THE CURIOUS CAREER OF KERWIN MATHEWS
By Dr. Abner Mality
Here at Wormwood, we focus a lot on the dark side of film...the monsters, the misfits, the madmen. It makes perfect sense, once you see who actually is doing the writing. But the heroes have their place, too. Especially in the world of fantasy film.
There’s one name that stands a little taller when it comes to clean cut, two fisted protagonists of fantasy and horror and that would be the name of Kerwin Mathews. When you are talking about fantasy action movies in the age before “Star Wars”, Mathews was as iconic as they came. He was Sinbad in what many would say was the best movie to feature the swashbuckling sailor, “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”. He followed that up with a very similar role in “Jack The Giant Killer” and also as the far-flung traveler Lemuel Gulliver in “Gulliver’s Travels”.
Those were three mighty roles, but Mathews didn’t rely only on playing larger than life heroes. He was a bloodthirsty man-beast in “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf”, a violent outlaw in the Western “Barquero”, and even classical composer Johann Strauss in “The Waltz King”.
I thought it was high time we maybe shined a light on a Hollywood hero for a change, so here we are looking at the curious career of Kerwin Mathews. And when I looked at that career, one of the first surprising things I discovered is how connected he was to the very area I live in. He spent a good deal of his life only thirty miles away from where I am now in Northern Illinois. He even went to the same college I attended for a time (no, not Transylvanian Tech...that came later)!
He was actually born in Seattle, Washington in 1926, but didn’t spend much time there. He moved to Janesville, Wisconsin with his divorced mother just two years later and although he later retired to San Francisco, he always had strong ties to southern Wisconsin. He was a student at Janesville High, where he first became interested in theater.
Like many young men of his time, Kerwin served his country during World War 2. He was a pilot in the Air Force. Once his tour of duty was done, it was back to Wisconsin to get a college education in the theater. He put in a couple of years at tiny Milton College just outside of Janesville. Now just by coincidence, your humble servant the Good Doctor also attended Milton in the early 80’s. In fact, I was there during the last year of its existence before it unfortunately went under. Now I swear that had nothing to do with me, even if a couple of my lab experiments went out of whack…
Mathews stayed in the area and finished up college at Beloit College, just a few miles south of Milton, and also very close to where Yours Truly grew up. I wonder if he ran into the future Marshall Dillon, James Arness, who also went to school there. Kerwin’s ties to Beloit College were pretty deep and he stayed on after his graduation as a drama teacher. Although teaching was a passion of his, the call of Hollywood was too strong for him to ignore and he headed west in the hopes of a film career.
It wasn’t long before the handsome young actor started to make his mark. He hooked up with Columbia Pictures and started getting small roles in both movie and TV. One of his first TV parts was an appearance on the old kids’ sci-fi show “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger”. More full blooded roles on “Playhouse 90” and “Matinee Theater” followed and he was finally picked to be one of the leads in the lowbudget war picture “Tarawa Beachhead”. That movie has mostly vanished into history, but it was critical for Mathews, because he caught the eye of producer Charles Schneer at Columbia Studios. Schneer thought he would be perfect as the star of the upcoming fantasy picture he was planning.
That movie was the classic “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, which featured the amazing effects of stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Although Schneer and Harryhausen had worked together before, “Seventh Voyage…” was by far the most ambitious picture they had ever worked on, with the biggest budget. Harryhausen couldn’t wait to dig into a true fantasy world out of mythology, instead of the standard monster and alien invasion movies he had worked on before. Joining Harryhausen on the movie would also be the great composer Bernard Herrmann, who came up with one of his best scores for the adventurous film.
“Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” would remain Kerwin Mathews’ biggest success and best known role. In many ways, it typecast him as the earnest, swashbuckling hero of fantasy films and this is still how many film fans see him today. Although the movie is a huge favorite of mine, I always preferred the look and performance of John Phillip Law in the 1974 sequel “Golden Voyage of Sinbad”. Mathews’ version of the adventurous captain seemed more like a wealthy prince than the bearded rogue I always imagined Sinbad to be. His romantic scenes with Princess Parisa (played by Bing Crosby’s wife, Kathryn Grant) were kind of on the mushy side, especially if you were a young boy looking for swordfights and monsters, which most of Sinbad’s target audience were.
