Chris Hicks: Pioneer filmmaker Ray Harryhausen paved the way for your favorite sci-fi, fantasy movies

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 12:55 p.m. MDT

His next film, and his first in color, was “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” which was an enormous success and firmly established Harryhausen as the undisputed king of movie monsters and fantasy storytelling, with such unforgettable creatures as a raging giant Cyclops, a huge two-headed bird called a “roc” and, of course, the famous skeleton swordsman. There is also a genie envisioned as a young boy, a beautiful princess who is shrunken and kidnapped, and many other magical elements that were utterly captivating in 1958, all set to one of the most enchanting musical scores of the great composer Bernard Herrmann.

When “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” came out, I was 10, and it was the first movie that I went back to see again and again before it left my friendly neighborhood movie theater. For my parents, once was enough, so I nagged them to let me go back with friends, and we did so over and over until the film eventually moved on.

Watching “Voyage” today, it’s amazing how well it holds up. I’m sure the special effects would seem a bit precious to young audiences. But if there had been no Harryhausen, there would be no Lucas, no Cameron, no Whedon. And Harryhausen was every bit as witty and imaginative as any 21st century filmmakers.

Harryhausen may have reached a peak with that film but he kept on climbing anyway, especially with his next two pictures, “Mysterious Island” (1961) and “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), the latter upping the ante on “Voyage’s” most famous sequence by pitting Jason against an army of skeletons.

None of the rest of his films were quite up there with those three, but they were still very enjoyable fantasies that also continue to have an audience today and sell well on home video: “First Men in the Moon” (1964), based on the H.G. Wells story; another dinosaur epic, “One Million Years B.C.” (1966), most famous for the image of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini; “The Valley of Gwangi” (1969), an interesting blend of dinosaur thrills and a conventional Western; and two more “Sinbad” epics, “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974) and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (1977), the latter co-starring young Jane Seymour.

In 1981, Harryhausen’s final film, “Clash of the Titans,” was released with wonderfully realized Greek mythological creatures, including Pegasus, the winged horse; giant scorpions that attack the film’s hero, Perseus; the snake-haired Medusa; vultures; two-headed dogs; the half-man, half-creature Calibos; and the climactic battle with the Kraken. Unfortunately, the live-action elements were less successful, especially with wooden Harry Hamlin in the lead role, and despite big stars with little to do, including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Burgess Meredith, etc. (The film was remade in 2010, computer graphics-style.)

“Clash” was Harryhausen’s final movie and though his work was as memorable as ever, the film flopped in the wake of “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and other special-effects epics that made stop-motion animation seem quaint to modern early-1980s audiences.

But his legacy was assured; his fan base never diminished; and many modern filmmakers cite him as a major influence in the work they do today.

And all of Harryhausen’s films remain worth watching, many of them every bit as mesmerizing as anything in this modern, high-tech, big-budget, special effects-saturated movie world.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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