Tuesday, July 10, 2007

To The Land Beyond Beyond

Kerwin Mathews holds Kathryn Grant in the palm of his hand in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

It was learned over the weekend that actor Kerwin Mathews, best remembered as the star of Ray Harryhausen's epochal fantasy THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), passed away in his sleep during the early hours of July 5. He was, unbelievably, 81 years old. When I was a child, Mathews stood proudly at the helm of a number of exciting fantasy adventures, movies that gave substance to my daydreams and those of countless other kids of, or roughly, my same age. His persona -- handsome, intelligent yet uncomplicated, and somehow speculative in aspect -- was one of those that kept me coming back to the movies.

Born in Seattle in 1926, he began acting in the mid-50s, dividing his time between bit parts on television (SPACE PATROL, PLAYHOUSE 90) and in the movies (Phil Karlson's 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, Robert Aldrich & Vincent Sherman's THE GARMENT JUNGLE) before claiming his first lead in TARAWA BEACHHEAD (1958), directed by Paul Wendkos. THE 7TH VOYAGE followed almost immediately and that special something that Mathews had, clicked; it found its proper setting. Like anyone wishing to prove themselves as an actor, he often yearned to move outside that narrow definition, and sometimes he did, but it was as a fantasy hero that he most regularly fulfilled his promise onscreen: as a peplum star with more charisma than muscles in Pietro Francisci's THE WARRIOR EMPRESS (1960), as Dr. Lemuel Gulliver in Harryhausen's THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), as the swashbuckling Jonathon Standing in Hammer's THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962, in which he crossed swords with Christopher Lee decades before Yoda), and in the title role of JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), a delightful but bare-faced imitation of 7TH VOYAGE that appears to have brought an end to his happy association with Ray Harryhausen.

7TH VOYAGE had been filmed in Spain, and Mathews was very much a continental gentleman in the 1960s. Among his other pictures were Hammer's suspense thriller MANIAC (1963, one of his finer, most surprising, dramatic performance); Euro spy pictures like OSS117 (1963) and PANIC IN BANGKOK (1964), both directed by FANTOMAS helmsman André Hunebelle; the British-made BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967), and two more by French director Maurice Cloche: THE VISCOUNT (1967) and THE KILLER LIKES CANDY (1968). When the European film scene entered its period of crisis in 1968, he returned to America but found his moment had passed him by. More accurately, his moment kept coming back -- in the form of Columbia reissues of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD in the mid-1960s and again in the early-to-mid 1970s. Mathews retained his youthful appearance even after his hair turned gray, but it was difficult for him to move beyond a public perception of him that seemed destined to be renewed every ten years. As I reported last April 23 in this blog, even JACK THE GIANT KILLER came back... as a musical!

After making A BOY... A GIRL (1969) for John Derek, what remained for Kerwin Mathews onscreen was essentially unworthy of him. There was Harry Essex's OCTAMAN (1971, now remembered solely as the screen debut of makeup wizard Rick Baker), Nathan Juran's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973, which at least scored a prominent national release through Universal), and finally NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD (1978), the low-budget directorial debut of San Francisco TV horror host John Stanley.

Seeing the performance that Kerwin Mathews gives in films like MANIAC and THE LAST BLITZKREIG, one begins to see that there was probably a great deal that he could have done as an actor that he never had the opportunity to share with us. He may have privately bemoaned that the "right" role came along too early and closed a lot of doors to him, but how many of those doors could have led to something more important, and more important to more people, than his Sinbad? Or his Jack? These roles may have closed professional doors, but they kept doors open between Mathews and his fans long after he had retired into private life in his beloved San Francisco. It's said that a week didn't go by without fan mail written by someone newly introduced to the colorful, fanciful fables and myths in which he once starred.

Mathews reminded me a lot of Gordon Scott, whom we lost earlier this year. They were alike in that they both drifted out of exotic adventure pictures into Euro spy fare, and they both got out of the movie business around the same time, spending their extended retirements below the general radar and venturing out only occasionally to make public appearances at autograph shows. (Mathews enjoyed a happier old age, it's comforting to know.) But, most importantly, they shared a magnetism that was equal parts reliability, intelligence, virility, and wholesomeness -- a strange combination that somehow added up to the perfect recipe for adventure heroes. No comic book artist ever imagined more convincing protagonists than these two, and when you saw them in a movie, you knew two things for sure: that anything could happen and they would meet each new challenge head-on -- without fear and without irony.

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