Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad

Director: Pietro Francisci
Writer: Pietro Francisci
Producer: Angelo Faccenna
Cast: Robert Malcolm, Sonia Wilson, Spartaco Conversi
Country: Italy/Egypt
Year of release: 1973
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Isn’t it great that, in these days when everything seems to be available, when The Deathless Devil is on the racks in Tower Records, when Hanuman vs Seven Ultraman can be obtained with a handful of mouse-clicks for less than the price of two pints, that there are still old films awaiting rediscovery? One such is this little gem.

It is also a pleasure to find films which remain gloriously uncertain of their own titles. In this case, there are three questions. Is ‘caliph’ spelt with a PH or an F? Is ‘Baghdad’ spelt with a G or a GH? And is the main character’s name Sinbad or Simbad? The video sleeve has Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad; the on-screen title is Simbad and the Calif of Bagdad (which is also on the BBFC certificate); and the label on the tape calls it Simbad & Caliph of Bagdad. There are also Italian intermission cards in this print which carry the original title Simbad e il Califfo di Bagdad. ‘Simbad’ incidentally is not bad proof-reading or an attempt to avoid some feared copyright suit, it is a legitimate alternative spelling (as is Sindbad, of course).

Robert Malcolm (Three Fantastic Supermen in the Orient) is our hero, introduced at the end of a two-year sea voyage. He is suitably handsome and athletic and spends much of the film wearing nothing but a pair of grey swimming trunks. He has a neat beard and a bouffant hairdo and is dubbed by someone with a strong Italian accent.

But before we meet Sinbad, we witness the evil that is the Caliph of Baghdad. This insane despot likes to pick a beauty from his harem and have her dance for him - except that the Caliph is hiding behind a screen with a crossbow while the serene figure on the throne is actually a lookalike dummy. The young lady shimmies and shakes and then gets a bolt in the chest for her troubles, at which point she is picked up and carried away by the other dancers, who are evidently used to this sort of thing.

This is the only actual example of the Caliph’s cruelty which we witness although the implication is that there is much else. Two government ministers discuss (quietly) how bad the ruler has become, including the introduction of a new punishment called ‘the pole’: “a straight, round stick, pointed at one end, is inserted into the victim’s... well, you can see this drawing.” And we do!

I’ll call these ministers Abdul 1 and Abdul 2, as they will reappear later. Neither is actually called Abdul but there are no character names in the credits and I can’t make out any names clearly in the dialogue - and even if I could, I would be guessing at spellings. I can’t even tell if people are calling the main character Sinbad or Simbad. The more senior Abdul is played by Spartaco Conversy who, in some other films, was credited as Spean Convery, presumably because he bears (or at least, bore) a passing resemblance to a certain Scotsman. I wonder whether any Italian audiences ever actually fell for that one? Conversy was in loads of westerns including A Bullet for the General (with Klaus Kinski) and Umberto Lenzi’s One for All. He has an uncredited bit-part in Once Upon a Time in the West as a guy who gets shot through the foot.

Also in the palace is the evil Vizier, who controls the Caliph’s medication and has his eye on the throne. I think he’s played by Arturo Dominici (unless that’s Abdul 2). Dominici played Eurysteus in the original Steve Reeves Hercules (also directed by Pietro Francisci) and was also in Caltiki the Immortal Monster, Goliath and the Barbarians, Black Sunday, Castle of Blood, loads of other pepla and - good Lord! - a 1972 Italian remake of A for Andromeda! I’m assuming he is the Vizier because he generally played villains. (Even more interesting are his dubbing credits. He was the voice of: James Doohan in Star Trek II and III; Bernard Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die; Jose Ferrer in Dune; Billy Barty in Willow; and Bruce Forsyth in Bedknobs and Broomsticks!)

Checking images via Google, I think Abdul 2 is played by the brilliantly named Franco Fantasia, who also gets a credit as ‘fencing master’. He was assistant director on several notorious films such as Mountain of the Cannibal God and Eaten Alive and had acting or stunt roles in dozens of Italian swashbucklers and thrillers plus various horrors and even the odd sci-fi picture like Atomic Cyborg: Steel Warrior.

