Monday, September 27, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

I'm generally of the opinion that D&D's primary inspirations were literary rather than cinematic. Nevertheless, there are a handful of films that can genuinely claim to have been inspirations for the game and, though released in 1973, I think a good argument can be made that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one of those movies -- or, if it isn't, it's very much in line with the kind of fantasy films we know Arneson and Gygax watched and enjoyed. Like its 1958 predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the adventures of the renowned sailor from Basrah, Sinbad, after he comes across a golden tablet dropped onto the deck of his ship by a small, winged creature that is flying overhead.

Though he has no idea what the tablet is or why the creature was carrying it, Sinbad nevertheless takes it up and wears it as an amulet, an act that leads to his having portentous dreams of a man dressed in black and a beautiful girl. While he dreams, an unnatural storm throws Sinbad's ship off course and he awakens to find that he and his men are off the coast of a country called Marabia. Going ashore, he is accosted by the very man in black he saw in his dream, who orders Sinbad to turn over the tablet to him. Naturally suspecting danger, the sailor flees from the man in black and makes his way to a nearby city, where he meets its ruling Vizier, who has been expecting his arrival. The Vizier wears a golden mask in order to hide his disfigured face from onlookers.

The Vizier explains that the tablet is but one part of a three-part map that leads to the fabled "Fountain of Destiny" found in the lost continent of Lemuria. Anyone who finds the Fountain will be gifted with eternal youth, a shield of invisibility, and a crown of great wealth. The Vizier possesses one piece himself, as does Sinbad. The third is hidden away and, along with the two pieces already abroad, is the goal of the man in black, the evil sorcerer Koura, who is responsible for the Vizier's disfigurement (and whose flying homunculus dropped the first tablet accidentally while traveling to deliver it to him).

To prevent Koura's quest, Sinbad, along with his men, the Vizier, and several others, including the freed slave girl Margiana (played memorably by model-turned-actress Caroline Munro), undertakes a mission to find the last piece of the map, pursued by Koura and his minions. Along the way, Sinbad must contend with a wooden masthead brought to life by Koura's magic, an animated six-armed statue of Kali -- likely the inspiration for the Type V demon of Eldritch Wizardry, if there ever was one -- a cyclopean centaur, and a griffin, as well as Koura himself (played with great zest by a scenery-chewing Tom Baker). The result is a terrifically fun film that's one of Ray Harryhausen's best efforts.

Like all films of the genre, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad probably doesn't stand up to intense dramatic scrutiny. The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out human beings and their motivations are similarly constrained, but I don't think that hurts the movie at all. Indeed, I think that, because it's clear that what we're getting is a kind of "storybook fantasy" filled with valiant heroes, treacherous villains, exotic vistas, and dangerous beasts, it's easier to let go and just enjoy it for its own sake. That's not to say there aren't moments of solid acting -- besides the aforementioned Tom Baker, Douglas Wilmer is quite affecting as the scarred but noble Vizier -- but this isn't a film about character development or depth of plot. First and foremost, it's a Dynarama spectacle and, on that score, it's one of the great fantasy films of of all time. It's definitely worth a couple hours of your time if you've never seen it or haven't seen it in some time. I think it's a valuable window on the kind of fantasy that inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.


  1. I've always preferred 7th Voyage to Golden, but my love for all three Sinbad movies is intense.

    Despite their intent as children's movies, I always found that they make great inspiration for D&D, especially when I ran the Wilderlands more regularly.

  2. Nice write up, Netflix was streaming these on their Watch Instantly menus a few months ago so they are relatively easy to check out if you have an account.

    Harryhausen's Jason of the Argonauts had to have been another cinematic influence. Certainly the illustration of the Iron Golem in the Monster Manual had to be based on that tomb guardian (man did it's coming suddenly alive in all it's stop motion glory give me the willies as a kid). And every time I ran up against skeletons the creepy ones that sprung from the dragons teeth in that movie came into my mind.

  3. There's a strong Dr. Who connection to the Harryhausen Sinbad movies, if you're playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Tom Baker's in "Golden Voyage" and Patrick Troughton plays the Greek philosopher in "Eye of the Tiger"

  4. I suspect that movies may have had a significant impact on Dave Arneson in staging his early, pre-Gygax dungeon adventures in his parent's basement.
    If my info is correct, the first monster that the first players encountered in the first fantasy role playing game was a slime/pudding (inspired, perhaps, by "The Blob"?).
    Like Ckutalik, I found the Harryhausen movies were pretty influential on how I (and, from comments, the people I played with) imagined the action, especially those skeletons!
    I've never seen the 1963 movie, "Strangler of Castle Blackmoor," but always wondered if it had an influence on Arneson's rather early gothic take on killers haunting secret passages in his own Castle Blackmoor. DA said that one of his players, a fan of the soap opera, "Dark Shadows," lobbied for the introduction of the vampire to his game.

  5. Great write up and commentary. I remember seeing this movie in my pre-D&D days and it was both memorable and greatly enjoyed.

    From what I understand, in the teaching of history there are two dominant schools of thought. The first springs from the "great man" theory, which extols that certain individuals dramatically shift the tides of the times through their sheer will, their work and through a sort of cult of personality.

