JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS: Movie Retrospective, Part 4 - Mania.com

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JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS: Movie Retrospective, Part 4

In post-production, Ray Harryhausen adds his stop-motion magic to the tale of the Golden Fleece.

By Ted Newsom     May 28, 2000

The many effects shots in Jason and the Argonauts were refinements and elaborations on those Ray Harryhausen had created for previous films. As with the novelty of 7th Voyage of Sinbad, no one had ever paired the techniques of stop-motion animation to this style of story. As a result, the film had visual wonders never before seen.
The harpies' attack on Phineas (Patrick Troughton) and their subsequent capture is splendid. Winged, Doré-inspired demons showed up in the silent Thief of Bagdad, Mark of the Vampire, and a Republic serial Darkest Africa (one might even count the repulsive flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz). These used piano-wires to fly real actors while manipulating the wings separately. The effect almost always looked clunky because of the difficulty of manipulating full-size prop wings. By using puppets the size of a Barbie doll, Harryhausen could maintain control of the limbs, head and wings.
The miniature twin demons hung suspended before the rear screen by a series of wires which moved in all four compass points as well as up and down. The models are undetailed, but they are 'minor' players, seldom seen in close-up. An on-set wire gag whipped Patrick Troughton's belt off, later combined with movements of the harpies; miniature 'ground' lets the creatures cast shadows. To achieve the table-tipping scene, one shot establishes a stone table topped with food; there is a cutaway, then a return to longshot in which the table has been replaced with a miniature.
As with all animated creations, the strobe effect calls attention to their unreality. 'I don't think doing a dissolve with the wings or something like that would have sold one more ticket,' Harryhausen commented. (He refers to the pterodactyl in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, for which Jim Danforth blurred the strobing of the wings by a wiggling the model before shooting each frame.)
Relatively simplebut a novelty for the timewas the use of a small bluescreen on the Olympus set, which became a sort of heavenly TV for the Gods. The various vaporous comings and goings of Hera and Hermes combined traveling mattes and FX-stage smoke. The ages-old trick of oversize sets came into play with the minuscule Jason confronting the Godsaided by matte work and audio distortion that gave Jason a Gulliver-like squeak.
The Talos sequence might have been filmed quicker using a man in a bronzed suit. 'But I don't think that would have achieved the effect we wanted,' Harryhausen said. 'The stiff, mechanical movements I don't think would have come across.' Talos, rubber coated with a 'bronze' finish, had large-scale pieces for closer shotsa section of sword, a hand and arm, and a foot and ankle to match the life-size one in the plates.
The Talos segment begins in the Valley of the Titans, a composite of real Italian scenery below and a series of miniature buildings topped by humungous statues, so large that in the extreme long-shots (especially in theaters with imprecise projectionists) the tiny figures of Hercules and Hylas cannot be seen. The low angle shot looking past Hercules at Talos has often been mentioned, and justifiably so. Statues aren't supposed to moveespecially statues this big! As the monster bronze man appears on the beach, other details appear in the effects work: viewed in long shot behind a rocky crag, Talos' legs are visible through an opening below, thanks to a momentary stationary matte. The oversize model hand and arm comes into play as the bronze giant slaps the beach and a few Argonauts, pulling them toward him (shades of Harryhausen's San Francisco octopus, down to the detail of a supplemental shadow cast on the process screen).
Talos apes the Colossus of Rhodes by straddling the harbor, then reaches creakily down (with combinations of partial-Argo set-piece on the process stage and the plate of the giant) and then, back in extreme long shot, lifts a minute copy of the ship by its prow. The editing here makes us think we saw what we didn't. In fact, Talos never grabs the prow; the effect is done by montage. An oversize piece of Talos' sword swoops across the beach at the Argonauts. This sword, the section of hand and the miniature foot are not in precise ratio to the scale seen in the full shots, but this slight inconsistency is inconsequential; it is the overall effect that matters. (King Kong's height varied from sequence to sequence, too)
The sequence is marred by a noticeable increase in grain during the composites, due to degeneration of the components during the many steps of the bluescreen work, among other factors. It is a point that some viewers might consciously overlook; but unconsciously it signals 'monster effect coming up.' (Harryhausen disapproves of the razor-sharp DVD releases, since they tend to make all the film's defects stand out.) The overall irony is, Talos moves in the least 'life-like' manner of any Harryhausen creation and is one of the most memorable.
