by Nick Seldon
Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 6-7
Rarely are motion pictures ever made as vehicles for talents other than actors or actresses. But in the case of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, we can attribute the entire production to the unlikely talents of the special effects man. Ray Harryhausen now exists as one of the most unusual commercial commodities in the film industry, and no one else in the past or present has ever achieved his unique stature as both an artist and a proven box office risk.
Harryhausen’s specialty is stop-motion puppet animation: a rarified, painstaking art form in which jointed rubber puppets are animated frame by frame so that they seem to assume lives of their own when the resulting film is projected at 24 fps. His mastery of this outwardly modest technique together with his skill at selling fanciful stories as though they were sound business propositions (which they are, in his hands) has led to a lucrative association with producer Charles Schneer that has lasted since 1955—quite a remarkable feat in an industry noted for changing partners. But the longevity of the Harryhausen-Schneer team has had two unfortunate consequences that are both evident in their latest product, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. The first is that Harryhausen—who exercises considerable control over all his stories—is making the same pictures today that he was making twenty years ago. The second is that his tired formula has worn so thin that his pictures are almost boring.
Granting that overall movie audiences are relatively undiscriminating, the only thing that accounts for the continuing success of Harryhauen’s pictures is that they are geared for a young audience that virtually replaces itself with fresh blood during the course of the three and four years necessary for him to complete a film. Consequently, each new release finds a fresh and receptive audience for whom his old bag of tricks is tantalizing and fascinating. But for critics, fans and enthusiasts who seen and studied all of Harryhausen’s films—fourteen features since 1949—the absence of any kind of artistic maturity cannot be explained away by saying that we fans have simply outgrown the kind of picture he is making and always has made. Unless one extrapolates into abstraction, little can be said about Harryhausen’s pictures beyond what is shown on the screen. And unless one is willing to experience all sorts of abuse, there isn't much point in trying to convince anyone that Harryhausen’s movies are anything more than mere fairy tales.
Not that fairy tales don't have a place in cinema. There is a place for good fairy tales and fantasies; unfortunately, most of Harryhausen’s pictures, especially his more recent ones, scarcely rate even at that.
The problem is and always has been that Ray Harryhausen’s movies are invariably made for the wrong reason. They are made to exploit one man’s unique—almost freakish—talent for creating unusual visual effects. Every other consideration in production comes second to that, including such overwhelmingly more important things as story and direction. True, a Harryhausen-Schneer production is always polished and tastefully presented But the flashy exterior and the razzle dazzle of the special effects cannot possibly support the weight of a two-hour motion picture, and the results are almost always unbalanced and dismal. The viewer quickly finds her/himself impatiently waiting for the next animated sequence, since the uncanny manipulation of Harryhausen’s lifelike puppets is more lively than regular action in his pictures. In fact, the animated special effects are always the highlights—the only highlights—of any Harryhausen film. One cannot help but sense that the remaining footage in his movies is as flaccid as it always is because producer Schneer intentionally hires directors who are uninventive enough not to interfere with the often extreme directorial control which Harryhausen must wield in order to pull off some of his carefully synchronized effects.
The natural results of such topsy turvy filmmaking is that the special effects sequences—the appearance of a centaur here, a griffin there—are strung together by pure contrivance and last minute explanations discharged as hastily and enigmatically as possible to discourage any confusion on the part of the viewer. Characters who cannot possibly compete with the likes of Harryhausen’s animated monsters are rarely if ever developed beyond the point of simple identification, and the missions and quests they inevitably undertake are reduced to insignificance in the course of their encounters with the individual “special effects sequences.”
