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Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

(SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Brian Clemens furnished Harryhausen with the screenplay; Clemens’ formidable TV successes (The Avengers, Thriller, The Professionals) belie that his movie work never quite seemed to hit the target (everything from Hammers like Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter to wretched sequels such as Highlander II: The Quickening). Which is to say, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad screenplay does the job. Its most notable feature is establishing an up-against-it villain, one who actually has some stakes himself. Prince Koura (Baker) has his sights set on ruling Marabia (yeah, I know), which he will achieve through possession of an amulet showing the way to the Fountain of Destiny, which will in turn will yield due rewards.

Koura: To summon the demons of darkness, there is a price. And each time I call upon them, it consumes part of me.

While he’s a proficient dealer in the black arts, they take their toll on Koura, first aging his hand and then progressively his entire form (not quite to the extent of The Leisure Hive). He takes no heed of the warnings of his lieutenant Achmed (Takis Emmanuel). So not only has Koura something of a race against time to contend with – taking advantage of the rejuvenation the fountain offers, just as long as he gets there in time – but he is also presented with obstacles en route as significant as those of our heroes (“They mean to sacrifice us to their god” he notes of some green-skinned Lemurians).

Koura: You stole my courier.

There’s also the small factor in Koura’s favour that, despite his diabolical dealings, and machinations, Sinbad starts out doing him a wrong, swiping a piece of his amulet dropped by Koura’s winged homunculus (rather than Peking one). Adding to which, Sinbad is played by John Phillip Law, not exactly the most inimitable of actors, whereas Koura is played by Baker, one of the most of the same. Baker recounts how Law, besides getting a suntan in “about fifteen minutes” on location, “thought I had a slate loose”, and wound up injured during their final fight in an instance that was, as Baker tells it, entirely Law’s silly fault.

It seems Baker and the effects maestro got on, though. Ray tells how it was “his particularly striking eyes that immediately caught our attention reminding me of Conrad Veidt” (lots of people’s eyes reminded Harryhausen of Conrad Veidt, if your read his An Animated Life). Baker recounts the animator eventually retired because “Tom, I just got tired of being alone in a room”. But there’s undeniably also the factor of ILM superseding him, and studios no longer seeing stop-motion as viable (despite Clash of the Titans being a big hit, just not a Star Wars-sized one).

Director Gordon Hessler, who started out with Hitchcock, clearly picked up on the Veidt-esque striking eyes, as they receive numerous close ups. There’s also that voice (“Return!” commands Koura, Baker giving it his best Xoanon). Famously, this clinched Tom his most famous part. It has to be asked, though. Why would you cast this villainous psycho as children’s favourite Doctor Who? Ray Harryhausen was very complimentary about Hessler, who “possessed a constructive and positive feel for the fantasy and his involvement was one of the key elements that helped shape the picture and make it the success it was” (essentially, he understood what was required of these effects-led projects, and didn’t get in the way or impose himself on Harryhausen).

Rachid: They say it as all that is left of a once mighty continent, now sunk beneath the sea.

Much of the stop motion revolves around objects Koura animates, such as the homunculus. And Harryhausen favourites, ships’ mastheads and statues. The latter being of Kali. Not quite sure what that one’s doing in Lemuria, but Harryhausen always was fast and loose with legend (or rather, in Lemuria’s case, as Ray endearingly notes “like Atlantis, the science of geology refuses to acknowledge its existence”). The big attraction, however, if you go by the number of effects guys citing it as the example that inspired them to get into the industry, is the centaur. A cyclopean centaur at that. I actually rather prefer the late-addition griffin myself (planned as a Neanderthal).

Also in the cast are Martin Shaw – making his presence felt despite a meagre role – as crewman Rachid, and an uncredited Robert Shaw as the Oracle of All Knowledge (in a part earmarked for Orson Welles). Douglas Wilmer’s rather splendid as the masked Grand Vizier of Marabia; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was originally planned to open with the homunculus doing for the Vizier’s face. Tom tells it that he was up for the Vizier part but was given Koura instead because he was so BIG, and Ray rather liked his inventiveness.

Rachid: Is this a ship or a monastery?

Then there’s Caroline Munro as slave girl Margiana. Munro suggests Welch was considered for her role, but I doubt there was a serious proposal at that stage in her career. Clemens had bigged up Munro, who was in Captain Kronos, and there’s no doubt she brought something to the part. Besides a certain feral quality, as Hakim (Grégoire Aslan) observes, “She is curvaceous”. Evidently, highlighting this was the objective of the costume department, and possibly as much a factor in the movie’s success as the effects (see also Welch’s fur bikini). Charmingly, Hakim testifies to Margiana’s qualities: “Not deliciously fat as I prefer them. But at night, cotton seed is the same as a pearl”.

Quite why Munro (“attractive and pleasant” said Harryhausen), or rather Mariana, should have an eye tattoo is never entirely clear, other than as a reason for the green natives to sacrifice her to the monocular centaur. Also notable is the Vizier’s mask design, later echoed in Flash Gordon and Kingdom of Heaven. There are numerous frivolous references to Allah (“Trust in Allah. Tie up your camel”). Kurt Christian plays good-for-nothing reluctant shipmate Haroun as Mickey Dolenz. The fountain of blood when Koura dies is very pre-Overlook Hotel. But then, this has Sinbad going gratuitously stab crazy on the back of a centaur, so restraint wasn’t on the cards.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn’t up there with Jason and the Argonauts for sheer visual creativity and iconic set pieces, but it boasts a peerless villain, exotic locations and a winning momentum. Perhaps not golden, but a solid silver.

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