Clash of the Titans (1981)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 23 December (4.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

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: ***

Rocky V (1990)

When it’s on: Thursday, 30 August (11.15 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

On paper, Rocky V sounds like a very good idea. After four films in which our hero’s fortunes steadily escalate, the (correct at the time) last instalment brings him right back down. Suffering brain damage following the pummelling he takes from Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and losing his fortune earned through boxing, the story quickly casts him down on his luck and back where it all began on the mean streets of Philadelphia. Sylvester Stallone, who’d written the entire series and directed the three previous chapters, turned to John Avildsen as helmsman in a further effort to revive the grimy quality of the original and by some distance the best of the franchise.

Great on paper. Executed terribly. Real life tales of boxers falling from grace are one of the sport’s more difficult but undoubtedly fascinating aspects. Yet Rocky Balboa’s story, essentially that of life’s loser refusing to accept his lot and achieving greatness, relied on the eternal myth of triumph against the odds. As the series progressed, Rocky’s opponents grew increasingly bigger and more impossible until there was nowhere left for it to go. Whilst it can be argued that he once again does the business in Rocky V, the film’s a gloomy one with Balboa’s climactic street fight just one part of an endless struggle to survive that seems to provide few answers. Usually that’s fine, but not here, where the concept of taking Rocky’s family back into poverty just seems like a cruel novelty from someone all out of ideas.

Stallone’s script requires his circumstances to slip into adversity as quickly as possible. Rocky’s cranial problems, whilst suggesting a raft of cruel jokes about a character who was never altogether ‘there’, are credible enough, but the poverty element feels like it’s been rushed through. By all accounts (excuse the pun), Rocky’s awful slob of a brother in law, Paulie (Burt Young) gave power of attorney to an unscrupulous financier, who subsequently pissed away the entire Balboa fortune. Hmmm, okay. Why Rocky would let the permanently sozzled Paulie near a sum larger than the price of a pint of bourbon is anyone’s guess, and he’s such a permanent fixture in the series that his punishment is to move back to Philadelphia with the family and carry on as normal. Young must have happily cashed in the cheques for this stuff. Paulie had very little point since Rocky II, the comic relief who existed as a kind of cautionary anti-Rocky (watch out kids! If you don’t follow your dreams you too could end up with a pork pie hat glued to your head and sleeping in a string vest with yesterday’s newspaper for a blanket).

Ditto Talia Shire, reprising her role as Rocky’s wife Adrian and adding almost nothing to the proceedings. Again, Stallone ran out of things for her to do several films ago, so she just stays on the periphery, supporting or being disappointed at the behest of the script. Into the tale stride three new characters, all terrible. At least Richard Gant’s boxing promoter is a paper-thin Don King caricature, one who reprises King’s overblown, portentous patter even in private conversation, which we all hope is what his real life inspiration is like. Far worse comes in the shape of Tommy Morrison, a heavyweight boxer in reality who takes on the role of (I’m not making this up) up and coming fighter, Tommy Gunn. The youngster, who seeks Rocky for training, becomes his protege and his reason for carrying on, whilst  delivering unto unfortunate audiences another monosyllabic performance with all the subtlety of a tie-in track by Survivor. As Gunn emerges as a contender, the plot twist that finds him ‘stolen’ by Gant and betraying Rocky is so obvious that it can’t possibly be… oh, it does.

At the very bottom of the barrel, there’s Sage Stallone, Sylvester’s real life son playing his kid in the film. Writing anything ill about someone so recently deceased seems awful, but there’s little getting away from either his leaden performance or the poor way he’s treated in the film. Sage gets the thankless task of being the rich kid suddenly sent to a rough state school, with all the nastiness such a proposition implies, but none of that’s as bad as having to put up with the majority of Stallone Sr’s attempts to reconnect with his street life, pretending to be a wise guy, cracking terrible jokes, etc. No one deserves this, not least the viewers.

Apparently, the original screenplay built up to a street fight between Rocky and Gunn that ended with Balboa finally succumbing to his injuries. Presumably, this is why there are several scenes – mainly flashback, filmed in black and white – involving Burgess Meredith, his character having passed two films ago but appearing to deliver sentimental speeches about never giving up and so on. The touching relationship between Mickey and Rocky was always a really strong element of the early films and Stallone must have known it also, hence the shoehorning in of several bits of previous, but whilst nice none of it makes a lot of sense. In any event, when most of the film was in the can and Rocky’s death scene approached, Stallone had a change of heart and rescripted the ending, in which, well, you know. I’m not saying the character’s demise would have made Rocky V a better film, but at least it would have been building up to something. What happens is from the lower drawer of cliché-driven cobblers, as though everyone had stopped trying by this stage.

The close, apart from being crap, lacks any kind of narrative and emotional satisfaction and dooms Rocky to linger inconclusively. If there is a happy ending, it’s the potential for yet another sequel, one that was wisely put off for sixteen years and produced the much better Rocky Balboa, which seemed to channel an older, wiser Stallone as well as anything written for his iron jawed character.

Rocky V: *