For years he had contemplated a series of films based on the Arabian hero Sinbad, who he considered the very embodiment of adventure. Although he’d established himself as a brilliant effects artist in the industry with the likes of 20 Million Miles to Earth, it wasn’t until ‘58’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad that Harryhausen came to be known to a wide audience for his grand, epic fantasy adventure spectacles laden with creatures unlike anything that had made it to the screen before. It was also the first film to feature his patented Dynamation process, which allowed him to blend live action and animation more fluidly than ever before and also allowed him to use stop motion effectively in full color.
Not only would 7th Voyage be the first Dynamation picture in glorious Technicolor, it would also be the first of many to feature a rousing Bernard Herrmann score, which added immensely to the onscreen action and would later be lifted for any number of pictures, few if any containing Cyclopses.
After a bit of Cyclops trouble they all sail on to Baghdad, where the unusually whiny wizard demands to be brought back to the island to retrieve his magic lamp (and the boundless treasure). When no one seems too anxious to provide a crew or a ship, well, he starts in with the wizardly monkeyshines. Before you know it the princess is an inch tall and Sinbad has to hire a crew of condemned prisoners so he can sail back to the island to collect some magic egg shells from a giant two-headed bird.
To recap the plot any further is pointless. It simply doesn’t matter, because at that point in the film you have no choice but to sit back and enjoy as it jumps from effect to effect.
Watching Harryhausen films when I was nine or ten I always preferred the giant monsters in the contemporary settings. The archaic, stilted dialogue and silly costumes and plots of the fantasy films always struck me as dumb kid stuff and it bored me. Watching them now, though, something’s changed. The same thing happened with Road Runner cartoons, which finally made perfect sense to me when I hit my early 40s. Don’t ask me why.
So anyway, in a nutshell, here’s why The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is such a great fucking movie:
It was a fantasy adventure that mixed and matched legends from all sorts of cultures (something Harryhausen would do in most of his fantasy films), and it was an enormous hit. It also went on to be cited as maybe the most influential film since Kong by the next generation of visual effects artists. Nobody knew how the hell he pulled off that skeleton fight. Jesus.
Meanwhile, in 1959, Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien was hired by the man who’d directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to animate another dinosaur for The Giant Behemoth. It would be the last bit of animation O’Brien was involved with. Although I’ve never seen it reported, I’ve always suspected Harryhausen (who was no longer interested in straight monster pictures) got the job for his old boss, who’d long since fallen out of favor around Hollywood for being too slow and too expensive. But that’s just a guess on my part.
Wanting to focus on familiar and popular, family-friendly material, in ‘60 Harryhausen and Schneer turned to Gulliver’s Travels. Although it’s since been adapted for the screen about ten times, in ‘60 the only film version around was Fleischer’s cartoon from the early ‘30s. No one had dared try a live action version. Now, with the technique at hand, it seemed obvious. And beyond that, since you’d be dealing primarily with live actors it gave Harryhausen a bit of a break (though he did toss in a giant crocodile and squirrel just because).
Kerwin Matthews came aboard again, offering his Dr. Lemuel Gulliver no more charisma than his Sinbad. It’s yes, a familiar story, as Gulliver gets washed overboard and wakes up to find himself on the beach of Lilliput, surrounded by the wee folk. Then later in Brobdingnag he becomes the wee one himself. Then he finds himself in the middle of a war between the two lands over which end of the egg should be cracked.
Although it’s definitely a toned down and kid friendly version of Swift’s original (there is no pissing in this one), I was surprised at how straight a version it still is. There are a couple musical numbers, director Jack Sher knows what he’s doing and for once (save for that crocodile fight) the story and the characters dominate Harryhausen’s effects, which are only there to accentuate the goings-on. In the end, and maybe for that reason, it’s a lesser number in his filmography. The fact that it’s so slow-moving might have something to do with it, too.
During the Civil War, two Union soldiers, a Confederate soldier and a journalist escape from a Southern jail in a hot air balloon. Balloon escapes are always the best and balloon escapes during violent electrical storms are even better. In the case of Mysterious Island the storm is so crazy (a fantastic sequence with another Herrmann score) it blows the balloon westward across the US and deep out into the Pacific, where it eventually splashes down near a small, uninhabited tropical island. That’s about where any similarities between the film and Verne’s story disappear. While Verne’s story was a Robinson Crusoe riff about survival on a desert island, the film becomes something much stranger. And the fact that it’s a Harryhausen film means it ain’t long before the castaways encounter giant bees, giant chickens and giant seafood of all kinds.
Well, after a few more people show up and everyone goes all Swiss Family Robinson, here comes Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (with the great Herbert Lom thankfully replacing Kirk Douglas), who puts them to work raising a sunken pirate ship.