Anyway, when Sinbad returns to Baghdad he finds his adopted father (he was an orphan) has died and the house which he thought was home is being emptied of all possessions by the Caliph’s men. All that has been left for Sinbad is half of a parchment, with instructions to find the other half and “the large safe”. Out on the street and unsure where to go, he is befriended by a comic relief double act of two crooks who I will call Larry and Mo. Larry (Leo Valeriano) is small, shifty and wide-eyed in contrast to the taller, older, more lugubrious Mo (Gigi Bonos). They are cheerful but not terribly competent and yet they’re not nearly as irritating as comic relief characters often are, and in fact a few of their lines border on funny.

Gigi Bonos was in his sixties when he made this and had been in films since 1945. His credits include Castle of the Living Dead, Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 12+1 (a version of The 13 Chairs which stars Orson Welles and Tim Brooke-Taylor!), They Call Me Trinity (and stacks of other spaghetti westerns), Roman Polanski’s What?, Frankenstein 80, Three Supermen of the West, Mr Superinvisible, The Exorcist: Italian Style and an extraordinary-sounding sci-fi western called The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid. Leo Valeriano, in contrast, was making his screen debut but went on to make another 52 pictures and is now a big-name cabaret star in Italy.

They take Sinbad to an inn where they ply him with drugged wine and then sell him to a sea captain - who then has his men cosh Larry and Mo, taking back his money and acquiring three Shanghaied slaves instead of one. Sinbad comes to onboard the ship, where he is sent aloft as lookout while Larry and Mo work as scullery boy and cook. The rest of the crew are a gang of thuggish ruffians but Sinbad shows them he’s not to be trifled with.

A small boat approaches the ship and several comely maidens climb onboard, disappearing below deck. Director Pietro Francisci makes frequent use throughout the film of vertical movement as people scale ropes, step down into hatchways or plummet through trapdoors. The final maiden doesn’t have to climb a rope ladder like the others: she is lifted up serenely on a platform by a pulley. This is ‘Scheherazade, Crown Princess of Bahrain’ (Sonia Wilson), intended as a politically expedient bride for the Caliph, and she holds her nose as she passes the sweaty (but handsome) slave who is scrubbing the deck.

Of course Sinbad falls hopelessly in love with the princess so as soon as he has finished swabbing he heads down to the kitchen where he has Larry and Mo give him a bath in a cauldron of fresh water, before anointing himself with perfume from the galley spice rack. The girls are looked after by a camp eunuch (who, rather cruelly, wears a turban decorated with a small pair of scissors!); Sinbad drugs the eunuch’s food then steals his clothes in order to take the princess her meal. This eunuch is played by the noted American writer Eugene Walter, who had time to found the Paris Review, hang out with all sorts of famous people and generally become famous - there’s even a Eugene Walter festival, and yes, it is the same guy! - when he wasn’t making films like Juliet of the Spirits, Black Belly of the Tarantula, The House with Laughing Windows and The Pyjama Girl Case.

Discovered in the princess’ room, Sinbad is sentenced to death but she orders him spared so he is set adrift in a small boat, along with Larry and Mo. They wind up on a curious, barren island. One of the staples of the Sinbad legend is the curious, barren island which turns out to be the back of a giant sea monster. In this instance, although Sinbad spends some time examining the strange rock formations, the idea that this might be a monster is never raised and the three men successfully escape without them - or us - finding out. Perhaps the budget simply didn’t stretch to those sort of effects.

There are several wrecked ships on the island, including one with the skeletons of galley slaves still gruesomely chained to their oars. Another boat is Chinese in which they find not only explosive bombs but a hot air balloon, which they use to make their escape.

Back in Baghdad, the trio start to live like kings, using treasure which they purloined from the wrecked ships. Sinbad has his beard shaved but leave his moustache, prompting Abdul 1 and Abdul 2 (remember them?) to note that he is the Caliph’s double. At a slave auction, presided over by our old friend the eunuch, the Caliph is bidding; it seems that most people have no idea who he is because he rarely leaves the palace. Sinbad turns up wearing identical clothes but with a blue fez instead of the Caliph’s red one. A gang of revolutionaries try to attack the Caliph and in the confusion it’s Sinbad (knocked unconscious) who is taken back to the palace while Larry and Mo rescue the Caliph by accident. This is all part of the Abduls’ plan.

Things then start to get more complicated. Sinbad (posing as the Caliph), Larry, Mo and the Abduls gain entry to a treasure room containing a large safe, which proves to have not only vast amounts of treasure within but also the other half of Sinbad’s parchment. This reveals that he is the Caliph’s twin brother, spirited away after birth to avoid political complications. However, the team’s presence in the room is alerted to the Vizier who sends Sinbad, Larry and Mo plummeting through a hidden trapdoor into a water-filled well.

Although we don’t see their rescue, we are told of it later. The film nears its finish with the Caliph watching Scheherazade dance but he is interrupted by the intrusion of the Vizier who declares that he is assuming sovereignty - and takes a crossbow bolt to the chest for his trouble. (A curious character, the Vizier: clearly evil, yet he is trying to rid Baghdad of someone even more evil, which makes him almost good by comparison.)

However, the Caliph has been tricked. That fake Caliph on the throne is not a dummy but his long-lost twin brother and the two indulge in a sword fight which is very well edited and only spoiled slightly by the body double with his back to the camera having much shorter hair than Robert Malcolm. There are also two extremely well-done split-screen shots with Sinbad and the Caliph face-to-face, one of which actually has the sword in Sinbad’s hand pressed against the chest of his brother. My guess is that this was achieved by having the sword fixed in place, probably with a pole sticking out from the scenery behind it. At least, that’s how I would do it...

Having disposed of the evil Caliph, Sinbad then has to face a squad of soldiers outside, commanded by a general who was previously holding allegiance to the Vizier. He now announces that no-one from the Caliph’s dynasty should rule, but the day is saved by Larry and Mo in the hot air balloon, dropping Chinese bombs on the soldiers from above.

What a corking adventure. It’s all just over-the-top enough to work as a good Sinbad adventure should. Above all, it looks gorgeous, thanks to location work in Egypt and the use of Eastmancolor stock (called ‘Telecolor’ here). The film is ‘An Umberto Russo di Pagliara production for Buton Film SpA with the collaboration of the General Egyptian Cinematographic Organisation.’

Also in the cast are Paul Oxon (The Slasher is the Sex Maniac - a film which share quite a number of cast and crew with this one), Maria Luigia Biscardi, Mark Davis (the acting pseudonym of screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici: Don’t Torture a Duckling, L’Anticristo, Cannibal Holocaust, The New York Ripper, Monster Shark, Phantom of Death etc), Eva Maria Grubmuller, Carla Mancini (the third victim in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, also in All the Colors of the Dark, What Have You Done to Solange?, Baba Yaga Devil Witch, Flesh for Frankenstein, Flavia the Heretic and more than 150 other movies) and Alessandro Perrella (Death Walks at Midnight, The French Sex Murders, Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye, Dr Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks).

This was the last feature directed by Pietro Francisci, seven years after his previous one, oddball sci-fi flick 2+5: Mission Hydra (aka Star Pilot). He is best known of course, for launching Steve Reeves’ career - and the whole peplum genre - with Hercules and Hercules Unchained although he had previously made some other historicals including The Queen of Sheba and Attila the Hun. He died in 1977. Cinematographer Gino Santini’s many spaghetti western credits include Django the Bastard and a film which looks like it should belong in the Mirror Universe - Inghilterra Nuda, an Italian mondo film about Britain! Other notable crew members include costume designer Maria Luisa Panaro (The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance), supervising editor Otello Colangeli (Operation Kid Brother, Mr Superinvisible, Castle of Blood, The Virgin of Nuremburg, lots of pepla and Antonio Margheriti’s 1960s sci-fi movies), assistant director Renzo Girolami (Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks), sound technician Roberto Alberghini (Puma Man, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, Castle Freak, Mind Ripper, Argento’s Phantom of the Opera) and hair stylist Silvi Vittoria (Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Death Laid an Egg).

Composer Alessandro Alessandroni’s cool list of credits includes A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Devil’s Nightmare, The Strangler of Vienna, Lady Frankenstein and, um, SS Extermination Camp. Rather cheekily, the use of a stock recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade means that Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic also get a credit - which would probably surprise them if they knew.

Special effects, which don’t extend much beyond a model hot air balloon on a rather visible wire, are by Paolo Ricci whose career extends from Django the Bastard in the late 1960s through The Sexorcist, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Big Alligator River, Fulci’s The Black Cat, 2019: After the Fall of New York, The Atlantis Interceptors etc right through to 2003’s The Accidental Detective.

Currently unavailable in English, except on old VHS tapes like this one, Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad is good, clean fun. The production values are surprisingly good and mention must be made of the way that a slight rocking motion is imparted to every single scene onboard the ship, above or below decks. It would be nice to seem someone pick this one up for DVD release, maybe with contributions from some of the surviving participants. I have no doubt that it will happen eventually.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 28th March 2006

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