Sep 281974
five reels

Sinbad (John Phillip Law) finds himself in possession of a golden tablet, which combined with one held by the Vizier of Marabia, forms two thirds of a map to great riches and magical powers.¬† The two set out to claim these treasures, along with a beautiful, tattooed slave girl, Margiana (Caroline Munro), and Sinbad’s loyal crew.¬† Complicating the mission are monsters, savages, and the evil sorcerer Koura (Tom Baker), who wants the items for himself.

I’ve never awaited a movie with such anticipation as I did The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.¬†I’d seen Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island, so I knew what Ray Harryhausen was capable of, but I knew this would be so much more.¬†The advertisement, just a B&W theater ad in the local paper, displayed the alien cyclopean-centaur along with a portion of a nimble sailing ship.¬† It was going to be great, transporting me to mythic lands and unleashing hordes of monsters to be defeated by a foreign hero.¬†I was twelve, and it was 1974, and I even cut out those poorly-inked newspaper pictures.¬†How could any film live up to that?

Guess what?¬†It did.¬†It fulfilled every dream in my just-adolescent heart, and after all these years, it still does.¬†One selling point is that, for a change, a film of the Arabian Nights puts an effort into being Arabian.¬†While it’s at it, it tosses in a touch of India and the Far East, all of which are very far away from my everyday life.¬†I can’t say how accurate the accents are, but it doesn’t matter (who knows what anyone sounded like in the time of Sinbad?) as long as no one sounds like they are my neighbor.¬†Previous films, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, always felt like they were cast by the local branch of the KKK.¬†I swear they’re all in Kansas.¬†Worse, they are in 1950’s Kansas, with appropriate hair cuts.¬†But The Golden Voyage of Sinbad transplants the viewer to an ancient never-land of Arabia, where I can believe dark magicians and horrendous but wonderful monster abide.

This is a Harryhausen flick, so spectacular effects are expected, and he doesn’t disappoint, with work that is only rivaled by the bronze giant and skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts.¬† Here we get the small, winged, demonic-looking homunculus (a new word for me in 1974), a walking ship’s figurehead, a one-eyed centaur, a griffin, and the real prize, a six-armed, sword-wielding statue of Kali.¬† All are marvels, though the last stands out as Harryhausen’s single finest work.¬† Its fight with Sinbad’s crew is the high point of the stop motion animation technique.

The acting is as good as it needs to be, with John Phillip Law (the blind angel from Barbarella) making a surprisingly effective Sinbad.¬†He plays it less as a wild swashbuckler and more as a thoughtful, if impulsive, sea captain.¬†Caroline Munro (a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me) is one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen.¬† She has little to do beyond looking stunning in her cleavage-baring slave girl costumes, but that’s enough.¬†In most Harryhausen films, the creatures eclipse the actors, but Munro holds her own, making it difficult to know where to look.

But then there is Baker, who outshines them both.¬†He is the real star of the show, and that’s what makes this the best Harryhausen movie; there is something better than the effects.¬†Baker would go on to become the 4th Doctor in the long running British series Doctor Who, where he did excellent work, but I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better if he’d skipped that role so that he could have had more of a film career.¬†He makes Koura gleefully evil.¬† With a lyrical voice and a powerful bearing, he commands every scene he’s in.¬†So many filmmakers fail to understand that the villain is more important than the hero.¬†A good villain makes a film, and Koura can join the ranks of Dracula (Lugosi’s), Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, Hannibal Lector, and Agent Smith at the top of their profession.¬†A problem with so many magical villains (and heroes) is their tendency not to use their powers.¬† Even Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is marred by Gandalf’s inexplicable reluctance to use his abilities (once it is shown he can repel all the the Ring Wraiths at once with a beam of light, it’s hard to figure why he never uses this skill again).¬†But Koura has a reason, and it is so brilliant, intuitive, and simple, I can’t imagine why no one else ever uses it.¬†Every time Koura casts a spell, the evil spirits he invokes take part of him, causing him to age.¬† With such a cost, I’d be selective on what I did with my magic too.

Ray Harryhausen’s other features are The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981).

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