When it’s on: Wednesday, 23 December (4.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
I don’t know if I’ve told this story before, but mine father regularly dines out on the time I was allowed to pick the film during a cinema visit in 1981. It was my ninth birthday and the choices were Clash of the Titans and a little known action adventure called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much to his consternation I opted for the former, and why wouldn’t I? At that age I was a nut for tales of mythology, not to mention having been raised on the films of Ray Harryhausen. It wasn’t really a choice at all. Of course since then it’s been made clear to me that I turned down one of the greatest entertaining films of all time for some Greek fluff, and in the end we went to see it anyway, but I didn’t regret my decision and I’ll remind readers that I was very young.
Years later, not having watched Clash of the Titans for some time but sitting uncomfortably through the somewhat awful 2010 remake, I wasn’t expecting very much. Comments I’ve read note some terrible acting, shoddy compositing and naturally the stop motion creatures, which even in 1981 were beginning to look a little quaint. Harryhausen has noted his influence over the next generation of film makers, the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, but it was these very people, directors who’d grown up admiring his artistry, who were now rendering him obsolete. A classic like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, made more than twenty years beforehand and using broadly the same technology, suggested that special effects and audience tastes had moved on a long time ago, notably to a galaxy far, far away.
But I shouldn’t have worried. While seeing a HD transfer had the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting some of the shortcomings within the effects work, the finished result was still every bit as much fun as I remember. At their worst, Harryhausen films acted as vessels for the money shots, the plot a mere excuse for stringing the creature appearances together, but here there’s a good story and it’s very nicely acted for the most part. True, Harry Hamlin makes for a bland lead, but having caught any number of matinee flicks over the years he’s a consistent presence – handsome, square jawed, in no danger of upstaging the film’s real stars. Backed with a solid $15 million budget and working from its Pinewood base, the production used European locations rather than the standard California/Grand Canyon, and shooting in places like Andalusia and Malta lends it an authentic look. That climax looks much better for it being filmed by the Azure Window in Gozo, a majestic backdrop for mythological action.
The funding ensured a good cast of mainly British actors, most used to fill the roles of the Greek Gods. No less a figure than Laurence Olivier was hired to play Zeus, the logic being that only the grandest thespianic name could fill the sandals belonging to the Father of the Gods. Despite being ill, Olivier adds real heft and authority to a part that could have been overblown and silly, a difficult balancing act that he pulls off. Elsewhere, Claire Bloom appears as Hera, Ursula Andress’s Aphrodite has nothing to do but be pretty and Maggie Smith enjoys some fine scene stealing fun as the more roundly characterised Thetis. By all accounts, Burgess Meredith was cast as Perseus’s theatrical mate, Ammon, to try and ensure a slightly more American presence on a very British sounding film. He’s good, even if of all the characters he’s the one who gives the biggest impression of taking not a second of it seriously.
As always, the real draws are the Harryhausen creatures, though it’s nice to see a greater focus on the players, an attempt to emphasise the growing affection between Perseus and Andromeda (Judi Bowker), and the manipulation of the Gods on the humans, those whims and caprices that kick start all the major plot points. Whilst it’s true that the effects were losing much of the jaw dropping wonder they previously possessed, looking increasingly like the models they clearly were, there’s the effort to give them personalities that helps bring them to life. Harryhausen also knew enough to mix special effects with dramatic tension. The scene in Medusa’s temple, where Perseus knows he can’t leave without collecting her head, is thrilling even now. Often shot in shadow or half-lit, the noises of her body slithering along giving as much sign of her approach as anything shown visually, builds the suspense really well, while the actors play their part by appearing terrified of her. There are some great close-ups of Hamlin, perspiring and frightened, and by the end of it he’s visibly exhausted by the effort of what he’s achieved. A note too for Laurence Rosenthal’s tingling score, which adds extra layers to the drama.
It’s worth drawing a comparison with the 2010 film here. Someone on YouTube has nicely collated the same scene from both movies, flicking between the two ostensibly to show how effects have advanced in the 29 years between them. What is actually revealed is the vacuum of any tension in the update, CGI and snap editing being used to fill in the blanks and falling short. Sure, the creature played by Natalia Vodianova in 2010 is a far slicker Medusa, capable of moving at speed and apparently more dangerous, and yet the scene has the feel of a videogame sequence, Sam Worthington jumping platforms in order to get away whilst seemingly showing little effort for his troubles. Here’s the video, see what you think:
Some of the other creations are less successful. That isn’t always the fault of the animation; the Kraken is really present solely to be turned to stone at the film’s close. The giant scorpions are simply monsters for Perseus to fight, the same with the two-headed dog, and there’s a far greater sense of threat from the villains played by actors, like the Stygian witches and Neil McCarthy’s rather tragic Calibos. But then there’s the marvellous mechanical owl, Bubo, criticised for being a riff on R2-D2 from Star Wars though Harryhausen claimed he had designed the character beforehand, and nevertheless a good fun addition. The winged horse, Pegasus, is fine and well rendered, and adds to the fantasy as he carries Perseus into the skies.
Clash of the Titans is a very nice addition to the grand tradition of mythological cinema, made for matinee screenings and carrying out its brief well enough. If there’s a sense of it coming after these kinds of films had had their time, then you can argue equally that it’s a last hurrah for the faded genre, a late addition to the Harryhausen collection that reminded younger viewers of what the contemporary film making heroes had drawn their inspiration from. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Clash of the Titans: ***