Sunday, May 19, 2013

Remembering Ray :: Heroic on a Colossal Scale :: A 22 Vid-Cap Look at Don Chaffey's Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

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"The gods are best served by those 
who need their help the least."
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After the treacherous Palias murders his father and sister to usurp the throne of Thesally, the infant Jason, with some divine intervention from Hera, queen of the gods, slips through the tyrant's bloody fingers. But once he reaches manhood, Jason returns home to claim his proper birthright. However, Palias, who cannot kill Jason lest he kill himself, says Hera, through subterfuge, dupes the rightful heir into questing for the Golden Fleece; a mystical symbol that will help unite the people under his banner to overthrow the false king. This is nothing more than a suicide mission, which is the perfect solution for Palias. For nobody really knows where the Fleece is, except a general notion that is beyond the sea where no Greek has yet to tread. A journey that is destined to be fraught with peril at every turn...

It's a fairly safe bet when people today recollect the legend of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, what they remember is the plot from Jason and the Argonauts. However, the true tale of Jason, according to the myth, if memory serves from reading the Argonautica way, way back in junior high, found Jason to be kind of an easily distracted dolt while an enchanted and duped Medea did most of the heavy lifting, with her magicks and sorcery, after they hooked-up, courtesy of Hera, who brainwashed her into falling in love with the hapless dope (-- though it might have been Aphrodite; again, it's been awhile since I read my Apollonius...), that won Jason his eventual revenge against the evil Palias. 

After the lukewarm reception at the box-office for Mysterious Island (1961), the tandem of producer Charles H. Schneer and F/X wizard Ray Harryhausen decided to once more return to the myths of old, hoping to bottle the lighting that struck the highly successful The 7th Voyage of Sinbad for their bosses at Columbia. Looking to the legends of the Greeks and Romans, after first considering the tale of Perseus (-- notions tabled and eventually used some twenty years later in Clash of the Titans), the duo settled on the tale of Jason and his epic jaunt; they even tinkered with a notion of somehow getting Sinbad displaced in time to join the Argonauts, but this idea was quickly abandoned. *whew*

While coming up with his F/X set-pieces, one cannot blame Harryhausen for some of the liberties taken with this story and his cherry-picking of a few other mythical creatures to add to the mix for the captain and crew of the Argo to encounter. Gone was the isle of Lemnos, inhabited by a tribe of foul-smelling women, who killed their philandering men after they abandoned them for less aromatic company (-- though this tale was sort of brought to cinematic light in James Wolcott's The Wild Women of Wango); gone were the multi-armed giants, the Gegeines, slain in droves by Hercules when they attacked the ship when it stopped for supplies. However, Harryhausen did combine this notion of giants attacking the ship with Talos, originally encountered after the Fleece was found, who went from a being who could turn himself molten hot to burn his enemies to an iron colossus, both felled by the same means of an all too easily accessible drain-plug in his foot. 

Defending the blaspheming Phineas (played by future Dr. Who, Patrick Troughton,) from the Harpies in return for directions to Colchis is pretty much intact. And those directions included a trip through the Symplegades a/k/a the Crashing Rocks; though Harryhausen's solution to call upon Triton as a stabilizer to make it through the collapsing channel is much more dynamic than the print version and is one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. And though the use of an actor and miniatures for this sequence was atypical for Harryhausen it certainly saved time; and it was also more practical in that water is impossible to animate frame by frame. Anyways, the end results is fantastic. 

Once Colchis is reached, treachery by Acastus (Raymond), the son of Palias (Wilmer), scuttles any negotiations with King Aeetes. In the story, Jason is given three challenges to win the Golden Fleece, and, with Medea's helpful magic, he gets to work. The first, dealing with some stubborn, fire-breathing beasts of burden was abandoned but the other two were co-opted for the climax. However, after already animating one for Sinbad, Harryhausen substituted in a seven-headed Hydra for the Seepless Dragon, which Jason must defeat to claim his prize. And the third challenge, facing the Spartoi, an army of the dead, bred and raised from the teeth of the slain Dragon/Hydra, provided one of the most rousing and insanely awesome climaxes of Harryhausen's career. And as our heroes sail off into the sunset, we should probably be thankful that they skipped the part where Medea covered their escape by murdering and dismembering her brother, leading their father on a grisly chase to recover all the pieces. Wow. And it only gets worse for our couple on the way back to Thessally, folks. Luckily, another tale for another day...

