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Bernard Herrmann (TCM Spotlight)
Remind Me

The Three Worlds of Gulliver

Columbia Pictures had great success with the Technicolor fantasy film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958 - it had been the first color feature created by the partnership of producer Charles Schneer and special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. As with their earlier black-and-white science fiction films (including It Came from Beneath the Sea [1955], Earth vs. the Flying Saucers [1956], and Twenty Million Miles to Earth [1957], Schneer and Harryhausen had developed Sinbad from the ground up, tailoring every element of the production around sequences that highlighted stop-motion animation and other show-stopping special effects. In 1958, Columbia approached the pair with a script they already had in development based on the Jonathan Swift classic, Gulliver's Travels. Schneer and Harryhausen decided to go outside of their comfort zone and tackle the project; as Harryhausen later wrote (in The Art of Ray Harryhausen, co-written with Tony Dalton), "Because we had not developed a screenplay ourselves it meant that the effects were 'added on' to the storyline rather than being 'built in' as the project was developed."

The script for what eventually became The 3 Worlds of Gulliver was a simplified variation on the Swift work, of course; it covered the first two voyages of the four in Gulliver's Travels, a romance was added, and most significantly, the bitter satire of the original was considerably softened, although a hint of it remains in the story. Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) is a physician in Wapping, England who accepts a position as a ship's surgeon so that he might make enough money to wed Elizabeth (June Thorburn) and buy a cottage. Gulliver discovers that Elizabeth is a stowaway on his ship, just as it is hit by a violent storm. Gulliver is washed overboard and passes out after being deposited on an island. He wakes up and sees himself bound to the beach by miniature ropes. He is in the tiny kingdom of Lilliput, and the Emperor (Basil Sydney) is convinced that the "giant" Gulliver is an enemy and agent of the neighboring island-nation of Blefuscu, which is at war with Lilliput. Gulliver helps the Lilliputians gather fish and clear land for farming, while he begins to build a boat to search for Elizabeth. The Emperor presses Gulliver to help in their war, but Gulliver balks when he discovers the petty reason given for launching the war in the first place.

Columbia had first envisioned their property as a possible vehicle for Danny Kaye or contract player Jack Lemmon. Producer Schneer, however, wasted no time in signing Sinbad star Kerwin Mathews to the title role. It was with The 3 Worlds of Gulliver that Harryhausen and Schneer moved their base of operations permanently to England. In his book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life (written with Tony Dalton), Harryhausen said that a major reason for the move was to take advantage of the cheaper labor as well as the "unlimited and underused locations" in Spain and other European countries. "There was also another reason," Harryhausen explained, "the Rank Film Laboratories, with Vic Margutti in charge, had developed a special matte process called 'sodium backing process' or 'yellow backing process', which was a simplified matte technology. Unlike the old blue backing process we had used in 7th Voyage, which required from eight to ten different steps to produce a desired matte, the sodium method made an instantaneous matte in a split-beam camera." The process was also more versatile, allowing for a greater use of colors than standard blue backing, and was more refined, with minimal loss of fine detail. Since The 3 Worlds of Gulliver would require an almost unprecedented number of process shots, Harryhausen was anxious to use the new sodium backing method.

Location photography for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver took place in Spain, at many of the same coastal locations used in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Harryhausen wrote, "quite often there would be two separate set-ups at either end of the S'Agaro beach, perhaps one for a giant Brobdingnag scene, which would necessitate Kerwin having two different costume changes and running between them. Kerwin never complained." Some miniature sets and interiors were shot at Sevilla Studios in Madrid, but the majority of the interiors, as well as all of Harryhausen's animation and process shots, were done at Pinewood Studios outside London.

As he had for his leading role in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Kerwin Mathews was once again called on to act opposite actors and animals that would later be matted or animated into the shot. His most difficult experience, however, was shooting the beach scene in which he awakens after being tied down by Lilliputians. As he told FXRH magazine, "It took them so long to tie all my hair down that we cleverly prepared by not giving me anything to drink – so that I wouldn't have to go to the john. I was tied down eight hours that first day. ...I couldn't move for fear of pulling the 'ropes' out of the sand with my hair, and I started to cramp..."

