Making JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, Part 3 - Mania.com



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Making JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, Part 3

Filming the classic tale of Greek mythology.

By Ted Newsom     May 21, 2000

Don Chaffey called Jan Reed's first draft script 'appalling, absolutely unworkable. Charles Schneer had the good sense to bring in Beverly Cross.'
'Beverly is a very distinguished writer,' said Schneer. 'He is a Greek and Latin scholar who went to Oxford University. On Jason he primarily worked on the dialogue because the story structure had already been established.'
Cross had gotten a taste of on-set re-writing with Lawrence of Arabia. Sequences vanished for budget reasons, like the journey to Hell, Cerebus, and the dual monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Those sequences that remained got juggled a bit. Beverly Cross said, 'I took over the script, and since I knew the stories, I corrected some of the more flagrant errors. Ray was very positive about the effects he wanted to do. It was a question of how we would string them together in the most lucid way. We would work in our separate corners; then when I'd done the script and he'd done his sketches, we'd get together and work out a compromise.'
To play Jason and Medea, Columbia assigned two minor stars in their firmament, Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovak. Armstrong had little experience to prepare him for a major role: a part in Walk on the Wild Side and a Screen Gems series, Manhunt. Kovak's credits were more solid (i.e., Strangers When We Meet), but the role did not call for much depth.
'They weren't good actors, but they looked the parts,' opined Schneer. 'Unfortunately, they sounded too American. Their accents didn't blend well with the British actors, so they had to be dubbed. Nancy Kovack was a lovely and gentle woman, but frankly I wasn't crazy about Todd Armstrong. Nevertheless, Columbia told me to cast him, and after all, they put up the money. In that situation, it was better to let the studio choose an actor whom I didn't like, rather than for me to choose one whom they didn't like. Since his dialogue was kept to a minimum, I knew I could always dub him, so I felt I could live with it.'
Said Maslansky, 'Nancy was a doll. In fact, she's a neighbor of mine in Malibu now. She's married to the conductor, Zubin Metha.'
The film offered a view of Hercules much different from audience expectations, and the joie de vivre that Nigel Green brought to the role makes him far more interesting than the nominal hero, stealing the few scenes he is in. 'We wanted to get away from the beefcake reviews,' said Harryhausen. 'Once you establish Hercules as Steve Reeves, that doesn't mean every Hercules has to be in that image.' Agreed Chaffey, 'Nigel Green was super as our over-the-hill Hercules. Just a drunken braggart with a ratty old lion skinall he has left!'
The rest of the characters pale in comparison, but the actors were all dependable Britons: Gary Raymond is properly sleazy as Acastus, Douglas Wilmer regally hammy as Pelias, and Jack Gwillim understandably petulant as King Aeetes, from whom Jason steals the Fleece. And fans of the second incarnation of Dr. Who will recognize Patrick Troughton as the blind man harassed by the harpies.
Working only in sequences done on a studio set, Niall MacGinnis and Honor Blackman played Zeus and Hera as bantering, sexy and strong-willed helpmeets and rivals. Schneer had seen Blackman as the spirited Cathy Gale on the pre-Diana Rigg incarnation of The Avengers. She and MacGinnis bring to the roles a vibrancy totally absent from the later Clash of the Titans, in which the script gives Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom nothing to do and little to say.
The most expensive major live-action star of Jason, the Argo itself, was built in the Anzio shipyards92 feet of ship with two dozen working oarsthough the real power came from the three Mercedes-Benz diesel engines below deck. Much publicity was made of this major expenditure, a reputed cost of $250,000, but in fact the outlay to Morningside was mitigated by Charles Schneer's business acumen.
Depending on which story one believes, Schneer either had rented it from the Cleopatra unit shooting in Rome at the time, or eventually sold it to them, in either case cleverly amortizing a major expenditure of Jason. The screenwriter and the director have contrary memories of the arrangement.
