Once upon a time, movies weren’t so chock full of CGI that any visual that could be imagined was possible. Constrained by practical effects, movie-makers had to use an entirely different set of tricks to suspend the disbelief of moviegoers, especially the audiences of fantasy and science fiction films, which often features effects so crude that they sometimes evoked laughter instead of wonder. And yet, there was a body of work that never failed to amaze, through its masterful application of techniques that today are antiquated yet still deliver an unmistakable power. Such were the movies of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, the lord of stop-motion animation. And among his very greatest works was the first of his to be filmed entirely in color: the 1958 classic, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
The story begins as Sinbad the sailor and his crew are returning after a long voyage and skirt the strange island of Colossa, where they encounter Sokurah, a wizard about to be eaten by a monstrous cyclops. Sinbad intervenes and saves Sokurah, but in the process, Sakura drops his precious magic lamp into the water, and the cyclops takes it. Once back in Baghdad, Sinbad prepares to marry his betrothed, Parisa, but Sokurah has other ideas. He secretly casts a spell on Parisa to shrink her to a few inches tall, and then offers some convenient intelligence: he could brew a potion to restore the princess, if only he could return to Colossa and harvest the ingredients he needs. Sinbad is suspicious but has no choice, and so mounts an expedition back to the monstrous island where he and his men encounter all kinds of strange monsters, all while Parisa herself gets to know the genie living inside of Sokurah’s lamp, and while Sokurah himself prepares to betray our heroes.
That’s the story, but in all honestly, nobody really needs it. The leads in this one all do their best to carry the picture, and perhaps by 1950s drive-in standards they all fare well. But there is a reason why the 7th Voyage of Sinbad was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it’s not because of anybody’s acting ability. And there is a reason why so many movie writers, directors and visualists cite the 7th Voyage of Sinbad as a career-defining influence, and it’s not for the screenplay. It’s for the utterly magical visuals that transport the audience far away to a land beyond beyond, to a world past hope and fear. It should have been impossible to do such a thing with a movie that stars nicely articulated toy monsters, and yet, that is precisely what happened.
Ray Harryhausen was a master craftsman whose effects often defined movies he neither fully wrote nor directed. And yet, his technique was so time-consuming, entire productions had to be scheduled around him as he meticulously moved a small model a fraction of an inch, took a picture of it, moved it another fraction of an inch, took another picture of it, and repeated the process over and over again. And Harryhausen was also an auteur, whose work in producing, conceptualizing and pre-directing these movies was so extensive, that only the Byzantine workings of the Directors’ Guild rules prevented his name from getting the full credit it deserved. And yet, that hardly matters, does it? Anybody who has seen a Harryhausen movie can tell you the monsters within it, but will struggle to recall who starred in them or manned the cameras. Harryhausen’s visual effects were that effective and that charismatic. And that is absolutely the case here, where he lavishes a special kind of attention and detail on the 7th Voyage of Sinbad that had been building up within him for his whole career. After honing his craft on Atomic Age sci-fi stories, he really wanted to cut loose on a fantasy for the ages. And with this tale of Sinbad’s expedition to Colossa, boy, did he ever.
This is a movie where people will fast forward to the monster parts: The cyclops attack on the beach. The transformation of the servant into the snake-woman. The encounter with the two-headed roc chick…and then its mother! An encounter with another cyclops, which captures Sinbad’s men and tries to cook them over a spit. Sinbad and Parisa’s encounter with a dragon held by Sokurah. The eye-popping battle between the dragon and a cyclops. And the climactic shot from a giant crossbow that ends the dragon once and for all. The beats keep coming with such regularity that there is almost a tension during quieter scenes as you begin to wonder when one of these fabulous monsters is going to arrive next.
The moment of truth is between when Sinbad first sees Sokurah’s dragon, and when that dragon dukes it out with a cyclops. It happens inside Sokurah’s laboratory, when he realizes that Sokurah isn’t about to let anybody leave the island. The wizard animates a warrior skeleton, which grabs a sword and shield, and within moments, Sinbad is in the fight of his life as he must fence with a creature of endless malice and relentless ferocity. It is an action sequence of breathtaking execution, considering how well timed it is. As Sinbad and the skeleton wreck Sokurah’s lab in their wild melee, we really believe for a moment that this isn’t somehow happening in real time. We somehow forget that this scene took months and months of Harryhausen working like a monk, creating every single frame of the sequence by hand. All of that work is what makes the scene so brilliant, and the work is itself so brilliant that you no longer notice that it’s there, even though it is literally right before your eyes. All moviemaking is illusion, but this is something else. This is special. This is magic.