Sunday, December 11, 2016

Clash of the Titans (Charles H. Schneer Productions, Peerford Ltd., MGM, 1981)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, that’s the biggest difference between King Kong and the other two movies on TCM’s stop-motion animation tribute last night! After King Kong they showed Clash of the Titans (1981), a nonsensical farrago of Greek mythology that was the last film for effects expert Ray Harryhausen. As a kid Harryhausen saw King Kong and was enthralled by the whole idea that animated models could be made not only to move but to act; like Travis Knight, he decided that he wanted to make that his life’s work, and by 1949 he got the chance to work on another Cooper-Schoedsack-Rose film about a giant ape, Mighty Joe Young, as Willis O’Brien’s assistant. (O’Brien gave Harryhausen one of the original armatures — the metal skeletons on which the animated models are built — from King Kong and Harryhausen recycled it for the Cyclops in his 1958 film Jason and the Argonauts.) Clash of the Titans, which for some reason I’d never seen before, is a mediocre film that would probably have seemed better if it hadn’t been shown right after King Kong; it’s a movie that seems to go wrong in just about all respects except the effects work. It begins with the king of an island kingdom off the coast of Greece declaring, “Bear witness, Zeus, and all you gods on high Olympus! I condemn my daughter Danaë and her son Perseus to the sea! Her guilt and sin have brought shame to Argos! I, Acrisius the King, now purge her crime and restore my honor! Their blood is not on my hands!” There’s just one little problem with Acrisius’s curse: Zeus (Laurence Olivier, whose presence in this movie practically defines “overqualified” even though he was very ill during filming and his role is basically just a handful of close-ups and oracular pronouncements) isn’t interested in condemning Perseus. Quite the contrary: since what Acrisius was condemning his daughter Danaë for was having had sex with Zeus while the god was disguised as a shower of gold coins (elsewhere in the film writer Beverley Cross, in a rare show of wit, has Thetis, queen of the sea-nymphs — played by Maggie Smith, about the only one of the British “name” actors producer Charles H. Schneer recruited who lives up to her reputation — joke, “So many women, and all these transformations and disguises he invents in order to seduce them. Sometimes a shower of gold, sometimes a bull or a swan. Why, once he even tried to ravish me disguised as a cuttlefish”), and Perseus was the child of this union. So naturally Zeus is going to go out of his way to protect Perseus — it’s his son! He supplies Perseus (Harry Hamlin) with a series of magic objects (which Perseus keeps losing), including an all-powerful sword, a shield with a reflective back (which becomes an important plot point later), a helmet that can turn him invisible, and a mechanical owl that was obviously the filmmakers’ attempt to come up with something as cute and appealing to audiences as R2-D2 from the original Star Wars movie in 1977. (The owl is also pretty obviously a mechanical device, energized either by clockwork or electricity, rather than a Harryhausen stop-motion model, and when it has to fly it does so on ordinary wires.)

Like all too many of Harryhausen’s movies, Clash of the Titans is entertaining only when his creations are front-and-center: as limp as Hamlin is as a screen hero (he’s a talented actor but abysmally miscast here) and as dull as his love interest, Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), is (about the only cool thing that happens to her is she gets taken out of her bedroom in a gilded cage carried by a giant vulture, one of Harryhausen’s cooler creations), at least Hamlin-as-Perseus, given a ridiculous page-boy haircut and clad in a half-off tunic that at least lets us see one of his pecs, gets to battle a whole host of Harryhausen monsters. Among them are a two-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades (apparently he had three heads in the original story, but producer Schneer told Harryhausen they were already pushing it on the budget and they couldn’t afford a third head), Medusa (the woman who had snakes growing out of her head instead of hair; one glimpse of her would turn a human, or any other life form, into stone; and her blood would be toxic to humans — this is why Perseus needed a shield with a reflective back, so he could view her as a mirror reflection, which was safe, and kill her that way), the three scorpions that grow out of the ground when Medusa’s blood drops on it, and the final monster, Kraken — a Nordic rather than a Greek myth — a giant humanoid whom Perseus kills by using the head of Medusa, which he’s severed from its body and carries with him in a cloth bag, to turn the Kraken into a stone statue which promptly crumbles). One can realize why Harryhausen, though still a relatively young 61, decided to get out of the business after Clash of the Titans; he felt his story concepts were old-fashioned and no longer appealed to audiences (the mechanical owl is cute and works as the comic-relief character the filmmakers wanted, but one can sense Harryhausen’s frustration that his film had to include an R2-D2 clone for commercial reasons), and whenever Harryhausen’s spectacular creations aren’t front and center Clash of the Titans — inexplicably directed by Desmond Davis, whose most famous previous credit was a modern-day slapstick comedy called Smashing Time — is just boring, yet another dull amble through the typical swords-and-sandals clichés.