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"Rise Up, you dead, slain of the Hydra."
on January 3, 2005
I've reviewed quite a few films featuring the work of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen and found reasons to like them all, but Jason and the Argonauts (1963) features some of his most fantastic effects, and is considered to be one of the greatest fantasy pictures ever made. Would I say it's the greatest? No, but in terms of influencing many, including a majority of special effects artists in the business today, this film is a cinematic landmark, and deserves to be treated as such. Produced by long time Harryhausen collaborator Charles Schneer (The Valley of Gwangi, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans) and directed by Don Chaffey (One Million Years B.C., Pete's Dragon), the film stars Todd Armstrong in his biggest role, but not his voice, as that was dubbed over by Tim Turner, a British actor who did a lot of voice over work on film trailers, including the trailer for this film. Also appearing is Nancy Kovack (The Silencers), and a whole bunch of British actors including Gary Raymond (El Cid), Laurence Naismith (The Valley of Gwangi), Niall MacGinnis (Night of the Demon), Jack Gwillim (Patton), Nigel Green (Countess Dracula), and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), to name a few.
As this fantasy epic begins, we see the plight of Jason as an infant, his father slain and kingdom usurped, as so the seemingly fickle Gods have decided. Jason grows up, returns to re-take the land and peoples that are rightfully his, only to be sent on a quest, by the Gods (geez, who died and made them Gods? Oh yeah...they ARE Gods), to recover a golden fleece, one that would bring peace and prosperity to the troubled land. Only problem is the fleece is across the world, to where no one has sailed before. To meet this goal, Jason has the finest ship built, and gathers the greatest athletes Greece has to offer, and sets out on a perilous journey that involves dangerous waters, mighty bronze titans, a deadly, multi-headed Hydra, an army of skeleton warriors (can seven really be considered an army? Maybe more like a task force...), and treachery within his own ranks, among other things (as if that wasn't enough). The quest seems an impossible one, but with Jason's determination, the loyalty of his men (the non-treasonous ones, of course), and even a little help from the Gods themselves, he just may be able to survive and return with the treasure to reclaim what is rightfully his, and bring and end to the tyrant reign that has plagued his lands for the past twenty odd years.
Alright, I will say some of the acting isn't all that great (actress Kovack seems to be on some kind of depressant, as her performance is about as deadpan as I've seen), and some of the non-Harryhausen special effects are extremely noticeable (the matte usage in some scenes stands out a lot more than they probably would have liked), but despite these points, this is really a fun and exciting movie. There are elements of the story missing (the 2000 television CGI-laden version starring Jason London was a bit more inclusive in this respect, but lacked the charm, for me at least, of this one), but the makers of this film did manage to cram a lot into its' 104 minute running time, and the capable direction kept the story moving along at a rousing pace, rarely slowing down, and keeping my interest. I did enjoy the sets (especially those on Mount Olympus, and I have to say, Honor Blackman makes for one sexy Goddess, playing Hera, Zeus' wife...hotchie momma!) and the location shots where wonderful, adding a lot to the story. The Argo (the boat that carried Jason and his crew, hence the term `Argonauts') was suitable, although that figurehead of Hera (she was one of the Gods assisting Jason) freaked me out, especially with the opening an closing of its' eyelids. And I can't review this film without mentioning the work of legendary Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho, Taxi Driver)...well, I mentioned him...but seriously, it's pretty rare to find a composer as `in tune' with the material he's working with as Herrmann (think how different Psycho would be without its' frightening score). The best parts of the film, by far, are the stop-motion effects by Harryhausen. What makes his work so good, in my opinion, is not only his eye for meticulous detail (it would often take months to produce a 3 or 4 minute on screen segment of stop-motion work), but also his ability to create the appropriate movements for the characters he was presenting. An example within the context of the film is Talos, the bronze titan, compared to, say, the winged harpies. The character of Talos moved exactly how you would expect a giant made of bronze to move, rigid, lumbering, and generally slow, compared to the very fluid and animated movements of the winged harpies, or even the multi-headed Hydra creature. It's the supposition of how the creatures would move, infused with the created models that set Harryhausen apart from his peers, and made him a legend in his own time, influencing so many others that came after him. It's pretty rare to see stop-motion work in major films nowadays, as it's been replaced with computer generated images (which is probably cheaper and less time consuming, but can often appear just as unrealistic as lesser stop-motion work).
The picture looks pretty good on this DVD, and is available in both widescreen (1.85:1) and full screen pan and scan formats. The audio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, is relatively clear throughout. Special features include subtitles (English, French, and Spanish), the original theatrical trailer, short production notes inside the case, and a lengthy interview with Ray Harryhausen conducted by John Landis, featuring clips, still photos, and even a prop or two from the films.