DVD Review Of The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/26/10


  In recently rewatching the classic Ray Harryhausen film (although technically directed by Jack Sher, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Ross) The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver (1960), based upon the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, I was transported back to my youth. Most people, of course, might recall reading the book, and wondering why only the first two episodes in the book were filmed, when some of the more biting satire came later in Swift’s novel. Naturally, time considerations were at hand, and even long before this film’s release, the Gulliver mythos consisted primarily of the Lilliput portion of the book, with the Brobdingnag portion perhaps the only other part of the book explored.

  But I have read the book two or three times in my life, and while there is some good satire, the book itself is rather predictable and trite. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel DeFoe, in fact, is likely a better tale about the then-current society, for its singular parable lashed even more deeply at the social problems it confronted, plus, it was just a better written piece of prose. No, as a Harryhausen fan, I was transported back to my early youth in New York City, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when small, one screen local theaters would be open all day and night, or nearly so, and me and my pals would often sneak in to see the early shows, or earn our way by helping clean up the theaters for the sometimes kindly owners, out to give poor kids a break. In those days, such theaters usually has three distinct shows at three distinct times. From early morning openings around 9 or 10 am, thru noon or 1 pm, there would be shown old run films- usually kids films, or old sci fi or horror B films. Chief among these were old copies of Harryhausen films, Japanese giant monster films, Hammer horror films, cheapo horror films from abroad, like those of Paul Naschy, or just homegrown Roger Corman films from AIP. The theater owners never cared about ratings, and just showed old reels (often a decade or more in storage) they had in storage for a dime a pop. Along with the old Joe Franklin television interview show, which exposed me to silent films, and late night staples like Chiller Theater and Creature Feature, these old theaters were my gateway into my country’s past, as well as my imagination’s future. One must recall that, in those even pre-VHS days, tv was the only source for old movies, so if one wanted to see a classic on a big screen, morning showings of the old film types I mentioned were invaluable. Of course, from 1 pm through midnight, or so, the newest releases would play, and then from midnight on all the perverts would come out for the soft and hardcore porno such theaters would purvey. In a sense, there was something for every filmgoer.

  The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver I first saw on the big screen, and in color, and later saw it a few times on television, but not for a quarter century or so. So, I had to rewatch the 100 minute film. Kerwin Matthews, from The Seven Voyages Of Sinbad, does a surprisingly good job as the semi-zomboid, but buff, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver. He plays Gulliver as a real guy his genuineness makes up for his sometimes wooden reactions. June Thorburn plays his fiancée (then wife) Elizabeth. She’s sufficient eye candy, and that alone is reason enough to justify her sweet insertion into the tale (she is not in Swift’s novel). Gotta love her silly ‘Don’t ever wanna lay eyes on you again moment’ after Gulliver objects to her naïve-te regarding the purchase of an old shit shack. None of the other actors who play any of the other characters leaves that great an impression, although the girl who plays Glumdalclitch (Sherry Alberoni, a child star on the original The Mickey Mouse Club on television) does a solid job with the little she’s given. Her petulance and warmth make her the only semi-realistic character in all of Lilliput (land of the tint people) or Brobdingnag (land of the giants).

  This film features less of the stop motion photography Harryhausen was noted for, and more visual tricks involving split screens and traveling mattes, to make use of forced perspective in portraying Gulliver against his smaller and larger costars. Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper is credited in the film, but, realistically, he was, in effect, just a cameraman for Harryhausen.

  The story is a simplified version of the Swift novel. Gulliver reluctantly aids the King of Lilliput in his war against the rival state of Blefescu. The war is over which is the proper end of an egg to be opened. After Gulliver steals the Blefescuan Navy ships, the King is still not satisfied, and orders Gulliver to commit genocide on Blefescu. As a doctor and man of honor, he refuses, and is accused of treason. He then flees, and washes up on the shores of Brobdingnag, where Glumdalclitch finds him. The King of Brobdingnag offers to barter for him, then accepts the girl as his protector. Fortuitously, Elizabeth ended up there when she stowed aboard Gulliver’s ship. He had been washed overboard to Lilliput, and the ship later destroyed. She seems to have been the lone survivor. The King’s doctor accuses Gulliver of witchcraft after he saves the Queen’s life with modern medicine, and the two lovers (married by the King) are persecuted. While the Lilliputians and Blefescuans are small in mind regarding politics, the Brobdingnagians are backwards regarding science and medicine. Glumdalclitch therefore rescues the couple, tosses them into a basket, and throws them down a river which washes out to the sea, where the two end up back in England at film’s fade. Yes, there’s some petty philosophizing by Gulliver, but it works in a campy way. Even the ending which questions whether or not the adventures were all a dream- while trite, is not too big a deal because the film handles everything in a lighthearted way. Had the film been more sober in its claims and portrayal, such an ending would have bombed, especially since it veers so far from the original.

