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JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS: Movie Retrospective, Part 2
Pre-production on Ray Harryhausen's classic take on Greek mythology.
By Ted Newsom
May 14, 2000
Jason and the Golden Fleece
(as Jason and the Argonauts
was titled during pre-production) was not produced in a cinematic vacuum. The 'Dynamtion' team had competition on several other fronts. The most obvious inspiration was Edward Small's pastiche of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
, called Jack the Giant Killer
. Regretting he hadn't had the foresight to take Sinbad
when it had been offered it to him, Small reunited three principals from Schneer's film: Kerwin Mathews, Torin Thatcher and Nathan Juran as hero, heavy and director.
made a lot of money, and Eddie Small, a shrewd producer, decided he'd do one like it,' said Juran. 'I thought that picture never got shown around very much, but the effects weren't too bad. I had to work a lot harderI didn't have a Harryhausen! Otherwise, it was about the same. Actually, some things about the picture were rather good. The sequence on the bridge leading up to the castle, where Torin Thatcher broke off the teeth of the dragon-gargoyle statue, threw them down on the bridge, and they sprang up into warriors. We did that right on stage, with [explosive] powder, with camera, and printed it in reverse. In fact, that set me to thinking: you don't always need post production to do FX. You can do pictures like Sinbad, with mostly in-camera effects.'
'I was aware of the film at the time, but I didn't mind,' Schneer said years later. 'Everybody has to work, and I was glad those guys were able to earn a living. 7th Voyage
had already established itself in the marketplace, so I didn't consider it unfair competition. I took it as a compliment.'
Not, apparently, until after seriously considering legal action.
'In the summer of '61, in about August or September, Ray got hold of me about possibly assisting him animating on their upcoming film,' said Jim Danforth, 'which was The Golden Fleece
. We had just wrapped Jack
, and I took some of the best dailies from it over to Film Effects to put a sample reel together to send to Ray, who was in Palinuro, Italy, by the time I sent it off. I remember he held onto the reel for quite a long timepartly, I found out later, because he and Charles were considering a lawsuit over Jack
and they were studying it.'Jack
was written, shot and finished in less than a year. Advertising blurbs falsely suggested it was the first film to offer such special effects in color, but accurately screamed 'Three Years In the Making'dating from the time Sinbad
was released and Small realized his mistake. The United Artists release didn't offer much competition even three years after the fact, so a lawsuit was unnecessary. Indeed, the wizard in Jack
creates a squad of magical soldiers from the teeth of a dragon gargoyle, much as King ArÍtes does in the Jason
scriptwhich might have been reason enough for a counter-suit.
The King Brothers followed the pattern with Captain Sindbad
in 1963, reinstating the name's original 'D' to head off lawsuits from Columbia. Sindbad and his men battle a multi-headed dragon near the climaxa large-scale miniature prop that belched smoke and flame. In Italy, director Henry Levin directed the not unpleasant remake of Thief of Baghdad
and, later, The Wonders of Aladdin
, featuring visual flourishes by Mario Bava. Levin also co-directed George Pal's Cinerama film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm
(released in 1962). Bert I. Gordon jumped on the bandwagon with St. George and the 7 Curses
. Released as The Magic Sword
, it used Gordon's usual self-crafted perspective shots, oversize sets and split screens, but the fantasy aspect took some of the edge off the obviousness. Additionally, he also had built an elaborate two-headed dragon model that actually breathed fire.
In London, Charles Schneer assigned screenwriter Jan Reed to script The Golden Fleece
. As the film began pre-production, Schneer hired an office assistant, with family connections. 'How do you think I got my
job with Charlie Schneer?' laughed Paul Maslansky, later the producer of The Russia House
and the Police Academy
comedy films. 'He was my first boss. I think I'm actually related to him somehow, on my father's side. I seem to remember the family calling him 'Uncle Charlie,' or something. It was pretty indirect.
'I was 28, in Copenhagen, having made a little documentary film and playing jazz on the side, and pretty much broke on my ass. I called my dad in New York, who happened later to see Abe Schneider [president of Columbia Pictures]. He sent word back to me through my dad that I should send the film to Columbia in London, where Charlie Schneer was based; maybe they'd buy it or something. A couple weeks later, I hear from Bill Graff, second man to Mike Frankovich [then Columbia's head of European production], and Bill said, 'Charlie Schneer is looking for an assistant; why don't you go over to talk to him?' It was 13 Wigmore Street, I remember clearly. I went in there wearing only suit I had, a tweed number frayed at the ass and the elbows. Charlie talked to me for about ten minutes, sized me up and said, 'What are you making now?' I told him, about a hundred. He said, 'Okay, we'll make it a hundred and a quarter.' I jumped up and shook his hand so hard my elbow ripped right through the patch in my jacket. I came with £20 to my name, one bag, and my horn, so I kind of sheepishly said, 'All my stuff's back in Copenhagen...could I get a little advance?' Charlie said, 'Sure, go down the hall and see Mr. Terry. I walk down the hall, and there's a sign, 'Mr. Arthur Terry,' and he says, 'We have your advance here, £125. ' I said, 'I don't need a whole month.' He said, 'That's your weekly salary, Mr. Maslansky.'
