Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 October (1.00 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

At the end of Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans, Father of the Greek Gods Zeus makes a prophecy that the exploits depicted in the film and indeed the Gods themselves may one day be forgotten. The speech might also be an end note on this type of movie – by 1981, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was looking quaint and increasingly artificial, while the tales of ancient mythology covered in these entries were not what audiences were perceived to want any longer. Fantastic cinema was taking to the skies, to other galaxies, with the decade’s later Krull resorting to a blend of both Harryhausen-esque fantasy and science fiction, and the main man’s retirement putting a seal on the genre.

All the same, these films had their golden age, and arguably they were never in better shape than when Harryhausen and Co. came up with Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. Remembered for its sword fighting skeletons, Hydra and of course the mighty Talos, what makes the film so good is that every element was thought about carefully. The casting was inspired; consider the character of Hercules, a role owned at that stage by bodybuilder Steve Reeves who had lent his services to a string of European productions. The easy thing would have been to hand the part to some passing beefcake, but instead they chose Nigel Green, who brought muscle to the role but more importantly a booming personality, lending Hercules a buoyant masculine arrogance that he might not otherwise have possessed. Green’s Hercules is well aware of his own legend – ‘HERCULES IS HERE!‘ – and revels in it, while being good natured enough to have real charisma, and it’s these qualities that make the character so memorable.

Elsewhere, Todd Armstrong’s Jason seems plucked from the shelf of ‘bland leads’, interacting with Harryhausen’s animated characters well enough, and especially in his conversations with it breathing life into the bust of the goddess Hero that provides the ship’s bow. Medea, the story’s heroine, is played by shapely Nancy Kovack and only turns up in the latter half, though in the legends she was a far more prominent character. A string of respected British thespians make up the rest of the cast in this Anglo-American production. The likes of Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer and Gary Raymond help to crew the Argo, the Gods count Niall MacGinniss, Honor Blackman and Michael Gwynn among their ranks, and there are significant supporting roles for the likes of Patrick Troughton and Jack Gwillim. Each lends a touch of class, doing enough to suggest various sub-stories that are worth telling – what exactly did Troughton’s Phineus say to anger the gods to such an extent that he’s plagued by harpies every day, for example?

The film is based on Greek legends that were already ancient in times of antiquity, the story embellished as it was passed down, details added to throw in further challenges for its hero, a saga that in mythology all ended rather unhappily. They loved their tragedies, those Greeks, but here the focus is the golden fleece and its heroic collection. Bits of the tale are grafted on to suit the narrative’s purpose (in the myth, the Argonauts don’t meet Talos until their journey home), chosen to enhance the special effects, which at the time were enjoying their zenith as cinematic spectacle. It was filmed in Italy, mostly around the small town of Palinuro, based south of Naples, with its glorious blue Mediterranean seas and authentic locations, which looked exactly like the pre-Biblical Aegean world it was attempting to recreate. Bernard Herrmann was responsible for the film’s blistering score. Best known for his association with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann provided many of the soundtracks for these movies, especially those involving Harryhausen, and suitably evoked the sense of wonder and sometimes menace that fit the tone perfectly.

British director Don Chaffey keeps the action moving at the kind of pace that never reveres the material to the extent that everything slows down, a good thing because its yarn of Gods meddling in the deeds of men, men who come across fantastical beasts as a matter of routine, should be taken as seriously as the description suggests. The point is that there’s so much packed in it feels like a much longer film than its actual running time of comfortably under two hours – lots happens, it always looks great, but everything’s passing at breakneck speed so that viewers are never left to think too deeply about the simple fantasy they’re watching. Of course, Chaffey knew enough to appreciate that the project was a showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. By this point a producer as well as doing the legwork, Harryhausen had the good fortune to graft his work onto a film that ticked the boxes in all departments, meaning it never feels like something that’s waiting around for the next stop motion creature to light up the screen, something that becomes more apparent when watching the later The Valley of Gwangi. The effects aren’t gratuitous either. The scene where the Argo has to negotiate a narrow valley called the Clashing Rocks, and is saved from destruction by the intervention of the sea god Triton, is all the better because Harryhausen had the character played by a human actor (an uncredited William Gudgeon), the ship and sea projected in miniature because stop motion animation and water didn’t mix well. The effect works. It’s a memorable and beautifully filmed scene, teasing at the regular meetings of the human and deity spheres that were always prominent in ancient literature.

As for the other effects, well take your pick. The fighting skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad makes its reappearance, but this time it brings along its mates and the Argonauts have to take on a small army, a deadly corps of corpses as they kill some of Jason’s men and he’s only able to dispatch them by leaping into the sea, knowing if they follow the spell that’s animating them will be broken and they’ll once again be bags of bones. There are the flying harpies that make Phineus’s life an eternal misery, and the Hydra protecting the golden fleece, all obstacles for Jason and his crew to take on, but the show stopper is of course Talos, the enormous bronze statue of the legendary Titan that comes to life when Hercules steals one of the treasures it guards. One of the best things about Harryhausen’s animated characters is the personalities he gave them, perhaps a by-product of the hours and hours he spent bringing them to life, also the fact they were conduits of his own short-lived frustrations as an actor, when he suffered stage fright and instead channelled his performances through the creatures he created. When Talos moves, it’s with the jarring noise of ancient metal joints rubbing together, which becomes a terrifying signal of its approach. Despite its inscrutable mask of a face, it’s difficult not to imagine it being amused at the ant-like warriors attempting to hurt it with spears, its response an almost insulting swing of its sword, like it’s simply swatting them away. When Talos makes a serious attempt to attack the Argonauts, it very nearly halts the entire voyage when it stands, like the Colossus of Rhodes, at the harbour entrance the ship tries to flee through, picking the boat up like a toy and giving it a playful shake. What really makes all this work are the perspective shots, these larger than life heroes suddenly tiny fleeing insects with Talos in pursuit. It’s wonderful stuff, about as good an example of the craft as you’re ever likely to see, the sheer scale and ambition elevating the material to marvellous proportions, Herrmann’s score resorting to a martial drumbeat in reflecting the unstoppable approach of the metal Titan.

The influence of this movie on later film makers can’t really be overstated, the likes of John Landis, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton all soaking up its delights. Tom Hanks once called it his personal best film of all time. The optimum time to watch it is of course in the early afternoon, the matinee hours, the world doing its own thing outside while you get to immerse yourself in a fantastical story of Gods, monsters and a time of adventure. I envy anyone catching it for the very first time.

Jason and the Argonauts: *****

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5 Replies to “Jason and the Argonauts (1963)”

    1. Thanks very much Sergio. Even in a very strong field, this one is the best for me and by a bit of distance too – everything works and the film in turn has everything, I think. As for Herrmann, I was listening to the score while writing my comments and much of it has stuck with me – it’s really haunting and beautifully done; you can see how his work elevates the material, which is of course just how it should be, all those different elements helping to enhance the whole. All told, I really wanted to convey my love for this film – like most people, I first watched it as a kid and I’ve been highly impressed with it upon subsequent viewings, and my son – very much a 21st century kid – has come to really enjoy it also, which says something for its enduring value.

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