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Jason and the Argonauts Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Jason and the Argonauts Review

    At the time of writing, Germany have just bounced a truly deplorable England out of the World Cup 2010. Time to put your money on the Argonauts FC ... and their star player, Jason!

    “Have you come to pray to the Gods, Jason?”

    “If I had, I wouldn't have chosen a fallen one.”

    The path to find the Golden Fleece returns in one of the greatest and certainly one of the most influential fantasy films ever made, as Jason And The Argonauts finally battles its way out of the turgid myth of DVD and forges valiantly onto a dazzling Blu-ray platter, courtesy of Sony and Columbia Pictures. 1963's spirited heroic romp is possibly its creator Ray Harryhausen's finest hour, certainly his most inspired and exciting saga and an unbeatable testament to the powers of his stop-motion animation. Two years in the making - and the overwhelming majority of that time with poor Ray toiling alone in his workshop and filming studio - and coming in at a cost somewhere between one, and three-and-a-half million dollars, depending on who you listen to, Jason literally rewrote the history book and has been hailed as a masterpiece ever since.

    Stock footage near the start that bludgeons its way in from Robert Wise's 1956 Helen Of Troy, notwithstanding, Jason And The Argonauts is one of those classic celluloid yarns that demands and rewards repeat viewing - each and every shiver of excitement delivering exactly the same frisson that it did when you first saw the film as an innocent. This, of course, is the magic that Harryhausen was able to incorporate into his golden period of movie-making. His latter two fantastical instalments - Sinbad And The Eye Of Tiger and Clash Of The Titans - though not without merit, were destined never to reach the heights of this or the lavish productions he presided over from the likes of 20 Million Miles To Earth to the often undervalued The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. But time and time again, fans feel drawn back to this rousing adventure, the one that surely tops them all.

    “Isn't he one of the Titans?”

    “He could be. He's big enough.”

    Inspired by Grecian poetry, legends and art, including the sagas of Apollonius of Rhodes, as well as the scintillating imagery of Dore, especially details from Dante's Inferno, Jason And The Argonauts has our hero (Man Hunt's Todd Armstrong with his American accent hidden by having his voice dubbed by now-forgotten English actor Tim Turner) gathering together a crew of ancient superstars, each gifted with a unique talent, and sets sail aboard the specially built Argo in order to search to the ends of the Earth for the fabled Golden Fleece, a treasured item that, if procured, would help rally a rebellion to overthrow the tyrannical ruler of Thessaly. Jason is both aided and hindered in his quest, not least by the numerous obstacles and challenges that stand in his way, but by the gods, themselves. Zeus (the marvellous Niall MacGinnis from Jacques Tourneur's Night Of The Demon) and Hera (the delectable Honor Blackman, caught just between her stint on The Avengers and the role that would she would become synonymous with, Goldfinger's Pussy Galore) playfully indulge in acidic and satirical power-games with one another from their lofty paradise of Mount Olympus, using Jason and his men as pawns in a vast game of deadly chess. The gods, it seems, are bored and the lives of men are a mild diversion to their cloud-based idyll. Hera tries to help Jason, but Zeus has ordained that she has only five chances to intervene - after that and Jason is on his own. But the gods are about to discover that some mortal men have a few tricks up their sleeve, too, and definitely won't give in without a fight.

    “The gods of Greece are cruel! In time all men shall learn to live without them!”

    For a film that is steeped in such genre lore and one that is also, undeniably, a genuine foundation stone for numerous movie-makers, from George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Sam Raimi to Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Stephen Sommers and Nick Park, there is lot more going on within it than merely the audacious special effects. Let's face it, we are almost forty minutes into the story before we even get to one of those eye-popping stop-motion episodes, which shows that the story, or rather the theme of the story is allowed room to breathe and to develop. Schneer and Harryhausen, aided by stalwart direction from Don Chaffey, wanted to explore the concept of a world ruled by idle gods whose time was coming to an end, and being challenged by the will of mortal men. Harryhausen had always been smitten by the Greek Myths and long wanted to depict their timeless heroism and terror on the big screen. Despite many prior conceptual doodlings and sculptings, this was his first opportunity to actually recreate such a world. 1958 had been a pivotal year for the collaborative fantasy team, when Sinbad's tussles with the mighty Cyclops had been a massive success. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (BD reviewed separately) was a superlative swashbuckler, and a consummate spectacle of colour and adventure and action right from the get-go. Mysterious Island, the filmmakers' next production (adapted from the ideas suggested by Jules Verne), whilst still great fun and hugely enjoyable, lacks the same momentum and verve. This time, however, Schneer, Harryhausen and their screenwriters (who really just folded a narrative around the set-pieces that Harryhausen had already preconceived) Jan Read and Beverley Cross, found a greater focus in the ribald landscape of Mythology. Where the general fantasy of 7th Voyage felt lighter and more cavalier, Jason had a degree of weight and importance to it.

    “Lord Zeus, I was a sinner. I've never tried to deny it. But I didn't sin every day! Why, then, do you punish me every day?”

    In truth, the catalogue of creatures that Jason's quest runs into may not be all that extensive, but they are each profoundly memorable and incredibly rendered with all the loving detail, and masterful manipulation that only Ray Harryhausen could muster. Inspired by Willis O' Brien's still-phenomenal work on the 1933 King Kong, Harryhausen took the stop-motion process a couple of steps further. His wonderful Dynamation technique meant that he could have his models performing in the middle of the shot, with live-action footage taking place both behind and in front of them, increasing the perception of reality and the filmic interaction considerably. It may look dated now, but during this period Dynamation was cutting edge and something that audiences eagerly looked forward to. When you look at these films nowadays, you are looking at a snapshot of the dreams of visionaries without whose concerted efforts and insurmountable skills the movie industry would be extraordinarily poorer.

    “If I had to punish every blasphemy, I would have no followers!”

    The episodic chaos wrought about in Jason And The Argonauts really needs no introduction, so ingrained it is in the cultural subconscious. But it is never less than a joy to remind ourselves of such unabashed spectacle. As Sinbad's men would do on that fateful Isle of Colossa when they foolishly tried to plunder the riches from the Cyclops, Jason's trusted scouts incur the wrath of the Titans in the awe-inspiring form of Talos, the giant of bronze. When that big bronze door closes on Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney), there is more than just the wind whistling down the eerie Valley of the Titans to worry about. With ferocious squealing and groaning, tarnished and discoloured bronze twists and contorts as the formidable Adonis-like warrior turns his head to look down at those who would seek to pinch from his tributes, and all of a sudden Hercules' new golden javelin seems like nothing more than a toothpick as the giant climbs down from his plinth and strides like a steroid-packed leviathan across the island to slay the strangers on this lost islet. Harryhausen boosted the height of Talos from the eight or nine feet of legend to something like a hundred, his inspiration clearly the Ancient World's now lost wonder, the Colossus of Rhodes! Little gestures and nuances give the living statue personality. His joints are understandably stiff and he moves with a deliberately jerky motion. My juvenile complaints with the big guy have always been that he doesn't kill enough people. But this takes nothing away from his sheer presence, and when he stomps into view, filling the screen from top to bottom (now fitting the image better thanks to this 1.66:1 transfer), those blank eyes implacable and non-negotiable, you get that giddy rush of adrenaline that many from around three generations of film-fans were lucky enough to experience at the cinema during its initial run and then even more popular re-releases.

    The cast is excellent ... which is not something that a Harryhausen picture could always boast.

    Todd Armstrong may not be a star that everyone remembers - in fact, beyond this, there is little to shout about - but he gives a fine showing as the mythical god-defying champion. He rises above the by-the-numbers, rent-a-hunk status by virtue of an innate likeability and some brazen heroism when it counts. His battle with the seven-headed Hydra shows him at his gung-ho best, whilst the celebrated skeleton-skirmish (a lot more on that later) reveals that he has a solid reliability when things don't look good, and a fierce resistance to surrendering. He just about gets over some stolid dialogue, too, when he stands up against the Olympians from his diminutive position on their chessboard. And he looks good in a beard!

    Douglas Wilmer has a great Basil Rathbone look that perfectly befits his portrayal as Pelias, the despicable despot who kick-starts Jason's quest in the first place. This similarity to Universal's tremendous character actor - the star who was actually a better swordsman than Errol Flynn and could turn his hand to villainous and heroic roles with equal élan - meant that he could easily assume the mantle of Sherlock Holmes in the 1965 British TV series, just before Peter Cushing took over. After such a great introductory act, chronicling his Agamemnon-style campaign of invasion and occupation, it is a shame that we see no more of him in this quest, although he would crop up again for Harryhausen as the Grand Vizier in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad in 1974. Laurence Naismith as the old ship-builder, Argos, very believably scrambling about the decks and sliding down the ropes like a salty old sea-dog. Mind you, he cops a gobful of the briny when the crew stagger to shore in the raging surf after Talos casts the ship aside like a bath-toy, and has to be helped back on to dry land. Keep an eye out for Charles Schneer, too, as one of the crew-men running for his life from the bronze giant! Gary Raymond is superb as the Argo's snake-in-the-grass, Acastus. Dark and sinewy, he is as slippery as an eel, and his eyes never miss a trick. “Then I will do my very best to send him to you, Jason. My very best,” he says to his leader when a plan to thwart the bronze giant is formulated, but look at the excitement in his eyes and listen to the zeal in his voice when he realises that this could be a chance not necessarily to kill off Jason, but certainly to humiliate him and possibly harm him a little.

    “If I meet a woman with a firm leg, a full bosom and a warm heart ... let no man try and stop me!!!!!”

    Well said, Hercules!

    The tragic Nigel Green, so damn good in everything (including Hammer's Countess Dracula), yet so troubled and conflicted in reality that he was allegedly driven to take his own life in 1972, is forever immortalised as the courageous Colour Sergeant Bourne in the epic Zulu, but he also turned-in one of the better portrayals of the great Hercules in this. He is not a muscle-bound uber-warrior. His personification of the mighty, clan-bonding champion is not bedecked with slabs of muscle. Steve Reeves and others were posing their way through many a “peplum” sword-and-sandal historical beach-fest for Italy around this time, so fans could get their fix of the type of hero who has come to dominate the genre right up to this day, but Green, at first an odd choice for the part, proves to be the best of a brawny bunch. He exudes brash confidence, as evidenced with his willingness to challenge the Gods by desecrating the treasure-trove of Talos, but there is also a touching humility about him too, reflected in his relationship with the cunning Hylas. His decision to stay behind to search out his lost friend on the haunted island is one of the most poignant in any of the Harryhausen films, lending Jason And The Argonauts its heart. A chaotic and lustful spirit his Hercules may be, but the doomed and unfulfilled nature of Nigel Green, himself, is summed-up beautifully with his character's wistful, resigned parting from his shipmates in the wake of the clash with Talos.

    “There's not turning back now.”

    “No, Acastus. There's not turning back on this voyage.”

    Patrick Troughton, aged with a scraggly beard and the rags of a hermit is Phinius, the blind seer condemned by Zeus for abusing his gift of foresight to a life in isolation and tormented by demonic Harpies. Once again, this is ripe casting with a terrific character actor who would prove to be a fine champion for the genre, with a tenure as the second Doctor Who, a stint defying Damien in The Omen and even a return to the Harryhausen fold in 1977's Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger. The mean and moody location of the ruins on Paestrum Capaccio in Salerno, the same dilapidated old temple that would test the nerve of Harry Hamlin's Perseus in 1981's Clash Of The Titans when he reached the residence of Medusa, as guarded by Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, serve the sequence well. The remains of a genuine temple, it is almost impossible to imagine a film-crew these days getting the access that this production had - Argonauts scampering all over the tops of the walls and lowering huge nets over the pillars as though about to erect some renovation-scaffolding. The Harpies grew out of a design that Harryhausen had for a winged demon for 7th Voyage, that was ultimately unused, and the concept is one that he has cherished with little winged critters occurring a couple of times subsequently as well.

    Michael Gwynn, so good as the Monster in Hammer's fine sequel, The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) is the disguised god, Hermes, a small part but one that helps to convey the ever watchful gaze of the listless deities. Nancy Kovack, her American accent dubbed-over as well as Armstrong's (you would wonder if they did this after complaints about the accent for the young genie in 7th Voyage is so teeth-gratingly that of a Brooklynite) is pretty lamentably vacuous for the most part. Saved from the wreckage of a doomed ship by Jason, and proving useful in the mission to get the Argonauts to the land of the Golden Fleece, as well becoming a predictable love interest for our impetuous hero, she is an attractive decoration to the final third of the film, if nothing else. And, to embellish this, she certainly comes alive when performing her provocative temple-dance. There is something undeniably Star Trekian about seeing her cavorting around, her body exotically painted - which is understandable as she would go on to perform very similarly for Kirk and Co. in the original series. In 7th Voyage, Kathryn Grant as the shrunken Princess Prisa is actually quite a fine character and a definite evocation of the forward-thinking woman in the USA of the fifties. By contrast, Novack's Medea is something of backward step in terms of female roles, but then this is a man's film, through and through.

    “Hera my dear, You really must learn to win without cheating... or to at least lose gracefully.”

    Then again, we have Blackman's superlative charms as the cunning Hera. There are rumours that she supplied the voice of the dubbed Novack, but someone else has been credited with the job. Plus, there is no way that Medea's voice is the softly enigmatic purring that is so irrefutably that of Honor Blackman. It is lovely to see the sultry, ever-sexy actress deliver that twitchy bewitching smile too, as her phantasm appears to harass Pelius in order to alter the course of events. But her verbal and moral stand-offs with MacGinnis' conniving strategist, Zeus, are the meat of the matter. Certainly not the carved wooden figurehead in her likeness! There was much debate about whether or not this watchful mascot aboard the Argo should open its mouth to speak to Jason like a ventriloquist's dummy, but in the end Harryhausen settled for just the eyes giving life to the effigy. If I'm honest, even this doesn't really come off all that well. The Goddess speaks to Jason in his mind, so there was really no need to show these wooden lids sliding open and shut. Still, a figurehead of Honor Blackman, eh? Well that would float my boat, all right.

    The Argonaut uniform is a belter, too. Out of all the ancient fashions that such heroes wear - Maxmus' image-festooned armour and spiked helmet in Gladiator being an immediate winner - the Argo-look is probably the most fetching. When Jason and his men first don the gear - seen when they arrive on the Harpy island - you get the feeling that they have turned a corner. After Talos, they have proven their worth and their commitment to the crusade to Jason and the gods, and now, like a Royal Marine's Green Beret, or the Winged Dagger of the SAS, it is a symbol of their shared endurance and unity. Helmets with white horse-hair plumes and shields individually adorned with monstrous images - octopus, gorgon, scorpion etc. And, man, they look cool! None more so than during the hectic final encounters on the Island of Colchis, home to the sorcery and rage of King Aeetes and his pet Hydra.

    Oh ... and those skeletons, too!

    Adding the same cutlass-wielding bonehead from the fight in the sorcerer's cave towards the end of 7th Voyage Of Sinbad to the ranks of the gnarled deadsters that turnip-helmeted King Aetes (Jack Gwillim, looking a lot like John Nettles) summons up from the bowels of the earth, Harryhausen unleashes what is arguably his greatest, and most painstakingly crafted set-piece sequence of inventively exciting stop-motion animation. One of the glorious high-points of the entire fantasy genre, the battle with the skeletons is still as majestic and as enthralling as it must have seemed to eyes-agog audiences back in 1963. We appreciate the technical complexities of what Harryhausen achieved, naturally, but the sequence is so admirable for a vast number of other reasons too. There is genuine fear as Aetes advances, scowled and vengeance-hungry at the gall of these foreign thieves. As he scatters the Hydra's teeth and Herrmann's woodwinds, the bass clarinet especially, dances in devious dread, the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. And then, once the ground is clawed aside and the skeletal warriors, those previously slain by the Hyrda, rise up, his glorious excitement as each new one surfaces is terrific - “There's another! See? And another! There!”  And these aren't just skeletons with swords and shields, are they? Look at their malevolent skull-faces, rictus grins cracked demoniacally across them. Shudder as they assume a hunched-over battle stance, and then move forward, step by rattling step, as one grey/black wall of death. But feel the heroic splendour of Jason and his two comrades, Castor of Sparta (played by Ferdinando Poggi, who was also main stuntman on the Harryhausen/Schneer pictures) and the archer, Phalerus (Andrew Foulds, who looks just like the Wolf Man with that curly hair, beard and long, snoutish nose), as they flick back their sword-sheaths in unison and prepare to fight a rear-guard protective action so that Medea and Argos can get back to the ship. “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” roars Aeetes in sheer blood-lust, and then, with a macabre war-cry, the skeletons come screaming at the trio.

    After a spine-tingling build-up like that, you need a skirmish that will do it justice ... and Harryhausen delivers the goods with seriously wondrous dexterity and what must have been the patience of a saint. Ganging-up on each Argonaut they surround and hack 'n' slash at them with bloodcurdling fury, leaning in with black-eyed leers and not playing fair in the least. Look at that vicious upward swipe at Castor's exposed groin as he leaps across the gap in the wall! Gasp as the skulls come in close to gloat at the death spasms of a victim. A noggin is knocked from its perch, leaving its framework stumbling blindly around the battlefield in a visual device that would fast become a cliché. The scene's power to captivate is second to none. That it combines so many elements - bravura action, inspired fight choreography, top class animation, barnstorming music and such a sheer, tendon-paralysing atmosphere of the uncanny - and that they all gel perfectly together ensures that it will always be hailed as the benchmark in a genre that strives, constantly, to top the previous spectacle with each successive new one. The fact that nothing in the years since then, nothing, not even Peter Jackson's LOTR cavalcade of jaw-droppage, have diminished its glory one iota speaks volumes about the depth of the ground that was broken by Ray Harryhausen and his skeletal tag-team.

    “Tell me, Jason ... why have you come to Colchis?”

    “In peace.”

    “I said why ... not how?”

    Uh-oh.

    It is important to speak a bit more about Herrmann's wild score. With three Harryhausen scores under his belt already, the maestro had formed another close allegiance and working partnership after his finally ill-fated relationship with Alfred Hitchcock that would go on to become a template for later associations such as those between John Williams and Steven Spielberg, and Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. Famously, the composer completely dismissed the string section altogether and, instead, bolstered his orchestral batteries with extra woodwinds, a massive brass contingent and enough percussion performers to tap out a Morse Code message that could be heard on Mars. His trademark motifs of dread and suspense were brought in to great effect in the Talos and skeleton sequences, and his wild bombastic impulses were indulged with the mighty clashing rocks sequence, the fight between Jason and Acastus and, once again, the “Scherzo Macabre” of the battle with the boneheads. Remarkably for a film that took two years to produce, Herrmann ended up with only a very short period in which to compose for it. This led to him having to quote quite liberally from his own back-catalogue, though this would not harm the overall the score at all - in fact, his re-assembled cues sound like they were tailor-made for Jason's quest in the first place. Fans will recognise some CBS Radio music for the rising of Triton from the depths, and the deep, rolling underwater music from Mysterious Island that returns for the encounter with the Hydra. There are also cues culled from The Kentuckian (Jason's duel with Acastus) and the wonderful “Dies Irae” theme (for the Hydra's teeth and the devil-children that they will spawn) that will be familiar to horror film lovers from the opening of The Shining (performed on synth by Wendy Carlos) and from The Car (by Lawrence Rosenman) and from many, many others. Beautiful harps evoke the etheral splendour of Olympus. And the powerful combinations of tuba/tympani and tuba/woodwinds with heraldic brass fanfares provide the genre with one its greatest main title themes. Without Herrmann's music, Jason And The Argonauts would be great. With it, though, the film is taken to another dimension entirely.

    It is hard to understand how Jason can meet with, share the hospitality of, and set sail with the son of his enemy, Pelias, without even realising that it is he who has set him on his way. Even without the mass media coverage of the modern world, he could hardly have spent twenty years living in the shadow of the man who murdered his mother and father and not known what he looked like. Statues, effigies and decorations would be adorned with likeness everywhere, and his men would surely address him by his tyrannical title. But this, as well as a great many other holes and narrative flaws are easily swept aside as the sweep of the grand adventure gets underway.

    So many things come together for Jason's quest. The animation, of course. The setting, all the live-action filmed in and around the grand craggy coastline of Southern Italy. The basic, but extremely effective photography from Harryhausen regular Wilkie Cooper. And the music from the great Bernard Herrmann - not only one of the most famous scores of the genre, but one of the most revered scores, by fans, composers, musicians and critics alike, ever written.

    “But for Jason there are other adventures ...”

    Perhaps surprisingly, the film did not fare too well upon its debut theatrical run, even with Harryhausen's name attached to it and the popular acclaim that 7th Voyage and Mysterious Island enjoyed before it. The main reason for this apparent apathy was because since Sinbad, the Italians, ever hungry to catch on to the current cinematic trend, had released a flurry of “peplum” films, spearheaded by the Steve Reeves-starring Hercules which, incidentally, carried something of a similar plot to Jason's, before meandering through a series of poor sequels. Audiences had, by this time, become blasé about fantastical adventures in the ancient era. And so those “further adventures” that are so tantalisingly promised at the end of the film never materialised. Whether or not we ever see another quest for Jason And The Argonauts remains, fittingly enough, in the lap of the Gods. Although I think we should all pray that Louis Leterrier doesn't get his mitts on a remake!

    But, for now, revel in the glory of Ray Harryhausen's golden beacon of the imagination ... now better than ever on Blu-ray.