There’s a strong case to be made for 1982 as one of the great, if not the greatest, years of all time for science fiction, fantasy and horror films. I’ll get into that at another time.
But just as 1982 was a high-water mark for genre films, the summer of five years before, 1977, was a turning point.
Why? “Star Wars.”
George Lucas’ space opera, for many years the highest-grossing and most popular movie of all time, was the “two” in the one-two punch that began in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” There had been summer movie blockbusters before, of course. But “Jaws” then “Star Wars” made the summer months a place for movies of the fantastic: Science fiction, action, horror and — in recent years — comic book movies reign in the summer.
In my mind, the modern movie era turns on “Star Wars.” Everything is divided into before and after “Star Wars.”
But another, much lesser-seen, gem came out in 1977: “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.”
The movie was the third in a series of films, based on the classic adventure character of Sinbad, that special effects genius Ray Harryhausen made for release in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures. The series — whose earlier installments were “7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Golden Voyage of Sinbad” — stretched clear back to the 1950s and featured different actors in the lead role, so it hardly seemed like a series.
The “Sinbad” movies were Saturday afternoon popcorn features, unlikely to be mistaken for art. But each had their own charms.
Some of the highlights of this installment:
Harryhausen’s effects. Harryhausen, who pioneered and perfected stop-motion animation — the art of moving model figures in small increments while exposing frames of film, creating the illusion of movement — practiced his craft into the 1980s and “Clash of the Titans.” Computer-generated effects are the standard now and give filmmakers possibilities they couldn’t dream of decades ago. But Harryhausen’s effects have their own kind of charm and their own kind of realism. Is the movie’s baboon character (actually a good prince, turned into an ape by an evil witch) as realistic as the CG simians in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” No. But it is effective and as crucial to telling the movie’s story as modern-day computer creations.
The creatures. The highlight of any Harryhausen movie (which were directed by a variety of filmmakers, but always bore the stamp of the effects genius) were the imaginative monsters. Aside from the effects work, the choice and design of creatures (in this film the mechanical Minaton and the horn-in-the-forehead Troglodyte) is always a delight. Harryhausen probably reached his peak with Medusa in “Clash of the Titans,” but the creatures here are great.
The cast. The movie’s casting has a “Huh? What?” quality to it. There are a couple of legacy actors (Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne, as Sinbad, and Taryn Power, daughter of Tyrone Power), as well as Patrick Troughton, who had played the lead role in the popular British sci-fi series “Doctor Who” in the 1960s.
And then there’s Jane Seymour. The actress, who had made a big impression in the 1973 James Bond movie “Live and Let Die,” was a highlight of “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” for any red-blooded male.
Jane, rocking incredibly long, straight hair, was dressed as improbably as any sword-and-sorcery movie heroine: a top that’s little more than a bikini with sleeves, a hip-hugging skirt and — most exotic for Midwestern boys like me — gold chains around her hips.
“Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” was not fated to be the equal of “Star Wars” or the other genre hits of 1977, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” at the box office or with audiences and critics. But thanks to Harryhausen’s creatures and Jane Seymour, it lives on in the Saturday afternoon memories.