Monday, October 8, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963)

Take away the then-groundbreaking special effects courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, and "Jason and the Argonauts" is a pretty darn hammy, silly fantasy film. Actually, it's pretty silly and hammy even with them, as the stop-motion creature creations haven't aged particularly well.

They've become certifiably iconic -- which is another way of saying that even though everyone agrees they represent a watershed moment in cinema, the effects look pretty antediluvian today.

Produced outside the traditional studio system, it's a cornucopia of stiff acting, nonsensical plotting and mythological bits 'n' pieces. A "B" picture by progeny but with a healthy budget of $3 million, it nonetheless got some "A" bookings in theaters at the time. Harryhausen considered it his finest work, and frequent musical score collaborator Bernard Hermann delivered a rousing, brass-heavy fanfare.

The most famous scene is the fight at the end between Jason, a couple of his men and a dozen or so skeleton warriors. It remains a rousing sequence, with the human actors blended pretty believably against the stop-motion undead. Fifty-five years after first delighting audiences, the skeletons gave my boys, ages 4 and 7, quite a thrill.

But the precursor to the fight is an utter credulity-twister. It actually wraps up the strengths and weaknesses of the film rather well: great eye candy spoiled by nigh-incompetent storytelling.

The setup: Jason and his crew have just stolen the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis (Jack Gwillim), killing the hydra that was guarding it, and are fleeing back to their ship. Joining them is Medea (Nancy Kovack), the king's high priestess, who betrayed him because Jason was all hunky and stuff.

Aeëtes harvested the teeth of the hydra, and after catching up with Jason's group proceeds to spread the teeth around in an elaborate ritual that must take three or four minutes for the skeletons to spawn. Jason sends Medea and most of his crew on to the ship, while he and two of his men just... stand there, waiting for the spell to be completed.

"Hecate, Queen of Darkness, revenge yourself against the Thessalians. Deliver to me the children of the hydra's teeth, the children of the night!" the king thunders.

And... he goes on.

"Rise up, you dead, slain of the hydra. Rise from your graves and avenge us. Those who steal the Golden Fleece must die!"

Still, Jason stands there, mouth agape.

I don't know about you, but if I've just ripped off an angry monarch of his most coveted treasure and he starts a foul incantation, saying he's going to summon some unkillable warriors, I'm not going to just wait for him to finish. It's skedaddlin' time.

If you think it's unmanly for a cinematic hero to run from a fight: that's exactly what he does anyway. After his fellows have been slain, Jason simply jumps off the cliff and swims to his ship, the Argo, begging the question of why they couldn't have done that right away and saved some living flesh.

(By the way, if you look closely the emblems on the shields of the skeletons are representations of previous Harryhausen creations.)

Jason is played by Todd Armstrong, who's a rather thin figure, both metaphorically and literally, for a legendary warrior out of Greek mythology. His most persistent expression is one of puzzlement/astonishment, eyebrows knitted as he reacts to Harryhausen's latest invention. He stubbornly keeps his spindly arms and chest covered even as the Argonauts toil shirtless for most of the movie. Even his voice is not his own: Armstrong's entire vocal performance was reportedly dubbed over by Tim Turner. This Jason is the pencil-necked counterpoint to Steve Reeves' Hercules of the same era.

Speaking of: the ultra-strong hero is part of Jason's team, played by Nigel Green -- a decidedly thick-waisted, back-slapping iteration of Hercules. He abandons the voyage about halfway there, overcome with grief over the disappearance of Hylas (John Cairney), the intellectual member of the crew, while battling the gigantic statue of Talos on the Isle of Bronze.

The two had awakened the titan by stealing from his treasure. Jason defeats Talos by removing the nail from his heel, causing the magical ichor that sustains him to leak out. Hylas was smushed by the falling behemoth, though Hercules doesn't know that.

If your Greek mythology is a little rusty, Jason was the son of the deposed king of Thessaly, who is foretold by Zeus to avenge himself upon his father's usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer). In order to restore glory to the kingdom and claim his rightful place, Jason is tasked with retrieving the Golden Fleece, the magical hide and skull of a golden ram, from the ends of the earth.

He holds a series of games, a progenitor of the Olympics, to select the finest heroes to man the princely ship that Argus (Laurence Naismith), the wise old shipbuilder, constructs for the trip. In addition to the aforementioned crew is Acastus (Gary Raymond), conniving son of Pelias, sent along to undermine the mission. Despite using his real name, nobody seems to recognize the offspring of Jason's hated enemy.

The weakest of the Harryhausen spectacles is the battle with the harpies, who plague the oracle Phineas (Patrick Troughton), blinded by the gods for his arrogance. (He was once the king of his land, though this is not stated in the movie.) The harpies are crude-looking and nonthreatening, appearing as if they were sculpted out of Play-Doh.

Jason gets occasional help from Hera (Honor Blackman), queen of the Greek gods, who has declared Jason her champion in a battle of wits with Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), her honored but often opposed husband.  Her latest protest against Zeus, aside from his wide-ranging and morphologically diverse philandering, was that her temple was profaned when Jason's family was killed.

Hera drops hints about his quest, bestow gifts, etc. Other gods make occasional appearances, including Hermes (Michael Gwynn), who doubles as an impressively coiffed earthly priest, and Triton (William Gudgeon), who holds open the Clashing Rocks so the Argo can pass through.

This is one of those movies where the gods are depicted as white-robed sentinels parading about a cloudy Olympus realm, pushing men and monsters around like pieces on a mystical chess board. It was quite a common storytelling device through the 1950s and '60s, straight up through "Clash of the Titans" in 1981.

Nowadays, though, gods are the flawed doers in movies rather than just the beneficent (or not) observers/manipulators.

Directed by journeyman filmmaker Don Chaffey, who bounced around between TV and film for 40 years, from a script by Beverly Cross and Jan Read, "Jason and the Argonauts" exists now mostly as a fine piece of nostalgia. Viewed clearly, it's a poorly-made collection of fantastical tropes. Through rose-colored glasses, though, it's a vibrant, colorful masterpiece of cheese.

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