Ever since I began this blog, I’ve maintained one annual tradition: on my birthday, I post a review of a film featuring a film personality who shares my birthday. I’ve reviewed Ittefaq (starring Nanda); Wild in the Country (starring Elvis Presley) and Baghdad ka Jaadoo (with Fearless Nadia). This time, it’s back to Baghdad – with Kerwin Matthews, who, like me, was born on the 8th of January. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is typical Kerwin Matthews fare: he gets to swing a sword, battle an array of fearsome (sometimes unintentionally hilarious) monsters, and generally be the man who wins the day for the good guys.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is one of those films that plunges straight into action once the credits have rolled. We find Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) on board his ship, sailing through a dark and gloomy night. His crew are a disgruntled, hungry and thirsty lot – they’re lost – but Sinbad has guessed that they’re nearing land. When he calls for the depths to be plumbed, sure enough: there are signs they’re approaching land.
But what land? This stretch of the sea is very treacherous – who knows what dangers lurk here? Sea serpents? Other horrific monsters?
Sinbad is optimistic, though, and goes off to the cabin of his passenger and fiancée Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant). Parisa is the daughter of the Sultan of Chandra, and Sinbad is taking her, along with her maid Sadi (Nana DeHerrera), to Baghdad, where Sinbad and Parisa will be getting married.
Sinbad reassures the two women, and just as well, because when they reach land the next morning, the crew – out filling their casks with fresh water, and searching for food – see some mysterious (and unsettling) giant cloven footprints. Anybody else would’ve turned around and tiptoed back to the ship, but Sinbad is nothing if not adventurous (foolhardy?). So he follows, arrives at a cave, and comes face to face with a hideous Cyclops, all leathery hide and huge eye and loud roaring.
Also suddenly part of the picture is the magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). Sokurah and the Cyclops seem to have been in the middle of trying to kill each other, and the arrival of Sinbad and his men distracts the Cyclops enough to let Sokurah pull out a large brassy lamp, rub it, mutter a quick verse over it:
The genie, at Sokurah’s command, raises an invisible wall between the Cyclops and the men, so that the men – including Sokurah – are able to make their escape. They hurry into their boats, and begin to row out to the ship.
Alas, they have barely moved away from the beach before a well-aimed rock thrown by the Cyclops upturns one boat, sending Sokurah’s magic genie-housing lamp down to the seabed:
From where the Cyclops retrieves it, and tossing it about in its three-fingered hands, takes the lamp back to the island. Sokurah is thoroughly peeved, of course – his beloved lamp, now in the hands of that Cyclops! – but he takes heart. Firstly, because the genie of the lamp can only be summoned to do tasks that do not entail causing harm to anyone. Secondly, because the genie cannot be summoned without speaking the magic words. And the Cyclops, as we’ve already witnessed for ourselves, is capable only of incoherent grunts and roars.
Sinbad is eager to get on home to Baghdad so he can and Parisa can get married, so Sokurah has very little choice. He goes along with them to Baghdad, and once they reach the grand city, Sokurah approaches the Caliph of Baghdad (Alec Mango). He tells the Caliph his sad tale, and tries to plead with the Caliph (and Sinbad, who’s there too) to outfit a ship so that Sokurah can sail back to the island.
He even shows them a blueprint he’s made for a giant crossbow that can kill the Cyclops – but it doesn’t appeal to either Sinbad or the Caliph.
Later that day, Parisa’s father, the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) also arrives, and Sokurah tries to impress him too. He tells them that the Cyclops (there are apparently an entire clan of them living on the island) collect treasure, and they’ve got a century’s worth of treasure buried deep in the caves of the island.
Eventually, Sokurah is reduced to trying to impress them all with evidence of his great power. He changes Parisa’s maid Sadi into a weird four-armed ‘snake woman’:
And when that doesn’t work, pretends to see the future of Baghdad and Chandra: a gloomy future, dark with disaster which only he, Sokurah, is capable of averting. Instead of being impressed, the Sultan and the Caliph tick Sokurah off for trying to hoodwink them. He is told in no uncertain terms that he’s not getting a ship to go retrieve a measly lamp, no matter how magical. That isn’t their problem.
Sokurah pretends to be cowed down, but late that night, he looks in on the sleeping Parisa, and throws some magical powder into the candle burning by her bedside.