Nevertheless, Mathews poured all his energy and vigor into his portrayal. He had some great action scenes battling with pirates and especially Harryhausen’s amazing living skeleton. He also made a great foil for the evil wizard Sokurah, played with relish by Torin Thatcher. Mathews and Thatcher would meet again in a few years. The real stars of “Seventh Voyage” were Harryhausen’s astounding creatures, including the horned Cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, a giant two-headed roc and that sinister skeleton. The movie was an Arabian fantasy come to life and it was a huge hit...one whose shadow Mathews was never able to entirely escape.
Immediately following “Seventh Voyage…”, Kerwin did manage to find his way into two prestigious films where he got to show more more of his acting range. He had an unusual villainous role in Sam Katzman’s low budget war film “The Last Blitzkrieg”, playing an all-out Nazi...a bigger contrast with the wholesome Sinbad would be hard to imagine. He then had a good role in the tense Cold War spy film “Man On A String”, where Ernest Borgnien played a Soviet undercover spy who is convinced to work for the Americans. This movie was the last English-language film directed by the great director Andre de Toth.
Impressed with the performance of “Seventh Voyage”, Schneer decided to cast Mathews in another fantasy film that used the effects of Ray Harryhausen, “The Three Worlds of Gulliver”. This was based on Jonathan Swift’s famous satire, “Gulliver’s Travels”, albeit greatly altered and with a lot left out. The film is perhaps the most “forgotten” of all Harryhausen’s classic fantasies and it is true, it is not in the same category as “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” or “Jason and the Argonauts”. But it is charming in its own way and Mathews once again demonstrated what a likable hero he could be as Lemuel Gulliver, who is transported to Lilliput, a land of tiny humans, and Brobdingnag, a nation of giants. Harryhausen cooked up a giant squirrel and enormous alligator for Gulliver to battle as well as confronting the strange inhabitants of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.
The film was a mild success, but nothing on the level of “Seventh Voyage”. Schneer next cast Kerwin in one of his most serious and ambitious pictures, “The Devil At Four O’Clock”, which starred Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. Directed by the great Mervyn Le Roy, it was an exciting film set in the South Seas that worked as both a disaster film and a character-driven drama. Mathews played a priest serving the people of a tropical island wracked by leprosy and an active volcano. The movie was a success both critically and financially and it seemed that Mathews was poised for a major Hollywood career.
It never materialized in the way Columbia Studios hoped. The studio had recently entered into a partnership with England’s fast-rising Hammer Films, known for their blood and thunder horror movies. Mathews was assigned to work with Hammer in England and wound up headlining two movies that were somewhat against the grain for Hammer. The first was a rip-roaring low budget pirate film “The Pirates of Blood River”, where Mathews once again buckled his swash and leapt into action as a man kidnapped by Christopher Lee’s one-eyed buccaneer in order to find buried treasure. The film also starred Oliver Reed and fellow American Glen Corbett and was put on a double bill with the classic Schneer/Harryhausen effort “Mysterious Island”. That twin pairing was one of the most successful of the year in Britain, but the movie vanished without a trace in America.
The other Hammer film Mathews worked on was quite different. 1963’s “Maniac” was Hammer’s attempt to cash in on the red-hot craze of psycho killer films inspired by Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. It was a twisting, turning black and white thriller that cast Kerwin as a morally ambiguous character who gets caught up in murder and mayhem when he’s attracted to both a French innkeeper and her daughter. The film was written by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster and directed by studio head Michael Carreras and drew generally good reviews. The beginning of the movie, where a vengeful father uses a welding torch to horribly kill the man who raped his daughter, is unforgettable and the last ten minutes yielded a lot of twists and excitement.
But Mathews could not really escape the shadow of Sinbad and that was blatantly obvious when he was cast as the lead in the children’s adventure film “Jack The Giant Killer”. The film was close to a virtual remake of “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, switching the action to medieval Cornwall but having a very similar plot. The movie was once again directed by Nathan Juran and Torin Thatcher, so memorable as the evil wizard Sokurah, was back as Pendragon, another sinister magician. As the wholesome and humble Jack, Mathews fought to save a princess from Pendragon’s legion of monsters, including giants with both one and two heads as well as a flying dragon and a not-too convincing mob of witches and ghouls.
One thing “Jack The Giant Killer” keenly lacked was the genius of Ray Harryhausen. Gene Warren used Ray’s stop-motion technique to animate the monsters, but they just didn’t have the same quality that Ray’s did. However, the film was entertaining enough for the kids of the time and had a nice brisk pace that kept magic and mayhem constantly flowing.
