Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (AIP, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 showing of a film given the title The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, released in the U.S. in 1962 but actually a crudely dubbed version of a 1953 Russian movie called Sadko, more or less based on the Rimsky-Korsakov opera: not an actual sung performance (several Russian movies of this period actually did put major Russian operas on film, including Vera Stroyeva’s marvelous 1954 Boris Godunov and a version of Eugen Onegin I once saw reviewed in The Opera Quarterly) but supposedly a dramatization of it, though Sadko a.k.a. Sinbad does almost nothing and goes almost nowhere in this movie. If U.S. audiences in 1962 expected anything like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — a vividly imaginative movie with brilliant special effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen — they would have been sorely disappointed; instead, this film is a quest in which Sadko/Sinbad ( S e r g e i S t o l y a r o v) spends the first half of this 80-minute movie in port in a fictitious country (the real Sinbad lived in Baghdad in what is now Iraq, but that’s merrily ignored by Francis Ford Coppola, who adapted the original Russian script into something that could be dubbed in English), where the people live under the yoke of a dictator and virtually all of them have been impoverished so a handful of people at the top can live in luxury. (Sounds familiar.)

Sadko/Sinbad is torn between his desire to finance a voyage to find the mysterious “Bird of Happiness” whose presence will restore happiness to the entire kingdom and his temptation, every time he actually raises enough money to go on the trip, to give it all away to the poor instead. (For a movie made by an ostensibly socialist country, this is a pretty unexpected plot twist; this film could be shown at an Ayn Rand fan-club meeting as an illustration of the perils of altruism!) Though he’s got a girlfriend back home, L y u b a v a ( A l l a L a r i o n o v a), he also meets up with the P r i n c e s s o f L a k e I l m e n (Y e l e n a M y s h k o v a), who gives him various magic objects that enrich him even faster than he can give the money away, and all she asks in return is that he sing to her and play on his magic harp (I’m not making this up, you know!) — which might actually have been moving if his song hadn’t been an ineptly written pop ballad sung by a voice clearly different from the one dubbing Stolyarov’s dialogue, and who sounds like a third-rate cocktail lounge Sinatra wanna-be.

I was hoping for something in the way of special effects — yes, I knew they wouldn’t have been able to get anyone to come close to Harryhausen’s genius, but they could have managed at least a creaky-looking roc on wires or something — but nothing happens except for a fight between Sinbad’s crew and some Vikings (at least they look like Vikings, and the MST3K crew referred to them as such) on an island the crew visit in their futile search for the bird, and when they find the bird it’s not the bird of happiness after all, but a phoenix (actually a human in an ineptly tailored bird suit) whose song puts people to sleep — though since she’s singing the “Song of India,” the one part of Sadko anybody actually knows, that seems quite unfair; she’s certainly more listenable than Sinbad was back at Lake Ilmen!

The princess also turns out to be the daughter of the Greco-Roman sea god Neptune ( S t e p a n K a y u k o v ), who in this incarnation looks an awful lot like Santa Claus and is saddled with a Mrs. Neptune (O l g a V i k l a n d) who in this dubbed version for some reason is given a voice that makes her sound like a Jewish mother … anticipating by four years American-International’s release of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (Charles joked last night that a Japanese producer could have got revenge against Allen by buying the rights to Allen’s “serious” film Interiors, the one he deliberately made as a Bergmanesque tale of domestic angst, and dubbing a wise-cracking Japanese soundtrack on it and thereby turning it into a comedy.)

In the end Sinbad returns home, having accomplished absolutely nothing — sort of like the filmmakers themselves, though in fairness this movie might be a perfectly decent genre piece viewed in the original Russian, with English subtitles, and with restored color (as it is, it’s one of those movies that looks like a picture postcard that sat out in the sun way too long). I looked up the very brief plot synopsis of the opera Sadko in the Bravissimo Russian Opera boxed set, and their description — “The minstrel Sadko is shipwrecked. At the bottom of the sea, his sweet singing wins him the love of the Sea Princess; but when his wild gusli playing kicks up a storm, he is cast on land and the Princess is changed into a river” (which sounds like this would make a good companion piece for Daphne, in which the title character ends up as a tree) — reveals a story within hailing distance of the one in this movie, but not all that close.

The MST3K crew were at the top of their game on this one — it seems the shows they did just before Joel Hodgson left the series are consistently the best — and I especially liked the interstital sketch in which Joel’s and the robots’ contribution to the weekly “invention exchange” is a Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack chess set, in which the white pieces are Sinatra and his entourage and the black pieces are all Sinatra’s enemies (with Mitch Miller as the black king!), a quite amusing piece of writing whose author must have been very up on Sinatra trivia to do all those references correctly!