7th Voyage of Sinbad and Star Wars

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition:The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.)

There’s no doubt that Ray Harryhausen’s landmark film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad helped to inspire the Star Wars universe in many ways. Released in 1958, the special effects in the picture were unlike anything that had ever been seen. Of particular note for Star Wars was the level of stop-motion animation, in color, and how it interacted with the environment. In an interview I conducted with special effects maestro Phil Tippett, he cited this as the film that made him want to get into the business. Dennis Muren has also referred to it as a chief inspiration for his work in film. Indeed, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad took audiences to places they’d never been before and was a revelation. 

In this installment of The Movies That Made Star Wars, we’ll look at it in more depth and see just how much it found itself in the DNA of Star Wars. 

The Technology

On the surface, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad utilized many of the optical printing techniques that Star Wars would rely on in order to achieve its success. For those unaware, optical printing is where you take several different layers of film with different images on them and project them onto one final piece of film. These different layers could be matte paintings, backgrounds, starships, models, and live-action shots all blended seamlessly together. Nowadays, this sort of trickery is easy with the use of computers. Back then, it was revolutionary and had to be done analog.

Where Ray Harryhausen took it to the next level was the amount of interaction his stop-motion work had with the live action characters of the film. The cyclops lifts up real characters and drops them in cages. A skeleton’s sword appears to make contact with Sinbad’s own sword and shield. The technology of the film and the ambition of Harryhausen set the pattern for what would be possible in Star Wars. The holo-chess pieces in A New Hope, The Force Awakens, and The Rise of Skywalker all owe a specific debt to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. That’s what got Phil Tippett the job on Star Wars. He went on to use the same techniques for the AT-ATs and Tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back.

A New Hope

The escape with the princess is a central part of many classic films and stories. Though Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is a more primary inspiration on the structure of A New Hope, there’s no doubt that The 7th Voyage of Sinbad played a part in the inspiration as well. 

In fact, there’s a moment where Sinbad and the princess, Parisa, are forced to swing across a chasm. The shot is almost identical to the infamous rope-swing with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in A New Hope. It’s rather remarkable.

Another interesting bit of inspiration could be the sound of the cyclops. For those listening carefully, the bellowing shrieks of the cyclops sound very much like the red alert alarm for the Death Star. Without Ben Burtt’s confirmation, there’s no telling if those sounds share a similar source, but it sounds so close that it’s worth noting. 

Attack of the Clones

Watching the film again, it’s apparent that its influence seeped into Attack of the Clones as well. 

For one, Sokurah the Magician has strains of Count Dooku in his story. Through the opening of the film, the audience isn’t quite sure if they’re a misunderstood hero or a villain, but as the story unfolds, it’s obvious they have more nefarious aims. When he finally turns, he unleashes the beasts of the island on our heroes, just like Dooku does.

In fact, it would be hard to believe that Obi-Wan’s spear jabbing at the Ackley in the Geonosian arena wasn’t inspired by the fights with the cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In fact, the entire Geonosian arena sequence, with all of its bizarre monsters and fights with Jedi and Senators, feels like a direct homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen in the most important ways. From the miniature, rocky sets of the arena itself, to the bombastic creatures torn straight from myth, it all feels like it could have lived right at home in the world of Harryhausen. Even the Battledroids have the air of a Harryhausen skeleton, as Anakin and Padme fight with them through the droidworks. It’s easy to imagine Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker) and Kerwin Matthews (Sinbad) learning how to swordfight the air for the FX masters to put their foes into each shot. 

The Genie, Anakin, Jar Jar, and the Ewoks

One of the most important aspects of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad that I think found its way into Star Wars is the importance of treating perceived lesser-beings with kindness, even if it’s to your detriment. This is the lesson of Jar Jar Binks and how it’s carried forward all the way through Return of the Jedi and the Ewoks. This story plays out in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad where the genie, an 8-year-old whiz kid with magic, needs to be set free from slavery in order to help Sinbad and the princess escape. Sounds a lot like Anakin’s story, doesn’t it? 

At the end, Sinbad and the princess have to destroy the genie’s lamp in order to repay a debt, even though they know that his help could all but assure their escape. Being kind is required and rewards will follow. That was the lesson with Anakin, helping get Qui-Gon and crew to Coruscant. That was the lesson with Jar Jar, helping unite the Naboo and the Gungans. That was the lesson that Luke learned that helped unite the Ewoks to the cause of the Rebellion. Be kind, even if it doesn’t appear to give you an advantage. That’s the theme of Star Wars and one of the major themes of fairytales like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. 

Coda

The importance of Ray Harryhausen in the history of film cannot be understated. He influenced every filmmaker working in tentpole pictures today, either directly or indirectly. His work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, his first color film, is nothing short of groundbreaking. The fight between Sinbad and the skeleton became the pattern for what would become one of the most exciting fight scenes on the big screen in Jason and the Argonauts and the techniques mastered on this film would eventually lead to so many things we loved about Star Wars. 

Yes, this film can be naive and racist in casual ways — there are a lot of white people playing middle eastern folks — but it still has a place in the history of cinema and is worth watching for that alone. The film is also just fun. It’s a swashbuckling adventure and stunning technical achievement. It’s just a standard, problematic product of the world of 1958.

If you’re interested in watching the film (and you should be), it’s available to buy on physical media and is available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: