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For children, particularly young boys, who spent Saturdays attending the kiddie matinee at their local cinema during the fifties, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was the holy grail of fantasy-adventure films. Ray Harryhausen's magical stop-motion animation effects, Kerwin Mathews' athletic hero and Bernard Herrmann's dramatic score set a high standard for the genre that was rarely matched. Among the many imitations that followed in its wake were The Wizard of Baghdad (1960), The Wonders of Aladdin (1961), The Thief of Bagdad (1961) with Steve Reeves, Bert I. Gordon's The Magic Sword (1962), and Captain Sinbad (1963). However, the most glaring attempt to reproduce the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was Jack the Giant Killer (1961). Produced by Edward Small, it reunited the director of Sinbad - Nathan Juran - with its star (Kerwin Mathews) and even featured Torin Thatcher, the villainous magician Sokurah of Sinbad, as yet another evil wizard.
According to the film's prologue, "The legend of Jack the Giant Killer was born over a thousand years ago in Cornwall, England near Land's End. There was a time when the Kingdom of Cornwall lived in fear and trembling of the Black Prince Pendragon - master of witches, giants and hobgoblins - who ravished the land..." Although the screenplay was actually based on Cornish folk tales and myths, the storyline is strikingly similar to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in its tale of a princess who is abducted by a sorcerer and her rescuer who is aided in his quest by magic. In Sinbad, the hero had the help of a genie in a lamp, in Jack the Giant Killer, he relies on the powers of a leprechaun imprisoned in a bottle. And, like Sinbad who battled mythical creatures on Sokurah's enchanted island of Colossa, Jack must infiltrate Pendragon's fortress, which is inhabited by supernatural beings, to save Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith).
Jack the Giant Killer is also sprinkled with homages to other fantasy films such as Pendragon's transformation into a winged dragon which references the climax of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959), the one-armed torch holders mounted on Pendragon's walls are a direct nod to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946), and the solarized demons who descend on Jack's ship at sea appear to be modeled on the banshee from Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959). Yet, all of this would have been more memorable if the special effects were comparable to Ray Harryhausen's superior stop-motion animation in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Instead, the various creatures - a Cyclops-like Cormoran, a two-headed giant, a sea serpent - are clumsily rendered and inferior in design and movement to Harryhausen's creations though small children may not notice the difference. The credits of Jack the Giant Killer list Gene Warren, Wah Chang and Tim Baar as the stop motion animators, but it is well known that special effects master Jim Danforth was a guiding force behind the scenes even though he receives no credit. Despite a minimal budget and a rushed production schedule, Danforth did the best he could under the circumstances. (He would later garner Oscar nominations for his work on 7 Faces of Dr. Lao  and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth ).
Danforth's stop motion animation was clearly influenced by Harryhausen. In fact, during the making of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Danforth was granted permission by Harryhausen to come on the set and observe him animating the baby Roc scenes. It was later rumored that Danforth "stole" Harryhausen's techniques for his own films but this has been refuted by Harryhausen who stated in an interview in Cinefantastique (Volume 11 Number 4): "Jim was a very wide-awake young man and he obviously observed very carefully. But I had no desire to hide what I was doing from anyone....I let many young men come in and observe because when I started out, there was no kindred soul, no one to discuss this with. I'd just seen King Kong (1933) and I couldn't find out anything. That's why I go around to colleges and discuss these things. There were people before Jim and people after Jim. He was one of the few fans to stick with it, and made it a profession. And, of course, we ended up working together on Clash of the Titans (1981)."
In spite of Jack the Giant Killer's flaws, the film has its merits including a briskly-paced narrative, a playful sense of the macabre and the fantastic, some startling makeup effects (Judi Meredith's transformation into a yellow-eyed demon with a horned headdress), and a capable cast of supporting players including Walter Burke as Garna, Pendragon's gloating minion, Don Beddoe as the mischievous imp who speaks only in rhymes and Anna Lee as the possessed Lady Constance, a spy for Pendragon. Lee later recalled an anecdote about the making of Jack the Giant Killer during an interview with Tom Weaver (in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s): "...this bird came into the studio one morning with its trainer, and the first thing I noticed was that the trainer had long rubber gauntlets on, and he had little marks all over his face. And I said, "Are you sure this bird is quite safe?" "Oh, yes," he said, "birds never hurt anyone. This is a perfectly trained bird." Well, I looked at him with a great suspicion, because this was a nasty-looking creature. And I had to perch it on my wrist! I had no gloves on, but I did have this big emerald ring, and as it perched on my wrist of course before we even started the take, it had pounced on my ring and pulled the emerald out. Then later, right in the middle of dialogue, I was holding my hand up...and looking at the actor I was playing to, and suddenly this bird pounced down and bit my lip open! Blood was streaming down my face - and I think the camera went on cranking! They rushed me off to the hospital and I had a tetanus shot and everything else. Normally I don't mind working with animals, but I think that was the only bird I ever did work with. Never again [laughs]!"
Jack the Giant Killer never came close to the box office success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad but it was generally well received by the undiscriminating juvenile audiences Columbia Pictures targeted during its release. Critics were another matter, however, and this New York Times review was a typical adult response to the film: "The acting is terrible, the dialogue is even worse, and some extremely jarring touches of the macabre - yowling skeletons and witches, splashed around in rather messy special effects - simply aren't for the small fry. Not ours, anyway. And some of the combats involving the giants (there are two), various monsters (rubber) and the slender Mr. Mathews are a gory eyeful."
The film would later be reworked by producer Edward Small into a musical version in which all of the actors were redubbed with a new voice track featuring music and singing. Needless to say, writing new songs to match the actors' mouth movements from the original film would have been a daunting task for any composer yet this new rescored version, which aired on cable television, exists as proof of Small's folly. Turner Classic Movies, however, will be airing the non-musical version.
Producer: Robert E. Kent, Edward Small
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Orville H. Hampton, Nathan Juran
Cinematography: David S. Horsley
Film Editing: Grant Whytock
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: Kerwin Mathews (Jack), Judi Meredith (Princess Elaine), Torin Thatcher (Pendragon), Walter Burke (Garna), Don Beddoe (Diablotin), Barry Kelley (Sigurd).
by Jeff Stafford