Orient Imaginations and Stop-Motion Dreams
A case study of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The 1950s was a time of turbulence and chance for Hollywood. For one thing, the reformation of filmmaking system led by 1948's Paramount Decision was forcing Studios to make eye-catching pictures, because they had to make efforts to sell their films to theatres instead of send them. So in order to impress the audiences, there came the need of making the “spectacles” in cinema. Also, as many families moved their home to the suburban area, city theatres were facing a decline in the number of audiences.
In addition, Hollywood pictures had to keep pace with the changes in people’s psychological needs. During the 1950s, American was suffering from the self- condemn of launching the two injustice war and the fear of the potential nuclear war. In practice, American was losing faith in their American dreams, and as mental projections, many new genres of films flushed in the center stage. For example, film noir came back in the game because it reflected the dark side of society in a sense; horror films expressed the in-depth anxiety and fear of American, in the face with the intense global situation; and sci-fi films, especially those focused on the "radioactive- monster-on-the-loose", showed the masses' concrete concerns of the nuclear weapon. However, these genres had differentiated core audiences: film noir was an attraction for men, but women audience showed less interest in it; horror films were mostly for adults because children might get shocked by the eerie images and sounds in films. If a family decided to spend a movie night together, the parents would probably drive far to a downtown, leave their children in drive-in theatre to watch a youngster film and watch a horror or thriller film on their own.
However, this “separation” between family members soon dissolved by a new type of film. In 1958, a film called The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad made its perfect debut in America, declaring the born of a new genre, fantasy. As its name implied, the film was non-realistic, imaginative and full of erratic creatures from ancient stories. In fact, the film was well accepted by audiences for various reasons, to name some: First, the spectacle of stop-motion monsters. As I mentioned above, filmmakers had to make their films attractive enough to please the theatre managers and audiences, and nothing could be more attractive to see some monsters, which only appeared in comics or animations before, came into life and even physically interacted with real actors. Second, it was not a psycho film so children could enjoy the dream-like story, and for women audiences, they could enjoy the melodramatic love story. Moreover, men could easily project their identities into the brave captain Sinbad and experienced the journey with him. In a word, the film offered different attractions to audiences of all ages, and some even name it a “family” film. Lastly, the film was adapted from an Arabian story, which means through watching the film, audiences could satisfy their oriental imaginations, and it is another spectacle other from the visual effect. In a nutshell, the film successfully meets the needs of its period, and by converging two kinds of spectacles, it had set up the modality of the fantasy genre.
In this paper, I would like to focus on these spectacles. To specify my ideas, the first part of my analysis concentrate on how Harryhausen used his stop-motion spectacle to upgrade the cinematic narration; the second part will illustrate what is the image of “orient stories” in Hollywood’s film and how it related to the particular political ideologies; in the third part, I would argue how these two spectacles comprised the genre of fantasy and its contemporary influences.
I. Spectacle of Stop-Motion Creatures
Spectacle is first put forward by Guy Louis Debord as a terminology in his book The Society of Spectacles. In 1975, Laura Mulvey used this word in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema to name the visual impact of women figures for men audiences. From my point of view, a spectacle is in the image which is shockingly attractive and rare to see in the flesh. In this essay, I try to narrow its meaning down to the visual pleasure of seeing what audience only imagined before. In fact, many films of 1950s Hollywood are about spectacles, like the imagined UFO in the sci-fi films, the monsters from underneath the sea and also the 50-feet tall drunken woman -- all these spectacles are trying to enlarge the reign and the definition of filming, just as they try to break through the shackles of human’s mind.