The script called for more than 300 potential matte shots – more than the budget allowed, even using the sodium backing process. To eliminate some of these expensive shots, Harryhausen occasionally used an in-camera trick as old as movies themselves – perspective photography. As an example, Harryhausen used forced perspective in the scene when the Lilliputians stand on a tower to present a medal to Gulliver. "For this I placed Kerwin in the foreground and the actors on the tower way off in the distance. By using a wide angled lens, I told Kerwin and the actors where to look so that we were able to shoot it at the same time without double printing."

Harryhausen's films are best known for their stop-motion animation sequences and fantastic creatures, but The 3 Worlds of Gulliver only called for two short animated scenes, with ordinary animals – a squirrel and an alligator. For his squirrel animation model, Harryhausen used a genuine taxidermy specimen. His father built a metal armature and Harryhausen installed it in the animal, using sponge to build up the body. "Unfortunately," wrote Harryhausen, "the squirrel sequence lacks excitement, and I have never been happy with the fact that the creature makes a sound more like a wheeze than a squeak. Having said that, I do feel that the squirrel has a certain charm, which the film needed at that point in the story."

The alligator sequence involved Gulliver using an improvised sword against the reptile. The swordplay was choreographed by Enzo Musumeci Greco, who had already worked with Kerwin Mathews in the swordfight with a living skeleton in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Harryhausen worked hard to establish "contact" points between the actor and the animation model, to increase the credibility of the scene. Harryhausen wrote, "one such 'contact' is the struggle for Gulliver's shield as it is pulled from side to side by the alligator's mouth. To achieve the pulling action, the shield was held by Kerwin during the live action photography and he simulated the jerking motion. On the animation table I placed a small portion of the shield (actually made of cardboard) in the creature's jaws, and then matched the live action movement on the rear projection screen with the model alligator."

Columbia Pictures had already dubbed Harryhausen's process (of sandwiching his stop-motion model work between two halves of a split process screen) "Dynamation" in its advertising. Endeavoring to come up with another sellable term, they used the phrase "Superdynamation" in the advertising for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Harryhausen said the new term "didn't mean a thing."

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver premiered in royal fashion, on November 30, 1960 at London's Odeon Marble Arch, with Princess Margaret in attendance. A review in The New York Times by Eugene Archer recommends the film, but only for kids, and for "parents searching for a good holiday film to occupy vacationing primary graders.... Omitting most of the political satire that gives the book its adult fascination, it preserves the elements of adventure and fantasy that make the tale acceptable to the young." The critic at Variety saw that the film was aiming for more than just the youngest members of the family: "...enough of [the book's] telling and caustic comment remains and applies to the present to give it the added stature of philosophical importance that spells the difference between acceptable kiddie fare and a worthwhile full-fledged family attraction." This reviewer also had high praise for Bernard Herrmann's score and said that Harryhausen "...rates a low bow for his painstaking productive efforts."

At some point, screenwriter Arthur Ross prepared an outline for a sequel to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, called The New World of Gulliver. The film would have adapted Books III and IV of Swift's work, depicting Gulliver and his wife Elizabeth on the Floating Island of Laputa, and in the Land of the Houyhnhnms. Harryhausen, though, felt that the film would have been uncommercial and too complex to realize visually.

Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: Jack Sher
Screenplay: Arthur Ross, Jack Sher, based on the book by Jonathan Swift
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Film Editing: Raymond Poulton
Art Direction: Derek Barrington, Gil Parrondo
Costume Design: Eleanor Abbey
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Cast: Kerwin Mathews (Dr. Lemuel Gulliver), Jo Morrow (Gwendolyn), June Thorburn (Elizabeth), Lee Patterson (Reldresal), Gregoire Aslan (King Brob), Basil Sydney (Emperor of Lilliput), Charles Lloyd Pack (Makovan), Martin Benson (Filmnap).

by John M. Miller



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