Waaaay back in my childhood back in the 1970s and 1980s, I was a huge fan of the stop-motion animated films of cinematic FX maestro Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was, from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, a one man “Industrial Light & Magic.” Usually working without assistance, Harryhausen would build his armatured puppets and carefully shift their positions in tiny, incremental moves. When the finished footage was run at 24 frames-per-second, these hand-crafted puppets would appear to ‘move’ in a stroboscopic way that left an indelible impression on me. I loved Harryhausen’s “One Million Years B.C” (1966) and “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” (1956), as well as his trilogy of “Sinbad” movies. Then I discovered “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) on television one night. It was arguably the late Harryhausen’s personal best, and given his wildly imaginative filmography, that’s saying a hell of a lot.
**** TITAN-SIZED SPOILERS!!!****
Directed by Don Chaffey (“One Million Years B.C”), the film opens with the gods of ancient Greece at Mt. Olympus, casually dabbling in humanity’s affairs for their own amusement. Evil would-be king Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), acting on bad advice from his mystic (the disguised god Hermes), pulls a King Herod and murders the Royal family, yet clumsily allows his son Jason to live. Declaring himself king, Pelias is warned by his soothsayer that “a man with one sandal” would return to reclaim the throne of Thessaly (in ancient Greece).
20 years later, the goddess Hera (future “Pussy Galore” Bond girl Honor Blackman) manipulates circumstances by casually tossing Pelias in a lake. Pelias is saved from drowning by young Jason (a stalwart Todd Armstrong) who loses a sandal in his rescue attempt. Immediately realizing the danger the ‘one sandal’-wearing young man poses, Pelias pretends to be an ordinary citizen (shades of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”) and ‘welcomes’ Jason into his circle. Jason trusts Pelias, and confides to him that he’s returned to reclaim his throne; wanting to lead Thessaly away from its current state of corruption.
At this point, the gods intervene on Jason’s behalf. Bringing him up to Mt. Olympus, Hera and Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) tell Jason he must sail to the far-off land of Colchis and find the “Golden Fleece”… a gift from the gods that can be used to restore Jason’s rightful place. Jason presses Hera for assistance, but she can only be called upon for assistance five times during the voyage. The look of Mt. Olympus, as depicted in the movie, is very consistent with what we would later see in Harryhausen’s last feature film, “Clash of the Titans” (1981).
Pelias offers to aid Jason in his quest, assuming he’ll be killed in the attempt; he also employs his son Acastus (Guy Raymond) to ingratiate himself to Jason and act as his surrogate. Jason then seeks out master shipbuilder Argos (Lawrence Naismith, an older actor who spends far too much time wearing nothing but a pair of tighty-whities) to build a vessel for his quest. Argos also volunteers to be a crewman as well. The vessel is named the Argo, in honor of her maker, and is also fitted with an oddly aft-mounted figurehead made in the image of Hera, which occasionally opens its eyes as Hera whispers her assistance to Jason.
Next, Jason and Argos hold Olympics-style tryouts for a crew… only the strongest and ablest men of Greece need apply. Jason unwisely recruits a vain, past-his-prime Hercules (Nigel Greene) as well as Pelias’ son Acastus, who passive-aggressively challenges Jason’s leadership at every opportunity. The final crew of ‘Argonauts’ are a sizable collection of sunburnt British actors in skimpy tunics who at least handle the action sequences well. No awards for inclusive casting (even an actual Greek or two might’ve helped), but then again, this was 1963.
Once Jason and his ‘Argonauts’ set sail for Colchis, the adventure really kicks into high gear. The film becomes a series of action set-pieces, each of which is highlighted by fantastic stop-motion animation from Ray Harryhausen. The first sees a starving crew stop heeding the first of Hera’s five warnings, setting course for the Isle of Bronze. Hera warns Jason that he and his crew are free to take food & supplies, but nothing more. Of course, with Hercules being an arrogant douchebag, Hera’s warning is immediately ignored…
Hercules and a young argonaut enter the base beneath the bronze statue of the god “Talos” where they try to steal some of his oversized bling-bling. The gods are incensed, and in one of the single best sequences of any Harryhausen flick, the gargantuan bronze statue comes to life! Memorable sound FX are used as well, with every movement of the titanic eyeless statue echoing with the loud friction of metal against metal.
The stop-motion of the massive Talos has the same kind of power and impact we later see in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” (with the Imperial walkers on the ice planet Hoth). Lots of low angles and wide shots of Talos convince us of the statue’s height. Much like the Imperial walker FX of Star Wars, stop-motion is the perfect FX medium to convey a large mechanical object coming into artificial life. For my money, fantasy movies rarely get better than this!
As the crew sets sail to escape, Talos grabs the ship and shakes it before dropping its broken hull back into the sea. Hercules’ young friend is also killed during their escape attempt. A desperate Jason pleads to the Hera figurehead for a second assist. She tells him to “look to the ankles” of Talos to defeat him. Jason unseals a giant circular hatch on the back of Talos’ foot (like the legend of Achilles’ heel) and the giant bronze monstrosity oozes precious life force, gasping and clutching at its throat… eventually falling to its death.
The Argonauts eventually repair their vessel, but a guilt-ridden Hercules elects to stays behind. Hera advises Jason to let him go… the gods have another plans for Hercules. So the Argonauts resume their course for Colchis. There was to be a proposed sequel tentatively titled “Jason in the Underworld”, which would’ve reunited him with Hercules, but the project was ultimately abandoned.
En route to Colchis, the Argonauts are told to seek an amulet from the tormented, blind hermit King Phineas (future Doctor Who star Patrick Troughton, made to appear aged and feeble). The king’s amulet is supposed to help the crew through a narrow strait of “clashing rocks” along their course to Colchis. King Phineas lives in daily torment from cruel winged Harpies, who swoop down to steal most of his food, leaving the old man in a permanent state of near-starvation. Phineas offers his assistance only in return for the Argonauts’ aid against the dreaded Harpies, who were sent by the gods in retaliation for Phineas’ transgressions against them.
Using an elaborate series of nets, Jason and his men set a trap for the creatures. Soon the harpies are captured and kept in a makeshift cage…and now live on the scraps from Phineas’ table. With the grateful Phineas’ amulet in hand, Jason and his men leave the blind hermit… who is finally able to finish a meal in peace. Future “Doctor Who” star Patrick Troughton’s performance and age makeup are memorable, especially his fearless retorts to Zeus’ angry thunder claps (“You can growl away all you like, Zeus…”). One could easily forget that this is the same actor who would later play the gentle, slightly bumbling Second Doctor.
Soon the Argo approaches the narrow channel surrounded by the “clashing rocks.” Giant boulders splash into the waters around them, as the cliffs themselves seem to shake in rage. Desperate to pass through the increasingly dangerous channel, Jason tosses the amulet into the water. Moments later, the ocean god Triton rises from the sea (complete with fishtail), holding back the unstable rock walls… allowing the Argo to safely pass through. While the depiction of Triton is realized with a human actor (an uncredited Bill Gudgeon) instead of a Harryhausen puppet, the miniature clashing rocks are nicely rendered. Triton is photographed in appropriate slow-motion, giving the god-being appropriate heft. The creature-lover in me wishes Triton was created using another Harryhausen stop-motion puppet, but time and money constraints (not to mention the challenges of integrating a puppet with real water) were insurmountable obstacles for the time.
1981’s “Clash of the Titans” would later address those earlier FX challenges with the seaborne “Kraken” monster (“Release the Kraken!”). At any rate, the actor-aided depiction of Triton is serviceable.
Past the strait, Jason spots a lone survivor from a destroyed vessel which wasn’t so lucky within the clashing rocks. The survivor turns out to be Princess Medea of Colchis (Nancy Kovack). Despite surviving a horrific shipwreck, Kovack’s fetching Medea is the very image of 1960s “Mad Men”-era glamour, with both perfect hair and makeup. The tired Argonauts finally near the shoreline of Colchis, where an exasperated Acastus throws down a challenge to Jason’s authority, blaming him for all that’s happened to them during their journey. They battle for leadership on the deck of the Argo, with a defeated Acastus diving into the sea. Jason chooses to let him go.
Arriving at Colchis, Jason meets Medea’s father, King Aeetes (Jack Gwillim, in a wonderfully over-the-top performance). Despite the friendly overtures, Aeetes is mindful of the fact that Jason’s mission is to steal his kingdom’s legendary golden fleece, the wool shorn from their ram god. King Aeetes was clued in on Jason’s plan, as we see Acastus standing at his side. Branding them pirates (and he’s not entirely wrong), the king locks up Jason and his Argonauts, who are to be executed. Medea, who’s fallen in love with Jason, betrays her people to free Jason and his Argonauts.
She also takes him to the secret location of the golden fleece, which is guarded by the multi-headed snake-like monster of Greek myth known as the Hydra. The creature wounds Medea, and is eventually felled when Jason thrusts his sword into the beast’s heart… the only way to kill the entire creature, rather than attempting to destroy its regenerative heads one at a time.
The momentarily victorious Jason takes the fleece, which has healing properties, and blankets Medea in it. Medea’s wounds are quickly healed, and they escape… only to be pursued by the vengeful King Aeetes, who burns the remains of the Hydra and orders his men to steal the dead creatures teeth.
Aeetes and his men pursue the fleeing Argonauts back to the coast, where he tosses the slain Hydra’s teeth to the ground to create a skeletal army which (in an absolutely spellbindingly crafted sequence) immediately rise to attack the Argonauts. Many of Jason’s crew are killed, but ultimately the Army of the Dragon’s Teeth are defeated.
Jason, Medea and the surviving Argonauts take the fleece and set sail for Thessaly. Hera and the other gods have plans for Jason, but Zeus prefers to let him revel in love and victory; “For the moment, let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze and each other. The girl is pretty and I was always sentimental. But for Jason, there are other adventures. I have not finished with Jason. Let us continue the game another day.”
Meeting the Titans…
Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, I was at the annual Star Trek Convention, where I ducked into one of the panel discussions while waiting to conduct an interview later on. The panel turned out to be a fortunate coincidence; it was a panel on guest stars of Star Trek, past and present. Two of the guest speakers were from “Deep Space Nine” (actors Molly Hagan & Michelle Krusiec) while the third was from the classic Star Trek series, Nancy Kovack. Kovack played “Nona” the witch woman from the 2nd season Star Trek TOS episode, “A Private Little War.” She was also, of course, “Medea” from “Jason and the Argonauts.” During the Q&A portion of the panel, various questions were directed at Kovack about her episode of Star Trek, which Kovack only vaguely recalled… given that it was a mere week’s work done some 52 years ago. At that point, I saw an opportunity to take to the mic and ask her about her work on “Jason and the Argonauts.”
Seizing my chance, I asked Kovack if she had any particular memories about working on “Jason and the Argonauts”, telling her it was one of my favorite movies. Kovack, still radiant in her 80s, just lit up at the mere mention of the film. Kovack had vivid memories of working on “Jason and the Argonauts” (more so than of her single week’s work on Star Trek). She recalled having to reach a few of the remote Italian shooting locations by mule, as well as the awesome beauty of filming among those ancient ruins. Producer Charles Schneer and director Don Chaffey wanted as many authentic locations as possible, no matter their condition. Kovack was so inspired working at the film’s locations that she and her husband (who was in the audience) later moved to Italy after retirement. She also remembered the magic of seeing the completed film with Harryhausen’s stop-motion FX work added into it, and she drew a direct line between Harryhausen’s work in the movie with the big-budget FX-laden blockbusters we see today. I was glad to have stirred such fond memories for Kovack, who seemed to be a very sweet lady. In fact, meeting her inspired me to write this profile on the film.
Speaking of inspiration, at the ripe old age of 38 I finally had the chance to meet Ray Harryhausen at San Diego Comic Con 2005. This was one of those few rare times that I got a bit cotton-mouthed and sweaty-palmed meeting a celebrity. Harryhausen was a personal hero of mine, and a cinematic FX legend. I barely croaked out a few nerdy words before he shook my nervous hand and autographed my coffee table book “Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life” (2003), which I cherish to this day. Harryhausen later passed away in 2013 at age 92. He was best friends with two other idols of mine; the late iconic writer Ray Bradbury and the late “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman. The three of them were the original ‘sci-fi geeks’ of Los Angeles in the 1940s, and joined the Science Fiction Society (established in 1934). They would meet at Clifton’s Cafeteria to discuss and engage in their passion for the genre as they later helped to advance it. I’ve been very fortunate in my lifetime to have met each of these three men.
A couple of years ago at the IMATS Makeup Trade Show in Pasadena, I saw a poster for a “Talos” makeup demonstration, and I once bought a Talos figure at an Anime collectibles store in downtown L.A. That sequence is still hearty nightmare fuel, 50-odd years on.
I still read and hear fond recollections and reviews of “Jason and the Argonauts” now and then. Actor Tom Hanks, at the 1992 Academy Awards, cited “Jason” as his favorite movie of all time when he presented the Gordon E. Sawyer technical achievement award to Harryhausen.
Aside from a canceled sequel (“Jason in the Underworld”), there was a 2000 Hallmark Channel TV miniseries remake of “Jason and the Argonauts” starring Jason London and Jolene Blalock (“T’Pol” from “Star Trek: Enterprise”; 2001-2005). To be honest, I’ve not seen the entire miniseries, since what little I saw of it was enough to put me off. The early 2000s CGI-effects were pale imitations of the tactile, gorgeous, hand-crafted FX work (and legacy) of Ray Harryhausen. “Jason and the Argonauts” is one of those classics (like 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or 1975’s “JAWS”) that should be declared remake-immune.
Summing it up.
Ever since seeing this film on television in my childhood, “Jason and the Argonauts” remains one of my favorite fantasy films of all time, easily taking its place with other classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” and even “King Kong”. It’s 104 minute running time takes a little while to get started, but once the Argonauts set sail for Colchis, the story quickly moves from one fast-paced action set piece to another… rewarding the viewer for their earlier patience.
The colorful cinematography by Wilkie Cooper is ably supported by a majestic, ominous score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho” “The Twilight Zone” “Taxi Driver”). The mainly British/American cast play it all very straight-faced, with the late Todd Armstrong earnestly taking his place alongside some of his more experienced costars (much like the easy rapport between the young Mark Hamill and Sir Alec Guinness in the original “Star Wars”). Even if the setting or story doesn’t do anything for a would-be viewer, the film is worth seeing for the Talos rampage and Army of the Dragon’s Teeth sequences. These two show-stoppers still retain a haunting and captivating power, even 56 years later. How I wish I could see this one theatrically someday!
“Jason and the Argonauts” is one for the ages.