As per usual, once Harryhausen had his scenarios hashed-out and drawn-up, the material was turned over to a scriptwriter to try and stitch them together. Jan Read was given first crack at it, but when this version proved too dense and convoluted it was turned over to Beverly Cross, a noted Greek and Roman mythology expert, for a massive overhaul, and who was responsible for most of what wound up on screen. And along with all the action and adventure, I truly love the subtext on the twilight of the Greek gods, who see their hold on mankind slipping away. Here, the denizens of Olympus are shown lazily lounging around, and screwing with these mortals via an ersatz game of Risk, moving pieces around the board, trying to one up each other, despite (and in spite of) the terrestrial consequences.

However, one gets a sense that even they are tiring of these games. And when Jason is brought before them and refuses Zeus' divine offer of help, relying on the "hearts" of his fellow men instead, and then openly defies him later by helping Phineas, one can sense the shift of power. In the past, this probably would've gotten Jason a lightning bolt enema. Now, an exasperated Zeus says if he punishes all blasphemers, there'd be no one left to offer him sacrifice. Still, even as the film ends, a pragmatic Zeus allows this happy ending but admits he isn't through with Jason yet. And if you know how Jason's tale ultimately ends, which, to put it mildly, through his own folly and philandering, ends pretty #%*@ing horribly, maybe one should consider Zeus' retribution was merely delayed. But! One could also argue that the elder god just sat back and watched as these foolish mortals destroyed themselves. Hea-Vey. Anyhoo...

Two Columbia contract players were given the leads of Jason and Medea; and both Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack were eventually dubbed over when it was decided they both sounded too American when surrounded by all those British character actors -- so all those rumors about their voices being awful are patently false. Armstrong is great, and brings a real and earnest everyman quality to our hero. Kovack's a knock-out, but frankly, Medea shows up way too late in the story to have much of an impact. Removing her mystical powers didn't help, leaving her without much to do except get rescued, turn traitor, and get shot in the back. Up on Olympus, with all that bickering, Niall MacGinnis's Zeus and Honor Blackman's Hera are about two jugs of oinos away from being afraid of Virginia Woolf (-- if you know what I mean). And even though he was just a minor character who left this quest way too early, Nigel Green nearly steals the whole damned movie with his take on Hercules -- a performace so great it even overshadows some of Harryhausen's creations. 

While Harryhausen worked his magic at Shepperton studios in England, the live-action portions were filmed in and around the small Italian seaside village of Pilanuro and the ruined temples of Paestum. In the director's chair, Don Chaffey kept things chugging along nicely between F/X shots. Behind the camera, this also marked the fourth time Wilkie Cooper served as cinematographer for Schneer on these fantasy epics, working in lock-step with Harryhausen to get the shots he needed. Also, Bernard Hermann's score is a rousing success, though sharp ears will hear the cannibalized strains of North by Northwest, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Vertigo. And when shooting was completed, the Argo was sold to 20th Century Fox to be used in Cleopatra to help offset some of the production costs, which topped $3 million, easily the most expensive Schneer-Harryhausen co-production to date. And somewhat ironically, Columbia submitted Jason and the Argonauts to the Academy for consideration in the special-effects category but it didn't even make the cut while the award that year went to the bloated and over-cooked Cleopatra. Feh. 

From concept to release date, it took almost two years to complete Jason and the Argonauts. (The skeleton fight itself, which lasts less than five minutes took over four months to animate.) Alas, once again, the film did not do great guns at the box-office and critical reaction of the day was universally harsh, merciless, and downright brutal in most circles. History, however, proved this initial hiccup was an anomaly as the film is now (rightfully) championed as one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. The Valley of Gwangi is still my favorite Ray Harryhausen movie, but Jason and the Argonauts is definitely the best. It was Ray's favorite, too.

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"It is Harryhausen -- not the actors, not the 
director -- who is the star of the pictures with 
which he is involved. He is the attraction."
Danny Peary xxxx
Cult Movies xxxx
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Jason and the Argonauts was my personal introduction to the Dynamic Dynamation of Ray Harryhausen; a matinee screening during its re-release back in the 1970's. I vividly recall the younger me watching, transfixed, as the Children of the Hydra first broke out of the ground and assembled and, after scraping my jaw off the floor, I haven't been the same since. And though my dream of being a stop-motion monster animator this encounter inspired never came to pass, I have been living vicariously through Harryhausen’s films, and the films he inspired, ever since and enjoying the hell out of every minute of them. And for that I would like to say, Thanks.

Okay, folks, this post is just part of a trio of reviews put together by a motley triumvirate of Blogs to honor the the life and times of animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
Micro-Brewed Reviews: Jason and the Argonauts.
Please check 'em out, won't you? Thank you.
Other Points of Interest:

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Charles H. Schneer / AP: Ray Harryhausen / D: Don Chaffey / W: Jan Read, Beverley Cross, Apollonios Rhodios (poem) / C: Wilkie Cooper / E: Maurice Rootes / M: Bernard Herrmann / S: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Green, Niall MacGinnis, Honor Blackman

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