The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is arguably the finest Spaghetti Eastern. As a result, it is more magical and charming than it is dated and orientalist… though it is both.

The first question about this odd relic, which I can’t repress, is whether putting white actors, dressed in turbans, in front of the camera to play Arabs, as late as 1973, represents “brown face,” a soft form of minstrelry. The answer is probably and regrettably yes, which might make the film merely the tail-end legacy of dismal white Hollywood fantasy. And in this light, Golden Voyage is probably not great for kids.

And yet. To answer the first question first, would disallow entertaining the intriguing and undeniable second question: what makes Ray Harryhausen’s finest adventure (his meteoric decline would follow almost immediately), such an alluring romp, so memorable, indeed, even epic? The pessimistic answer (which I here reject) might be that the hackneyed orientalism of director Gordon Hessler – with exotic locations, Asian demons, and a little belly-dancing with a damsel in distress with a skimpy outfit  – spins its own dark web over an Anglo-American audience raised on a distorted diet of Americanized “1001 Nights”.

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Figure 1: John Phillip Law is charismatic, emblematic and problematic as an Arab among this late 20th century all-white cast.

But having spent 105 minutes with Sinbad’s crew for the first time in forty years, I’d say the answer to that question lies elsewhere. The film’s magnetic appeal lies in its careful balance of earnestness, whimsy, character, and playful manufacture of peril. Those things I can live with and even think might be fun. Golden Voyage has a thoughtful, next-generation audience, with some significant caveats.

This story has the mythic sailor Sinbad (John Phillip Law) and his crew intercepting a strange, tiny, and fiendish homunculus, carrying an odd amulet. Taking it to the mysteriously-disfigured Grand Vizier of Marabia (Douglas Wilmer), they learn that this amulet, when coupled with its scattered, partner pieces, and placed in firelight before an ancient wall-painting, displays a MAP to a timeless destination: a fountain of eternal youth and wealth (eat your heart out Indiana Jones!). They set off, carrying the drunken son of a wealthy merchant, Haroun (Kurt Christian), and the mysterious servant girl Margiana (Caroline Munro), who Sinbad dreams to be connected in some opaque way to the mystery. Traveling from a metaphoric Southwest Asia to a symbolic Southeast Asia, they engage in a bitter struggle between good and evil, all ending in a classic duel.

The real adventure involves the fact that Sinbad and his crew are relentlessly pursued by the diabolical Prince Koura, brilliantly played by a totally unrecognizable Tom Baker. Most of my audience will know Baker as none-other than much-beloved “Fourth Doctor” from Dr. Who from 1974-1981. But his performance as Koura (basically channeling his 1972 performance as Rasputin from Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra) is unquestionably more memorable. Baker fully embodies a character who is in turns obsessed but dignified, violent but cowardly, and always willing to desperately let dark magic wither, age, and twist him into decrepitude, all in order to achieve his obsessive goal of finding this mythical fountain.  He’s scary but really really human.


Figure 2: Can Dr. Who fans recognize Tom Baker under all that make-up? Even so, he generates more than a few scary moments.

Along the way, the heroes and villains encounter some of the best of Ray Harryhasuen’s magical stop-motion animation portfolio, including: the tiny, creepy, flapping homunculus demon; a wooden masthead figure that comes alive to kill the crew; the animated statue of a dark goddess version of Kali (looking more like a Nataraja, but… whatever), and the giant cyclopean centaur and huge eagle creature (the Roc), whose showdown represents the struggle of good versus evil at the climax. Big fun stuff.

The Stunning Sunset of Stop-Motion Animation

And it is precisely here, of course, where the film becomes movie-magic, at least for kids and adults who can suspend their disbelief. The stop-motion animation on display here is about as refined as it would get, before the technology was relegated to movie history.

This is because it is the work of Ray Harryhausen, the genius and artist who gave us all the creatures and darkly animated landscapes of First Men in the Moon (1964), Jason and the Argonauts (1961), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (a personal favorite – 1956) – indeed, he cut his teeth as a technician bringing Mighty Joe Young to life in 1949.