    The second being the "great movements" theory, where the aforementioned great men are but figureheads representative of a groundswell of cultural change. In this view there is a sense that if one leader or ground breaker hadn't come along, another likely would have.

    While I bow my hat do the great fathers and founders of the hobby, I also recognize that there was a lot of groundswell around the fantasy movement leading up to the invention of D&D, much of which has been meticulously covered in this blog. I think this movie is a prime example of a commercial appetite for fantastical adventure that helped either directly or indirectly lead up to the zeitgeist of the thing we call Dungeons and Dragons.

    Of course, one can only speculate that if Gygax and Arneson hadn't gotten there first, would someone else have broken through and invented a similar genre role-playing game inevitably?

    My guess is that there would have been something in the genre of fantasy miniature battles (for which their was already a precedent) but that roleplaying as we know it might not have sprung into being.

    Advanced apologies for the digression.

  6. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the 7th Voyage of Sinbad are the most D&Dish movies of all.

  7. including the freed slave girl Margiana (played memorably by model-turned-actress Caroline Munro)

    I quite agree. Her turn was indeed memorable, but I suspect that the costume designer's choice of apparel for Ms. Munro deserves an equal share of acclaim for making her so indelible upon the memory.

    In another Sinbad-D&D connection, I suspect that the homonculus in the film was the direct insperation for the depiction of the homonculus in the Monster Manual.

  8. Geoffrey said...

    The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the 7th Voyage of Sinbad are the most D&Dish movies of all.

    This is my thought as well. It is also my opinion that Golden Voyage is the best pure S&S film ever made. I love everything about it.

  9. I love this movie. Pure adventure from beginning to end.

    Doctor Who makes the best wizard. I like when Sinbad blandly expects a dual tot eh death then and there when SUPRISE SINBAD, HE'S A WIZARD! And that smile after siccing the statue on Sinbad... Tom Baker is just a master of that smile.

    I love the double adventure - both Sinbad and the magician are facing danger and the unknown, and while at odds I find myself liking and rooting for them both throughout their trials.

    I also like the simple "folk sayings" and wisdom of Allah - in a simple way it made the setting come alive in the characters.

  10. In this vein (but probably a better film) is Michael Powell's 1940 Technicolor marvel The Thief of Bagdad. There a good DVD release from Criterion.

  11. This was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre. My parents and I went when I was 6, and all three of us were equally excited. It has remained a huge influence on my appreciation of fantasy, and upon my own expression of adventure as a DM.

    The adventuring party in my milieu-prime has met a very old bearded (hairy..) adventurer named Ray. They soon after had an extremely difficult fight against a huge, six armed iron statue of a woman.

    Also, skeletons in most of my games aren't typical, easily-overcome 1hd monsters. These Sinbad movies are the majority reason for that.

  12. There are two very big -uh, good reasons I liked The Golden Voyage of Sinbad:

    Caroline Munro

  13. In the mid 90s it seemed every film that inspired game designers had Harrison Ford in it. Perhaps in the 70s the man of the hour was Tom Baker.

    This year I've been showing the kids Golden Voyage, Eye of the Tiger and Thief of Bagdad, inspired by this blog and abetted by Netflix streaming. They've loved every minute, watched each many times and adopted lines from the movies. At least from my perspective, the old magic's still there.

    Of course, they all share a wildly colonial, orientalist approach to their subjects, and I do feel sorry for pious Ja'afar, whose reputation has never recovered from Conrad Veidt's interpretation. And maybe someday I'd like to see a fearful, storm-tossed Sindbad rather than John Law's swashbuckler. But then, the result wouldn't have been fertile D&D seed-bed material.

    It seems strange to say it but I think there's a groundedness in these movies that later pictures, influential for their visuals or style or world creation (Labyrinth or Dark Crystal or Time Bandits) lacked. You can jump into Sinbad and start creating your own adventures in a way you can't with most other films. Perhaps it's because the stakes are so clear: you always know why everyone is doing what they do.

  14. Pretty much all of TSR's creative staff in the early '80s were big fans of Harryhausen in general and the Sinbad movies in particular. Their influence is scattered all through the adventures and many of the illustrations, especially those by Dave Sutherland. There was (still is, probably) a landmark theater in Milwaukee called The Oriental which showed themed double and triple features. IIRC, on the night they screened 7th Voyage, Golden Voyage, and Eye of the Tiger, we needed three cars to haul everyone up there -- and that was when we were all young and thin.


  15. The Sinbad's were huge influences on my gaming. I've even had ship mastheads animate. No giant Walrus' though.

  16. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is and always has been one of my favorite fantasy adventure films. It is magical every time I see it. (And it's depiction of magic use has always been one of my favorites, too.)

  17. It's on my netflix queue now. That sounds great!

  18. A great film that really should be the blue print to many fantasy campaigns and other movies. Compare to this summer's prince of persia and see why it still holds up over the decades!

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  19. I love these movies, as well as Jason. And, like many of us, these were big influences on how I felt my games should look and feel.

    And, Lord, Caroline Munro was gorgeous.

  20. That the Sinbad movies were sources of inspiration for D&D was obvious to me when I first opened Frank's red box Basic set in 1985, at the age of 10. I discovered the movies right around the same age, on video. Classics they remain.