As stories about deserted islands full of giant monsters go, it’s a lively and smart bit of business, with Harryhausen jumbling up Jules Verne stories instead of myths. Again it’s not one of the more popular of the Harryhausen films (mostly due to the lack of crazy monsters), but in terms of being a straight adventure it’s among the best of the lot.
After taking a bit of a break from the effects work in those previous two films, Harryhausen returned with a vengeance in ‘63 with what would be his most popular film and one that contained perhaps his most memorable individual effects.
After awhile you simply run out of adjectives for Harryhausen’s pictures and it’s tempting to just go the Dr. Seuss route and make words up (“It’s Supersimfalliban!”), but the one that always holds true with him is “Romantic.” Harryhausen was much more interested in the past than the present in storytelling terms, so it made sense that after Sinbad he would take on the Greek myths. He was capable of putting previously unfilmable, mythic creatures on screen and he could do it with pizzazz. The script for Jason and the Argonauts went through a number of changes before the cameras rolled (originally it was supposed to be a Sinbad picture). But in the end they opted to stick with a reasonably straight story, though of course there are bits and pieces from half a dozen myths at play here.
Don Chaffey was brought in to direct, Todd Armstrong (who’s at least slightly more charismatic than Matthews) took on the role of Jason and Herrmann provided another rousing score (though careful listeners might hear snippets from a dozen other Herrmann scores).
As far as the story, well, you know how these Greek myths go. In order to fulfill a prophecy, Jason must kill the tyrant who murdered his father so he can at last take his rightful place on the throne. Before he can do that, though (and after some typically Greek coincidences and divine shenanigans), he learns he must sail to The End of the Earth and find the magical Golden Fleece. But before he can do that, see, he must build the strongest ship anyone has ever known and host a Summer Olympics to find the greatest crew in all of Greece.
It all takes some time, but he eventually gets underway. Meanwhile, up on Mount Olympus, Zeus (Night of the Demons’ Niall MacGinnis) and Hera play a sort-of chess to determine his fate.
So after Telos has been dispatched they have some Harpie trouble, are menaced by Scylla and Charybdis and finally make it to The End of the Earth, only to run into two of Harryhausen’s most complicated effects, one right after the other: the seven headed hydra and the swordfight against six living skeletons. (If one living skeleton was a big hit in the first Sinbad picture, why not six?)
In terms of sheer, simple spectacle, the picture’s really something and needless to say it became a huge box office hit.
Although Jason and the Argonauts ends essentially in the middle of the story with hints of an immediate sequel, Harryhausen and Schneer went to the other end of the fantasy spectrum next, with a clever adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon.
The film opens with a mid-’60s U.N. exploration team (this was 1964 after all) landing on the moon supposedly for the first time, only to find a British flag and a note dated 1899. Well, after some confused fumbling we slip into the flashback that dominates most of the film.
Arnold Bedford, a young, struggling playwright and his fiancée move into a small cottage in the country and quickly learn that their neighbor across the way is a peculiar old scientist named Caven (the great Lionel Jeffries, who made a career of playing British eccentrics). Along with his other quirks is a tendency to repeat nearly every line of dialogue twice. Well, Caven’s latest invention is something he calls “Cavenite” (of course), a tar-like substance that can block the force of gravity.
So what to do with something like that? It’s obvious; you build a spherical airtight ship, cover it with Cavenite and go to the moon. The film is mostly played for laughs this time around, with the ever optimistic and distracted Caven dragging his two neighbors into space with him.
On the moon they discover a maze of underground caverns filled with oxygen, strange cattle-like creatures and millions of intelligent ant men (which Harryhausen designed after Wells’ own description in the book). Some tensions ensue. Although there was no Hermann score this time around, the film was marked by some of the best sound design of any of the films, from the clicks of the ant men to their voices when they start to pick up English to the alien ambient noise of the moon itself. Actually, given the year the film was made, the recreation of the moon’s surface was surprisingly accurate, except for, y’know, the air and the cattle and the ant men.
There was more crazy speculation going on in ‘66’s Hammer Films production of One Million Years BC.
Don Chaffey again directed the caveman picture, which opens with a narrator intoning “This is a story of long, long ago when the world was just beginning.” Yes, apparently it was so long ago that the whole concept of “time” hadn’t really sorted itself out yet.
Just as Harryhausen made no bones about mashing up legends and works of literature in order to tell a good story, he also had no problem with mashing up geological eras, as the cavemen in One Million Years BC find themselves in a daily life and death struggle against dinosaurs of all kinds.
It’s not a film that will be remembered for its plot (two brothers hate each other), and it’s not a film that will be remembered for its snappy dialogue (“Unnngh!”). No, it’s a film that will forever be remembered in part for Harryhausen’s brilliant dinosaurs (his first since Animal World a decade earlier). But mostly for Raquel Welch in her animal skin bikini.
