Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jason and the Argonauts (Morningside World-Wide Productions, Columbia, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Three nights ago, after Charles and I returned from the three-day ConDor science-fiction convention, I figured we’d want to watch a film in the science-fiction or fantasy genres and I ended up showing us Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 fantasy classic from Columbia Studios and a paper production company called “Morningside World-Wide Productions” ( also lists an enterprise called “The Great Company” as one of the producing entities but they don’t get screen credit). It was produced by Charles H. Schneer and directed by Don Chaffey, though the real reason anyone would want to see this film is because of the spectacular special-effects sequences created by Ray Harryhausen, the second of only two world-class masters of stop-motion animation. (The first was Willis O’Brien, the special-effects genius behind the original 1933 King Kong, from whom Harryhausen learned the technique working as his assistant on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young.) Harryhausen consistently made his best films, including The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), for Schneer, who seems to have been the producer most willing to go to bat for him and get the studios to cough up the money needed for the long production schedule stop-motion animation requires. For example, the most famous sequence in Jason and the Argonauts, in which Jason (Todd Armstrong, dubbed with British actor Tim Turner — so many voices here were dubbed with people other than the ones who play the characters visually this film has a place alongside the first Mad Max as one of those films dubbed from English into English) fights an army of skeletons, took four months to film even though it lasts only about five minutes on screen.

Not even Schneer got enough money for some of Harryhausen’s most extraordinary ideas — when they made their last film together, Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen wanted to depict Cerberus, the giant dog that guards the gate to Hades in Greek mythology, with the three heads the mythical writers said he had, but he had to content himself with two. This time Schneer got Columbia, the producing studio, to cough up for enough to do the skeleton army, the seven-headed Hydra Jason battles in the immediately preceding sequence (the skeletons supposedly arise from the Hydra’s teeth when the film’s principal villain, King Aeetes of Colchis [Jack Gwillim], sows them into the ground and they grow into animate skeletons), the Greek god Talos (a giant bronze statue that creaks to life in one scene — Harryhausen deliberately made the animation of this sequence clunky instead of smooth to indicate this was a metal statue coming to life and literally creaking in the joints, and he got letters wondering why this sequence didn’t have the fabled smoothness of most of his work!) and Triton, son of the sea god Poseidon, who rises from the ocean in one scene to menace Jason and the Argonauts. (Triton was actually played by a live actor — since he looked human Harryhausen decided he’d be easier to create that way than as a stop-motion model, and also he had to rise from the sea and using water in stop-motion sequences is always tricky because the miniature photography enlarges a drop of water to unnaturally huge size. To get him to rise with the precise ponderousness needed to make him look real, the crew had to shoot the scene at 96 frames per second, four times the standard speed, to give him ultra-slow motion, and at one point the camera literally blew up from having to handle running at that speed.)

Jason and the Argonauts is, along with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, one of Harryhausen’s two best films because they’re the best constructed and the ones most engagingly faithful to their mythological sources: Zeus (Niall MacGinnis, getting a promotion after playing King Menelaus in the 1955 film Helen of Troy), king of the Greek gods, sends word to Acastus (Gary Raymond) that he’ll be allowed to overthrow the rightful king of Thessaly and take his place, only Acastus goes beyond Zeus’s authority and kills the king’s two daughters and tries to kill the king’s son Jason as well — but someone spirits the young Jason away and he grows up, determined to get his family’s throne back. Hera (future Bond girl Honor Blackman), Zeus’s wife and queen, takes Jason’s cause and looks down at him through the water-screen TV the Greek gods must have got from the Egyptians, since a similar device is seen in the 1932 film The Mummy in which the reincarnated mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) uses it to show modern girl Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) her life in past incarnations, including the one in ancient Egypt in which they were illicit lovers until he was caught and sentenced to being entombed alive. Hera offers Jason, not the usual three, but five wishes he can use when he needs help in the quest for the Golden Fleece, which he’s told he needs to acquire to re-establish himself as the rightful heir and king of Thessaly — and being a typically feckless movie hero, he uses them up in the first 40 minutes and for the rest of the film he’s on his own. At least the story makes internal sense, and though we’re getting a bowdlerized version of the myth — Medea (Nancy Kovack, who later played the female romantic lead in the Three Stooges’ last feature, The Outlaws Is Coming, with Adam “Batman” West as the male lead) turns into a Valley Girl and a traditional movie girlfriend for the hero — at least it plays well.

The production standards this time are substantial enough that the Golden Fleece is genuinely impressive even though it looks more like a whole sheepskin than just a fleece — I remember one other sword-and-sandal non-epic, the original 1958 Hercules from Italy with Steve Reeves in the title role, in which, as I wrote about it in an earlier post on this blog, the Golden Fleece “turns out to be a bit of mangy-looking wool dipped in gold paint hanging off a branch on a tree that appears to be planted on the head of a Godzilla-style monster” — and the sets are substantial (probably Schneer and Chaffey had the run of sets from previous productions set in ancient Greece or Rome; though most of their cast was British the movie was filmed entirely in Italy) even though they have that just-new, freshly painted look critics like Dwight MacDonald used to complain about (and directors like Terry Gilliam have gone out of their way to reverse — Gilliam even called one of his companies “Poo Poo Productions,” reflecting his obsession with covering his characters in mud and shit to show just how dirty ancient times were). Though it leaves out the character of Medea’s younger brother Absyrtus (whom, as Jason and the Argonauts leave Colchis and Aeetes’ ships are pursuing them, Medea kills and cuts up into little pieces which she throws into the sea, knowing that Aeetes’ sailors will have to pick up the pieces and reassemble them so they can give Absyrtus a proper burial) as well as all the events of the sequel (in which Jason keeps Medea as a mistress, then gets engaged in a dynastic marriage to another woman, to which Medea responds by killing Jason, his new fiancée and, most famously, her and Jason’s children), Jason and the Argonauts — produced in the waning days of the Production Code and later given a “G” rating under the ratings system that replaced it — is a fun romp through Greek mythology and one of the few Harryhausen films that’s entertaining even when his dazzling stop-motion creations aren’t front and center on the screen.