Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts was directed by Don Chaffey who would go on to direct The Viking Queen and Pete's Dragon.  It was shot in the autumn of 1961 but not completed and released until the summer of 1963 because of all the complicated special effects work by master, Ray Harryhausen.
I consider the film to be a classic of the sword and sandal genre even though it might not technically be part of it.  It was shot in Italy but it is clearly a British/American production.  Where the Italian films of the genre usually cast a hulking muscle man as the hero, this film went down a different road, casting Todd Armstrong as Jason (with his voice dubbed by Tim Turner) and Nigel Green as Hercules.  Jason is not yet a hero when the film begins.  He is a very young and idealistic young man who only leads by virtue of his royal lineage.  Hercules is an older, stronger man whose name is already legend.  He's a bit more personable than some of the Italian Hercules.
Gary Raymond as Acastus and Todd Armstrong as Jason

The film is well-designed both in screenplay and in art direction.  The crew got permission to film in ancient ruins.  In fact, they got permission to climb around on them; something that would never happen today!  The Argo has a classic look that would be copied again and again after this film.  
In fact, this film establishes many fantastic archetypes of design and story that would be copied in mythological films and television series for decades to come.  Though I think the casting of the Olympian gods was a bit off (they seem too young to me), the manner in which they're presented is very effective.  They watch events from Mt. Olympus in a pool of water and move mortals about on a game board as if they were chess pawns.  These are ideas that would be used ever after in portrayals of the gods on film, including in another Harryhausen film, The Clash of the Titans.
Niall MacGinnis as Zeus and Honor Blackman as Hera

Though there are many departures in story from Apollonius' Agonautica, this is a strong adaptation for film.  Many of the darker aspects of the story dealing with Jason and Medea's relationship were not dealt with at all.  They would bogged down the adventure of the story and probably not been popular with audiences of the day.
Of course the real reason for the success of this film is Ray Harryhausen's fabulous special effects work. People never remember the directors or writers of Harryhausen's films, they remember his name, and for good reason.  Harryhausen's work in this film is nothing less than stellar.  Characters like Talos, the Harpies, Triton, the Hydra and the Skeleton Warriors have inspired generations of filmmakers.
This is a fantastically entertaining film that holds up well all these years later. Bernard Herrmann's score is stirring, Chaffey's direction is engaging and Harryhausen's creatures are amazing!
The film has been very well-preserved.  I have it on DVD as part of the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection.  This is a terrific boxset.  The art is great and there are some bonus interviews with Harryhausen that are almost as fun to watch as the films themselves.
The largest public exhibition of Harryhausen's work is on display at the London Film Museum until June of 2011.  More details can be found on the artist's official website.

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