CINEMA CLASSICS: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Oscar gets epic with Ray Harryhausen’s most lauded fantasy adventure. 

Who made it?: Don Chaffey (Director), Jan Read, Beverley Cross (Writers), Charles H. Schneer, Ray Harryhausen (Producers), The Great Company/Morningside Productions.

Who’s in it?: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall MacGinnis, Jack Gwillim, Honor Blackman, Patrick Troughton. 

Tagline: “The epic story that was destined to stand as a colossus of adventure!”

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

In 1992, Tom Hanks said that Ray Harryhausen’s Greek mythology epic Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made. While I do think there are better fantasy films, I fully believe that Argonauts is one of the greats of the genre. Not the most complex, but certainly entertaining and lavishly made. Even Harryhausen himself maintains that this is his greatest accomplishment in stopmotion animation; it’s certainly his most well-known alongside his final contribution to fantasy cinema, Clash of the Titans. There’s a lot to get into, so let’s get started.

King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) usurps the throne of Thessaly by killing King Aristo and his daughter, but the infant Jason is spirited out by a Thessalian soldier. Aristo’s daughter, Briseis, is killed in the temple of Hera, angering the goddess (Honor Blackman). Disguised as the high Priestess, Hera warns Pelias to beware of a man wearing one sandal.

Twenty years later, Jason (Todd Armstrong) saves Pelias from drowning which was orchestrated by Hera, but loses a sandal in the river so Pelias recognises him. Upon learning that Jason intends to obtain the legendary Golden Fleece and withholding his identity, Pelias sends him on his way hoping he will be killed on the voyage. Jason is taken to Mount Olympus by Hermes (Michael Gwynn) to speak with Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) and Hera. Hera wishes him well, but tells him Zeus has decreed he can only call upon her aid five times. She directs him to search for the Fleece in the land of Colchis. Men from all over Greece compete for the honour of joining Jason. The crew of the Argo are joined by the shipwright Argus (Laurence Naismith) and are dubbed the Argonauts. Among them are Hercules (Nigel Green), Hylas (John Cairney) and Acastus (Gary Raymond), the son of Pelias, sent by his father to sabotage the voyage. During their quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts battle a myriad of monsters such as Talos the Man of Bronze, a pair of sadistic harpies, a Hydra, an army of skeleton warriors, a sorcerer king (Jack Gwillim), and even the woman of Jason’s dreams, Medea (Nancy Kovack).

The acting ranges from wooden to theatrical. Armstrong certainly looks the part as Jason and handles himself well in the action scenes, but his emotional beats are less convincing. British television actor Tim Turner provides the dubbed voice for Jason and he does fine in giving him more dignity, fortitude and personality. Despite second billing and not appearing until an hour into the film, Kovack is quite wooden as Medea, but not without elegance and exotic appeal. Blackman makes for a wise and impressionable Hera, MacGinnis nails the aloof regal nature of Zeus, and Gwillim gets to chew the scenery as King Aeëtes. While most of the crew of the Argo don’t get a chance to standout, Green’s portrayal of Hercules is spot-on: he’s very tongue-in-cheek and boastful but he can back up his words. He’s hot-tempered but knows when to be sombre or when to listen to wisdom. Raymond as Acastus plays the role of the charismatic traitor fairly straight, making his inevitable demise very satisfying. Fans of Doctor Who will also recognise Patrick Troughton as the beleaguered blind man Phineus. For relatively little screentime and characterisation, all of the actors make the most of their roles.

Director Don Chaffey instils gravitas in the gods and a sense of vulnerability to the mortals, but not to an obnoxious point where they lose any sense of likability or devolve into vessels of exposition. This is not a star-studded cast, and while the performances are sufficient on the whole, they tend to be overshadowed by Harryhausen’s creature effects.

As one would expect, the stopmotion monsters in Jason and the Argonauts are the real attraction. I have some partiality towards the Hydra; the attention to detail in animating every one of the monster’s heads is very impressive, especially considering this was just one man animating the Hydra frame-by-frame. This is in sharp contrast to a vast team of animators as we’re used to nowadays with computer effects. He had to painstakingly move the joints of this creature one frame at a time to bring it to life. It has seven heads, which means seven jaws that can open and close (I especially like how the tail still writhes after it has been killed). Each head is mounted on a long neck which doesn’t move as simply as an arm where there’s a single joint – there were hundreds of positions to manipulate between every shot!

Of all the monsters that appear, Talos looks the most believable. This is one instance where the stopmotion works to convey the rigidness of the bronze giant, and the sound effects convey his sense of scale. He is stiff and ungainly, and you get a sense of his scale by just the slow, creaking way he moves; stopmotion seems to be a more convincing effect when applied to a metallic creation. The fact that he resembles the real-life Colossus of Rhodes makes the giant Man of Bronze feel a little more credible since something similar to Talos did exist in our history.