But no Harryhausen enthusiast could ever responsibly say that Ray Harryhausen is a disinterested craftsman. In spite of the unevenness of his films, Harryhausen has proved by sheer tenacity that he is dedicated to fantasy entertainment. His two most charming films are THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER, made virtually back to back from 1957 to 1960. They are so good that they dispel at once any notion that Harryhausen is incompetent either as a storyteller or an artist. At the time of their release, both films were innovative and daring; hardly anything like them had been made since KING KONG. Even now, they both clearly reflect a feeling of enthusiasm and esprit de corps from the casts and crews who must have known they were working on something new and exciting. The two films were the beginnings of Harryhausen’s “thrill-packed quest” formula. As such they contained all the virtues of the formula and none of the crushing drawbacks that were to appear later with age. High among the virtues was a sense of humor, refined and gentle to the point of having just enough quaint charm to offset the startling realism of the films—and the resulting implications that the often violent and grisly stories were meant to be taken seriously. The delicate balance of humor and realism can slide on the one hand towards a kind of parody unworthy of Harryhausen’s talent, or on the other towards an overbearing seriousness that can be simply boring when the story being told is unabashedly preposterous. The balance is evidently difficult to maintain. In Harryhausen’s more recent fantasies, the deciding factors have tipped in the latter direction. And the added seriousness, rather than making the movies more respectable, has made them hard to sit through.
This certainly holds true in GOLDEN VOYAGE. The plot of this film is hazy at best; scarcely is it stated before it’s lost in the visuals. At least two sittings are necessary to realize that there even was a plot, and that what little plot there was is not worth remembering anyway.
What one cannot help but remember, however, are the visual effects. While Harryhausen’s films have their shortcomings, there can be no doubt that Harryhausen himself is a genius in his own particular field —conceiving and realizing bizarre and stunning visions of fantasy. The highlight of the film is a fantastic duel between a living, six-armed “Kali” statue and Sinbad’s crew. One forgets that the fight is unmotivated and unnecessary. It justifies itself in its flawless execution and almost drug-like conceptualization. A better understanding of Harryhausen’s technique—and an appreciation of his patience and concentration—can be gained by analyzing the sequence.
The fight was initially choreographed step-by-step and blow-by-blow. Then, on the set, it was photographed twice by a camera chained down to guarantee absolute steadiness. On the first filming, the actors portraying Sinbad and his crew went through their carefully blocked-out motions with a rather peculiar adversary: two stunt men strapped together back-to-back, each holding a sword, so they would move as one body, and yet could duel with two of Sinbad’s crew at a time. The two stunt men, of course, were acting as “stand-ins” for the Kali statue that would be added months later in Harryhausen’s private studio. Then, on the second filming, the men standing in for Kali stayed on the sidelines and watched as Sinbad and his crew went through exactly the same dueling motions, except this time with no adversary at all. Here Sinbad’s blows and parries amounted to little more than meticulous shadow boxing with an empty space later to be occupied by the foam rubber puppet of Kali.
Puppet in hand, Harryhausen then took over in his studio. First, he projected the shadow boxing fight—without the stand-ins—one frame at a time onto a translucent screen, from the back. In front of the screen, he manipulated his ten-inch-tall puppet of Kali, moving it infinitesimally and photographing it after each slight alteration in position, frame by frame, at the same time rephotographing the corresponding frame of background footage. The resulting composite shows the puppet seemingly blended in with the actors who had previously been battling nothing but thin air on the set. The other version of the fight, with the strapped together stand-ins, was used as reference by Harryhausen in calculating precisely how to move the Kali puppet so it would synchronize with the actors already on film.
Even at its simplest, this is a pretty complicated process, and the patience and planning it requires accounts for the lengthy amount of time necessary for Harryhausen to complete a picture.
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD makes little effort to disguise the fact that it was devised and produced as a showcase for Harryhausen’s artistry. The film has been commercially successful, and already Schneer and Harryhausen have announced another Arabian Nights adventure. But the uniqueness of GOLDEN VOYAGE when compared to the naturalism of most movies being produced today should not blind viewers, critics and producers to the rich and dramatic possibilities of a fantasy—even a “thrill packed quest”—that is constructed as a total entity in which all sequences and characters are motivated and relevant to the story. And rather than continuing to exploit a proven formula without regard to dramatic totality, Harryhausen and Schneer ought to reconsider the qualities that have given some motion pictures a kind of timeless humanity—perhaps the very same qualities that have made even the Arabian Nights endure over the centuries.