Super Movie Monday – Jack the Giant Killer

Okay, I admit, this one doesn’t have even the slightest connection to superheroes except maybe that Dell published a Jack the Giant Killer comic to tie in with the movie. Anyway, everything I wanted to do I either don’t have access to yet, or I’m saving for Halloween, so this is what you get.

So in 1958, Columbia Pictures released the Harryhausen classic, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Upon seeing its success, producer Edward Small (who apparently turned down an opportunity to produce the Harryhausen film) then decided to make virtually the same movie, hoping lightning would strike twice. To that end, he hired the same director and two of the same stars–Kerwin Mathews, who had played Sinbad, was cast as Jack while Torin Thatcher, in a follow-up to his role as the evil sorcerer Sokurah, was cast as the sorcerer Pendragon.

Small also hired the crew at special effects company Project Unlimited, founded by former Puppetoons animators and Academy Award winners Gene Warren, Wah Chang, and Tim Baar (credited as ‘Barr’ in the film), to do animated effects. Also working at Project Unlimited was a young Jim Danforth, who had visited Harryhausen at his studio during the animation of 7th Voyage and knew the process (dubbed Dynamation) that Harryhausen had used to create his effects.

So, same director, same stars, Academy Award-winning effects crew: the picture must have been pretty awesome, right?

Not so much…

The film opens with a storybook montage, telling how the evil sorcerer Pendragon had ravaged Cornwall with his army of giants and witches, but had been banished to an uncharted island by a good wizard. Many years later, the Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) of Cornwall is celebrating her 18th birthday when a mysterious guest, Eliodorus, crashes the party and presents her with an unusual gift: a grotesque doll which moves and dances on its own.

The princess is charmed by the doll, and the Lady Constance makes sure it is placed in her room that night. Later, Eliodorus sneaks up to the princess’s window and leers in at her while she’s sleeping. He then shoots magical beams out of his eyes to bring the doll to life. It breaks out of its little castle box, then starts to grow before finally revealing itself to be… a giant!

The giant (named Cormoran) grabs the princess and makes off with her. And here we can already start to count the similarities to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In that film, the Princess Parisa is shrunk while she is sleeping to doll size, and then transported by Sinbad in a little castle-like box to search for her cure. And then there’s Cormoran, whose design is almost exactly that of Harryhausen’s Cyclops, from its furry goat legs to its bald, horned head, except that it has two eyes. It’s a Bi-Cyclops (to quote Yellow Submarine).

But notice how much more primitive the model’s construction is: the odd proportions, the sparse surface detail, the way the joints don’t wrinkle right. The animation and compositing are much worse than Harryhausen’s as well. It looks as if a low budget really bit them in the ass.

Meanwhile, down on the beach, young miller Jack is getting ready to take some grain to market when he sees the giant approaching. Cormoran deposits the princess on a boat meant to take her away to Pendragon’s island, but Jack saves her, ¬†and then uses his mill and a scythe to slay the giant. In so doing, he wins the princess’s heart, a knightship from a grateful king and a new name from the courtiers: Jack the Giant Killer.

But all is not well. Pendragon is upset that his careful plan has failed. I’m kind of torn on Pendragon. On the one hand, his outfit is kind of ridiculous and cartoony compared to Sinbad, but on the other hand, he has those awesome crescent sideburns going and he’s not afraid to chew the scenery when he needs to. So 50% Win, 50% Fail.

The king’s counselor, meanwhile, has figured out that “Eliodorus” was actually Pendragon in disguise, and suggests Princess Elaine be sent off to a convent in Normandy for her own safety. So the king entrusts her to go off with Jack alone for the trip, disguised as peasants. Hmmm, princess being sent off to convent unsupervised with the guy she has the hots for. What are the chances she’ll still be a virgin when she gets there?

But as Jack and Elaine head off together, Lady Constance sneaks off to a secret tower room, where she sends a message via messenger crow to Pendragon. She’s a bad guy!

And so, as Jack and Elaine are making out on board the ship to France, suddenly a strange creature (who we’ve seen in Pendragon’s monstrous court) appears in the sky and sets fire to the crow’s nest.

More strange creatures appear, including this kind of awesome wind-witch, who breathes out gale-force winds, blowing the crew off their feet.

And then Elaine is captured and carried off by more flying witches. Oh no!

Jack insists the ship pursue the creatures to rescue Elaine, but the bosun, who has assumed command following the death of the captain, has Jack thrown overboard. The captain’s loyal son Peter goes after him.

The witches take Elaine to Pendragon’s pretty impressive island fortress…

Where Pendragon holds a ritual to turn Elaine to the dark side.

Once again, I’m torn. The purple skin tone and brightly colored outfit are silly, but the contacts are kind of disturbing, and Judi Meredith has her evil smile down pat. I find Evil Elaine kind of hot, actually, though she never shows any skin at all.

Meanwhile, our heroes discover the Wonderful World of Mixed-Up Stereotypes as they are rescued by a Viking…

Who keeps a leprechaun in a bottle.

I am not torn at all about the leprechaun. He speaks in rhyme. I hate him. But once again, this is a nod to Sinbad, in which Sinbad is able to stand up to Sokurah’s magic through the aid of a genie in a bottle, whom he promises to free once the princess is saved. Jack strikes a similar deal with the leprechaun, also called “the imp of the bottle.”

So Jack heads up to the castle, where he faces off against some weird robotic warriors who materialize from the teeth of a dragon sculpture.