  After all, this is clearly a children’s film, and a good, solid one, at that. In contrast to the more ‘sexy’ Sinbad films Harryhausen worked on, this is obvious- just look at the scene in the dollhouse where a horny Gulliver wants to drill Elizabeth, but she demurs because they are not married, so he wakens Glumdalclitch to fetch the king to marry them. The Bernard Herrmann score, while not as memorable as those he did for Psycho or Taxi Driver, still shows an attuned ear for moment, and when NOT to color a scene with pathos. This trait could have easily doured down this film for children.

  The DVD contains a full screen version of the film, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There has been some controversy in many DVD reviews online about whether or not the film has been cropped by the film studio, Columbia. First off, as I recall seeing the film on the big screen, it was NOT in any widescreen format, like many other Harryhausen films. This despite claims on IMDB that the film was released in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Several websites give big demerits for the studio’s supposed ‘sin’ of cropping the frame. But, this is not a pan and scan DVD, and after reading some differing claims about the original aspect ration, I actually came across a good explanation in the comments section of, of all websites, Amazon.com:

  If you’re considering a purchase of this title, but are wary because of the occasional misinformation and confusion regarding the original screen ratio and the preservation of this ratio in the transfer, then don’t fret. With no intention of starting a debate, I can comfortably state that the film hasn't been re-formatted to fit your screen (although this is inaccurately stated before the film begins). Concerned that the studio/corporation had balked on an authentic widescreen transfer, I spent more time than I care to admit in pursuit of clues and/or answers without doing any severe film-scholar-like research. Anyway, although you may encounter what appears to be a 16x9 transfer in the U.K. and EU markets, I don't believe that these are any more accurate than the supposed widescreen preview/trailer found on several of the Harryhausen Collection discs. In fact, it’s the very preview on "3 Worlds" for "3 Worlds" that solved the riddle. Here’s the deal: It’s a banded, or barred trailer (wherein the black bars at the top and bottom are actually hiding or covering the picture beneath). Whether this was done for exhibition on a 1:85 to 1 or 16x9 big screen, I can't say, but the visual material in between the bars is composed the same as the "supposedly" cropped transfer. I took a couple of easy-to-find images from the trailer and double-checked them by using the chapter search. Anyway, you don’t want the widescreen version of "3 Worlds" anymore than you want a widescreen version of "Shane." It simply isn’t the screen ratio in which these films were shot. If you think I’m wrong, then please check for yourself. Screen composition and visuals are only being compromised in the artificially "wide" versions. Lastly, while viewing this watered-down, but totally delightful feature, you'll notice that the on-screen composition fits the 1:37 to 1 ratio, which is to say that the character group shots fit very comfortably, as does the entirety of the film's action, while there aren't any distracting pan-and-scan artificial edits that usually show up during two-shot dialogue sequences and the like... Please pardon this messy and long-winded response to the transfer complaints that I came across, but I felt sort of obligated to save some time for those of you who may want to view or purchase this title, but may (understandably) hesitate due to the feedback conflict.

  Yes, that sounds about right, as it conforms to my childhood memory of the film, as well as the comparison between shots from the film and trailer being accurate. There are also some other extras, including a featurette called Making Of The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver. Then there are two segments that are on all the Harryhausen DVDs from Columbia, a three minute long featurette called This Is Dynamation, on the stop motion process Harryhausen used, and an hour-long featurette called The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles. There are also production notes, filmographies, and several Harryhausen film trailers.

  The 3 World Of Gulliver is narrative cut to the essentials. Within 10 minutes the film’s backstory is done with, and Gulliver has washed up on Lilliput. Because it is so fast-paced, and the scenes so obvious, the effect on the memory is an interesting one. Whereas in an arts film like Bela Tarr’s Satantango, the long takes tend to radically condense the film in recall, the opposite effect is achieved in this brisk film- almost every scene is recalled in good detail, since there is no waste- every scene has a payoff. It may not be earth-shakingly deep, but there is no flab. In this age of bloated blockbusters with nothing to say, give this film and its makers credits- they may not have had much to say, but they knew it, and said it as best they could.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]


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