My father took me to see Jason and the Argonauts when it came to the movie theaters. I asked my younger brother recently if he had gone with us (I couldn’t remember), and he said yes – in fact, he seemed to think it was the first movie he’d ever seen in a theater (he would have been five years old when it appeared). It seems likely that Tom Hanks saw it around the same time as well. I’ll tell you later how I know.
Jason and the Argonauts is set in the world of Greek mythology. Jason, the only surviving member of the family of King Aristo, is encouraged to seek the legendary Golden Fleece at the other end of the world by the man whose life he has saved from drowning, not knowing that the latter is King Pelias, who is responsible for killing Jason’s family. With the aid of the goddess Hera, Jason commissions a ship (the Argo) and assembles a crew of the bravest men in Greece (the Argonauts), among whom are Hercules and Pelias’s devious son Acastus. They encounter many dangerous creatures on their voyage, including a gigantic statue that comes to life in order to destroy them, the Clashing Rocks, which destroy all the ships that try to pass between them, the seven-headed Hydra guarding the Golden Fleece, and, most spectacularly, a small army of animated skeletons.
In many ways, the movie looks and feels like a comic book – the characters are larger than life and their motivations are uncomplicated, the sets are large and brightly colored, the action is swift and violent without ever being explicit. And best of all, it has Ray Harryhausen’s special effects.
Ray Harryhausen may be the only special effects designer whose name has become a kind of brand name that defines a genre. This sort of thing is common with iconic directors: phrases like “a Hitchcock film” or “a Steven Spielberg movie” indicate a certain style, a specific quality – they give the audience a good idea about what to expect. No one (as far as I know) refers to “Willis O’Brien’s King Kong” or even “George Pal’s The War of the Worlds”. But talk about “a Ray Harryhausen film”, and people who love films will probably know what you’re talking about.
Harryhausen was the grand master of stop-motion animation. Basically, he was creating cartoons, except with flexible models rather than flat drawings. The work was extremely painstaking: he would move the model slightly, expose a frame of film, then move it again, expose another frame, and on and on until he had finished a scene. (The scene with the animated skeletons lasts about three minutes in the film; it took him four months to complete.) Then the bits of the film that he shot were integrated into the live action being shot on a set somewhere.
Jason and the Argonauts has plenty of amazing effects (he considered it his masterpiece, and he was right). The moment when the enormous statue of Talos turns his head can still send a shiver down your spine, and Jason’s fight with the seven-headed Hydra is a minor masterpiece of stop-motion artistry. But the one scene that makes this film a classic is the short, climactic battle between Jason and his men and a dozen or so warrior skeletons who sprout up from the ground armed with swords and shields. For me, it’s up there with King Kong climbing the Empire State Building or Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a crop duster – it’s one of those scenes that every film lover has to know. All by its surrealistic self, it’s worth the price of admission.
The movie ends abruptly. The last few lines of dialogue, between Zeus and Hera, do everything but come out and say that there would be a sequel in which Jason would return and deal with the evil king who murdered his family. But Harryhausen decided to devote his efforts to a series of films featuring Sinbad the Sailor, and the promised sequel never materialized. Or rather, there was a sequel, in 1981, but it had nothing to do with Jason. It was called Clash of the Titans, and it had a bigger budget, a much more stellar cast (Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Clair Bloom, Harry Hamlin, Ursula Andress) the same director, one of the same writers (Beverley Cross) and some terrific Ray Harryhausen effects. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Star Wars had appeared, ushering in a new world of computer-generated special effects, and Harryhausen’s animated models seemed comparatively arthritic. It was his last film; he died in 2013 at the age of 92.
Don Chaffey’s direction is efficient; although he’s not working with a cast of thousands, he creates an epic look, helped by a lot of location shooting off the Italian coast. Chaffey became an extremely prolific director for television, first in England and later in America, and his name is on many episodes of some of my favorite shows of the 1960s: Secret Agent, The Avengers, The Prisoner. The screenplay, with dialogue that is formal but never stilted, and frequently witty, is by Beverley Cross and Jan Read, both of whom, despite their first names, were men. (In fact, Cross was Maggie Smith’s second husband.)
The score is by Bernard Herrmann, whose name ranks at least as highly among film-lovers as Ray Harryhausen’s. He began his career with Citizen Kane, he finished it with Taxi Driver, and in between he wrote the music for many of Hitchcock’s greatest films – including Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Herrmann limits his orchestra to winds and percussion, giving the film a suitably “barbaric”, slightly primitive feel.
The actors, none of them major stars, are all more than adequate for their roles: the good guys attractively stolid, the villains over-the-top, the gods amusedly aloof. Todd Armstrong began his career in 1961 as a co-star on a television series called Manhunt. Two years later he was cast in the title role of Jason and the Argonauts. Apart from a handful of film and television appearances, his career was essentially over in 1983, and he committed suicide nine years later after learning that he had contracted AIDS. Apparently, he was also embittered by the fact that all his dialogue in Jason was dubbed by an English actor because his own accent sounded too American in a predominantly British cast.
Although she’s listed second in the credits, Nancy Kovack (Medea) doesn’t actually come into the film until it’s almost two-thirds over, and she really doesn’t make much impression (apart from being glassily beautiful). Her American voice was also dubbed by an English actress. A few years after making the film, she married conductor Zubin Mehta and settled into life as a socialite after he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s-80s.
The other cast member worth a mention is Honor Blackman (Hera), who starred in The Avengers for a couple of years before becoming Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger.
Before presenting Ray Harryhausen with a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, Tom Hanks (who was born about a year after me and about a year before my brother) said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.” Well, no, it’s not, really. But for people of a certain age who were kids when it first came out, it provided a vision of what films could offer – stranger worlds, weirder creatures, bolder adventures. For what it is, and for what it set out to be, it’s pretty near perfect.