Ray Harryhausen – Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
In an age well before modern fantasy and science fiction, we turned to the mythological epic to sate our curiosity about the world around us and all of the things that we don’t understand about it. The ancient myths of Greece are among the most revered of these tales, and it is with true reverence and a sense of adventure that filmmakers presented Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey (One Million Years B.C., TV’s The Prisoner) and featuring the ingenious special effects of the late Ray Harryhausen. The film is scored with real majesty and might by the inimitable Bernard Herrmann who’s scored such varied films as Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, and Psycho.
The young Todd Armstrong is the titular hero, Jason. The film also features Honor Blackman (Goldfinger, TV’s The Avengers) as Hera, queen of the gods, and Patrick Troughton (forever to be known as Doctor Who’s second Doctor) as the prophet Phineas.
We begin with King Pelias on the eve of his battle to conquer Thessaly. He is promised by his soothsayer that he will win in battle and claim the crown of Thessaly, but will ultimately face the revenge of the current king’s son, Jason. It is thus ordained by Zeus, one of the many capricious gods that we meet in this film who is at play with lives of men, and any attempt to circumvent this fate would be an affront to the gods themselves. Undeterred, Pelias hatches a plan to kill the children of the king of Thessaly, thus protecting himself against the son’s revenge. After conquering Thessaly, Pelias murders Jason’s grown sister Briseis and discovers that the king’s infant son Jason has escaped the city.
Twenty years later, the gods again intervene and force Pelias from his horse, nearly drowning him; however, a young man saves his life and drags him ashore. Soon Pelias discovers that the young man is the former king of Thessaly’s own son, Jason, and he must face his fate and reckon with the will of the gods once again. To rid himself of the young man, Pelias instructs him to obtain the fabled golden fleece and return with it to Thessaly in order to claim the crown as his own.
Jason is soon visited by the god Hermes who brings him to the top of Mount Olympus where he discovers that he plays a role in a larger drama being played out at the hands of Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods of Greece. Hera pledges her support to young Jason and instructs him to travel to the island of Cholcis at the edge of the known world. Jason selects a crew of men from the finest athletes in all of Greece to man his ship, the Argo (thus, the Argonauts), and accompany him on his journey beyond the bounds of their civilized world in search of the golden fleece.
Along the way, Jason and his Argonauts have many adventures as Zeus and Hera battle over their fates on Mount Olympus. First, they travel to the unknown Isle of Bronze where they encounter the gigantic likeness of the titan Thalos, a creaking and weather-worn bronze statue charged with protecting the god’s treasure that is hidden on the island. Here is our introduction to Harryhausen’s amazing stop-motion effects as Thalos chases the Argonauts across the island and back to their ship. With the aid of Hera, Jason conquers the titan and the Argonauts escape.
Soon they arrive at the ancient island of Phrygia, where they consult the blind prophet Phineas. He sends them northwest to the “clashing rocks,” a narrow stretch of sea that passes between two cliffs of volatile rocks that threaten to crush any ship that attempts to navigate the pass. Hera again rescues Jason and the Argonauts by enlisting the aid of a sea god who keeps the rocks from falling upon the ship, allowing them to pass safely. Here, they rescue Medea, the beautiful priestess of the goddess Hecate who informs them that they are mere hours away from their destination.
Once on Cholcis, Jason and his crew are greeted by King Aeetes and honored for rescuing Medea from certain death at sea. But Aeetes is soon wizened to Jason’s plan to capture the golden fleece for himself and return it to Thessaly. Jason and his men are taken prisoner. They soon escape and continue on their quest for the golden fleece where Jason faces a hydra guarding the fleece and he and his men face Aeetes’ army of skeleton soldiers in the exciting climax that features more of Harryhausen’s state-of-the-art special effects that bring the skeletons to life in a brilliantly staged battle over the golden fleece between the heroes and the undead on the ruins of an ancient keep.
The film is a fun adventure that I wish I had seen in my younger years. How it eluded me until know, I will never know. The real pleasure in watching Jason and the Argonauts is enjoying Ray Harryhausen’s marvelous effects that are featured so prominently. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but there is something amazing about the illusions achieved by the special effects in this film. Perhaps modern computer graphics can achieve effects on a scale that stop-motion miniature effects cannot achieve: Imagine armies of clone troopers in pitched battle with legions of droids and you can quickly see the limitations of the effects techniques of the past; however, upon reflecting on Harryhausen’s achievements over the years you can clearly see why he is revered as one of cinema special effects’ founding fathers, and why his works are still enjoyed to this day.