Thursday, February 12, 2015

Classics Revisited: Jason and the Argonauts

(1963) Directed by Don Chaffey; Written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Niall MacGinnis and Honor Blackman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“In the early days I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then I got butterflies in the stomach on opening night, and I decided that wasn’t for me – I’d rather be behind the camera. But I’m grateful I took those lessons – a drama course at Los Angeles City College; because it taught me how to act and react with other people in the acting profession. So I have a sort of indirect way of acting through these models…”
– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 1995 interview with John Landis)

With so many memorable creations to Ray Harryhausen’s credit, it’s nearly impossible to pin down a favorite. For many, it might be Pegasus or the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, maybe the flying saucers from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, or the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. For my money, however, it’s tough to beat the battling skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. Smack dab in the early ‘60s, amidst all the numerous sword and sandal flicks, producer Charles H. Schneer, director Don Chaffey and effects maestro/executive producer Harryhausen created something that made the other genre flicks seem run-of-the-mill by comparison. Filmed on location in Italy, the filmmakers concealed Jason and the Argonauts’ modest budget by filming on location in Italy, and utilizing real locations such as the Greek temple (which had been built to honor the goddess Hera) ruins near Naples.* The film’s episodic nature reflects a patchwork quilt, stitched together from numerous classical sources.

* One nitpick: As impressive as the authentic structures look, would they really have been ruins in the era that the film depicts?

After the despot Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) conquers Thessaly and kills King Aristo, he learns that his victory will be short lived, as a priest (Michael Gwynn) prophesizes that he will die at the hand of Aristo’s son Jason. The story skips forward 20 years later, when by chance encounter (or is it?) Jason saves Pelias from drowning. Before he realizes his mistake, he’s off on a quest to the ends of the Earth, searching for the Golden Fleece. He assembles a group of men, the Argonauts, to embark on his quest, while Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) observes Jason’s struggles from atop Mount Olympus. But Jason has an ace up his sleeve with Hera (Honor “Pussy Galore” Blackman), who’s granted him five instances when she can intercede on his behalf. He gets additional help from Medea (Nancy Kovack) who assists him with obtaining the Fleece, betraying her country in the process.

Let’s call a spade a spade; no one looks at the Schneer/Harryhausen movies for the stellar acting or plot hole-laden stories. Taken on these terms, Jason and the Argonauts is a creaky boat, full of hokey, contraction-free dialogue, and men running around in sheets. But no one’s come for the ancient political intrigue, or virtuoso performances. Nope, forget all that. We’re here to see monsters, and damn it, we’re gonna see ‘em! The main draw has always been Mr. Harryhausen’s marvelous animations.

Jason and the Argonauts’ stop-motion effects, or “Dynamation.” featured not one, but several unforgettable Harryhausen creations. The giant statue of Talos, which comes to life and threatens the crew of the Argonaut* Harryhausen noted that Talos, as depicted in the ancient legend, was actually the size of a person, but he decided to take some artistic license and base the film’s animated statue on the massive Colossus of Rhodes. In another sequence, the blind Phineas is tormented by a pair of harpies, until Jason intervenes. Harryhausen saves the best for last with the Hydra and skeleton warriors. The Hydra, as described in the original story, had only one head that regenerated itself when cut off. Because it was deemed too difficult to animate, he decided on the creature with seven heads** that appears in the finished film. Later, the teeth from the severed heads become skeleton warriors, leading to one of the most iconic animated battles in film history. Harryhausen noted that his father was responsible for building the metal armatures for the skeletons – they were assembled by the elder Harryhausen in the States, and shipped to his son in Italy.

* No thanks to Hercules (Nigel Green). He doesn’t really do much to help Jason and his men, but endangers all of them when he attempts to plunder some of the treasure guarded by the giant bronze statue.

** Why seven heads? According to Harryhausen, “Seven is a mystical number and recurs many times in our pictures, so seven heads it was, and none of them would be required to grow back.” (from The Art of Ray Harryhausen, by Ray Harryhausen & Tony Dalton)

Considering how beloved Jason and the Argonauts is today, it’s hard to believe the film wasn’t a big hit when it was released (hmmm… where have we heard that before?). It wasn’t long until the movie gained traction, however, as audiences came to appreciate Harryhausen’s painstaking effects. The movie’s conclusion enticed viewers with the promise of other adventures with Jason, but sadly, they were not to be. While it’s fun to speculate about what could have been, I’d rather enjoy what exists. Harryhausen’s technical wizardry sealed Jason and the Argonauts’ fate as one of the most visually compelling fantasies of all time.


  1. I have a soft spot for First Men In The Moon, but everything Harryhausen did was great. Back when he passed away, I tried to explain to my friend Adrienne - who's a decade younger than me and unfamiliar with his work - why she and everyone else who's ever enjoyed a fantasy film (Harryhausen's or otherwise) owes a debt of gratitude to the man. I suspect me beginning to cry while pleading my case probably made my point better than my poorly chosen words. He's a legend.

    1. Right on, Brandon! I wonder if we'll ever see his like again. It's amazing that (with the exception of Clash of the Titans), Harryhausen worked alone, to animate all of these incredible characters. Truly one of a kind.