If the NBC network's elaborate production of "Merlin" is any indication, the technological society in which we live has done little to diminish our age-old fascination with wizards. We may have evolved over the years from getting our spirit messages by holding hands around a table to an ongoing electronic séance called the Internet, but when it comes to magic spells and minor miracles made to order, it is still the imposing image of the old fashioned sorcerer that catches our interest.
Needless to say, moviemakers have been aware of the drawing power of wizards from the very beginning. French film pioneer Georges Melies liberally sprinkled his early efforts at trick photography with wand waving conjurers. Since that time the screen has seen hundreds of portrayals of sorcerers, both evil and benevolent. Many of them, sad to say, have been rather uninspired characters woven into stock, formula plots. Nevertheless, there have been a few memorable portrayals of wizards down through the years. In honor of old Merlin, let's look back at some of the better ones that are available on home video.
"The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). Special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, a wizard in his own right, recreates the world of the Arabian Nights right before our eyes. Sinbad's adventures begin when an evil sorcerer named Sokurah tricks him into facing an island full of living skeletons and dragons and giant birds to retrieve the magic lamp that is jealously guarded by a ravenous cyclops. A superior piece of entertainment, this captivating fantasy has long been a favorite among Harryhausen's legion of admirers.
"The Magic Sword" (1962). Basil Rathbone, who was one of the movies' great bad guys before donning a deerstalker cap to become Sherlock Holmes, returns to the dark side with a vengeance as the evil sorcerer Lodac. Saint George (Gary Lockwood) must overcome Lodac's seven curses to rescue Princess Helene, whom Lodac has imprisoned. George is armed with an enchanted sword and a supernaturally swift horse, but the curses he must face range from a giant ogre to a two-headed dragon. Rathbone hams it up a bit, but he does it so well that it's hard to object.
"Captain Sinbad" (1963). Existing as it does in the shadow of Harryhausen's "Seventh Voyage" and its two sequels, this Sinbad movie has almost been forgotten over the years, but I still like it. Guy Williams, television's Zorro, plays Sinbad opposite Pedro Armendariz as the wicked El Kerim. Lots of people would like to cut out El Kerim's heart, but it can't be done. His heart is kept in a tower guarded by fire-breathing monsters where no opponent's sword can pierce it. Apparently this doesn't inconvenience El Kerim in any way. That's black magic for you.
"The Raven" (1963). In the early sixties, B-movie producer Roger Corman released a series of low budget films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. To his credit, he hired some of the best fantasy screenwriters in the business to write the scripts. Richard Matheson, who wrote some of the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone" for television, was hired to adapt "The Raven." It was clear that Matheson would have to stray far afield from the original material, since Poe's work is a poem, not a story. Having already written a couple of straight Poe adaptations for Corman, Matheson decided to take a different approach this time, going for comedy instead of horror. He invented three characters, all wizards, and set them at each other's throats, playing the whole thing tongue in cheek. Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre) has been turned into a raven by a more powerful wizard, the forbidding Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Bedlo turns to Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) for help. Craven manages to return Bedlo to his original form and together they set out to confront Scarabus. The highlight of the film is a full blown wizard's duel between Craven and Scarabus. Matheson's script is consistently clever, and the trio of veteran horror actors seem to be having a wonderful time poking gentle fun at their own screen images.
I haven't yet mentioned old Merlin himself. The shadow he casts over fantasy movies is long indeed, and has resulted in a wide range of interpretations over the years, the current television version being only the most recent. Next week we'll look at a sampling of movie Merlins.