Cross said, 'There was a time element involved; therefore, we removed certain scenes from the boat and put them on land or elsewhere. It was practical screenwriting as opposed to remote screenwriting. Don Chaffey was incredibly practical, and I think the film came off rather cheaply.'
Chaffey said Cross had the story backwards. 'I don't know how you could rewrite scenes that were to take place on the ship for land. I know nothing about that. What could you change? The Olympic games, the temple of Heraall took place on land. I was in on the script from the beginning. As I know it, Charles Schneer bought the superstructure of a yacht from the Cleopatra people; it turned out to be too small. It was going to be the queen's barge, or something, and they didn't want it. But we shot everything we planned, and it was still there when we leftwell, it'd probably gone back to Anziobut we didn't have to rearrange anything to my knowledge.
'Beverly was there a lot, and we got a lot out of him. He wrote some awfully good dialogue, some wonderful lines, like where Honor Blackman says to Niall MacGinnisshe's Hera and he's Zeus'You realize that when people cease to believe in us, we will cease to exist.' That's quite deep when you think about it.'
In any case, the film acquired a beautiful period ship for the length of time it needed.
Harryhausen: 'Working on the ocean provides a film crew with all sorts of wonderful, impossible situation, as we found on 7th Voyage and Jason. Whenever you work on water or are filming something from the shore that is on water, it takes twice as long to get anything in the proper position for the angles you want.'
Much of the sea action was filmed first, not without incident. As Wilkie Cooper's camera crew waited impatiently for the ship to come around a far section of shore, they got an anachronistic surprise.
Laughed Harryhausen, 'The TV show Sir Francis Drake was shooting their second-unit stuff in the area. We were waiting for the wretched Argo to come around these rocks, and The Golden Hind came around instead! Charles got furious.' According to a press release, Schneer yelled, 'Get out of here! You're in the wrong century!'
Maslansky proved his worth, getting a 'field commission' promotion to Unit Manager. He observed his boss carefully. 'Charlie was very particular, out of the old Harry Cohn tradition. He was interested in every aspect, but never interfered much in anything.' However, Schneer's interest in every aspect of production and his often brusque manner got on the nerves of the director (in his own way, equally blunt and impatient), who was accustomed to producers being unseen and unheard. Both strong-willed men, they grew to dislike each other on a professional level. Harryhausen tried to remain neutral.
They both agreed on one point, however. Neither were keen on their leading man. Off the set, their Jason was something less than stalwart. 'Poor creature,' Chaffey murmured, 'he'd only done a few walk-ons in westerns and the like, and here he was in Europe, totally out of his depth. He also had quite a thing about beeshated the things. We'd have lunch out on the beach, and they'd bother him. So he got this great quantity of jam, and smeared it all over a rock. Then he waited with a big stick. These bees would fly down for the jam, and he'd scream, 'Cocksucking bees!!!' and smash them. Well, of course, all the Italians thought he was quite mad. And of course, he'd knock his own food all over as well. I had a darling script supervisor, Phyllis Crocker, who'd been with me a long time, and was very, very proper. She saw this and said, 'You know ... if I were his parents, I should be quite concerned about his behavior.''
Regarding his leading lady, Chaffey added, 'Nancy Kovak tried; I'll say that much for her. But that other asshole, I had no time for at all. When we rehearsed the skeleton fight, Todd Armstrong said, weeping, 'Mr. Chaffey, you're an absolute brute! This sword's too heavy for my arm!' I said, with some asperity, 'Mr. Armstrong, you are six-foot, four inchesI won't say manhoodsix-foot, four inches of American shithood!''
Observed Schneer slightly more diplomatically, 'He wasn't very athletic and was awkward in many of his moves. We had a difficult time teaching him to be a swordsman. He required a lot of instruction.'
