CULT CORNER: Clash of the Titans (1981)

Oscar bears witness to the rise of the Kraken with Ray Harryhausen’s lovingly vintage fantasy adventure. 

Who made it?: Desmond Davis (Director), Beverley Cross (Writer), Ray Harryhausen, Charles H. Schneer (Producers), MGM.

Who’s in it?: Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith.

Tagline: “You will feel the power. Live the adventure. Experience the fantastic.”

IMDb rating: 6.9/10.

Clash of the Titans is Ray Harryhausen’s last fantasy adventure epic, populated with noble warriors, fair maidens, fearsome monsters, devious gods, and impressive duels to the death. Even thirty-four years after its release, and multiple changes to the way movies are made, it is a very likeable fantasy film, in part for Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects but also for its earnestness and enjoyable thespian ensemble.

The story begins somewhat grimly, with baby Perseus being locked into a coffin along with his mother Danae. They are cast into the sea by her father, King Acrisius (Donald Huston) of Argus. But Zeus (Laurence Olivier), father of Perseus, takes revenge on Acrisius by killing him and commanding Poseidon (Jack Gwillim) to unleash the Kraken and drown Argus. He ensures that the coffin washes ashore on the island of Seriphus, where Perseus (Harry Hamlin) grows to manhood. Years later and Perseus has grown into a handsome young man. Zeus punishes Prince Calibos (Neil McCarthy) with deformity for slaughtering his herd of winged horses, much to the dismay of his mother, Thetis (Maggie Smith), who takes vengeance and displaces Perseus from his island home to the now-cursed city of Joppa. Perseus awakens and befriends the eccentric playwright Ammon (Burgess Meredith). He then journeys to Joppa and discovers his mission: to rescue Andromeda (Judi Bowker) from a fate worse than death: marriage to the hideous Calibos, who was promised her hand in marriage before he was turned into a monster.

Every night, an enormous, vulture-like bird brings the spirit of the sleeping Andromeda in a gilded cage to the lair of Calibos. If Perseus is to marry Andromeda, he must defeat Calibos in combat and also answer a riddle posed by Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips). If he fails, he is condemned to die. Perseus thwarts Calibos, but before he can commit himself to Andromeda, Thetis warns the people of Joppa that, in thirty days, the Kraken will be set free to destroy Joppa unless Andromeda is chained to a stone and offered as a sacrifice. Perseus sets out on a quest to find the knowledge which will allow him to defeat the Kraken, a journey which takes him to the Stygian witches and the Isle of Medusa. It is also fraught with perilous monster encounters, but his loyal companions, Pegasus and Bubo the mechanical owl, are there to aid him.

Most of the acting is very good. To be honest, I expected poor things out of Hamlin, almost on Sam Worthington degrees of blandness, yet he managed to surprise me with his genuine and charismatic performance. Bowker does her best with a limited role, looking very beautiful whilst still showing plenty of warmth, innocence and courage. The romantic scenes of Hamlin and Bowker together may test the patience of more jaded audiences, but they still have a certain innocence to them. Meredith with his quirky performance as Ammon was a treat, invoking a certain Merlin-esque quality. McCarthy’s deep and melancholy voice gives the beastly Calibos a human quality, and is very expressive under layers of makeup. Susan Fleetwood and Claire Bloom as Athena and Hera hold their own among the other gods and have a couple of nice bits as well. Smith captures the deviousness and subtle human traits of the goddess Thetis masterfully, and the mighty Olivier possesses tremendous gravitas as Zeus, providing a healthy serving of the god’s traditional pettiness.

Desmond Davis’ direction is quite dependable, bringing out the best in the actors, and aims to provide as grandiose a story as Star Wars from a few years earlier. With their similar mythological material, one can’t help but draw comparisons but Clash of the Titans has enough of its own style to feel distinct from the space opera. The script by Beverley Cross doesn’t retell one particular myth but mixes several together and throws in some new ideas, such as the Kraken, which is not a monster of Greek myth. For a very straightforward story, there’s still a lot of action and adventure to keep things going. Overall, the dialogue is consistent and serviceable for a Greek epic such as this. Even though the cast only has so much to work with in terms of character depth, you get the sense that they’re enjoying the mythic material and bring plenty of theatrical charm to the picture, especially Olivier and Smith. There’s plenty of well-crafted sets and detailed miniature work, too, such as Mount Olympus, the Stygian Witches’ tower, or the flood of Poseidon destroying Argus. Ultimately, this was a solid production.

