“Jack the Giant Killer”: Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad” hit inspired this sword & sorcery Saturday Matinee staple

By on March 15, 2017

In 1962, about four years after he’d passed on making The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which went on to become one of the year’s top-grossing hits, United Artists executive producer Edward Small decided to copy that film’s boffo box-office success for his own live-action/animated feature, Jack the Giant Killer, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

However, soon after his film was released, Small found himself facing a court battle after Columbia Pictures sued him for plagiarizing too much of Sinbad‘s successful plot and his use of ripped-off Ray Harryhausen widescreen stop-motion techniques, not to mention he’d also purloined Sinbad‘s director (Nathan Juran, additionally credited with co-writing the script with Orville H. Hampton), and hired the same leading man (Kerwin Matthews stars as Jack) and villain (Torin Thatcher co-stars as Black Prince Pendragon) that had both been in Sinbad.

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Legendary special effects master Ray Harryhausen had developed his own projects before, along with his producing partner Charles Schneer, and made low budget black-and-white films for Columbia before, like Twenty Million Miles to Earth.

However, when they initially met with Small at UA, and brought him their heroic adventure-fantasy screenplay as a potential project, Small thought it would require substantially more of a financial investment from the studio since they also wanted to film it in the new, but expensive, Technicolor format.

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Not only that, but Small was reportedly underwhelmed with the screenplay — written by Ken Kolb, but based on a two-page outline featuring Harryhausen’s drawings of sequences in the film, all of which were inspired by the legend of the Arabian mythological figure Sinbad, who appears in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and various other stories — and he just didn’t think their Sinbad project was a gamble he or United Artists was willing to take.

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Ray Harryhausen

Disappointed, Harryhausen and Schneer ended up back at Columbia Pictures, where they’d worked before, but they were given just $65,000 — a considerably smaller budget to work with than what they’d projected they’d need — to make their film.

Thankfully, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — Harryhausen’s first Technicolor feature — would end up changing the trajectory of Ray Harryhausen’s career forever.

His stop-motion filming technique — originally called “Dynamation,” a portmanteau of “dynamic animation” for its featured interaction between live-action subjects and stop-motion animated models — also changed the way Hollywood fantasy films were made thereafter.

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Sinbad proved difficult to produce, however, taking eleven months for Harryhausen to film all of his “Dynamation” sequences in Barcelona, and in Majorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands, known for its sheltered coves, limestone mountains and Roman and Moorish remains.

The live action sequences, overseen by Schneer and director Nathan Juran, took just three weeks, but there were lots of on-set problems with cameras and lighting equipment.

All of those issues would be washed away, however, when The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was released theatrically on December 23,1958; the movie, a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee hit, would earn $3.2 million in ticket sales (that’s about $26 million in 2016 dollars).

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In its wake there would emerge a spate of Italian-made sword-and-sandals other fantasy fare, including these feature-length live-action films: Hercules (1959), The Wizard of Baghdad (1960), The Thief of Baghdad (1961), The Wonders of Aladdin (1961), Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword (1962), and Captain Sinbad (1963).

Harryhausen, meanwhile, would capitalize on his own Sinbad success just a few years lateer, with Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which is still considered Ray Harryhausen’s crowning achievement.

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For United Artists, to cash-in on Sinbad‘s success would mean that exec producer Edward Small — who was roundly criticized by his UA bosses for passing on such a successful film that could have been theirs — would have to find a sparkling new project that could ride that film’s coattails.

Not only that, but he would be given a a minimal budget to work with and face a rushed production schedule to accomplish what had taken Harryhausen and his crew nearly a year.

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Small decided that the Jack the Giant Killer fairy tale, based on Cornish folklore, was just the ticket.

According to the film’s prologue, “The legend of Jack the Giant Killer was born over a thousand years ago in Cornwall, England near Land’s End.”

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We’re told by a Narrator:

“There was a time when the Kingdom of Cornwall lived in fear and trembling of the Black Prince Pendragon — master of witches, Giants and hobgoblins — who ravished the land… but at long last Herla the Wizard drove Pendragon and his witches from the kingdom and exiled them beyond the reaches of the known world. Here on a misty isle, uncharted and unknown, Pendragon schemed and waited for the day when he could return to power in Cornwall. Then, after many years, the day came.”

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The terrible and treacherous Pendragon — frequently accompanied by his smirking minion Garna (Walter Burke) — plans to gain the throne of Cornwall by getting the king to abdicate and to marry his lovely daughter, the Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith).

Our dashing hero Jack, we learn, must infiltrate Pendragon’s fortress, which is inhabited by dreadful witches in his castle and protected by Pendragon’s sorcery.