'Then, it seemed like a fortune, but boy, I worked for it: nine or ten months straight, usually 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Charlie was my first boss in the movies. From him and John Dark, who was a wonderful, experienced production managerthey both taught me so much.
'Charlie was very particular about things. He was from the old Harry Cohn traditionalthough much nicer, from what I hear about Cohn. His methods often weren't exactly the way mine would be, but the biggest lesson I learned from Charlie was being tenacious, persistent. His brief was to make movies very economically. If he got 'No' for an answer, he'd find another way of asking the question. That the first price you get from someone is not necessarily the best price. You negotiatewith technicians, with actors, everyonenegotiate with a sense of strength, to find a better price, then hold up your end of the bargain. He taught me to be specific, not vague. Have facts and figures to back up your pitch. Don't just say, 'Oh, I think we'd need about six weeks to make this picture.' Never be abstract
. Have everything broken down, figures and boards, and say, exactly, 'Here's our schedule, we need precisely this much money and this much time.''
Ray Harryhausen busied himself with design and mold-making, farming out some miniature work to paleontologist-sculptor Arthur Hayward (who had worked on The Three Worlds of Gulliver
and Mysterious Island
) and another studio sculptor, who realized Harryhausen's precise designs in three dimensions, though Ray himself crafted the articulated animation models. 'Ray told me he thought Hayward was the most brilliant sculptor in the world,' said Don Chaffey, who was chosen to direct Jason
. (The association between the animator and the academic would end abruptly after The Valley of Gwangi
Like Eugene Lourie (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
) and Jerry Juran (7th Voyage
), former art director Chaffey appreciated Ray's method of pre-production sketches. Working at Gainsbourough Studios in the 1940s, he began directing short films in the early 50s. 'I'd worked with the Children's Film Foundation and done several shorts and a picture called Bouncer Breaks Up
in 1953, which won a gold medal at the Venice Film Festival. That was done with the Ray Harryhausen technique, which we used to call one-turn-one-picture, which Ray came along and sophisticated. And by this time I'd also directed a couple of Disney films which acquired a bit of notoriety: Greyfriars Bobby
and Prince and the Pauper
, which were also done from storyboards, though nowhere near as extensive as Ray's. Then there was the one with Richard Attenborough, which won all sorts of bloody awards, The Man Upstairs
, that and a picture called Danger Within
.' An active, outspoken, but self-deprecating man (he laughed when he called himself 'an artistic director'), he reacted to Charles Schneer in the warm, friendly manner that Gulliver
's Jack Sher did.
'I dislike Charles Schneer more than I dislike an ingrown toenail,' said Chaffey. 'Otherwise, I like him quite well. I could never understand how Ray, who is one of the world's most perfect gentlemen, could ever work with one of the world's most perfect monsters. He didn't like me, that Mr. Schneer. And it was terribly mutual. I don't understand it. Socially, Charles is one of the most pleasant men you've ever met. Perfectly decent. Then you work
with the man! I told Ray one day, 'He turns into a worse fucking monster than you've ever invented!' (Before the relationship between producer and director went sour, Chaffey, discussed a project that would lend itself to Dynamation. 'The story of Baron Munchausen was always a favorite of mine,' said Chaffey. ''With Ray's effects, it could have been super.')
Chaffey, Harryhausen, Maslansky, and a one-eyed boatman called 'Boris the Bulgarian' sailed the Mediterranean and the Greek archipelago for locations during the summer. 'But we couldn't use any of them,' remembered Chaffey, 'because we needed a place that could cope with a cast of hundreds, could put them up, and most importantly, that could cope with a boat with a six-foot draft. We couldn't have the boat four miles at sea and have the heroes come in like ducks.'
Interestingly, the last place they looked, the Cape of Palinuro, was reputed to be the actual place where Jason sailed. 'There were marvelous tiles on the walls showing all this, and I firmly believe Jason existed in fact.' The tiles did not show a Jason who resembled actor Todd Armstrong, however. 'No, I hope they didn't, because they were quite nice tiles,' Chaffey quipped.
'One morning, we were having fresh fish for breakfast. Suddenly Ray came in with a little sparkler. We looked at him like he'd gone raving mad. 'What the bloody hell is that, Ray, for Christ's sake?' 'Well, it may mean nothing to you because you're English, but it's the Fourth of July, and I'm having my fireworks display!' He'd saved this damn thing all the way up the coast! Most beautiful thing you've ever seen!'
