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JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS: A Retrospective of the Ray Harryhausen Classic

Stop-motion monsters and Greek mythology made for a winning combination.

By Ted Newsom     May 07, 2000

In 1992, when he presented the Gordon Sawyer special lifetime achievement Oscar to special effects creator and producer Ray Harryhausen, Tom Hanks called Jason and the Argonauts the greatest film ever made. Director John Landis, interviewing Harryhausen for the DVD re-release of the film, vividly recalled every aspect of bicycling to see the movie when it opened. Producer Charles Schneer considers it the best of the dozen films he did with Harryhausen, and the animator himself is justly proud of his memorable work on the bronze giant Talos and the intricate sword battle between the heroes and a squad of skeletons.
Like many 'children's films,' the reaction of viewers depends on how old they were when they saw it. Seen through the eyes of a child, Jason is a magnificent film of wonders and action, heroes and dread demons, an epic voyage into unknown lands and seas. Viewed with an adult sensibility, it often moves like molasses in winter, the acting is iffy, and many of the special effects look rickety, flickery, obvious and antiquated, even for 1962. Contemporary critics were not uniformly kind; but then, they were grown-ups. Those who remember only the magical imagery bristle when anyone suggests the film is less than perfect. Criticizing Jason is tantamount to calling Santa Claus a deviate.
This adaptation of the Quest for the Golden Fleece involves Fate influencing the destiny of mortal man. The hero is pushed or checked by the whims of the Gods, but it is ultimately the hero's own actions that decide his fortune. In a cinematic and historical context, Fate led Ray Harryhausen to the point of breathing life into ancient Greek myths as surely as it directed Jason to find his Medea and the golden prize he sought.

* * *

When The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was released in 1958, its combination of imaginative special effects, color cinematography, and child-like fantasy made it an international hit. Released through Columbia Pictures, it had been a dream project for the 38-year old Ray Harryhausen, who designed and executed the technical effects. During the mid-1950s, he had pitched the project to a number of producers (George Pal, Edward Small, Jesse Lasky, among others), but despite his elaborate pre-production sketches, they all passed. At the time (1955) the resoundingly silly Son of Sinbad had flopped, and no one seemed interested in myth or fantasy. Interestingly, Harryhausen had not bothered to offer it to the producer with whom he had worked twice, Charles Schneer.
Schneer's brief at the low-budget Sam Katzman unit of Columbia Pictures had been to generate exploitable, inexpensive films with topical themes. His first two with Harryhausen, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) fell into that category, as did others Schneer instigated, like the schlock-rock classic, Rock Around the Clock (1956). An elaborate Arabian Nights fantasy was out of the Katzman B-movie budget range, generally under $200,000, and often closer to $100,000.
Charles Schneer had left the Katzman unit in 1957 to start his own company, Morningside Productions, agreeing to provide Columbia with a dozen pictures over a period of years. The agreement gave Schneer access to studio contract players and facilities like standing sets. With slightly larger budgets, he produced serviceable pictures of various types, from the World War II heroics of Hellcats of the Navy (1957) and Tarawa Beachhead (1960) to backlot crime thrillers such as The Case Against Brooklyn (1958) and two color westerns with Fred MacMurray, Good Day for a Hanging (1958) and Face of a Fugitive (1959). With several pictures going at once, Schneer had the flexibility to produce a film that would be in post-production for considerably longer than a 'normal film.' This was Harryhausen's science-fantasy Twenty Million Miles to Earth, about a giant Venusian creature amok in Rome. The months of stop-motion photography necessary to bring the alien to animated life had given Harryhausen his chance to emulate his beloved inspiration King Kong, complete with a last-gasp stand-off with the creature atop the Coliseum.
The latitude of the Morningside budgets opened up the possibility of the Arabian Nights fantasy. 'Ray had done these absolutely splendid charcoal drawings,' said Schneer. 'I thought they were the most unusual visuals I'd ever seen. I was swept off my feet by the images they conjured up. But all Ray had were these spectacular drawings. He didn't have a story. So I hired a writer named Kenneth Kolb, and together we built a story line around Ray's drawings.'
The result was Sinbad, for which Schneer coined the term 'Dynamation,' to differentiate Harryhausen's film tricks from Disney-style cartoon cel animation. Said Schneer, 'The '-mation' suffix comes from 'animation,' of course. I knew it needed something to go with it. 'Dyna-' came from a Buick I once owned, which had the word 'Dynaflow' printed on the dashboard. The term 'Dynamation' had never been used before, so I immediately patented it. That's one word we put into the film business.'
Two other Dynamation projects were launched simultaneously after Sinbad, both from extant scripts at Columbia. Gulliver's Travels had been written by Arthur Ross as a TV special, then pitched to Universal by director Jack Sher as a feature. When Universal passed, it ended up on the desk of Charles Schneer. The other project, an adaptation of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, had begun in the 1954 wake of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but floundered because of budget problems.
'Columbia couldn't figure out how to do it in California because of the exorbitant cost,' said Schneer. 'Ben Kahane, who was Harry Cohn's right hand man, called me in and said, 'Here's a property I think you ought to look at.' Since I was going to England to make I Aim at the Stars and Gulliver, they asked me to have a go at Mysterious Island. I inherited a draft of the script, which had already been written by Crane Wilbur, and subsequently hired Daniel Ullman, who had written Good Day for a Hanging for me and was a good constructionist, to do a second draft.'
With his experience filming Sinbad inexpensively in Spain and ten years' worth of practical experience in the Katzman low-budget trenches, Schneer relocated to England, taking up a new home in London's Kensington area. At first it was a business expedient, putting him in proximity to both the English studios and talent pool and European locations. 'After looking around England, I decided it was worth staying, so I stayed. I had no regrets about leaving America. My family was the right age. My children were growing up, and I saw the advantages of educating them in England. Having lived in many of the great cities of the world, I think London is the greatest. With the cultural benefits it offersthe actors, playwrights, theaters, museums and concertsit's an amazing place.' Harryhausen also took up digs in the city, across town in the Knightsbridge district.
Harryhausen and the screenwriters reconfigured the Gulliver and Mysterious Island scripts to incorporate the effects wizard's techniques. The rewrite of the Jules Verne story dropped in giant monsters at various times, products of Captain Nemo's experiments in biology. Gulliver was comparatively straightforward, but to bring both films in on time and budget, the techniques had to be decided upon far in advance of shooting, with each effects shot labeled 'SS,' 'TM,' 'DY,' or 'M' for split screen, traveling matte, Dynamation, or miniature. This restrictive pre-planning didn't sit well with the film's directors. On Mysterious Island, Cy Endfield complained that Harryhausen was telling him how to shoot his picture; Schneer firmly told Endfield, 'It's not your picture.' Schneer's personality also rubbed director Jack Sher the wrong way on Gulliver. Both The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, released in 1960, and Mysterious Island, released in 1961, were money-makers, although not the box office phenomenon of Sinbad.
There were other practical reasons for Harryhausen to relocate to England. There, he was able to use the Rank Studios process of sodium-backing, which resulted in sharper composite images than blue-screen shots. More importantly, he was able to work away from union restrictions. His experiences on Mighty Joe Young in 1948 and to a lesser extent on The Animal World in 1955 were frustrating, in that all crafts on a union set in Hollywood were covered by separate unions, necessitating separate employees. There had to be a cameraman present and on salary, even though it was Harryhausen who set the exposure and fixed the focus. A gaffer would adjust the lights. A projectionist needed to be present if there was back-screen or front-screen projection in the animation shot. A member of the property union would be in charge of miniature props. The solitary art of stop-motion puppetry was an anomaly in the highly systematic motion picture business. The move to England provided Harryhausen with the necessary insularity.
During this period, Ray Harryhausen met a petite, dark-haired Scotswoman, Diana Livingstone Bruce, a vivacious descendant of Scottish explorer David Livingstone, the 19th century missionary who had explored the Kalahari Desert, discovered the Zambesi River and Victoria Falls, and sought the source of the Nile. 'Yes, old David was my great-grandfather. He tramped about Africa a bit,' laughed Diana.
Old friend Ray Bradbury commented, 'I used to worry about Ray a little. You know, 'Jeez, Ray, what's your sex life like?' But he found just the right woman at just the right time, and it worked out terrifically.'
'My mother and I had just moved into this apartment in the same building as the Marquisa di Monteleari, whom I happened to know,' said the woman who would become Mrs. Ray Harryhausen. 'An Italian name, but terribly, terribly English, you know. She kept saying to my mum and me, 'Oh, there's this wonderful American, you must meet him!' I said, 'Well, if he's that great, I probably don't want to meet him. He's probably ghastly.' He evidently felt the same way about usnot having met us. The Countess invited us both to a party, to which we were both late. He'd worked late in the studio that day and planned to have an awful cold that night. But we both arrived. He looked rather dour, as we say in Scotland, looking around to see which one was me. My mother went over to talk to him, and before I could say anything, she'd invited him round for supper. We had scrambled eggs, and he loves them. It all worked out rather well. The courtship went on for a couple of years before we talked about getting married. He'd just gotten a crab from Harrod's for the monster in Mysterious Island.'

