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DVD Review Of Jason And The Argonauts

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/31/08

 

  Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen is perhaps the only technical person in the history of the film business to be treated as the primum mobile behind the films he worked on. In effect, to use the European cinema parlance- he was the auteur of his films; the directors were utterly interchangeable. In fact, the only constant through many of his classics was producer Charles Schneer. This is most evidenced in the 1963 action and fantasy classic Jason And The Argonauts, part of the five film DVD collection The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Monster Series put out by Columbia Pictures.

  Technically, the film was directed by the notable non-notable director, Don Chaffey (most famed for his later One Million Years B.C.- with Raquel Welch, and directing a few episodes of the classic tv show The Prisoner), with a paper-thin screenplay by writers Beverley Cross and Jan Read. ButÖ.so what? Films like this utterly lack all pretense to being literate. There is nothing but quick moving plot, plot, plot, with a few tenuous scenes of character development early on. Yes, the film takes liberties with much of the mythos from Classical Greece- such as making Talos, the bronze statue, a Colossus, making Hercules a graying middle-aged man, and making the warriors summoned from the dead teeth of the Hydra, that Jason kills to get the famed Golden Fleece, skeletons, but this only enhances the camp effect. Plus, the breakneck sense of adventuring, plus the smug dalliances of the Olympic Gods from on high, perfectly echo the classical stories in their construction.

  And, letís be honest, most of the great myths of yore were not known for realism nor character development, much less the nuances of narrative. Like the Harryhausen monster films- of which Jason And The Argonauts may be the best example (if only because of the complexity of the stop motion animation), the ancient myths were pure thrill rides, where people fell in love at first sight, swore vengeance over the deaths of people they barely knew, and generally were guided by folly and hormones. That a few of their tellers added a bit of sex, heavyhanded psychological development, etc., wellÖ.Perfect!

  Naturally, the acting in such films is not good. Thatís not to say that itís really bad, even in a camp way. The characters simply are there, as if strapped into a roller coaster seat right alongside the viewer. In fact, perhaps the best example of acting in the film is done by the stop motion giant Talos, whom Jason (Todd Armstrong, a perpetual tv series Ďguest star of the 1960s and 70s, whose voice was dubbed by British voice actor Tim Turner) kills by uncorking a hole in his left heel (which has hilariously been termed an Ďankleí by the goddess Hera- the gorgeous Honor Blackmon- a year shy of her great turn as Pussy Galore in the James Bond classic Goldfinger). Manifestly, Hera has a thing for Jason, which does not sit well with Zeus (Niall McGinnis). He limits the goddess into only being able to aid Jason five times on his voyage, and Jason blows through all five before the film is even half over. Yet, itís Zeusís and Heraís witty and sage repartee that is the best and most sophisticated part of the film, as they bemusedly watch as Jason and his mates bound from one danger to another in this hour and forty-four minute long film which is essentially one giant chess match for the husband and wife Olympians.

  As for Talos? His death scene, as blood squirts out his heel, is scenery-chewing, to say the least, although why he grabs his throat for air, rather than trying to staunch his heel is a thing that, apparently, only men of bronze can grasp. The giantís melodramatic death, however, crushes a friend of Herculesí- Hylas (John Cairney), a clever character who ironically runs to retrieve Herculesí spear as the bronze giant is crumbling and falling- real clever, especially since it seemingly takes forever for the behemoth to actually fall. As for the strongman? He decides to stay on the island and look for Hylas, because none of the other Argonauts will tell him the not so clever one is dead. Hercules, by the way, is played with a sauciness by the middle-aged Nigel Green, a bit of a relief from the spate of musclebound lunkheads of the 1950s Italian films.

  Another interesting performance is given by Jasonís foe- King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), who kills Jasonís father- lawful king of Thessaly, and two sisters, and misses out on killing him, with obvious allusions to the film The Ten Commandments, whose Biblical myth was sourced by such Greek myths as this. Pelias probably has the greatest emotional range (however limited) of any character in the film, yet seeing him scheme, when he first comes upon Jason- the one-sandaled man prophesied to avenge his fatherís death, is a corny delight- especially considering if it may have presaged the one-armed man meme from the tv series The Fugitive, which premiered the same year that this film was released. This is only heightened when he sends Jason away to fetch the Golden Fleece, and plants his saboteur son, Acastus (Gary Raymond), in the Argoís crew. Naturally, the son gets his comeuppance at the hands (or tail) of the hydra, but Peliasís fate is left hanging at filmís end.