'He's as typically an American guy as you'll ever meet,' added Maslansky. 'He needed locations that were flat as a table, for his Super Dynamtion shots. We were scouting around, and there was this old woman walking up a hill with a donkey, carrying firewood, and Ray saunters up to her and says, in English of course, 'Excuse me, would you know where the owner of this property is? We'd like to shoot a movie here.''
A widely circulated press release about the recon trip stated that Chaffey had been caught in an underwater cave until rescuedby Charles Schneer. 'Could I put that story right?' asked Chaffey.
Chaffey: 'We had these two Sardinian brothers, both named Mario, who we called Mario-Uno and Mario-Segundo, and we'd heard about this underground grotto that would be perfect for the hell sequenceso we thought. It was these two guys, Paul, and me.'
Maslansky: 'We'd rented fisherman's rowboats, to take us to visit this grotto on the Sardinian coast. There was no way to get there, except to get off the boat holding the camera and towels above our heads, wading in, crawling down. We lowered and squeezed ourselves into this grotto, and of course we realized we could never shoot there.'
Chaffey: 'We went off into the heart of this blacker-than-black cave, lit by a sputtering rag with kerosene. From what we could see, it was fantastic, but impossible to shoot in. Suddenly, Mario-Uno fell.'
Maslansky: 'We're twisting down this limestone corridorand the guy in front slipped. The gas torch went out.'
Chaffey: 'The kerosene went with him, plus the little torch. Paul says to this day he thought he heard barely controlled panic in my voice when I said, 'Okay, guys, just stand still,' which meant Paul and I, because the two Sardinians are screaming out of their minds, calling on Santa Maria and everybody else, crossing themselves like maniacs in the dark. We clambered at one point on all fours through a narrow passage. Blackness all over. He yells, 'Eeeaaahhhh!' flump
'I'm down here...I think I've broken a rib!' '
Maslansky: 'I slid on my ass, barefoot, 10 or 15 feet, and rammed into a stalactite. Pitch black. I think it's all fucking over. I'd never been so scared. Don kept a cool head. He said, 'Go to the sound of my voice.' It's black as velvet.'
Chaffey: 'I broke off a stalactite piece and took off my shorts, andthank God I smoked in those days!a book of matches. I got on all fours sniffing like a dog for this kerosene trail. I found the kerosene and soaked my shorts in a pool of it, stuck that on the stalactite. I had three matches. The first blew out.'
Maslansky: 'Chaffey was carrying a Kodak film bag which was filled with matches. He smelled for the gasoline and lit the torch.'
Chaffey: 'The second match worked, and I set my bathing suit on fire. I calmed these two assholes down, made them grab a holdPaul could hardly move, poor deviland we spent the next fifteen minutes crawling out, getting cut to smithereens.'
Maslansky: 'It must've been 300-400 yards back up to Earth.'
Chaffey: 'Then we nearly got drowned in the tremendous undertow.'
Maslansky: 'We got to the top, and it was almost dusk. We saw the skyand there was the first Sputnik up there. Don told me it was his military training that got us through. He'd been at Dunkirk, in one of the last vessels to leave, and had been trained to know his way in the dark, to count your steps and remember the landmarks in the dark.'
Chaffey: 'We finally got backmy wife was nearly out of her mind back at the airportand we told Mr. Schneer in London. The next thing is, we get a reporter from the Daily Express
that printed this bloody story, that had Charles Schneer, with a gang of Merry Men, flying in and saving us at the last moment. The reporter read me the story and said, 'That's what Harvey Matofsky [the Columbia PR man] told
us to say.' I wanted to say I hadn't heard such a load of crap in my life, but I didn't. Mind you, Schneer happened to be in London
at the time, about 2000 miles away!'
Maslansky: 'Four months later, my mother in New York calls. 'I just read in Sidney Skolsky's column about you: 'Director John Chaffey and his Sardinian guide Paul Maslansky were rescued by producer Charles Schneer.' '
As it turned out, the facilities needed for Jason
could not be found in Yugoslavia, though set construction had begun on the temple where Hermes appears to Jason. 'We were going to do it through Mediterranean Films in Montenegro,' said Chaffey, 'and we could've only shot part of the film there in any case.'
Maslansky added, 'It was planned as a co-production with Yugoslavia, but that fell through. While they went off and tried to make another deal, they left me there as hostage.'
Harryhausen: 'We had a month before the start date, and for budget reasons suddenly Yugoslavia was out of the question. Instead, we looked for locations that were similar, elsewhere.'
Grecian ruins were too popular with tourists, too inaccessible, or too decayed. Italian ruins, though architecturally anachronistic, were close enough to substitutefew viewers would notice the difference. The village of Palinuro served as an operations base, where the hundred-person cast and crew nearly outnumbered the population. Arrangements were made to procure the use of the ruins at Paestum; interiors would be shot in the relatively small Safa Palatino and Vasca Navale Studios in Rome.In Part 3 of our JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS retrospective, the script is ironed out and production begins.