adult, but I was still amazed by the stunning imagery, especially since I realized how much exhausting labor went into each frame.
Can you just imagine doing that stop-motion stuff, day in, day out for months? Actually, yes, I’m just obsessive and nerdy enough to imagine it.
Nice tribute, Rod. 7th Voyage, happily enough, was the first movie I was able to attend as a movie for ME, when my dad took me to a showing at the old Rockne in Chicago. Needless to say, pretty impressive to a 5 or 6-year old!
And since then I can’t think of a single Harryhausen film that I’ve missed seeing at the theater. (I may have only caught the two Sinbad follow-ups playing together at a revival house, though.)
Personally, although I obviously admire Ray a lot, I find O’Brien’s work to be more charming still, with amazing touches of characterization in all is critters. Ray learned that from Willis, but never quite equaled his perfection in it. (Talk about how sad it that Ray didn’t accomplish more…look at how little O’Brien did!)
Now if only Ray hadn’t started messing around with colorization near the end…
Hi Jake, nice comment. I didn’t want to get into a who’s-better reckoning with this piece, but I’d generally agree that O’Brien’s work was awesome. His effects had an intricacy and a sense of personality inflecting them which Harryhausen wasn’t always able to offer: the smallest birds in King Kong have a kind of impudent individuality to them, and Harryhausen rarely got to work a character he could invest as much immediate, zestful personality into as Kong and his son. Whereas some of Harryhausen’s stuff got a little, “again with the dinosaurs”. Also the resources O’Brien had on hand, the lovely layers of matte paintings and glasswork, were part of his work’s special charm. Harryhausen was often playing about with creations and concepts that weren’t always so easy to make characterful, and some more complex forms of movement, on lower budgets: O’Brien never got the challenge of making a statue seem to have a personality, a problem Harryhausen conquers beautifully in Golden Voyage with the precision and showiness of its dance moves. Yes, the paucity of O’Brien’s work is tragic. I just recently re-viewed The Black Scorpion, which is a fun and visually dramatic film I’ve always found better than its lacklustre reputation, if thinly scripted and filled with too many cutaways to the drooling mock-up. But O’Brien’s animation of the insects is truly, impressively fluidic.
As for Harryhausen’s support for colorization, well, I haven’t seen any of the fruits of that, but I remember reading Harryhausen’s defense in saying that he’d always wanted his black and white films to be color. I accept that, but I’d still far rather watch them in the monochrome.
One of your finest and most deeply-felt pieces. Like the entire lot here, I also grew up on Harryhausen and venerate his output. My personal favorite is JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, but the two here are superlative as are MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER and others including FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, which I saw upon release at nine years old, and which left an impression on me for years afterwards. I looked at that film recently again, and while it’s cheesy, I saw exactly why it had spurred my imagination in those long ago days. STAR TREK and STAR WARS were yet to come. Now a priority in my life is to inspire my five kids to appreciate this titanic artist, and to that end just a short while ago I escorted them to a stupendous wide screen viewing of JASON on the 70 foot screen at the Jersey City Loews. Funny you mention Juran’s JACK THE GIANT KILLER here. That’s another I saw upon it’s release at the fondly-recalled Park Lane Theater (long defunct) in nearby Palisades Park, New Jersey. I loved it back then, but yes after checking it out again it’s strictly juvenile.
Harryhausen was one of the truly great artists of the past century, and you have done him glorious justice with this omnibus review!
Hi Sam, and thanks for invoking your own reminiscences about places long vanished and memories long cherished in this thread. I revisited First Men on the Moon about a year ago, and indeed it’s charming fun, one of the few times an actor — Lionel Jeffries — steals the show from the effects, although he’s an aspect of its most problematic element, that the “on earth” part of the film drags on forever. Once it hits the moon, it has just the right mixture of colour, grandeur, and thematic strength and melancholy. I haven’t seen Mysterious Island since I was very young, and I desperately need to revisit it, and Gulliver is the one film of his oeuvre I haven’t seen yet. I hope you and your kids can complete your priority. As we’ve been discussing here, for so many of us movie fans, watching Harryhausen’s work was a vital part of the formation of our idea of fantastic moviemaking. For many these days, sadly, it’s just retro quaintness, but thankfully there’s a lot of receptive minds too.
Jack the Giant Killer is purely for kids with little interest for adults – the stop-motion effects there, not by Harryhausen, are weak, and the tone entirely pantomime. I do however have a certain affection for it, because the sequence in which the evil magician turns the heroine into a witch was very striking to me as a lad, as the first time I ever sensed the erotic element in the fantastic. The sort of thing they could only communicate in something so juvenile at the time!
First book I ever (was made to) purchase with my own money, when I was only 7, was “From the Land Beyond Beyond” – a book that took me, movie by movie, from King Kong to Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the last movie of Harryhausen’s up to the point of the book’s publication. It had a tantalizing final paragraph that promised a new Harryhausen film coming soon, titled… “Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head.” I waited harder for that movie than I did for Empire! And it was a full ten plus years before I ran into other people who shared my awareness of O’Brien and Harryhausen, much less my worship of them. Harryhausen was my first hero, and I was convinced as a child that I’d be a stop-motion artist just like him. (Turns out I didn’t have anything like his supernatural patience.) I was genuinely crushed when I learned he died, like it was my own grandfather. Three decades after purchasing that book, I had the sublime opportunity to see the man in person, in L.A., at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a mere four blocks from my apartment. I took the book, now in four pieces. I didn’t get a chance to have him sign it – he was understandably swarmed by fans after his presentation (the same models Marilyn mentioned above) – but it was more than enough for me (and the book) to be in the same room with him. A true legend. The artist I’m most indebted to for lighting my imagination.
Great stuff, Robert. I had some similar experiences with a couple of picture books my parents bought me when I was about 5-6, filled with illustrations and enticing descriptions of famous movie monsters, which kind of set me on my youthful route of tracking down all the films I’d read about.
I found myself hoping Koura would complete his quest. After all, he tried so hard and sacrificed so much, and he must have had his good side or his henchman wouldn’t have been so concerned. He was also caring to his homunculi. And when you think of it, Koura did succeed, for what good it did him.
Ha — sympathetic villain syndrome. It’s always interesting when bad guys have such devoted servants, the kind who don’t blink when told to stay behind and take care of the hero whilst the villain escapes in his private helicopter or the like. There’s always some presumption of care going on there, the he-saved-my-life backstory or the only-he-treated-me-like-a-man variant. There’s usually of course some other dynamic at play; the presumption that the second-string villains are awed or in love with their master, or share his/her desire for sadistic or exclusive victory. But that said, no, I didn’t feel any empathy for Koura, who’s so grimly, maliciously confident. Whereas I do feel it for Sokurah in 7th Voyage; to a certain extent Sinbad’s smug superiority forces Sokurah to perform acts one might consider obnoxious and endangering but fair in his quest to regain his great treasure; it’s not until he kills Harufa that he actually becomes properly villainous.
Now I don’t feel empathy for Zenobia in “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” although she’s really just trying to get her son a good job. It doesn’t occur to her or him that she and her son build giant robots that can conquer the world.
Amazingly, I haven’t seen “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” I have seen “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor” multiple times, which should count for something.
Yeah, Zenobia’s like one of those insane mothers who stands on the sidelines at her kid’s football games and screams abuse at the other players, and finally dives in to beat up the boy who just tackled hers.
Yes, that counts for something, but is no excuse: watch 7th Voyage!