They are incredibly tough, but also incredibly slow, and the leprechaun makes Jack a magic whip that makes them disappear in a puff of smoke, so I guess they aren’t that tough, after all. The leprechaun also keeps Jack from being turned into a sheep by Pendragon (and why a sheep, I wonder? Which way does Pendragon swing?)

Pendragon buys time by sending Jack on a wild goose chase to the other end of the island. Really evil Elaine then offers to spy on Jack and learn the secret of his powers. Man, she is so much hotter than bland Princess Elaine that I’m a little ashamed at how turned on I am.

So Jack “frees” Elaine and then as they’re waiting for Sigurd and Peter to return with drinking water, he tells her about the leprechaun. She drugs Jack and tries to steal the leprechaun bottle, but it burns liars, and she ends up accidentally tossing it overboard (she doesn’t know where it went, however). She runs back to Pendragon, who captures our heroes.

In an effort to get Jack to reveal the whereabouts of the leprechaun, Pendragon changes Sigurd the Viking into a dog and Peter into a chimp. He threatens to do the same to Elaine, then leaves her alone to pry the secret from Jack. Jack sees her evil reflection in a mirror, and with Peter’s help, escapes his bonds and breaks the mirror to break the spell. Elaine is good again! Hooray, I guess.

The group makes a run for their boat, but Pendragon sends a two-headed giant to stop them. Yow!

They take refuge in a cave, and all seems lost when the leprechaun bottle washes up on shore. The leprechaun summons a cute sea monster to fight the giant, as a substitute for the climactic Cyclops-Dragon fight in Sinbad.

Yeah, the sea monster is not a good design. An early test that you can see on Youtube here shows a much different and more grotesque design for the sea monster, as well as a different, more Cormoran-like two-headed giant (built by Marcel Delgado, who made the animation models for the original King Kong and Mighty Joe Young). It looks as if they changed it at the last minute to make it more kid-friendly or something.

The sea monster defeats the giant, and Jack and crew run to their boat. Which is when Pendragon transforms himself into a giant harpy/dragon and goes after them himself.

And once again, I’m torn. On the one hand, the design of the creature actually resembles some medieval dragons, like the ones in this fountain in the Netherlands. But it’s a clumsy design and not well animated nor graceful in the air, which is where Jack ends up, surfing on the creature’s back as he struggles to kill it.

Finally, the creature dies, and with the sorcerer’s death, his island fortress blows up like a Bond villain’s, and Sigurd and Peter are restored to human form. Jack keeps his promise and frees the leprechaun, who laughs maniacally and flies off to conquer the world, a far worse evil than the wizard he helped defeat.

Okay, not really, but it would have been cool. If you really must see this for yourself, you can see it on Hulu here.

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7 Responses to Super Movie Monday – Jack the Giant Killer

  1. Sargon says:

    Man, I don’t. . . I don’t have enough booze on hand for that shit. That is freaky.

  2. Tony Frazier says:

    Oh, this isn’t even the freaky shit. There’s another piece to the story that I didn’t tell. After Jack the Giant Killer was released through United Artists, Schneer, Harryhausen, and Columbia Pictures threatened lawsuits over the picture’s glaring similarities to 7th Voyage.

    So Small had the picture reedited and new audio recorded to turn the movie into a musical. He didn’t do any reshoots; he just recorded musical numbers over existing footage. You can see the results here and here, but be warned: the result really is as awful as it sounds.

    But see, this is what confuses me: I remember a fantasy film from the late 50’s or early 60’s that featured an evil sorcerer as the villain, with a dance number by a sexy spider-woman as a featured bit in the middle. I thought it might be The Magic Sword, but it wasn’t. Then I figured it might be Jack the Giant Killer, but it also isn’t. So now I have no clue what film I’m thinking of.

  3. anonymous says:

    its sindbad the sailor 1963 guy williams

  4. Tony Frazier says:

    Thank you. I’ll have to track it down.

  5. Darci says:

    He meant “Captain Sindbad”. From http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/220919%7C0/Captain-Sindbad.html :
    “One of the most elaborate scenes in the film is a bizarre ballet (with the Reed-Schapar Dancers) in a show put on for El Kerim’s court, a spider-woman (Anna Luise Schubert in sexually provocative pink-and-white leotard) swings dramatically through the air and wraps her legs repeatedly and suggestively around a sailor/dancer (John Schapar) trapped in her web.”
    See also http://shop.tcm.com/captain-sindbad-dvd/detail.php?p=355780&ecid=PRF-TCM-100188&pa=PRF-TCM-100188
    hope this helps!

  6. Lee Eisenberg says:

    I so agree with you about evil Elaine. There was something REALLY sexy about that chalky skin and those yellow eyes.

  7. Izlude says:

    It’s one of my favorite films of all time. I saw both the regular and the musical versions, but the musical one first as a kid (the regular one is better). It was quite silly, but the witches were definitely nightmare fuel, especially the screaming wind witch and the skeleton with the flowers. It’s action packed, that’s what I like about. Compared to other old movies, like The Lost Continent (which has weird film effects/monsters etc) the creatures in Jack The Giant Killer were actually useful to the plot and not random. Now compared to modern films, it’s definitely a classic and makes me dislike what is produced these days. I give the film 11/10, it went above and beyond and has a good re-watch value (kinda like War of The Worlds 1953 and The Time Machine 1960). Highly recommended watch.

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