Ray Harryhausen’s swords and sorceries

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It was the 1970s: promoting Sinbad with a Zodiac poster for the blacklight brigade.

Last month I took advantage of the recent Indicator sale to buy blu-rays of a couple of favourite Ray Harryhausen films, together with Indicator’s reissued box of the three Harryhausen Sinbad features: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). I’m very familiar with these films but hadn’t seen them for many years. Watching them again made me realise for the first time what perfect examples they are of sword-and-sorcery cinema even though you never see them classed as such. I’ve been reading sword-and-sorcery fiction for almost as long as I’ve been watching Ray Harryhausen films but this rather obvious insight hadn’t occurred to me before, no doubt because I’d always regarded the Sinbad cycle as Arabian Nights fantasies in the manner of The Thief of Bagdad. The 1940 version of the latter happened to be a Harryhausen favourite which prompted his decision to film an Arabian adventure following his monster-on-the-rampage pictures of the 1950s. He subsequently asked The Thief of Bagdad‘s composer, Miklós Rózsa, to score The Golden Voyage when Bernard Herrmann was unable to do so.

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Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) with a shrunken Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant).

The 7th Voyage is at least based on the original Sinbad tales but the second and third films have little to do with The Arabian Nights beyond Sinbad’s persona and a handful of cultural references. If you swapped the Arabian names for invented ones then you’d be even closer to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith and his colleagues at Weird Tales than the films already are. Smith’s sorcery-infused fiction is the key here even though his stories are light on sword-play. The sight of a shaven-headed Torin Thatcher as Sokurah, the duplicitous magician in The 7th Voyage, was so strongly reminiscent of one of Smith’s many sorcerers—he even looks a little like Virgil Finlay’s depiction of Dwerulas from The Garden of Adompha—that I couldn’t help but watch the films this time as though they were adaptations of Smith’s fantasies. In The 7th Voyage the similarity is most evident in the scene where Sokurah demonstrates his powers to the caliph by temporarily turning a handmaiden into a serpent-woman, and the later scenes in Sokurah’s underground fortress. Smith and his cohorts in the pulp magazines were of course refashioning elements from The Arabian Nights and from other legends so none of this should be surprising. The 7th Voyage may take some of its scenes from The Arabian Nights but the story establishes the template which the sequels follow, with Sinbad pitted against a magic-wielding adversary.

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Weekend links 524

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Letter M from Abeceda (1942) by Jindrich Heisler.

• At the BFI: Matthew Thrift chooses 10 essential Ray Harryhausen films. “This is, I can assure the reader, the one and only time that I have eaten the actors. Hitchcock would have approved,” says Harryhausen about eating the crabs whose shells were used for Mysterious Island. Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock himself explains the attraction and challenges of directing thrillers.

“Although largely confined to the page, Haeusser’s violent fantasies were even less restrained, his writings littered with deranged, bloodthirsty, scatological scenarios.” Strange Flowers on Ludwig Christian Haeusser and the “Inflation Saints” of Weimar Germany.

• Death, Pestilence, Emptiness: Putting covers on Albert Camus’s The Plague; Dylan Mulvaney on the different design approaches to a classic novel.

• A trailer (more of a teaser) for Last and First Men, a film adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s novel by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…James Purdy: The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy.

Al Jaffee at 99: Gary Groth and Jaffee talk comics and humour.

Steven Heller on Command Records’ design distinction.

Czech Surrealism at Flickr.

Sisters with Transistors.

Solitude by Hakobune.

Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares (1974) by Tangerine Dream | Mysterious Traveller (Dust Devils Mix) (1994) by System 7 | The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra (2018) by Anna von Hausswolff

Claude Shepperson’s First Men in the Moon

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In the week following the Moon-landing anniversary I’ve been re-reading The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. This was a late entry in Wells’ extraordinary run of science fiction novels, and is both shorter and lighter in tone than his earlier novels, some of which veer at times into outright horror. The First Men in the Moon might have been a serious examination of interstellar travel but the narrative is overtly comic in places, rather like The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a Wells story in which a fantastic gift is offered to a character unprepared to make the most of it. Wells’ lunar explorers—Bedford, a failed entrepreneur, and Cavor, an absent-minded inventor—lurch from one mishap to another, yoked together through their own inadequacies. Early in the proceedings Cavor destroys his house when his gravity-repelling “Cavorite” generates a violent funnel of air before launching itself into space. Cavor regards this as fortunate, explaining that a slightly different set of circumstances might have removed the breathable atmosphere from the entire planet for a day or so. The trip to the Moon is conducted almost on a whim: Cavor has no real reason for going, and Bedford tags along in the hope of finding some future business opportunity. Like the hapless protagonists of Withnail and I, this is a lunar voyage undertaken “by mistake”.

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It’s probable that Wells regarded absurdity as being the best way to approach a story that was less original than his earlier works. The first edition of the novel opens with an epigraph from Lucian’s True History (or True Story), a book from the second century AD which includes a journey to the Moon among its planetary travels. Lucian’s book was the first to feature such a journey (and is often regarded as the first work of science fiction) but many others followed, even before From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by Jules Verne, a book which Bedford mentions during the expedition discussions. (Cavor has never heard of it.)

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The illustrations here by Claude Allin Shepperson are also from the first edition, and are closer to the tone of the novel than those by other artists. E. Hering’s illustrations for American readers are in a style which is more detailed and inventive than Shepperson’s but which also suggests a more serious story. Readers expecting a new War of the Worlds would have been surprised. Shepperson’s drawing of Cavor’s spacecraft evidently provided the model for Ray Harryhausen in the 1964 film adaptation, although Harryhausen’s Selenites differ from both Shepperson and Wells’ descriptions. Nigel Kneale’s screenplay deviates from the book elsewhere but the film is still a more faithful adaptation than those based on Wells’ more popular novels, as are many of the other screen adaptations, the first being a lost silent from 1919. All of which reminds me that I’ve not seen Harryhausen’s film for many years. I’d welcome another date with the Grand Lunar.

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Ray Harryhausen, 1920–2013

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Concept art for Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

He could also draw, something the obituaries won’t necessarily mention. I wasn’t aware of Ray Harryhausen’s many detailed preliminary drawings until I had the good fortune to see him give a talk at the Preston SF Group in the early 1990s. I recall mention being made of Gustave Doré as an influence, something that wasn’t so surprising given that Harryhausen’s animation career began with Willis O’Brien, animator of the original Kong. The Skull Island sets for King Kong owed much to Doré’s illustrations, and the film also made use of equally detailed preliminary drawings by O’Brien, Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga.

I was going to link to Jason and company’s celebrated fight with the skeletons but the only clips on YouTube at the moment lack Bernard Herrmann’s superb score. The Harryhausen/Schneer films always had low budgets but the producers understood the importance of music, and employed Herrmann on four of their films: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Miklós Rózsa provided the score for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) so here’s a favourite moment from that film with John Philip Law and Martin Shaw tackling Tom Baker’s sword-wielding Kali statue.

Ray Harryhausen’s production drawings can be seen in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (2005).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Swords against death

Swords against death

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Earlier this week Mr BibliOdyssey posted a link on Twitter to a blog entry of his from 2008, a collection of prints by Dutch artist Alexander Ver Huell (1822–1897). If I’d seen his post originally I didn’t recall it so this swordfight gives me an opportunity to draw attention to Ver Huell’s macabre and diabolical work. This unwinnable duel brings to mind the battle with the band of skeletons from Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963), one of my favourite things in the whole world when I was 10. Given how many of the pictures in the Men with swords archive have a quasi-classical theme it’s perhaps appropriate to list Jason and co. among them.

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