“Jack” pretty much cemented Kerwin in the part of handsome, swashbuckling hero. The film did well but typecast Mathews. Perhaps because of this, he decided to leave Columbia Studios. That brought to an end his time as a player in major Hollywood films. Despite that, he kept himself busy in a variety of roles, many of which were in the sci-fi and horror realm.
He briefly flirted with Disney and was the star of their TV film “The Waltz King”, where he had the lead role as Johann Strauss. Mathews described this as the favorite of all his roles. After that, he followed the path of many American actors and headed to Europe to star in Italian, German and French films. The spy genre was red hot in the 60’s thanks to James Bond and Mathews was well cast in the French “OSS 117” films “OSS 117 is Unleashed” and “Panic in Bangkok”. Although rarely remembered now, the OSS 117 movies were among the most popular Bond knock-offs of their time.
The British film “Battle Beneath The Earth” gave Kerwin another lead role as a courageous Navy Commander battling a Chinese Communist plot to attack the US using earth-burrowing machines. The film was the height of Cold War paranoia, as the fanatical Chinese dig beneath the Hawaiian Islands where they are intercepted by American forces. The movie ends when the Yanks use nuclear bombs to stop the invaders...how this doesn’t lead to World War III is one of the movie’s greatest mysteries. The movie has become a kind of cult hit based on its unrelenting paranoia and fear of Communist invasion.
It was back to the continent to film the Eurospy movie “The Killer Likes Candy”. This marked the last of Mathews’ starring roles. His Hollywood career was winding down, but a few interesting films yet remained.
The violent Western “Barquero” was next up for Mathews, where he got to work alongside Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates. He had a rare villainous role as a slippery Frenchman allied with Oates’ vicious outlaw. The movie is well worth checking out for Western fans.
1971 was a fairly busy year for our boy. After generally staying away from TV roles, he managed to get a semi-regular part on the “King of Soaps”, “General Hospital”. He also appeared on the hot primetime crime drama “Ironside” with Raymond Burr as the wheelchair bound police detective. But the real oddity of his career was the super low budget monster flick “Octaman”, notorious for its goofy looking tentacled terror, which was one of the early creations of make-up maestro Rick Baker. Mathews had pretty much steered clear of really bad roles throughout his career, but this time he just couldn’t dodge the bullet. Although it was co-written by Harry Essex, creator of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the film was so poorly directed, with abysmal lighting and action scenes, that it has wound up as a kind of “negative classic”. Kerwin managed to deliver a solid performance as the scientist trying to capture the Octaman, but this was doubtless his worst hour as a performer. The film can be recommended only to monster movie completists or film masochists drawn to cinematic disasters...in other words, the typical reader of Wormwood Chronicles!
Sensing perhaps that the end was near, Mathews had only one last major role, in 1973’s “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf”, directed by his old friend Nathan Juran, who did “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jack The Giant Killer” all those years before. In this one, Kerwin played the father of a young boy who was the subject of a custody battle. Making this story different than the expected soap opera was the little detail that Dad becomes a bloodthirsty werewolf when the moon is full!
Some might lump this movie in with “Octaman” as a piece of trash, but it actually comes across as great fun, with Kerwin really giving it his all as the tortured werewolf. There’s a great scene where the slavering wolfman encounters a commune of Jesus-loving hippies which is sure to get you laughing. The werewolf makeup is effective and kudos has to be given to young Scott Sealey who plays the “boy who cried werewolf” with real intensity. The movie has a rather downbeat ending and ends up as an entertaining capstone to Matthews’ career.
A few more TV guest appearances remained and in 1978, Kerwin Matthews finally decided to retire as an active performer. He moved to San Francisco where he opened an antiques store that he ran until his death in 2007 at age 81. He remained a strong supporter of the arts for the rest of his life. Nathan Juran, who directed him in three of his most well-known films, praised him as being a “total professional” who always gave his all in every role, no matter what it was. That was definitely true, as Mathews never “phoned in” a performance even in sub-standard parts.
In retrospect, Kerwin Mathews had just about every attribute needed to be a true Hollywood star, including good looks, intensity and a dedication to his craft. The movie business is overflowing with guys that “could have been big” but never quite made it to the next level. But there are a lot of actors who wish they could have had the career Mathews had. Even today people think of him as the consummate swashbuckling action hero due to his roles as Gulliver, Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer. Many kids were inspired by those movies. And if you dig a bit further into Kerwin’s career, you will find more variety and subtlety than those roles suggest.
In the wild world of psychotronic movies, he will always be near the top of the heap!