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In 1960, independent movie producers the King Brothers (Frank and Herman) took on the giant-monster genre and produced Gorgo (1961); it was filmed in England, but with an eye toward the American market. Heavily inspired by the Japanese film Gojira (1954, released in America two years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!), the movie was released by MGM and proved to be a box-office success. As a follow-up, The King Bros. and MGM saw the potential for following a similar pattern and made Captain Sindbad (1963), a matinee movie inspired by another genre-defining entry, namely Columbia Pictures' The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Produced by Charles H. Schneer with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, the latter film was shot in exotic-looking locales on the coast of Spain, and was one of the most successful fantasy films of the era. For their Sinbad movie, the King Brothers chose to shoot in West Germany, but once again with an eye toward the American market. They employed several American personnel, including a director, Byron Haskin, with an impressive assortment of fantastic films to his credit, including The War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). The film was edited by another American, Robert Swink, who had previously worked on such accomplished thrillers as The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Desperate Hours (1955). (Swink's assistant editor on Captain Sindbad was a young Hal Ashby).
Whereas the King Kong (1933)-loving Harryhausen gave The 7th Voyage of Sinbad a distinctly American look and feel, the numerous special effects employed in Captain Sindbad were done by West German craftsmen, and they lend the film a decidedly surreal foreign flavor. Kerwin Mathews provided a handsome and athletic Sinbad for the Harryhausen film, and for their version the King Brothers hired a proven swashbuckling presence, Guy Williams (1924-1989), none other than Zorro himself from the long-running (1957-1962) series produced by Disney Studios for their various anthology TV shows.
In order to avoid any possible legal repercussions from Columbia Pictures, the King Bros. and MGM used an alternate, but acceptable, spelling for their hero in the title, inserting a "d" for differentiation. The resulting Captain Sindbad is an odd mix a kid's matinee movie with Middle Eastern characters, shot with a largely European cast and crew, but with an American sensibility.
Captain Sindbad, following the pattern of the earlier Harryhausen film, is structured as a series of special effects set-pieces interspersed with scenes of romance, magic, and villainy to be overcome. The kingdom of Baristan has recently been seized by the evil El Kerim (Pedro Armendariz) from the rightful ruling King (Rolf Wanka). El Kerim awaits the return of his rival Sindbad (Guy Williams), sailing home with his men following his latest adventure. Wanting to warn Sindbad of a trap, Princess Jana (Heidi Bruhl) pleads with Galgo the Magician (Abraham Sofaer) for help. Galgo turns the princess into a "firebird" so that she can fly to Sindbad's ship. (Galgo first asks the princess to undress, asking "you think that I can grow feathers on silk? There are three men before whom a woman need have no shame her husband, her doctor, and her magician"). El Kerim, however, has a magic ring with which he can control Galgo; he then turns his guards into giant birds of prey. The birds sink Sindbad's ship with giant rocks and take the Princess captive, bringing her back to El Kerim. The (literally) heartless ruler then plans to wed Princess Jana; Sindbad and his men must make their way to a tall tower which holds the key to defeating El Kerim and restoring the Kingdom.
Thanks to the filming at Bavaria Studios in Germany, Captain Sindbad has an opulent look, though not necessarily a big budget look. The sets are huge, for example, but they have a cheap and flimsy appearance. Similarly, the special effects are numerous and ambitious, but the execution is spotty at best and often ineffective for the most part, including see-through mattes, stiff model birds and animals, papier mache rocks and boulders, and poorly-aligned superimposed opticals. A variety of fantastic creatures are on hand, and while the concepts are superb, the poorly-built props render all of the wireframe supports and hastily-sewn seams visible on film. As a result, the best monster in the film is invisible. While captive, Sindbad is forced to do battle with a fearsome creature as a crowd looks on the creature leaves giant footprints as it stalks Sindbad within an arena. This sequence comes off quite successfully until our hero defeats the monster with poorly superimposed fire effects. Other creatures in the film include stiff, artificial snapping crocodiles; a glowing-eyed, multi-headed dragon depicted by a miniature puppet; and a giant, disembodied fisted glove, adorned with spikes on its knuckles. The latter startling effect is seen in a giant tower at the end of the film, guarding the villain's living heart (which itself looks less like an organic organ and more like a stuffed, breathing valentine). The gloved hand, while terribly clumsy, shows a lot of personality as Sindbad first appears in the tower, the hand raises up and wags a disapproving finger toward the adventurer.
While Captain Sindbad is clearly intended for a juvenile audience, a couple of scenes seem to offer more than matinee-attending kids may have bargained for. In the first attack on his ship, Sindbad slashes his sword at one of El Kerim's birds of prey, and it crumples to the deck. The bird was one of El Kerim's guards in disguise, of course, and as he dies he returns to human form - with blood gruesomely gushing from an enormous gash in his throat! One of the most elaborate scenes in the film is a bizarre ballet (with the Reed-Schapar Dancers) in a show put on for El Kerim's court, a spider-woman (Anna Luise Schubert in sexually provocative pink-and-white leotard) swings dramatically through the air and wraps her legs repeatedly and suggestively around a sailor/dancer (John Schapar) trapped in her web. These two scenes alone must have fueled hours of schoolyard discussions in the days following Saturday matinee showings of the movie in 1963!
Princess Jana was played by popular German recording star and actress Heidi Bruhl (1942-1991). The blond, blue-eyed Bruhl began her film career at age 12 and by the late-1950s was known as the "Doris Day of Germany" for her mix of acting jobs and popular chart hits in that country. She had her share of fans Stateside, and was on a singing tour of America when she was asked to star in Captain Sindbad. She took up residence in California in 1963 and the following year she married American actor Brett Halsey. Her most notable film role during her stay in the U.S. was in Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction (1975). In Captain Sindbad, Bruhl sports a decidedly non-Middle Eastern hairdo (in that purely mid-1960s style that combines a bouffant with bangs) as well as numerous stylish costume changes courtesy of Nathans of London.
The review of Captain Sindbad in New York Times was quite perceptive, since the unnamed critic was able to see the film with an audience of kids. "Until about the last 20 minutes," he writes, "it's strictly a broad mishmash of fantasy-comedy, spilling out over some lavishly gaudy sets of Old Arabia....Throw in a tired 'Scheherazade'-type of score, as Mr. Williams braves anything from crocodiles to a 12-headed monster (our count, anyway), and you have the kind of harmless trash some kids may tolerate." The critic had higher praise for the final minutes of the film based on a personal observation: "Yesterday, a cute little blonde in front of us took it all in stride, monsters included. She also perked up, leaning forward, for that final reel, when the picture slips from mediocrity into a wildly funny, eerie and casually beguiling adventure, not hard to take."
Producers: Frank King, Herman King
Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: Samuel B. West, Harry Relis
Cinematography: Gunther Senftleben; Eugen Schufftan (uncredited)
Art Direction: Isabella Schlichting, Werner Schlichting
Music: Michel Michelet
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Cast: Guy Williams (Capt. Sindbad), Heidi Bruhl (Princess Jana), Pedro Armendariz (El Kerim), Abraham Sofaer (Galgo), Bernie Hamilton (Quinius), Helmuth Schneider (Bendar), Margaret Jahnen (lady-in-Waiting), Rolf Wanka (The King), Walter Barnes (Rolf), James Dobson (Iffritch), Maurice Marsac (Ahmed), Henry Brandon (Col. Kabar), John Crawford (Aram), Geoffrey Toone (Mohar)
C-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by John M. Miller