Actually, in the film of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the spectacles of monsters were profoundly addressed, in three respects:
1) Diversity and Frequency
The story continues on Sinbad’s adventures in the book One Thousand and One Nights. In the book, the monsters are mostly from Arabic fable stories, however, in the film we can observe five different creatures from distinctive myths all around the world: the four-armed snake women, a copy of Medusa in Greek myth; the Cyclog, a transformation of Pan in Greek myth; the Roc, two-headed giant bird, from ancient Middle-East fairy tales; the Dragon, from West Asian stories; and most distinguished skeleton soldiers, probably from general western culture. With audacious cultural references and adaptations, the film becomes a dreamland where spectators eagers to explore themselves. What's more, the film did not just collect the creatures in one scene. Instead, the animals showed up one by one, each stepping in the center of focalization. The time and interval of monsters' presentation are meticulously calculated to maximize the expectation and satisfaction of the audience. For example, the Cyclog appears in the 7th minute after the film begins, helping to arouse the interest; the snake woman makes her debut in 10 minutes later, intensify the spectacles and adds to the curiosity; when the narrative stage is centered on the Colossa island, many more creatures follow to show up, meeting the expectations of audiences to receive more fresh visual pleasures. In a word, the spectacles of the monsters are well organized, and they serve to meet the needs of audiences.
2) Characteristics and Narrations
Even if there are quite a lot images of monsters, the filmmaker manages to give completely different attributes to them. So audiences will not get bored when they meet new ones. For instance, the Cyclog is aggressive, bold, but a little bit clumsy because he could not learn languages and easy to be fooled; while the Dragon is more intelligent, more introvert and loyal to his master. In fact, the characteristics of these creatures are so well inherited in later fantasy films, that it almost becomes a pattern that Giants are stupid while Dragons are technically superior to other animals. Those various features in monsters indeed help the narrative development. In the fight scene between Cyclog and Dragon, they get irritated by each other: the Dragon is mad at Cyclog because it invades their castle, while Cyclog is angry because he could not catch the protagonists given the Dragon's provocation. Sinbad survives because of they are fighting each other. In all, the anthropomorphism of creatures is a drive of narration, and by portraying their images, the world of magic is authenticated in its concept.
3) Stop-Motion and Expressions
Harryhausen is a genius indeed. It is not only in his virtuoso in making these prototypes, but also in his methods of making them alive, that is, the way of manipulating their body actions as well as facial expressions.To elaborate and composite my idea, I think two descriptions of Cyclog and skeleton's subtle expressions could be useful here.
In figure 1, the Cyclog happens to possess the lamp of the magician. As he knows, the lamp is a cherished, and his body language implies he tries to protect this precious from the magician. Moreover, his eyes are focusing on the magician, so cautiously, to see if he was going to grab it back from his hand.
In figure 2, the skeleton soldier has disarmed by Sinbad. Before he was pushed down from stairs, he quickl turned back his head to Sinbad, desperately and fearfully. With his hand gestures and body’s moving tendency, we sure understand he is resisting against the falling.
In all, the different stop-motioned monsters are vivid in the presentation, almost manlike, and also have their own emotions and destinies. By presenting the relationship between five monsters and humans, the connection of audience and this magical world has underlined. So the spectacles could fully utilize to attract the spectators.
II. Spectacle of the Orient
As Said “It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator.” Yes, the background of the film is an Arabian world, which is the mystery orient land in western scope. However, in my view, the orientalism in the film only exists on the front layers, for example, in the costumes, the palaces, and orient dances. It is better to name the film as an imaginative orient adventure than an Eastern story. If we take a close look at the setting in figures, the narrative styles, and possible political references, it is not hard to identify the picture as a Hollywood convention.
1) Sinbad – A Typical 1950s Male Protagonist
In 1950s America, girls are expecting a man who is both masculine and gentle, just like Rock Hudson in All that heaven allows. Sinbad is precisely a role satisfying women's imagination. On one hand, he is brave and tenacious, waving swords towards creepy monsters, moreover, he is strong that we can see his muscles clearly through the collar; on the other hand, he is such a romantic in deep love with the princess that the reason why he starts the journey is that he wants to save his lover. What’s more, his gentle masculine image grows extreme when princess becomes small, thanks to the evil magician. For the princess, he is more like a giant, but he treats her so carefully just like holding a “diamond” (as he said). However, in the original story, Sinbad is a traditional Arabic man, with long bread and a big hat. See the difference between these two figures. (Figure3 and 4)
So, Sinbad is not exactly who he is in the tales, but a Hollywood icon, reflecting the expectation of men’s images around the postwar period.