The skeleton fight is interesting from several aspects. Certainly it gave Harryhausen his most quoted statistic: 13 or 14 frames per day on the most complicated set-ups, moving seven figures, each with many joints, in sync with three humans in the background. The figure is obviously not an average by any means. Much of this fight scene contains only one or two animated figures, and the first few cuts of the squad show the skeletons moving in step, making animation a tad swifter.
Harryhausen: 'It all depends on several factors: the complexity of movement, the number of figures, how fast or slow a movement has to be. The skeleton fight took quite some time, but on other things one can do perhaps twenty-five feet of animation a day. It is not so much the animation, but the set-ups, matching lighting, getting everything ready. Animation is fairly straightforward in comparison.'
To shoot the guide plate, Chaffey, Harryhausen and stunt coordinator Fernando Poggi choreographed stuntmen dressed in white track suits with numbers one through seven, then filmed the action again, minus the stuntmen. The animation took four and a half months, and features the 7th Voyage skeleton, repainted to match his bony friends. Armatures for the new skeletons were machined by Fred Harryhausen (as was the original) and sent over to London. Diana Harryhausen, no mean artist herself, painted the various miniature shield designs. As a technical tour de force it is unsurpassed; it is also a rousing good fight scene. But like the 7th Voyage battle, it is bizarre without truly being horrific. Obviously the UK censor thought differently: the shot of skeletons shrieking toward camera was clipped for British release. Another minor cut follows a shot of Jason lopping off a skeleton's head: missing is the headless soldier clambering on all fours, feeling for its missing skull. As in the Cyclops' barbecue in 7th Voyage, one can almost sense Laurel and Hardy in this grotesque slapstick. Occasionally Harryhausen substitutes model swords in his rear-projected actors' hands for crossover purposes.
Not surprisingly, a flub or two occurs. One frame shows a surface gauge pop into view, a wire-and-metal marker used to track the movement of the animated puppets. Considering the complexity of the sequence, it's astonishing it happened only once.
Several animators had heard rumors of an anonymous grip in London who claimed to have assisted on the skeleton sword fight. 'I find this story most amusing,' Harryhausen noted when he first heard about it. 'Untruebut amusing.'
The Clashing Rocks segment has come under fire by buffs. When the cliffs bordering the channel drop debris into the 'sea' below, the splashes betray their true size, since water and fire are impossible to 'miniaturize.' And the sea god is clearly a man in a fishtail. So why not animate the scene, or superimpose full-size splashes, ala It Came from Beneath the Sea? The answer to the first is obvious: Harryhausen never animated a 'human' if he could help it. Secondly, to create splashes of sufficient volume would've meant dumping tons of real rocks into a sea. Shot at high speed, the effect is good if not completely 'real.'
'Critics seem to forget that we are dealing with basically an unreal subject matter, particularly the more fantastic aspects of legend. We are really striving for an unexaggerated, surrealistic, dream-like qualitynot a synthetic duplication of reality, as might be necessary in a matte shot of New York City. To me, the high-speed and exaggerated splashes give this dream-like quality we were after.'
The Hydra, though only in a brief episode, boasted two tails, seven heads with tongues, eyes and jaws, all on serpent-like necks. Aided by multiple hisses on the sound track, it is nightmarishly reptilian, continuously in Medusa-like motion. Harryhausen never felt he got enough praise for the creature and the sequence. It should be the highlight of the film; it is, after all, the final obstacle between Jason and his goal (the ghoulish children of the Hydra's teeth come as a surprise, plot-wise). But Harryhausen's Hydra shares a problem with Bert Gordon's dragon in The Magic Sword. The thing looks great, but it doesn't really do anything. The Hydra snarls and snaps; Jason pokes at it a few times, circling around and ducking the multiple heads, and at one point the creature gets a stop-motion puppet version of Todd Armstrong in the grip of its scaly tail. Then it gets stabbed.
The freshness of seeing an absolutely unworldly, fantastic creation 'living' and moving on screen is not to be dismissed; the design is fascinating, the multiple movements precisely what one would expect from a multi-headed reptile the size of a Chevy. But its interaction with the sole actor in the scene is minimal. For all its marvelous visual novelty, for all the difference it makes to the action, the 'role' could have been played by a bear, a crocodile or an ostrich.
'There really was a Golden Fleece, you know,' said Chaffey, 'In fact, many of them. Jason was a pirate, actually. They used to stretch actual ram's skin across the rivers, and pan for gold. They'd pull this damn thing up after a few weeks, and it would be just soaked in gold!'
