Thursday, February 10, 2011

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) (shown June, 1993)

     As you know (if you are a regular reader of Conjure Cinema), my favorite movie of all time is George Pal's 7 FACES OF DR. LAO. My second favorite film, and that only by a hair's breadth, is Ray Harryhausen's 1963 epic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

     Considered to be the masterpiece of his career (even moreso than his 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD), it is a sprawling spectacle of  (to quote the trailer), "Gods, like men, and men, like Gods, who live ... and love ... violently"! It tells the story of Jason (Todd Armstrong) and his men in their quest for the Golden Fleece. He undertakes the quest in order to regain his throne from King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), who murdered Jason's family and usurped his kingdom. Pelias is warned by the Gods of Jason's arrival and has spent 20 years wondering how to thwart his enemy when he appears.

     Pretending to be a supporter of Jason's cause, Pelias advises him to travel from Thessaly to Colchis ("the end of the world") and bring back the Fleece as a symbol of hope and renewal for Jason's reign. Jason ponders this at the temple of Hermes, all the while looking at a fallen statue of the messenger of the Gods. He is joined by the royal seer (also named Hermes) (Michael Gwynn), who tells him to ask the Gods for help with his problem. Dropping his mortal persona, Hermes appears in his Godly guise and spirits Jason to Mount Olympus, where he is given an audience with Zeus (Niall MacGinniss) and Hera (Honor Blackman). As Jason's sister had called to Hera for aid in Her temple before she was murdered by Pelias, the Goddess has become Jason's patron, and vows to help him on his quest. Zeus warns her she can only help Jason five times (the number of times Briseis called to her for aid).

           A word here about Honor Blackman's Hera. Of all the actors in the film (portraying Gods and humans), she is my favorite. Hera has gotten short shrift by various filmmakers and has been the easy, "go-to" villainess in a number of film and television series. She is almost always portrayed as a vindictive shrew whose only goal is to make mortals miserable, especially those unfortunate women whom Zeus favored. Ms. Blackman makes the character what she always was meant to be, the Queen of the Gods - regal, capricious, noble, tender and caring - but able to go toe-to-toe with Zeus in his never-ending game with mankind.

          Jason holds the first Olympic Games to find the best and bravest men for his crew, including Hercules (Nigel Green) and a very clever latecomer (who outwits Hercules in the discus throw), Hylas (John Cairney). The Gods watch bemusedly from on high in Mount Olympus via their reflecting pool (their version of the ultimate flat-screen TV! :)). The crew settle in for the long trip and (via montage) is shown getting restless, as their food and water run perilously low.

     Jason appeals to Hera (who accompanies the Argonauts as a carved figurehead on the back of the ship) for assistance and is told to steer for the Isle of Bronze, but gives him fair warning to take food and water ONLY. Upon the island, Hercules and Hylas take off after some goats, to capture them for the voyage. Instead, they come across a valley of bronze behemoths, made by Hephaestus to showcase the glory of the Gods. One of the statues has a door ajar at its base, and Hercules and Hylas enter. It turns out to be a jewelry case for a Goddess, with pearls as big as man and a golden brooch pin which Hercules absconds with, saying it will make a good spear. Hylas tries to intercede, but is overruled by Hercules, and they step outside. It is here that Ray's Dynamation stop-motion animation first comes to life, in the form of the gigantic bronze warrior Talos (seen in the Italian two-sheet poster above).

     Time for another aside: I have a good friend who does not like JASON (or Ray's 1981 second venture into Greek mythology, CLASH OF THE TITANS) because "they're not true to the myths". She's absolutely right. However, Ray has repeatedly gone on record saying that these were HIS interpretations of the myths - Talos is an excellent example. In one version of the original tale, Talos was a human-sized bronze man who guarded the island of Crete by patrolling the island and throwing boulders at ships trying to land. If invaders made it past the boulders, he would place himself inside a fire until he was red-hot, then find the invaders and hug them to him, burning them alive. I think we'll give Ray the benefit of the doubt for cinematic license here ...

     After blocking their exit and destroying their ship, Talos returns to the island to systematically kill off the survivors. Jason calls again to Hera for aid, whereupon she tells him to look to the heels of the bronze giant. There he sees a cap, which he unscrews (while the Argonauts distract Talos) and sends the bronze man's life-blood streaming to the sand. The men scatter, Hercules dropping the spear in the process, and run for their lives from the toppling giant. Hylas tries to save the spear for Hercules and is crushed to death in the process.

     Hercules refuses to accept the fact that Hylas is gone and stays on the island. Jason almost has a mutiny on his hand, but asks Hera to address the Argonauts one last time. She tells them all that they must go on to find Phineas, the blind seer (Patrick Troughton), as only he can guide them now. They set sail and come to the island where Phineas resides ... but not alone. He is constantly tormented by two hideous Harpies, sent by Zeus as punishment for abusing his prophetic powers. Phineas agrees to tell Jason how to get to Colchis and the Fleece, but only if he and the Argonauts meet his price - freeing him from the Harpies.

     Jason agrees, and the scene is set for a wondrous nighttime trap, wherein the men capture the Harpies by draping large fishing nets over the entire temple. They capture and entrap the creatures, making Phineas their master now. He tells them they must pass through the Clashing Rocks to reach Colchis and gives Jason an amulet for protection and thanks. The Clashing Rocks in the film take the place of the double menaces Scylla and Charybdis from the original tale (see this link if you need a brush-up on them:

     Cutting back to Olympus, we see Zeus is getting rather nettled over Jason's continual perseverance over the obstacles put in his way, and patiently waits to drop the Clashing Rocks on him and his crew. Another ship, coming from the opposite direction, attempts the channel first and is dashed to pieces. Jason orders the crew ahead in spite of what they have just seen ... and the rocks come tumbling down again. This leads to one of the highlights of the film ... and one of the few accomplished WITHOUT the use of stop-motion animation. Hera plays Her last card on the Olympian life-board and moves a particularly "fishy" statue next to the good ship Argo. Seconds away from being flattened, Jason (in frustration) tears off the protective amulet Phineas had given him and throws it into the roiling water. Instantly, to all their (and our) astonishment, the sea god Triton appears and HOLDS the Clashing Rocks apart, long enough for the Argonauts to pass safely through. It was only years later, while re-watching the film that it FINALLY occurred to me, "Well, how are they going to get BACK?" That part is never explained. :)

     From the earlier wrecked ship, they find and rescue Medea (Nancy Kovack), High Priestess of Hecate, who tells them Colchis is only a day away. Upon reaching the shores of Colchis, she goes on separately and Jason and two of his men present themselves to King Aeetes (Jack Gwillim). Aeetes welcomes them and tells Jason he will prepare a feast for him and his men, to honor their legendary voyage. The feast is actually a trap, as a traitor among Jason's crew, Acastus (Gary Raymond), the son of Pelias, has warned Aeetes what the Argonauts are really there for. Aeetes has Jason and the Argonauts imprisoned, knowing that the theft of the Fleece would mean ruin for him and his kingdom. Acastus, however, has other plans ... with Jason and his men locked up, he slinks away to steal the Golden Fleece for himself.

     That night, Medea frees Jason and his men by drugging the guards. Jason orders all but two of his men back to the Argo, to get the ship ready for a quick getaway as they head for the Fleece. Finding it hanging regally from the branches of a tree, Jason reaches up to take it ... and is confronted with his NEXT life-threatening situation, the seven-headed Hydra.

     As challenging as this was for Ray to animate (trying to keep track of seven heads moving an inch at a time, at the SAME time), it would have been worse if he had stuck with the original myth. The original Hydra had a neat trick - if you struck off one head, TWO more would grow in its place! The Hydra has already killed off Acastus for his theft attempt and now comes after Jason, all heads a-snapping. Jason avoids the whole Hydra Head problem by going underneath them all and shoving his sword into the heart of the beast, killing it instantly.

