erik lundegaard

Monday May 06, 2024

Movie Review: Captain Sindbad (1963)

Rule No. 1: This isn't Ray Harryhausen


For years, as if in a dream, I remembered a film my brother Chris and I saw at the Boulevard Theater in South Minneapolis. Mostly I remembered two scenes. At one point, the hero cuts through the villain with a sword but it has no effect. The blade is pulled clean, and the villain laughs and reveals that his heart is locked in an impenetrable tower far, far away. As a result, at the end, the hero treks to the tower, takes the beating heart—entombed in glass—and tosses it over the side. I had no idea the movie’s name, its stars, or when we saw it.

Thanks to the internet, I now know all of that.

The movie is “Captain Sindbad,” a 1963 King Brothers Production filmed in Germany, with an extra “d” in the title character’s name to avoid copyright infringement. It starred TV’s Zorro, Guy Williams, and German actress and songstress Heidi Bruhl, and Chris and I probably saw it in Oct. 1971—probably Saturday, Oct. 16, or Sunday, Oct. 17—since it looked like it played only one weekend. I would’ve been 8, Chris 10. Third and fifth grade.

And now, after all these years, I’ve seen it again. 

Horrors beyond imagination
Why did I bother? Nostalgia. Curiosity. Basically it was a chance to revisit a childhood dream and see if there was anything there. To see if it explained anything about me to me.

Bruhl plays Princess Jana of the Arabian kingdom of Baristan who is awaiting the return of the titular hero, whom she loves and plans to marry. Unfortunately, Baristan is no longer ruled by her father but by the evil El Kerim (Pedro Armendariz, Kerim Bay in “From Russian With Love”), who wants to marry her. (Yes, marry. This is a kids story.) Apparently El Kerim stole a magic ring from the king’s wizard, Galgo (Abraham Sofaer), and he uses it to control both king and wizard.

Not that Galgo needs much controlling. The movie begins with him creating a rain cloud to water a parched plant and then haplessly losing control of the spell. Everyone’s acting style here is different: Bruhl is earnest, Williams is so self-assured as to be somnambulant, Armendariz is over-the-top but fun, while Sofaer is the Everest of over-the-top. He chews his scenes to bits.

His next trick? He turns Jana into a “firebird” (a small creature with a tuft of blonde hair) so she can fly to Sindbad’s ship and alert him to Kerim’s machinations. Two problems: Sindbad has no idea this is her and he isn’t smart enough to notice the message tied to her feet until it’s too late. Because Kerim, who is smart, gets wise, and after punishing Galgo (twisting his ring spins the wizard’s head around like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”), he has Galgo turn his guards into hawks, who then bombard Sindbad’s ship with boulders. For some reason, the hawks are normal-sized while the boulders are huge.

Shipwrecked, and moving through Baristan with his ever-loyal men, Sindbad has himself arrested for stealing a melon in order to get into the palace and get close to El Kerim. Ah, but Jana tears up when he’s lashed, and anyway Kerim knows what’s up, and after they duel and Kerim is bloodlessly run through, Sindbad is sentenced to fight in the arena. Did they have Roman-style arena battles in Arabia? Sure, toss it all in.

His opponent is a giant, slathering, invisible monster, which is both tougher for Sindbad and easier on the film’s budget. After tense moments backing away from giant footprints, Sindbad climbs the arena walls and dumps an oil cauldron on it, then makes his getaway. But how to defeat the literally heartless El Kerim? It’s Galgo, more than halfway through the film, who delivers the great, cheesy line that sets Sindbad and his men on the real adventure:

There, in that tower, surrounded by horrors beyond imagination, lies the living bleeding heart of El Kerim.

That’s the line we were waiting for. I liked it so much I added it to the film’s quote section on IMDb. 

So what are these “horrors beyond imagination”? Everything a low budget will allow:

  • After trekking through a desert, they wind up climbing big stairs covered with vines and busted pottery, and half-hidden in fog
  • Past a chained door, they encounter a swamp with ferocious animals sounds (monkeys, frogs), where a man-eating plant nabs one guy and a team of slow-moving, animatronic crocodiles another
  • Now it’s fire and lava, one man dies, another shouts “We’re all finished! Let’s go back!’ and he gets it
  • Sindbad battles a multiheaded dragon with glowing red eyes until his men drop a rock on it
  • Inside the tower, Sindbad climbs a thick, dusty rope with the aid of a hook, but at the top, protecting the living bleeding heart of El Kerim, he must fight A GIANT HAND!

Meanwhile, in Baristan, El Kerim gets ready to marry Princess Jana, but only with the blessing of her father—which is charmingly old-fashioned for a dictator. Except the King doesn’t give his blessing. Rebuffed, Kerim’s plans shift from marrying Jana to executing her. This is the point, however, when Sindbad is climbing the humungous dusty rope, and his actions clang the tower bell, whose reverberations shake not only Kerim’s heart but Kerim himself. Figuring it all out (he really is the movie’s smartest character), he has Galgo fly them to the tower to prevent Sindbad from skewering the heart. A duel ensues until Sindbad yells at Galgo to make himself useful and throw the heart over the side. Which he does. And Kerim, already run-through by Sindbad, finally bleeds and dies.

Then Jana gets her fairytale wedding with Sindbad. THE END.

The arena scene, not exactly teeming with extras

Almost inspiring
Yes, my memory was slightly off: the heart has no glass case and it’s Galgo rather than Sindbad who destroys it. The best thing? It’s shaped like a valentine. It’s how you imagine hearts looking when you’re 5 years old.

So did “Sindbad” help explain anything about me to me? Nah. Before she can turn into a bird, Jana has to disrobe, but manages only one layer before the camera pans discreetly away. I’m sure my blood jumped at that. At another point, Galgo concocts a potion that lengthens his arm, and it creeps through the castle to Kerim’s room where it tries to remove the magic ring. Instead, Kerim wakes up, burns the hand and laughs maliciously. I’m sure that creeped me out.

So why was this 1963 movie playing in Minneapolis in 1971? Turns out it was part of the MGM Children’s Matinees series, which ran from 1970 to 1972, and included “Tom Thumb” and “Treasure Island.” I don’t know if Mom shooed us out of the house for this one, or if I, a fan of a 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon “Sinbad Jr. and His Magic Belt,” insisted we go.

Its producers, the King Brothers, née Morris, Frank and Hyman Kozinsky, had a several-decade run pursuing the cheap and profitable, generally a step behind whatever the curve was. They made gangster movies in the’40s (including “Dillinger”), westerns in the ’50s, and, post-“Godzilla,” produced the U.S. version of Toho’s “Rodan” as well as the Godzilla knockoff “Gorgo.” “Captain Sindbad,” with its extra “d,” came about in the wake of the 1958 box-office success of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” According to AFI, Variety kept touting the movie’s preproduction promise, including “a chariot race, a battle between two elephants, and an arena scene requiring 3,000 background actors.” Nope, none of it. There’s talent here, certainly. Its director, Byron Haskin, did the original “War of the Worlds,” while its assistant editor became one of the great directors of the 1970s: Hal Ashby. But the budget was low and whoever did the special effects wasn’t exactly Ray Harryhausen. Or wasn’t allowed to become him.

The cast is kind of fun—both Starsky and Hutch's harried captain and Stonn from the “Amok Time” episode of “Star Trek” make appearances—and it is truly international. Sofaer was born in 19th century Burma, Armendariz during the Mexican revolution, and Bruhl in Nazi Germany during World War II. That people from such diverse, turbulent backgrounds could come together in a time of peace to make a piece of crap like this, well, it's almost inspiring.

As the camera pans discreetly away

Posted at 06:41 AM on Monday May 06, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1960s  
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