Alas, the film's Golden Fleece seems hardly worth all the trouble the Hydra took to protect it, and its curative aspects are undone by the unmagical acting of the principals. After Jason slays the Hydra (Armstrong drops his own sword imperceptibly; Harryhausen substitutes a model sword for the coup de grace), he and Medea walk back from the cave. One of Aeetes' bowmen shoots Medea. Jason grieves for a second, then lays the Golden Fleece over Medea's body. It sparkles, and returns her to life. There's little sign in Armstrong's face of grief, hope, or relief. Maybe he was just tired of being razzed by Don Chaffey.
Ever the gentleman, Harryhausen noted, 'I think this comment is really unjustified. We are viewing a world where so-called miracles are relatively commonplace. I grant you, the acting had a lot to be desired... but the above comment still applies.'
Bernard Herrmann again composed and conducted the score, with heroic leit-motifs for Jason, a Stravinski-esque theme for Talos, muted horns and xylophone for Phineas and his Harpies, and a full-blown orchestration for the skeleton scene. It was to be Herrmann's last score for a Harryhausen picture, after having also scored 7th Voyage, Gulliver, and Mysterious Island.
Jason and the Argonauts is a film of compromises. Wilkie Cooper's lens captures the most breathtaking vistas and seascapesyet the visuals are diminished by unhappy graininess during process scenes. The sets of Colchis, the work of designer John Maxstead, Chaffey, and Harryhausen, call to mind ancient Babylon with the sphinx designs and intricate columns. The establishing shot of Aetes' hall, a partial miniature married to the full-size set in post-production, is quite goodespecially in comparison with the scenes of Olympus, which are rather patently painted. The supporting cast is excellent; the leads run the emotional gamut from A to B.
All things considered, Jason and the Argonauts is a good picture. It moves with a stately, even ponderous gait at timesfitting the wide scope of the storyyet it has moments of great excitement and power. For a film that cost £430,000 (roughly $1.2 million at the time), it looks fantastic.
As to reports that Jason cost two or three million or more to make, Chaffey scoffed, 'It used to be quite fashionable to double the cost of the film in terms of the press. It always sounds better to say something cost five million instead of one million. Madness.'
Harryhausen's collective effects processes were now called 'Dynamation 90,' for no particular reason except novelty. Some reviewers looked at the film as a charming fantasy. One notable exception was Newsweek, which snidely but accurately reported gales of audience laughter at the screaming skeletons (it got laughs when the film was re-released in the mid 1970s) and the bronze giant with a manhole cover on his foot. The New Yorker accurately asked: 'Why, oh why, after forty years of film technology, do process shots still look so dreadful? Otherwise stunning effects are ruined by those shimmering chromatic aberrations that always seem to cocoon the actors in the foreground. Trick animations haven't advanced as far as they might have, either. Seven-headed monsters and fighting skeletons still have a primitive, staccato action that brings back those jumpy little pieces by George Melies.'
Released in the summer of 1963, Jason and the Argonauts played to turn-away crowds in Europe, and it was one of England's top ten grossers of the year. It was highly publicized in the US as well. 'Yet Ray's told me that he has heard the studio said it made no money at all,' said Chaffey, 'which I find astonishing.'
One reason may be studio bookkeeping practices. Revenue has a strange way of dissipating along the route from box office to sub-distributor to distributor to profit participants. At each level, a percentage is kept by the handlers as their fee. Further, studios will often use the profits from one film to balance off debts on another. On top of this, the cost of prints (several hundred or a couple of thousand dollars each, depending on the gauge of film and extras like color, stereo sound, etc.), advertising, press junkets, and assorted other items must be repaid before the film can be considered profitable. Deliberate falsification of grosses is also possible, but unlikely. Since a distributor can charge off so many things legally, there is little need for chicanery.
There is of course a more basic problem: the script never acknowledges what it's about. Cross says he corrected 'the more flagrant errors' in myth, but neither he nor Jan Reed bothered to reason out what the Jason myth was about in the first place, which makes the center of the story a superficial adventure. Jason comes to Colchis to steal the one thing that keeps that kingdom happy and successful. Even Bulfinch admits the original source of the tale is 'piratical.' Jason is, essentially, a thief.
'You're not supposed to delve that deeply!' laughed Harryhausen. 'Jason was looking out for his own country. That is one of the problems with mythsthe concept of heroes: what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine. It's prevalent, and you can't deviate too much or you lose the myth. We tried not to make him the obvious villain, but that's the way the myth was.'