Working with Italian extras from the local villages proved more complicated than anyone anticipated. 'First, we ran into trouble with Cleopatra's outfit, which was paying people far more than we could afford for extras,' remembered Chaffey. 'And we had extras on the Argo from three villages. This one young man, a lawyer, came up and told me that if I didn't divide the scenes equally between the men of each village, there'd be bloodshed. Real bloodshed. So we had to try each day to numerically divide the shots of the extras to be fair. That got to be ridiculous, so we worked out a weekly ratio: these people get precisely seventeen shots, these people get seventeen, and so on. And when we ran the dailieson the whitewashed back wall of an old church, with a gas-powered old projectorit was madness. Every time a member of the village appeared, these people would clap and cheer. My sound man eventually gave up trying to hear his sound.'
Remembered Maslansky, 'In Palinuro, we found these beautiful olive groves, about 200 yards by 200 yards square, and the farmer agreed to let us shoot there as long as we didn't bruise the fruit. That night we were visited by four really tough-looking farmers. I'd made a deal with one farmer, but they made it implicitly clear that if I dealt with one, I had to deal with all of them or there'd be major troubleand not only financial trouble. I learned quickly about the ways of southern Italy.'
Chaffey's method of pointing out camera angles alienated the locals. He gestured to his camera crew with his fist, with the first and fourth fingers spread to indicate the type of lens. 'Well, I would do this,' he roared, 'and all these bloody idiots started crossing themselves! They called in a priest, who asked me, 'Why are you giving all these people the evil eye?''
Shooting included such on-set gags as an oversize bronze foot with a manhole cover in the heel, wire work with Patrick Troughton in the Paestum ruins, the multi-sword choreographed fight (as in 7th Voyage, done with live actors first, then in pantomime), and various stunt falls, splashes and bumps.
'We were in a very deprived part of southern Italy,' said Schneer, 'where there weren't many modern conveniences. Don became ill, and for a short time I took over the direction myself. I directed about a week of the picture. It was all part of the job. I'd already done second unit directing on my other movies, when the director was inconvenienced or we had to speed up shooting. Jason was so carefully prepared that I was able to step right in. Don knew what I was doing. When he came back, he took up right where I left off.' [Chaffey's response to this claim is unprintable].
'There was a gag none of the Italian stunt men wanted to do,' laughed Maslansky, 'where the guy falls off the crow's nest. I was 27 or 28 and enthusiastic and said I'd do it. I climbed up on this thing and leaped off, twenty or thirty feet down, and once I hit, I jumped back up, spread my arms in triumph, expecting a big cheer. Dead silence. I looked where everybody else was looking, at my thumb. It was bent absolutely backward, I'd dislocated and broken it. Then I realized how much it hurt!'
The crew found one beach location that was, unfortunately, accessible only by boat from the base. Chaffey had sent most of the unit on to the next location, keeping a substantial second unit back for 'traffic shots' of the Olympics: spear throwing, jumping, and so on. The fleet of local boatmen who had ferried the crew across the bay approached with smiles and open palms.
'You had to pay these pirates before they'd take you across,' Chaffey grinned, 'because they'd been double-crossed so many times beforeby their countrymen. When we finished shooting, about 3:15, they approached. I said to my assistantnaive twit that I am'I have a feeling they're going to give us this last ride on the house.' Lo and behold, in great Italian fashion, they came wringing their hands like they were wet: 'Signore, 'scuse, we are sad you are going.' 'Oh, well, we're sad, too.' 'There is no more money for us. So therefore we must charge you double to take you back.' I said, 'You are a thieving, fucking skunkpiss off!' 'Oh, signore, you are joking; it is a long walk back.' 'You're fucking right we have a long walk back. Guys! Get loaded up and start bloody marching!' These stinking apes!' I didn't stop swearing for ten minutes, damning them and their uncles and mothers and aunts, and also the cousins and relatives they would've had if their parents had married, and the most wicked swear word in Italian, bonsa, which means you are a mildewed turd. Now we had a seven-hour climb back through the mountains with a camera, big tripod legs, big plaster columns, and I just ordered those Italians off, and we started hiking. We got back into town at eleven o'clock, and everyone wondered what happened to us. Finally, we hit the main street just like Alec Guinness and his men in Bridge on the River Kwai. 'All right, we walk down this street with big smiles, and I don't want to hear a peep out of anyone. This is bloody army time, brothers.' And then the Italian reaction: once you've beaten them, they join you straight-away. 'Hey! Bravo! Bravisimo!' We were cheered like conquering heroes! I took everybody, everybody, to the local tavern and we had a gigantic piss-up [party].'