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Pendragon’s spy Lady Constance (Anna Lee)

Hollywood studios had previously filmed Jack the Giant Killer several times before — a 1917 feature, a 1924 short film, a 1931 cartoon, and just ten years earlier, there had been another feature — but Small knew that much of its success relied upon whether they could duplicate Sinbad‘s great stop-motion creature sequences and other widescreen fantasia.

Jack the Giant would indeed be filmed in what was dubbed “Fantascope,” then a revolutionary new VFX system of trick photographic effects and technical design, courtesy of Howard A. Anderson — an Oscar-nominated visual effects artist whose company did visual effects work for the original “Star Trek” TV series — and Augie Lohman.

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The credits list a company known as Project Unlimited for creating some of the special effects for the creatures which are seen in Jack the Giant Killer.

Three young special effects artists — Gene Warren, Wah Chang and Tim Baar — were hired by Small and told to replicate the model monsters from Harryhausen’s Sinbad, which is why you’ll see there are similarities between the two films.

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It turns out that the person who was chiefly responsible for the creatures you seen onscreen, however, was uncredited special effects master and one-time Harryhausen understudy Jim Danforth, who had previously assisted a team of effects technicians on George Pal’s celebrated 1960 feature-length sci-fi film, The Time Machine.

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Working with two other animators and a team of artists and technicians, Danforth did the model-animation effects for Jack, based on his own observations of watching Harryhausen at work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Danforth had been granted permission by Harryhausen to come on the set in Spain and observe him animating the baby Roc scenes.

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Danforth, it should also be noted, had previously worked as a sculptor and artist for clay-animation pioneer Art Clokey, who had previously produced the beloved children’s series about America’s favorite Clayboy, Gumby, during the 1950s, which we also have streaming over on Night Flight Plus .

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There are lots of similarities between the creatures, including two Cyclops monsters in both Sinbad and Jack, and these monsters both fight a Dragon creature (the two-headed Cyclops in Jack battles with a very dragon-like Sea Monster, with tentacles for limbs).

Among the creatures in Jack the Giant Killer are a Cormoran, a Cyclops-like two-headed Giant with cloven hooves and a knobbly back, who is killed by Jack (Kerwin Matthews, who had played Sinbad), and a winged Dragon, which turns out to be Pendragon, the picture’s villain (played by Torin Thatcher, who had been Sokurah the magician in the previous film) in a transmogrified form.

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There are also homages to other fantasy films throughout, including Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), and two Disney films, Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), which had both been recently released.

If you’ve seen the latter film, you’ll remember how the witchy banshees appeared in phosphorescent day-glo hues of green and blue, which is used in Jack the Giant Killer for the witches.

As you might imagine, the crisp cinematography by David S. Horsley is one of the best things about Jack the Giant Killer, which was partly filmed on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California.

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Once Jack the Giant Killer was released to theaters on June 13, 1962, Edward Small realized that his regrets — about passing up on Sinbad and then trying to copy its formula — were just the beginning of his problems, because the notoriously litigious Columbia Pictures quickly sued Small on the grounds of plot similarity.

Although the film was apparently able to creep into a number of theaters nationwide, and it apparently had moderate box office success before United Artists were forced to pull all copies of the film from theater screens, which then ended up being shelved in their vaults for years.

The Columbia Pictures lawsuit effectively held up the film’s release in the United Kingdom and basically stopped audiences from being able to see Jack the Giant Killer for an additional five years, until 1967.

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Jim Danforth — twice nominated for Academy Awards for his work — would continue to follow up his own projects arising in his mentor’s considerable wake, following Harryhausen’s stop-action scenes on On Million Years B.C. (1967) with his own dinosaur battle scenes in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and he would later work with Harryhausen on the 1981 swords-and-sandals feature Clash of the Titans.

Nearly fifteen years after the release of Jack the Giant Killer in 1962, sometime around 1976, United Artists would take the film off their shelves, and edit it into a musical, adding new dialogue and songs written by producer Edward Small himself.

All of the actors were re-dubbed with a new voice track, and as you might expect, the movement of their lips didn’t quite match what was originally said, so the film was universally panned by nearly everyone who saw it.

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We here at Night Flight HQ would like to suggest that, even though cinema has changed dramatically since the days of stop-motion animation, you set aside any preference you may have for modern CGI effects and take an enjoyably nostalgic look back at this Sixties classic — Jack the Giant Killer is now streaming over on Night Flight Plus — and remember along with us what it was like to see popcorn movies like Jack the Giant Killer during Saturday afternoon matinees at stand-alone theaters all across America.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.