As part of my preparation for the Animating Antiquity conference, at the urging of Tony Keen I thought it would be a good idea to watch some of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films. Tony’s argument in his paper was that we can’t separate out Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans from the three Sinbad films in Harryhausen’s filmic corpus, because the mythical overspill from the classical world influences those films too. I have so far only managed to watch two out of the three – The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) – but I can very much see Tony’s point.
Seventh Voyage was the first in the trilogy and as such sets the tone for the other films. The overall trend here is rather more Arabian Nights than classical, at least on the surface; Sinbad, a prince of Baghdad, is to be married to the princess of Chandra in order to cement a political alliance between the two kingdoms. When Princess Parisa is shrunk by a scheming magician, Sinbad must sail to an island in order to recover the shell of a roc’s egg, which is needed for the magic potion to restore Parisa to her full size. Of course, the scheming magician Sokurah has arranged this, after being picked up from said island at the beginning of the film, in order to get hold of a magic lamp and its resident genie. Cue rest of film resolving both the resizing of Parisa and the release of the genie from the lamp.
The roc is a peculiarly Arabian Nights kind of creature, as is the whole Oriental setting and harem trousers worn by the female characters. Ditto magic lamps, which have a fine orientalist tradition. But the film owes an awful lot to the Odyssey as well, especially the encounter that Sinbad and his men have with the island’s resident Cyclopes (an especially beloved creation of Harryhausen’s fertile imagination). At the start of the film, it’s the discovery of the Cyclops, chasing Sokurah clutching the stolen magic lamp, that signals to us as viewers that we are in the land of fantasy. When Sinbad and his crew return to the island to hunt for the roc’s egg, the Cyclops continues to play out his role as an Odyssean monster by capturing some of the sailors as they raid his treasure store, and putting one of them on a spit over a fire to roast for his dinner. (No brains, I hasten to add, were bashed out in the making of this scene.) Sinbad bravely picks up his Odyssean heritage, blinding the Cyclops by waving a burning brand in its face, and lures it over a cliff edge to its fate. Another Cyclops appears later in the film, but this time its main antagonist is a dragon which Sinbad lets loose from guarding Sokurah’s castle to distract it, and it seems unaware of its proud literary heritage. Still, the retelling of Odyssey 9 in the centre of Seventh Voyage does give the film some narrative tension, particularly about whether Sinbad and his crew will escape the cage (or larder) they’ve been stored in – it’s only the miniature Princess Parisa who is able to get to the bolt and shove it free.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger takes a completely different take on the Sinbad story, essentially jettisoning any previous narrative baggage from the earlier films, and constructing a new plot for us to enjoy – one that shows off Sinbad’s Odyssean sailing skills to much greater advantage. The Prince Kaseem has been turned into a baboon by his evil stepmother Zenobia, who wishes her son to inherit the throne instead. Sinbad needs Kaseem’s permission to marry his sister Princess Farah (no idea where Parisa’s got to), and thus goes a-questing, baboon and princess in tow, to seek a cure. He first has to find the wise man Melanthius, who comes along with his daughter Dione as the gang travel to the land of Hyperboria, where the ancients had an interesting thingummie for transmuting things into other things which should do the trick and restore Kaseem to his human form. Zenobia tracks our intrepid heroes throughout, and the climatic scene is the show-down between the two parties. Will Zenobia be defeated? Will Kaseem be restored to his human self before it is too late? Will Sinbad and Farah’s marriage go ahead? (You can probably guess the answers, given it’s that type of film, but never mind.)
There are a couple of interesting ways in which this film plays with the classical past, not least of which having the wise Melanthius living in the extraordinary rock houses at Petra. (Yes, it’s done on a blue screen, but still.) Melanthius himself clearly knows he’s living in a classical world as well as an orientalist one – he talks of how envious other Greek philosophers will be when they hear he’s had the chance to go to Hyperboria. The name of Hyperboria itself is also classically influenced; in ancient myth, the Hyperboreans lived up in the north, beyond the land of Boreas, the north wind. However, the most dramatic borrowing from classical myth is the creature created by Zenobia before she begins her journey to track down Sinbad – the Minoton, a bronze minotaur automaton (click through for a handy ‘best of’ from Youtube). Sadly, it spends most of the film rowing the bronze boat in which Zenobia and her son are travelling, and ends up being crushed under a block when it opens up a pyramid for them in Hyperboria. But it’s another example of Harryhausen going back to Greek myth for his creatures, to find the ones which stick in our imaginations, and the ways in which he breathed contemporary life into them.
So, what to make of this? First, I suppose, that just because the films are hypothetically set in an Eastern and orientalising context doesn’t mean that Harryhausen didn’t take advantage of the rich stock of other myth at his disposal. You might want to say something about the Human and the Other, or about the frankly dreadful wimpiness of the women that Sinbad links up with (although Zenobia is a very credible villain, which makes up for some of the gender problems for me). And you might also want to deconstruct some of the dreadful orientalising tendency, although I have to say that none of it ever gets incredibly offensive, at least to my eyes (although I’m willing to be told I’m wrong on this one). But what I think I’m really coming away with is the power and transferability of these classical creatures, whom Harryhausen has transposed so successfully out of their original cultural context and into his new fantasy world. And, let’s be honest, a bit of swashbuckling adventure never goes amiss on a lazy Saturday afternoon.