* * *

Audiences were spending less time and money in theaters. The percentage of the American amusement dollar spent on films dropped from the 75% high of the mid-fifties to 54% in 1962, and would continue to drop until 1968. If Schneer and Harryhausen wanted to compete with film stars like Doris Day and Rock Hudson for the box office dollar, they'd have to come up with something astounding. Instead of Arabian Nights or medieval fantasy, the next collaboration sprang from Ray's long-time interest in classic mythology.
His fondness for ancient myth had already resulted in a ten-minute version of the King Midas fable in 1953, done solely with puppets. Other images from myth and history percolated. 'I'd always held a fascination for the Colossus of Rhodes,' Harryhausen said. 'No one really knows what it looked like, although it was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Some of the illustrations of it have this mammoth statue standing astride the harbor of Rhodes. And years and years ago, I saw a silent film where an enormous clay statue fell down on someone. And there is a Japanese film in which someone, a woman I think, turns her head and gives a certain type of look. All these things came together with the concept of Talos, a bronze man who menaces the hero Jason. I thought the quest for the Golden Fleece held tremendous potential for a Dynamation film.'
Ray wanted to do winged demons since The Elementals, an aborted sci-fi picture from 1954, to have been produced by Jack Dietz, who made Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Inspired by the engravings of Harryhausen's favorite illustrator Gustave Doré, these winged monsters became the Harpies in Jason. The multi-headed Hydra from the Hercules myth became the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. The twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis would appear to battle the Argonauts; Medea would lead Jason past the three-headed dog Cerebus into the Underworld, in another Doré-inspired sequence. The children of the Hydra's teeth would rise as skeletons, the Sinbad scene times seven. Schneer suggested another classic monster, a centaur.
Since this project was an original idea of Harryhausen's, and he was essential to the design and execution of the picture, he requested and received credit as associate producer. 'Actually, it was long overdue,' said Schneer. 'Ray asked for that credit, and I had no problem with it. If he wanted it, he could have it.'
All in all, Jason and the Golden Fleece looked promising and elaborate.

In Part II of our retrospective, development of the project moves into pre-production.


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