Mike Frankovich, Columbia's VP in charge of world production, insisted that Chaffey expand Kovack's role. 'I refused to shoot it. We'd just driven eight hours from Palinuro to Naples, and Mr. Schneer was with us. He said, 'I've spoken to my director, and he says he won't do it. And if he won't do it, I won't.' I hold my hand out to Schneer on that point,' said Chaffey.
Someone called Charles Schneer's attention to a display in Rome of the work of James Wines, a Chicago-born sculptor and painter. Schneer quickly signed him to create the mural for the opening creditsa Grecian style painting in golds and blacks featuring the Jason characters. Wines replaced Bob Gill, who had designed the credits sequences since 7th Voyageand whose 'Dynamation' logo had been used in all the films' publicity and would be used later on First Men 'In' The Moon.
Schneer's presence at Rome's small Safa Palatino and Vasca Navale Studios frustrated Chaffey, who barred all visitors from the stage, including the producer. By this time, the mooted Baron Munchausen idea was kaput. 'Charles found out the rights were all tied up, so that was the end of that,' shrugged Chaffey. 'By the end of the picture, working with him again was out of the question anyway.'
Even if Munchausen was out, Schneer kept his options open. 'In 1962 or 63, just after Jason, Charlie was looking around for other people to do effects,' said Jim Danforth, working at that time at Project Unlimited in Los Angeles. 'I didn't see Charles myself at the time, but I recall Tim Barr [of Project Unlimited] telling me he'd talked to Charlie about doing effects for a version of The Golden Assdon't laugh, it's a classic of Greek mythology. I think they would've changed the title.'
When shooting wrapped in Rome, the cast and crew looked forward to the traditional wrap party. Instead, Charles Schneer told them the budget wouldn't cover the expense. 'Well, a wrap party is bleeding tradition,' Chaffey snapped, 'so we all got together and pitched in money for one. All the girls bought wine, and all the men bought food, and we just took over the bottom floor of this Brazilian restaurant I knew of in Rome. We were having a tremendous time; then in walks Charles Schneer and his wife, after the meal. Well, the place went several degrees colder. I had Charles sit up next to me, and his lovely wife Shirley next to him. She really is a totally dear woman. 'Charles, do you want something to eat?' 'No, thank you, we've eaten.' 'A cup of coffee, then?' So he sat and drank a cup of coffee. She was having a lovely time. After a few minutes, Charles said, 'Well, we have an appointment; we have to go.' And they left. Then later, we found out that he'd picked up the tab. That was his way of apologizing, I suppose. It was a nice gesture from his point of view, but we resented it.'
Returning to England, shooting continued at Shepperton Studio's large blue-screen stage, the sodium process being unavailable for the length of time and for the period needed. Full-size sections of the Argo prow and rail, miniature Argos in two-foot and two-inch versions, hunks of Hydra tail, and the Clashing Rocks were built by the studio craftsmen. Don Chaffey remembered, 'I finished up Jason around Christmas of that year. I had this incredible attack of flu, but I was still shooting that stinking stuff of the boat going through the Clashing Rocks.'
While Jason began post-production, Harryhausen got extremely sad news. On November 8, 1962, Willis O'Brian died at the age of 76. Darlyne O'Brian lived for several years in a small Hollywood apartment on a small Social Security pension. In the late 1960s, out of love and loyalty to Obie, Harryhausen offered Darlyne a place to live, in his Pacific Palisades home, where she lived the rest of her life.

In Part IV of our retrospective, we examine the post-production stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen's special effects.

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