One way I think I’ll try to get more pop culture writing into this site is just by talking at odd intervals about pop culture that I enjoy or find interesting.
I caught a bit of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger on cable the other night, though I actually have a whole set of Ray Harryhausen films on DVD that includes all three of the Sinbad movies. I had forgotten that Eye of the Tiger was a 1977 release, which means I first saw it in the movie theaters the same year I saw Star Wars about ten times.
Eye of the Tiger isn’t the best of the series. Patrick Wayne as Sinbad could charitably be called “wooden”, and the pacing of the film is pretty off. There’s some nice Harryhausen work in the film, of course, and Patrick Troughton (of Doctor Who fame) makes a pretty good Greek sage. The best of the three films, by far, is 1974’s Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which has some absolutely fantastic scenes. It’s got a great villain (Tom Baker, also of Doctor Who fame), and John Phillip Law is good as Sinbad (hard to believe he also plays Kalgan in Space Mutiny, one of the most gloriously awful films ever to receive the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.) I confess that as a teenager, I was also extremely impressed by the female lead’s prominent attributes.
Though there have been other pop-culture versions of Sinbad more recently (the DreamWorks animated film from 2003 is absolutely fucking dreadful), there’s something about the three Harryhausen Sinbads that just seems very distinctive, and in pop-culture terms, weirdly antiquarian, for all that they were made from thirty to fifty years ago.
For me, that sensation is not the Harryhausen effects, though those have their own fascination and charm. A bit of it is that the Sinbad movies seem to me to be the dying gasp of the old-style sword-and-sandal films, a kind of backwater eddy of a century of filmmaking. It’s also, however, that they reveal how recently it was that a kind of relatively inoffensive “soft” orientalism was a part of the genetic makeup of Western pop culture.
I’m part way through Robert Irwin’s new reconsideration of Orientalism, which is an interesting attempt to rescue scholarly orientalism from Said’s attack. I have never particularly liked Said’s famous book, but as much for how it has been used within a wider critical tradition than for what the book itself says. I’m not entirely clear that the book rubbishes the intellectual contributions of the scholars Irwin is writing about to the extent that Irwin thinks it does, however.
The Sinbad movies partially remind me of a more prevalent kind of collateral damage from Said’s critique, which is a kind of vulgar historical realism that was applied by academic critics for several decades to American pop culture, in which any “distorting” image of a non-Western society was by mere fact of its distortion seen as objectionable. The Sinbad movies traffic in the exoticizing tropes that have been popular in the West at least since the 18th Century when portraying the Middle East or Islam, certainly. But at the present juncture, those seem not just relatively innocent, but in some ways, positive, as they contain within them a sort of memory-of-a-memory of Abbasid Baghdad, and of the long historical arc of Arab and Muslim societies. I think the last major piece of American pop culture to touch on the same tropes was Disney’s Aladdin, unless I’m forgetting something.
There are still other things I like about the Sinbad films. Along with the first book of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I’d say that they are great prototypical examples of what I would call the “gamer’s narrative”: the plot feels almost like a really good session of Dungeons and Dragons. Eye of the Tiger, for example: you got your fighters, you got your mage, you got your baboon. I’m not sure what class the women in the party are, though. You get clues, maps, wandering monsters, traps, and a boss fight at the end. Not a lot of loot, but when you save a prince, I’m sure there’s a reward in there somewhere.
The films also for me recall a lost era of television watching, that kind of Saturday-Sunday afternoon nothing-to-do hey-there’s-a-movie-on television watching, some great piece of cinematic cheese on the local affiliate. One weekend it’d be a Godzilla film, another weekend some old Roger Corman thing, and then maybe it’d be a Sinbad or a Hercules film. My dad would wander in and out from the garden while I and my siblings watched, maybe stopping for a bit of homemade MST3K ribbing of the film. (One of the great things about MST3K for me was that it was like a concentrated burst of a normal mode of dialogic TV watching that was common in our house when I was growing up).
If you haven’t seen any of these films, I at least recommend ordering up The Golden Voyage of Sinbad on some idle afternoon.