My Cinematic Inspirations
The year was 1958. I was six years-old. Life was a waking dream filled with magic, mystery, and wonder. It was a year that would have a lasting effect on me.
This blog is all about the films of my childhood that played a huge role in my writing Heroic Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery stories — and still play a huge role, to this day.
It was the year I first encountered the cinematic “ancestors” of the warriors and heroes I would go on to discover 10 or so years later in the paperback pages of Lancer, Ballantine, Avon, Signet, Paperback Library, Pyramid, and other publishers who had taken up the banner of sword and sorcery, and heroic fantasy. Of course, I had already become a fan of Disney’s Zorro, had seen the Errol Flynn swashbucklers on television, and had desperately wanted to become a pirate when I grew up. I would also see Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, The Mongols, starring Jack Palance, Hannibal, starring Victor Mature, and other films like Genghis Khan, The 300 Spartans, Ben Hur and many others, a few years later. On television, I would later see the silent Thief of Baghdad and Siegfried and other adventure films of the 1930s and 40s. But the movie theater in 1958 would have the most profound impact on my life.
The film that started it all for me was The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and the wonderful Ernest Borgnine, whom I had the pleasure of meeting shortly before he passed away. The Vikings instilled in me a love for all things Norse, just as books and other films would in time stir my passion for Greek mythology and the Roman Empire. The 16 notes that begin the main theme of Mario Nascimbene’s masterful score for The Vikings (as the dragon ships sail into the fjord) still give me goose bumps. And Jack Cardiff’s exquisite cinematography really put me inside the movie when I was a kid. The film’s action-packed, emotional climax and finale still resonate and touch me deeply. Say what you will about this film, but for this six-year-old boy who was also an only child, the story of two half-brothers and its sad resolution has never failed to touch my heart. The Vikings is also one of the few times I went to the show with both my parents. Usually, it was just my Dad who took me to see a movie or two every Sunday. (My Mom did drag me to see some of her “women’s pictures,” which only now I’ve come to appreciate, movies like the Douglas Sirk films. But she did take me to a triple-feature one Saturday: we saw The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Brides of Dracula, but I can’t recall the third movie because by then Mom had had enough and we left. But I digress.)
There was another film that year that not only blew me out of my seat; it’s also credited with inspiring scores of Special FX artists.
I’m talking about Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, of course.
To see this film on the big widescreen, viewing it through six-year-old eyes, is one of my most cherished cinematic memories. From the moment that big cyclops appears on screen I was transported to a whole new world. Bernard Herrman’s wonderful score set the perfect tone and heightened the magic of this all-time classic. From a handmaid turned into a snake-woman, a shrunken princess, a pair of Cyclopes, and a fire-spitting dragon, to a giant Roc and her babies, a genie, magic potions, an evil sorcerer, and that most incredible sword-fighting scene between Sinbad and the skeleton—I was transfixed. Only one other film, Harryhausen’s second masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts inspired and moved me so deeply. Three of the 6 tales in my first book, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, contain creatures I “designed” as a tribute to Ray Harryhausen.
Now we come to the start of a cycle of films that can be somewhat compared to the sword and sorcery cinematic boom of the 1980s. Two highly-successful films started this cycle: Hercules and Hercules Unchained starring award-winning body builder, Steve Reeves. Loosely based on the Greek myth of Heracles, these films had it all: magic and monsters, beautiful women and nasty villains, plenty of action, and a stalwart hero who barely cracks a smile. While Reeves had the physique, the good looks, and the screen presence of a movie star, he wasn’t much of an actor, and he never really got the chance to grow as an actor. But he was nonetheless a huge success, and I’ll always be a big fan of his films.
Like so many that were to follow, these films were made in Italy and Spain, and were dubbed very poorly—often with hilarious results—into English. Even though Reeves, who was from California, had his voice dubbed into English — is an interesting “factoid,” and if you binge watch a number of his films, you’ll notice that he never sounds the same in his other films, such as Goliath and The Barbarians, The White Warrior, and the hard-to-find pirate classic, Morgan the Pirate. The success of Hercules and Hercules Unchained launched the Sword and Sandal (or Swords and Togas) craze of the early 1960s—what the Italians called peplum (the plural being pepla.) Athletes, stuntmen, and bodybuilders named Dan Vadis, Ed Fury, and Samson Burke were often the stars. (I have always found it interesting that the name “Reeves” or “Reeve” is associated with superheroes: George Reeves, the second actor to play Superman, after Kirk Alyn; Christopher Reeve, and of course Steve Reeves.)
Tune in next week for Part Two, where I'll talk more about the Italian pepla films. Thank you!
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