Today, making fantastic creatures onscreen seem to move and breathe and interact with real people is commonplace, almost easy; one can go online and see some pretty darn impressive work being done by people with a little time and money on their hands.
But back before the days of computer animation, there were only three ways to put fantastic things onscreen. The first was to have a human being (or, rarely, another animal) wearing a suit that looks like the fantastic creature in question. This rarely worked very convincingly unless the fantastic creature was in some way pretty humanlike, and fairly bulky. The second was pure animation; this would very rarely work at all in live-action unless you could somehow justify the way the image looked (one good example of this was the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet).
And the third was Ray Harryhausen and stop-motion animation.
Oh, there were others who did, or still do, stop-motion animation – Willis O’Brien, for instance, who did the original King Kong and inspired Harryhausen, and of course Aardman (creator of Wallace and Gromit). But for decades the reigning king of stop-motion animation, practically the only person mentioned as a master of the technique, was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen worked on many films which showcased his virtuosity in combining live-action with stop-motion, including Mighty Joe Young (with O’Brien), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans, but to my mind the best of them was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Starring the tall (6’5″) John Philip Law as the legendary Sinbad, the movie begins with Sinbad seeing some strange creature carrying something glittering; he shoots the creature with an arrow, causing it to drop the object – a strange golden tablet, clearly a part of something else. Unbeknownst to him, that tablet was being carried to Prince Koura, a nobleman who is also a sorcerer of great power and who knows the tablet – and its two other counterparts – are the keys to a tremendous mystical treasure which will provide the claimant with “youth, a shield of darkness, and a crown of untold riches”.
Koura will stop at nothing to reclaim the tablet – and to gain the other two, which together provide a map to the location of this treasure – and Sinbad quickly finds himself allied with an earlier victim of Koura, the Vizier of Marabia, who is hideously scarred from that encounter. With his crew, the beautiful and mysterious Margiana (played by Caroline Monroe; originally a slave, then immediately freed by Sinbad), and a feckless youth named Haroun, Sinbad and the Vizier are in a race against Koura to reach the legendary Fountain of Destiny. Along the way, they must battle multiple monstrous creatures and manifestations of dark magic before the final confrontation between Sinbad and the magician – who is, himself, no mean swordsman.
Harryhausen truly outdoes himself in this movie, bringing to life a wooden figurehead, Koura’s batlike homonculous familiar, a six-armed statue of Kali who fights the entire crew of Sinbad’s ship at once, and finally a great centauroid Cyclops and gigantic Griffin duelling each other to the death. Together, they bring to full force the magical, perilous world of this version of Sinbad.
John Philip Law, though not of the actual Middle-Eastern descent of the true Sinbad, makes a very striking leading figure, heroic, of high good humor and swashbuckling action, whether dealing with an unexpected and incompetent crewman or a six-armed living statue. Admittedly, by modern standards the combat scenes themselves aren’t terribly impressive – no modern martial arts here! But for their time they were quite thrilling, and the mingling of stop-motion monsters with living people is, at least to me, still fascinating. Sinbad is certainly flamboyant and charismatic, but the best hero is nothing without a worthy opponent. Fortunately, he has in Prince Koura one of the finest villains ever put to film.
Prince Koura, played by Tom Baker shortly before he became the Fourth Doctor (and quite possibly given the role of the Doctor due to this performance), is undeniably evil, willing to spy, betray, steal, and kill to obtain that which he is after. But what makes him a great villain is that he has not only considerable style (with scenery-chewing goodness for Baker to get his considerable teeth into), but personal courage, willingness to risk himself in multiple ways for his quest, and – perhaps most importantly – a true and honest consideration for those faithful to him. His right-hand assistant, Achmed, clearly cares for his master despite Koura’s obvious villainy, and Koura returns the affection in his own way.
One of the ways this is repeatedly illustrated is in the fact that the magic Prince Koura uses literally eats away at his lifeforce; the more magic Koura uses, the older he becomes. Achmed repeatedly tries to dissuade Koura from using more of his dark powers, and Koura generally recognizes that his friend sincerely means well. In the end, Koura sends Achmed away to safety rather than having him risk himself in the final confrontation – even though by that point Koura is an old, old man who could very much USE someone like Achmed to help him reach his final goal. It’s rare indeed to see a dyed-in-the-wool villain who at the same time displays such honest concern and kindness for his allies.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is, undoubtedly, dated, but at the same time it has an honest, straightforward energy and delivery of its entertainment that’s hard to come by today, where even the shiniest heroes are generally given moments of angst and confusion. Sinbad may be occasionally balked, but there’s never any doubt which side he’s on, or whether he’s chosen the right side, and neither side tries to pretend they’re anything other than what they are. It’s refreshing, sometimes, to deal with something so direct and clear-cut. This remains one of my favorite movies of earlier years, and if you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it if you have any taste for swashbuckling adventure!