Okay, forget the dinosaurs. No one thinks about the stupid dinosaurs, except maybe the pterodactyl that carries Raquel Welch off to its nest. Hell of a scene, but even that’s a little iffy. I wonder how many people even noticed the pterodactyl.
At that point Harryhausen, then in his late 40s, started to slow down a bit. It would be three years before his next picture, when he returned to the misplaced dinosaur theme with 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi, starring James Franciscus and directed by Jim O’Connelley.
Strange and unlikely as it may seem, there are more “Cowboy vs. Dinosaur” pictures out there than most people realize, but none are better known. It was originally to be a Willis O’Brien picture. He came up with the idea and developed it for about a year before dropping it. After his death in ‘62, Harryhausen decided to run with it.
Well, sure enough what does he find when he goes looking but a living Tyrannosaurus Rex? Imagine that. In the film’s best remembered sequence (and an homage to a very similar sequence in Mighty Joe Young), a group of cowboys encircle the T. Rex on horseback and lasso it. (According to Harryhausen it’s still an unbelievably complicated effect to pull off). Unfortunately for Franciscus and everyone else around, the dinosaur does not adjust well to circus life.
I guess this is what today they’d call a Big Concept film. Like most Big Concept films, however, after you hear “Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs,” you’ve pretty much heard all you need to hear about it. It’s an interesting little oddity and a personal tip of the hat to O’Brien. But whether or not you like it depends wholly on your patience for, well…let’s just leave it at patience.
Four years later Harryhausen returned to the tried and true with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, in which he doubled up not only on the number of effects, but also on the cultural mash-ups. Golden Voyage is a picture in which a Moslem hero can battle a Hindu goddess and no one bats an eye.
Along the way they run into, well, just all kinds of weirdness. And that evil wizard who’s chasing them isn’t making things any easier. As with Jason, the film ends with its two most complicated effects: Sinbad’s sword fight with the six-armed Kali (now that’s a doozie) and a climactic fight between a Griffin and a Centaur.
This time around John Philip Law takes the Sinbad role and thank god for that. But all in all the film’s a step down from the original. The music is less than rousing, the editing’s a bit rough and it’s clear the budget, never huge to begin with, had shrunk a bit. But the effects are still glorious and why the hell else are we seeing this?
The same year as Star Wars and the special effects revolution, Harryhausen returned with one last stop-motion Sinbad picture. It makes sense, really, that the films ended up paired that way. Lucas has cited publicly the influence Harryhausen’s films had on him when he was young and both pictures were old-fashioned fantasy adventures. Lucas lifted his from old serials, samurai pictures and Harryhausen films and Harryhausen’s was lifted from centuries-old legends. So there you go.
Sadly though, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger again, save for the effects, was still another step down. The music almost sounded canned at times, the script was a bit iffy and I’ve just never liked that Patrick Wayne, who plays the stiffest and drabbest Sinbad of them all.
Instead of evil wizard trouble this time Sinbad has witch trouble (pretty much the same thing) as he sails a man who’s been cursed by said witch to a magical and mysterious island.
After yet another four year break, Harryhausen returned one last time in 1981 and to the Greek myths which had given him his biggest hit. This time around he finally had a real budget to work with, one that allowed him to hire real actors and shoot in interesting locations. Even the score was infinitely better than it had been in awhile. It may have been the result of his growing reputation or the cumulative respect he’d earned over the years. Whatever it was, he let no one down.
Clash of the Titans starred Laurence Olivier who, though near death at the time, could still bellow as the ever-cranky Zeus; Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Ursula Andress and a pre-fame Harry Hamlin (who could almost act) as the half-human son of Zeus, Perseus.
The one annoying addition here, so common to films of the era, was a cute mechanical owl, clearly a 5th century BC R2D2 for comic relief. In this case as in all other cases, it didn’t work.
But the other effects are as grand as ever and his re-imagined Medusa will likely stand up over time with his Cyclops and his skeletons (though in my book nothing can touch Telos).
In 1988 he toyed with the notion of making a Baron Munchausen film, but eventually dropped it. Good thing, too, as Terry Gilliam could probably tell him.
George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and even Sam Raimi have cited Harryhausen as a major influence (check out that stop motion dancing corpse in Evil Dead II) and finally in ‘92 his old friend Ray Bradbury presented him with his long-overdue lifetime achievement Oscar.
“Fantasy,” Harryhausen, now 93, has said, “is a dream world that you can’t quite catch if you make something too real.”
The magic of his films is that there’s something about them that ISN’T realistic. You know its fantasy. It doesn’t look “real” as so many CGI outfits strive for. But unlike most CGI creations, Harryhausens creatures, the Cyclops and the skeletons and Telos and the centaur, are all more alive than most of us could ever hope to be. And they always will be.