2) Love Story – A Transnational Melodrama
Love is the actual locus of the film, I think. So many scenes are about the two cuddling together. The examples are as follows. (See figure 5&6 )
Comparing to melodrama, some observations are clear to make: first, the storyline, it tells about a couple who cannot be together because of the evil magician; second, the lighting style, especially in their love scene, lighting is a typical triple light, even with some scrim shooting; third, the framing composition, mostly centering on the mediate shot of the two or close-up for the kiss scene. All in all, it is reasonable to say this film comprises of quite a lot melodramatic devices, which makes it looks more like a classic Hollywood film, but not an orient picture.
3) Political Metaphors – Reflection of American’s Concerns
What has discussed above is more about film forms, now to the ideology.
First is about the western impression on Orient area. What does the Orient look like? Joshua David Belin argues that it is the island of monsters, not the Bagdad city, stands for the orient world in his article Monsters From The East. It is not only because westerns have been long eager to explore the "uncivilized" eastern world, but also for their 1950s relationship with Middle East country. For American, the Middle East has ample resources, desirable, but it is also dangerous for its different religious beliefs and the limited cultural communications. In the 1950s, the Soviet and U.S fight over the domination of Middle East, making problems even more intensive, adding to the danger of it.
Besides, the magician seems to have impressive power: he can use magic to make princess small, and he can even manipulate a dead body like skeleton soldier. But he still eagers for the lamp, which he believes can help to protect anything harm from him. Is he greedy? Yes, that is the superficial layer of the figure. Is he also afraid of losing the power or being hurt? Yes. Maybe he feels even less confident when he gains a lot of power. And perhaps that is a reflection of American in the cold war, making the nuclear weapon so that it will feel safe inside.
The last thing to elaborate, the princess said "The world suddenly grows bigger" when she became small in shape. The world indeed becomes larger after the war, because the connections between different areas are more than ever in history, and with the competition to Soviet socialism, American is facing a most turbulent condition after all.
To sum up, the film shows us an orient spectacle with many cultural representations, but in essence, it is a Hollywood 1950s film. It can conclude from narrative style, film forms, and ideologies buried in the film.
III. Converging spectacles: Fantasy as a Genre
After The seventh voyage of Sinbad, the other two Sinbad stories are produced in a decade, they are The Golden Voyage of Sinbad(1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). What's more, Harryhausen continued to use his brilliant stop motion in filming quite a lot fantasy films. Not a precise conclusion though, the Sinbad stories started and inspired many films in fantasy. So why it has such power to make it prominent, even until now? I think the answer is in this film. As discussed above, there are two kinds of spectacles; one is the spectacles of visual effects, the other is to experience different cultural backgrounds with American narrative style. Converging the two spectacles into one film, I think it is the potential modality of fantasy as a genre. For example, in Lord of the Rings, there are also creatures from an entirely different world, and the narrative style is conventional, in classic patterns, in this case, the "Golden Fleece" story. Also, The Pirates Of Caribbean series converge the monsters from the sea with the Caribbean cultural background. It could even apply to explain the mania of superhero movies.
But why does this converging become a pattern or a modality? This model is a way to transplant the American ideology into different cultural context. For one thing, the spectacles of new creatures and places can satisfy the need of voyeurism, just like Mulvey notices it in the men's gaze to women images; also, the core of the story is easy to accept because quite a lot western audiences share the similar values. In this way, fantasy is not a dangerous ideological shock, but a pleasure to experience with.
IV . Conclusion
Through analyzing the film The seventh voyage of Sinbad, we can observe two kinds of spectacles, and one is with the extraordinary visual pleasure and satisfaction, the other is with the cultural exploration in Hollywood scope. In fact, many fantasy films have the same patterns as Sinbad. So, the convergence of two spectacles could be one of the modalities in this genre.