…making great clouds of ugly green smoke billow out. Poor Princess Parisa, still fast asleep, breathes in all those grotty green fumes – and shrinks. Next morning, Sinbad enters her room, and finds a tiny Parisa, understandably frantic, wondering what’s happened to her. There’s much consternation, and both the Sultan and the Caliph, on arriving to discover the cause for the hullabaloo, are at their wits’ end.
Sokurah is happy to admit that he’s the one behind Parisa’s sudden miniaturisation. He is also quick to tell them why he did it: he, after all, is the only person who knows how to restore her to her usual size. And no, their jumping at him or torturing him is not going to help. The potion Sokurah must make to restore Parisa to normal has to contain a piece of eggshell from the egg of a roc, the giant bird that nests on the island of Colossa. Colossa just happens to be the island where the Cylops live, and where Sokurah’s magic lamp now resides.
So Sinbad, the Caliph and the Sultan are now caught in a cleft stick. They have no option but to agree.
Unluckily for Sinbad, his crew has disappeared – nobody wants to go on this suicide mission. Except for one faithful friend, Harufa (Alfred Brown), Sinbad has no shipmates.
His solution is simple: go to the local jail and offer the job to the prisoners. In any case, it’s a choice between dying by the hangman’s noose, or going sailing to Colossa – and Sinbad has managed to get the Caliph’s go-ahead that any men who volunteer for the mission and return alive will be granted a pardon.
Beggars can’t be choosers, so this bunch of criminals joins up as Sinbad’s crew. Sokurah, of course, will come along with them on the ship. He also insists that Parisa be taken along – Sokurah has a laboratory (or den, or whatever – where he brews his magic potions and gets up to no good) on Colossa. Once Sinbad has procured the roc’s eggshell, Sokurah will make for this place and make the potion to restore Parisa to normalcy.
And so they set off, Sinbad carrying his beloved in a small bejewelled glass jar (which reminds me rather of a canary in a cage – poor Parisa doesn’t even seem to have any miniature furniture in there to keep her comfy). Sokurah can’t wait to get to the island and have a go at getting his precious magic lamp back from the Cyclops. All Sinbad wants is to have Parisa a big girl again.
But the criminal crew is already plotting a mutiny, and a terrifying collection of surprises are in store for Sinbad, Parisa, and the loyal Harufa, the two lovers’ only real friend in this adventure.
I must confess that I hadn’t held out much hope for this film. Firstly, I find old Hollywood interpretations of the Middle East very lame (have you seen Tony Curtis flicks like The Prince who was a Thief, or Son of Ali Baba? Painful). Secondly, special effects in a lot of early films tend to fall a bit flat. Thirdly, I must admit that I didn’t recognise the names of anyone in the cast.
Surprise, surprise. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad may not be the best adventure/fantasy film ever made, but I’m guessing it should rank pretty high up in the list of such films made in the 50s. The script’s good and tight (Sinbad and Parisa don’t even waste much time cootchy-cooing!). Some of the sets – filmed in the Alhambra – are beautifully Moorish, with lovely stonecarving. Okay, not Baghdad, but the closest they could get to, back then when the Middle East was a turbulent area.
And, a special mention: Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. In today’s CGI-heavy films, these would look fairly inept, but honestly: when you think back to the 1950s and the limited resources Harryhausen had to work with, what he’s churned out is really very commendable. In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the Cyclops and the dragon move pretty jerkily (and don’t look too real, either)…
What I feared: the exotified (and distorted) depiction of the Middle East. It’s obvious – Baghdad, the Sultan, the Caliph, the frequent references to Allah – that this is an Islamic milieu. Seeing Parisa wander around in rather revealing clothing, even sharing a palanquin in Baghdad with Sinbad (whom she kisses in the course of the ride) – made me go “Huh?”
And the four-armed snake lady that Parisa’s maid Sadi is turned into? We could’ve done without that scene. Really. Not needed at all, and it was weird.
But, barring those minor inconveniences: a fun film that doesn’t require thinking, and is good, fast-paced fantasy adventure all the way. Sit back and enjoy!
Edited to add: At Harvey’s request, a couple of shots of the ‘bejewelled glass cage’ (Parisa’s travelling cabin’) in which Sinbad takes his poor shrunken sweetheart to Colossa. Here, you can see her standing outside the case (which is on the right of the screenshot), talking to Sinbad: