Movie Reviews 396 – Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

For decades Ray Harryhausen was a household name when it came to stop motion animation sequences in feature films. Having been inspired by Willis O’Brien’s King Kong in 1933, the teenaged Harryhausen began creating his own household menagerie of creatures that he then crudely filmed in 8mm. Before his career ended he had given us science fiction classics that include It Came from Beneath the Sea (based on a Ray Bradbury story) and  H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. But Harryhausen will forever be remembered for the creatures he created for his fantasy films including three Sinbad the Sailor films and the original Clash of the Titans. Jason and the Argonauts may not have been his best overall film, but it is certainly as creature crammed as the rest and notably contained his most challenging and visually stunning achievement, the incredible skeleton pack battle.

The story, based on Greek mythology, has the heroic Jason (Todd Armstrong) round up a crew of brave, athletic and skilled men (Hercules among them) in a quest to find the Golden Fleece as they sail the seas in their trireme, the Argo . It’s actually an overly complicated setup that includes prophecies, roman army sieges, slaying of royal offspring, but most importantly all under the influence and meddling of Greek gods playing chess in Olympus (as they always tend to do in such films). In fact Jason’s fate lies in the hands of the god Hera (Todd Armstrong) who guides Jason throughout the journey and is ever present for consultation as the rear figurehead on the Argo that occasionally comes to life.

Their journey has them doing battles with Talos a gargantuan bronze statue, two winged, shrieking Harpies endlessly aggravating a blind man, and a seven headed serpentine Lernaean Hydra. One of the lesser special effects in the film (not involving Harryhausen I should add) does have us endure a ridiculously mundane looking Triton (nothing but a man shot against a miniaturized background) holding back the so called Clashing Rocks to make way for the Argo.

But the spectacle of the film will always be the finale featuring the famous skeleton battle. Seven bony bipeds emerge right from the ground and clash with Jason and two cohorts among Grecian ruins next to an ocean cliff. Brandishing swords and shields Harryhausen painstakingly choreographed every swing and counter save bringing what in reality were no more than 12 inch miniatures to life. The shooting is all the more impressive because the battle included three humans, requiring miniatures of them for some of the shots and more impressively coordinating the battle to blend with the moving, live action actors for most of it. Harryhausen’s finest few minutes that took months to shoot.

This film is particularly memorable for me as I was not only able to see it on a large cinema screen in 2005, but at a special viewing in which Harryhausen himself attended and where I met him personally, however briefly.

With modern computer generated special effects today any imaginable creature or scene can be realistically rendered so, sadly, younger contemporary audiences relegate Harryhausen films as archaic and perhaps ‘cute’ novelties. But to myself, and a lot of other more appreciative fans, this will always be nothing short of cinema magic.

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