  The only two other major characters of the film are the Colchins, King AeŽtes (Jack Gwillim) and his dancing priestess of Hecate, Medea (Nancy Kovack, whose voice was dubbed by Honor Blackman). While Gwillim engages in some fun scenery chewing of hi sown, Kovack portrays Medea as an ice princess. Beautiful? Yes, but utterly mannekin-like and emotionless. Whether this is her character, or a flaw of the actress is debatable, but, naturally, she falls for Jason within a few minutes of meeting him; enough so to become a traitor to her country and assist him in stealing their Golden Fleece, which has led their nation to peace and prosperity, and which also shows the Ďmoral relativityí of many of the myths of yore. After all, Jason is rightly seen, by the King, as a thief who wants to steal a national treasure and plunge his nation into chaos, just so that he can rouse his own people into overthrowing his fatherís usurper.

  Yet, despite these flaws in acting, the film is a rollicking, old fashioned adventure that, once it gets going, never stops. The most famous scene is likely the one where King AeŽtes takes the Hydraís teeth and raises up seven skeletons to battle Jasonís men. Only Jason, of the handful of Argonauts to fight them, survives, but only by jumping off a cliff into the sea, where the skeletons are helpless after falling after him. He swims to the Argo, is reunited with Medea, and the film ends with Zeus and Hera smiling, looking down and wondering what adventures they will toss at the hero next. The utter swiftness with which the film ends may be offputting to some, but when one reflects upon it, it works well with the herky jerky, pinball-like adventure scheme of the film. You win. Game over. The end.

  Another thing that still works is the stop motion photography. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Talos sequence. After getting down from his statue, after Hercules and his pal try to loot a treasure trove, we see him creakily chasing (with tearing metal sound effects) after the Argonauts, then straddling the mouth of his islandís bay, like Colossus, and lifting the Argo up and destroying it. Jason does defeat Talos, as mentioned above, but the emotions and Ďnaturalismí of movement that Talos exhibits simply has never been equaled nor bettered by Shrek-like CGI. Plus, Harryhausen sneaks in a number of sly adult moments into the film: the most notable being the way Talos first appears on the beach, with his sword in his right hand, but in profile to the Argonauts, so that the full thrust of the sword mimics a huge erection popping out ahead of the bronze giant; very apropos to the testosteronic carnage immanent in the scene.

  Naturally, the lone drawback to this non-CGI technology comes in the water scenes- for water does not properly scale down, especially one where the Argo must pass through a gorge of falling rocks. The best (or worst) example of this is when Jason accidentally summons up the fish-tailed god Triton to help them through the falling rocks, after tossing a talisman given to him by a blind seer, Phineas (Patrick Troughton), the crew rescued from tormenting Harpies. As for the DVD, the film is available in a fullscreen version (1.33:1 aspect ratio) on one side and a widescreen version (1.85:1 aspect ratio) on the other side. Thereís a theatrical trailer, and a brief interview segment with Harryhausen, interviewed by director John Landis. Not much else. But, the transfer of the film is excellent, and some of the landscape cinematography by Wilkie Cooper rivals the best Mediterranean shots in an Antonioni film. The film score, by Bernard Herrmann, who also did The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, is even better than that one- partly because the filmís plot, especially in the beginning, is not as brisk, and partly because there are not as many Ďcutesyí moments in Jason- such as a boy genie or a shrunken Princess, thus the score is not as juvenile, and more ominous.

  The film does delve, however shallowly, into some deeper themes. As example, Jason is an Olympian agnostic, until Hermes delivers him to Zeus and Hera on Olympus. Yet, even there, he refuses Zeusís help. He believes that a belief in fellow men is more important. Even Zeus seems resigned to the fate that he and the rest of the Olympians are doomed to fade away once all men adopt Jasonís attitudes. This, in turn, seems to be a spur to Zeus to throw extra dilemmas in Jasonís path, even as Jason seems to advocate a limited belief in free will.

  However, in such films, depth is a cherry on top, and there are, of course, things that make no logical sense; such as how do the sailors rebuild the Argo, after Talos destroys it? Where do their tools come from? Why would the Colchins need to depend upon seven skeletons to battle Jasonís men when King AeŽtes has an army of hundreds or thousands? Yet, do such things really matter? Again, how many loose ends appear in myths from around the world? And the filmís ending works because, again, it recaps the way the myths frenetically unwind, and then just end, often without morals. After all, now that Jason has gotten the Golden Fleece, his victory over Pelias is assured, and we donít need to really see that. After all, the filmís title is Jason And The Argonauts, not The Revenge Of Jason. For, if it was, how the hell would he explain to the Argonauts his sudden fashion fetish for old time hockey masks?

 

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]

 

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