     Aeetes and his troops rush to the scene, but too late, as Jason and crew have "fleeced" them (sorry!) and are heading up the mountain to get back to the Argo. Aeetes stops his men from pursuing them, calling instead upon Hecate to revenge them by sending forth the "Children of the Hydra's Teeth ... the Children of the Night!" Fireballs come screaming down from the heavens, incinerating the slain Hydra and leaving just a skeleton. Aeetes has the Hydra's teeth gathered in a hat and he and his men pursue Jason to the plain on top of the mountain. Once there, he stops Jason and his men with a command and proceeds to sow the barren ground with the teeth. What happens next is instant cinematic history and the main reason this film is so beloved to fantasy fans.


      Think animating seven Hydra heads a frame at a time is bad? Try animating seven sword-fighting skeletons vs. three sword-fighting men, all set to choreographed moves! The final result lasts four minutes on screen and took four and a half MONTHS to animate, with Ray sometimes only getting a few SECONDS worth of footage out of a day's work. The results are heart-stopping and were more than worth the effort. Medea is led to the Argo while Jason and his men fight for their lives against these denizens of Hell. Fun fact: next time you watch the film, take a close look at the shields the skeletons are using - the creatures on the front are all from Ray's previous films, including the Ymir from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH and the octopus from IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! Jason's two men succumb to the onslaught of the skeletons and, in desperation, he leaps off a high cliff (with the skeletons pursuing) to escape them and swim back to the Argo.

     The film ends with Jason and Medea in a clench on the ship, with Zeus grudgingly admitting defeat, saying he has other plans for Jason, while Hera looks at the two young lovers (via the Olympian pool) wistfully. A beautiful end for a beautiful film.

     Oddly enough, I did not originally see this in a theatre. I was visiting my grandfather and his neighbors had kids my age (I was nine years old) ... plus they had a color TV! JASON was being shown as the Friday night movie on TV and we all settled in to watch it - and I was completely blown away. The other kids thought it was cool, but I had a cinematic epiphany - I didn't know they MADE films like this! Soon after, I haunted our local library to find out all about the filmmakers, the actors and especially the people who made the monsters and how they did it. I was even MORE astonished to find out it was ONE MAN who had done the special effects, then proceeded to track down everything else he had done ... and it's been a life-long love affair ever since.

     Many (many) years later, my best friend Mark and I had the good fortune to take Ray and his wife Diana out to lunch and chat with him about all things animation. They were both good sports about it, probably having heard our questions hundreds of times before, but were very gracious. Ray did tell me that for some reason Boston (where I'm from) always was a hard market for his films.

     If you've never seen this (and I find that VERY hard to believe), it is available on every format you can think of. Columbia Pictures has always been aggressive in pushing Ray's films, and JASON has, at one time or another, been released on 8mm and Super 8mm film, 16mm film, Betamax tape, VHS tape, laserdisc (including a two disc Criterion release with a gatefold jacket detailing the voyage of the Argonauts), and regular and Blu-ray DVD. If at all possible, you need to get the Blu-ray (see the cover above). I spent the better part of two weeks re-watching the film and the extras and listening to both feature-length commentary tracks. As special effects technician and JASON fan Randy Cook says, "You won't see a better-looking version of this film in your lifetime". I agree - it is THAT good - I daresay it is almost better than when it was originally shown in theaters.

     Whatever format you see it in, SEE IT! It is as fantastic and charming as ever, even approaching it's fiftieth anniversary. It may not have been what ancient Greece REALLY was like, but it certainly is what it SHOULD have been like.

     Next Time: Oh, boy ... are we talking polar opposites here! From the Olympian heights of ancient Greece, we set out sight lower ... FAR lower, and go to ancient Finland in search of the Sampo! There's witches and captive winds, stolen suns and magic harps. It all comes your way in THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE! Be there!