Laurence Rosenthal delivers a very classical score, hearkening back to the scores of Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts, capturing the exotic beauty of the ancient world, whilst also providing a sweepingly heroic theme for Perseus and a romantic one for Andromeda. I find that, compared to well-known fantasy scores such as The Dark Crystal and Conan the Barbarian, this one is very overlooked and deserves to have more people listening to it.

The plot moves along at a good pace, throwing in plenty of twists to keep the story exciting. An atmosphere of darkness and dread is built in the swamps of Calibos, the banks of the River Styx and the dark, flame-lit lair of Medusa. These scenes are all very tense, ably giving the film a mythical sense as well as an adult edge. Speaking of edginess, I really didn’t expect to see Danae’s breasts as she fed baby Perseus, or seeing her walking naked on the beach, albiet briefly. Granted, this sort of thing comes with the source material and it doesn’t particularly bother me, but it did catch me off-guard. Prudes are discouraged, though. The scenes with the gods succeed in capturing their capricious, selfish and egotistical nature, from Athena to Zeus to Thetis, destroying or favouring mortal lives on a whim. They all have petty whims and desires, being fully prepared to stab each other in the back; there are truly no good gods or evil gods, only generous goals or selfish ones. In contrast to the modern attitude of making Hades the villain, this stays true to the spirit of the Greek myth.

Even with the likes of Smith and Olivier in the film, the real stars are the stop-motion effects of Harryhausen. He is always so good at infusing personality and charm into his creations. The scenes of Pegasus in flight are certainly fun to behold, but they use a real horse for the close-ups, and try not to show the real horse’s back. In a similar method, Calibos is a stop-motion creature for the wide-angle shots, and a man in prosthetics in the close-up scenes. And that’s not all – the battle in Medusa’s lair with her writhing snake hair; the gigantic prehistoric bird; the two-headed dog, Dioskilos; and, finally, the Kraken which descends upon helpless Andromeda.

Unfortunately, a lot of the blue screen work isn’t very good at all. When Pegasus is in flight, it’s very easy to just see Hamlin on a soundstage whilst filmed landscapes unfold before him. The colour balance, matte lines and perspective issues threaten to distract the viewer from enjoying the story. In many areas, the cinematography doesn’t look that spectacular, and some of the washed-out colour portions can get tiresome. Easily the worst effect is the scene where Poseidon unleashes the Kraken upon Argos; the blue screen of a tiny man against the artificial watery backdrop was far from convincing. A lot of these flaws can’t be helped, as time does take a little bit away from these stop-motion classics. The effects may look very cheesy today, but I can imagine at the time such creatures stunned audiences. There’s a certain charm in old school fantasy films because the creators put a lot of work and passion into them.

All in all, this is a fun time in the age of Greek mythology, and one of the finer examples put to film. Hell, I barely even remember the 2010 remake, so at least this one stuck with me! While I don’t know if its power over younger audiences is as strong as it was thirty years ago, fans of the genre will certainly find plenty to enjoy with the original.

“LET LOOSE THE KRAKEN!!”

Best Scene

For kids, the Medusa sequence is filled with ample amounts of dread and tension.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The character Calibos, Lord of the Marsh and son of Thetis, does not appear in Greek mythology, and is based on Caliban, an antagonist created by William Shakespeare in 1611 for his play The Tempest. In Greek mythology the son of Thetis was Achilles, Greece’s best warrior in the fight against Troy.
  • Bubo, the mechanical owl of Athena, was introduced to capitalize on the popularity of R2-D2 from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). The name “Bubo” is a scientific term for the genus of eagle owls and horned owls, which is interesting because the robot Bubo is modelled on a barn owl, which is the genus Tyto, and not a Bubo at all. Bubo makes a cameo appearance in this movie’s remake, Clash of the Titans (2010).
  • Greek hell-hounds traditionally had three heads, but Dioskilos in this movie has only two, because it would have taken Ray Harryhausen too much time to animate a third head.
  • Laurence Olivier was so ill during the making of the film, he would often go and lean on his tall, burly co-star Pat Roach, saying “Let me draw some of your strength, dear boy.”

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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