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Figure 3: A Masthead figure comes wonderfully alive and proves really hard to kill

His three decades of work strangely span only 17 film titles. This, I think, owes itself to the painstaking and laborious physical craft of stop-motion, where a single physical model is shot on film for a second, the model is moved slightly, and a further shot is taken until the repeated pattern becomes movement, character, and a likeness of life. Harryhausen was, by 1973, a veteran and a visionary. Many plied this trade over the decades, but Harryhausen’s name (along with the title he imprinted upon the process: “Dynerama”) became essentially synonymous with the craft because he was its consummate craftsman.

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Figure 4: The deadly showdown with an animated statue is the zenith for stop-motion animation in pulp cinema and a real joy to watch

And in Golden Voyage, all of the lessons of his training are on display. He had learned, for example, that the creaky unevenness of stop-motion was most emotive, convincing, and disturbing when it involved things that OUGHT to be inanimate, like wooden and metal statues. As a result, the sequences where Koura animates a wooden masthead into a monster or leaves the character’s in the way of a suddenly-lively six-armed statue, are iconic and exciting. These would work as well for contemporary kids I think – and excite and scare them like they do me – as they did young people from forty years ago. Sadly, the converse is also true, and the final showdown between the wholly “organic” centaur and Roc is awkwardly unreal. So be it.

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Figure 5: The Homonculous comes to life through treacherous alchemy in a great bit of disturbing animation

In any case, this film is the high water mark for Dynarama. By 1976-77, with the concurrent arrival of technical achievements in Star Wars and (to a lesser degree) Jaws, stop-motion in the classical form had become immediately moribund. By the time Harryhausen’s final efforts had been produced, the embarrassingly weak Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and the epically-awful Clash of the Titans (1981), the tide had rolled out on stop-motion animation, relegating it to awkward film history (except for contemporary non-popular artists like the brilliant and totally disturbing Jan Svankmajer). In the blink of an eye, Harryhausen went from foremost visionary to hindmost relic. This tragedy makes The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more poignant, and you and your kids can catch him at his momentary and final best in a single viewing. This, even despite its awkward ethnic apparatus.

Not Orientalism’s Last Hurrah

After all, this would not be the first orientalist romp in cinema, nor the last.

But where the enormously imaginative, inventive, and profoundly literate Thief of Baghdad (with Conrad Veidt’s Svengali-like Jafar) would wrap production in 1940, its degenerate descendant, Disney’s Aladdin (and its beak-nosed cartoon Jafar) had no excuses by 1992. Whereas British studio Ameran Films (not Hollywood at all!) would produce this clever, cut-rate and roguish production of Golden Voyage in 1973, precisely during the murky period between. This was a cinematic nowhere-time, which would allow/force the producers to craft a cut-rate adventure product for a thin but global audience, and to film their world-spanning tale on location in discount Mallorca, pump it out through countless regional distributors, dub in multiple languages, and seek English, Spanish, and Arabic speaking audiences. This makes The Golden Voyage of Sinbad feel more like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, than it does any other orientalist spectacle.

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Figure 6: The weird ensemble cast of unknowns do a remarkable job of keeping the viewer in the world of fairy tale

As such, the film eludes a simple experience, at least for me. I think kids would find the film’s images as inspiring, scary, weird, and provocative as I did. I recommend it, as such, and believe its technics are actually competent enough to inspire some kids who might be used to far more sophisticated film technology.

I do think that any viewing would have to be accompanied by a careful parental reading to check some of the more clichéd racial stereotypes in the film (to say nothing of problematic belly-dance sexism!). My gut tells me that these might pass unremarked or undigested, given the abstract and mythic quality of the story.

Even so, part of what makes The Golden Voyage of Sinbad interesting is its historic location precisely between innocence and cynicism, between an Arabia of magic and one of gas lines, OPEC, and American racist innuendo. In 1973, Golden Voyage felt like 1940’s Thief of Bagdad and light as a feather. Now, however, in an era when demagogic presidential candidates threaten to bar people from the United States based on their religion… it feels far less so.

My experience of the feature: Very Good/Awkward

Chances Alexander would enjoy this feature: Fair