For all its portentous trappings, Jason is a heist film: Ocean's 11 in ruins rather than casinos, Topkapi in togas. But unlike good heist stories, there is no moral like 'Crime Doesn't Pay' or 'The best laid plans of mice and men go aft a glee,' or even a rationalization that Colchis doesn't deserve the fleece anymore. Cross, Harryhausen, and even Chaffey recreate the superficial aspects of the story without its heart. Admiring Jason's single-minded (if uninspired) quest for the Golden Fleece is like cheering Goldfinger's brilliant plan to knock off Fort Knox. Without addressing these issues at all, the film becomes a chocolate Easter rabbit, attractive and tasty but hollow. Like Mysterious Island, the film never addresses the issues which inspired the myth, even in passing.
Jason learns nothing during his adventure; his character is a cipher (which probably frustrated Armstrong). Any time he's in trouble, Hera gives him a hint or a push. At the climax to the much-vaunted skeleton fight, Jason runs like hell (sensible, but scarcely heroic) and make a spectacular but illogical leap over a cliff into the sea (itself reprise of the single skeleton's death in Sinbad). He survives the fall but the skeletons do not. Why? They were dead already, held together and revived by magic; if anything, they would have been slightly more resistant to a fall into the sea than a corporeal thief.
In later elaborations on the Jason-Medea legend, Medea murders her children in an insane attempt to win back Jason's lovethe gods' belated payback to Jason's thievery of the fleece years before. That, obviously, would be a far too much of a downer for a family fantasy.
Another reason may simply be miscalculation of the market.
'I think Jason was our best picture,' said Schneer, 'but it was also our most expensive picture up to then, and I wasn't satisfied with the world results. That may have been the result of competitive conditions or the way it was marketed. The Italians were making a lot of cheap muscle-man movies at that time. Audiences may have assumed Jason was one of those and therefore avoided it. It took us two years to make Jason, but the Italians could make their pictures in just a few weeks. Even if they followed us into production, they would precede us into release. They ended up ruining the market for us.'
In retrospect, it was ingenuous not to have anticipated this. Hercules, the first big Steve Reeves film, was story of the Golden Fleece, with Hercules as the prime mover and Jason secondary. When Joseph E. Levine imported it in 1959, it became a runaway hit. Its sequel, Hercules Unchained (1960) also did well. Both had striking Mario Bava photography, and heavy fantasy elements.
Even the combination of stop-motion and togas was not novel: La Vendetta de Ercole (Vengeance of Hercules, shot in 1959 and released in the US in 1960 as Goliath and the Dragon) pitted the muscled hero against a dragon (animated in Hollywood by Jim Danforth). Gli Amore de Ercole (The Loves of Hercules, 1960) offered Mickey Hargitay dodging a clumsy full-size mechanical dragon but also added the special effect of his wife Jayne Mansfield in a dual role, showing twice as many talents as Nancy Kovack (Mike Frankovich notwithstanding). These films and dozens more were playing around the world when Jason was still in the planning stages.
On top of that, toga adventures had already been soundly spoofed (giant monsters and all) in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, which Columbia itself released in January of 1962. (Making Hercules a goof wasn't new with Moe, Larry and Curly Joe. The Greek comic poet Aristophanes used the hero as an oaf in his satiric play The Frogs, about 2300 years earlier.)
By including Hercules among the Argonauts, the movie opened itself up to audience comparison to the earlier pictures. (So what if Hercules was an Argonaut in legend? The script plays mix and match with various myths) It's like filming a version of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman and being annoyed that the audience expects to see Clark Kent. And even if the character had been omitted, the poster and publicity photos of Jason make it look like a Steve Reeves-type vehicle; it's a guy in a toga, no matter who brought the monsters to life.
Unlike the Italian pictures (or the Stooges film), there is in Jason an air of solemnity that asks the audience to take it seriously. Ray Harryhausen certainly took his art seriouslya combination of drawing and sculpture, mechanical design and kinetic study, knowledge of film's chemical and physical parameters, movement, montage and old-fashioned magician's tricks. At the heart of Dynamation was that cinematic artifice called stop-motion, a technique as old as cinema itself, and almost invariably dismissed as a 'trick.' Harryhausen wanted it to be respected. Jason and the Argonauts earns that respect.
Ray Harryhausen's achievements attracted attention back in California. His friend from the George Pal days, Stuart O'Brien, saw the irony. 'Our union paper had a double spread about Ray Harryhausen making skeletons fight with people and all. I was so furious; I wrote a letter telling them, 'Thanks to you, dear Brothers of the Union, he's now in England instead of here!''


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