Of course, the skeleton army fighting Jason and his comrades is a testament to Harryhausen’s dedication to his craft. They are another astonishing achievement of animation, with the actors having to fight against nothing and Harryhausen matching their movements to the choreography with a skilful eye. With such energy and creativity in how the Argonauts defeat their undead opponents, one has to imagine how it must have felt to see a sequence like that back in 1963. The harpies were probably the weakest of the creature creations in the film; they don’t look quite as sharp as the others, but that’s a minor quibble.

In addition to the familiar stopmotion creations, there are miniature ships and sets that are crushed and destroyed by the perils of the voyage such as the cascading rockslides at the Clashing Rocks. The crumbling boulders themselves look pretty good and maintain the illusion but the miniature water is not particularly convincing because the sense of scale is lost – it almost looks like something out of Thunderbirds. Being a film from the old days of special effects, there are many opticals that are undeniably dated with characters appearing to be superimposed over the background. Fortunately, something as simple as a wide angle shot of the ship sailing under Poseidon’s arm as he keeps the Clashing Rocks from destroying the Argo is a striking enough visual to preserve the illusion. The location work is truly stunning; rough mountainous terrain with pure blue seas under a clear sky and a blistering sun. They make use of real Greek temples which would not be allowed in 2016, and elegant set work is solid enough to for what it needs to be, and never gives off the impression of feeling artificial.

The score by Bernard Hermann is nothing short of magnificent, containing an operatic grandness and energy that is rarely heard in the best orchestral compositions these days. The score makes use of every appropriate musical beat, instilling haunting oboes when the skeletons rise from the ground or low, ominous horns when Talos is revealed. The tension rises tenfold and remains high with loud, bombastic cues that follow his every footstep. The sense of adventure is constantly maintained throughout because of Hermann’s masterful music.

The screenplay is nothing astonishing or revolutionary, as it is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the Argonautica with emphasis placed on the monster encounters and greatly simplified characterisations. There’s a childlike unpretentiousness to the film that makes it very charming; the heroes are noble and brave, the villains are either larger-than-life monsters or deceptive and cruel. There has been many Greek mythological films over the years, but this one really epitomises the deep, lingering awe that continues to make reading ancient mythology so appealing and enriching a millennia after the cultures that produced these myths vanished.

As with Clash of the Titans, the film also doesn’t shy from the darker nuances of Greek mythology; we see Pelias kill his daughter very early on in the film, and the gods are only vaguely interested in the mortal subjects, unless they are heroes like Jason who already have their favour. Another thing I admire is the sense of suspense along the way. Strength alone is not going to save the crew of the Argo from these titanic threats, so they use their wits as well. Despite the fact that the crew of the Argos includes the mightiest man that has ever lived, Hercules, they seldom have the upperhand in a fight. Many are inexperienced and new to the business of fighting monsters. They’re at the mercy of the gods, who literally play with the fates of men like chess pieces. We also get a good sense of the crew as a working band of sailors with their own friendships and rivalries, especially between Hercules and Pylas. After using up the aid of Hera a grand total of five times and Poseidon once, the Argonauts cannot call upon the aid of the gods again, so they have to use their own strength and cunning in order to overcome these obstacles.

It’s interesting that, in Clash of the Titans, you see the more capricious and selfish side of the gods, when here you see them more as a benevolent force who largely favour our hero’s quest. The gods are neither too benign nor too capricious, and that makes them more relatable and human, something that Zeus in the film finds admirable. That in of itself is vital to the Greco-Roman gods and the fact that they are not as far removed from humanity as one might believe at first. It is somewhat simplified, but nevertheless, it keeps the gods central to the plot by giving them more lively personalities.

I’d almost say it feels episodic and unresolved, as we never see Jason go back to Thessaly, confront Pelias or end the story that we started with. In that sense, the film just kind of stops rather than ends. This is a shame because I did want to see that story resolved. The film finishes abruptly after Jason beats the skeleton army and sails away with the Fleece and Medea; one could assume that capturing the Fleece ensured that Pelias was doomed, but that’s a stretch. Still, it could well be said that the thrill was in the fun-filled journey rather than the destination.

In the age of CGI, one can appreciate the style of Harryhausen all the more because of the fact that these larger-than-life monsters were created by one man. It keeps the tension and character interplay just interesting enough so that you’re never bored while the stopmotion monsters are off-screen, but it delivers on the creatures in spades. It is a little disappointing that there was no sequel or follow-up film. Regardless, Jason and the Argonauts manages to create a sense of wonder, fun and adventure without demanding too much from its audience. It’s not the illusion, it’s how you use it. 

Best Scene

What else would it be? The skeleton battle is so iconic that it has been copied endlessly, even as far as Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness in the 90s.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • It took Ray Harryhausen four months to produce the skeleton scene, a massive amount of time for a scene which lasts, at the most, three minutes.
  • While filming footage of the Argo off the coast of Italy, shooting was interrupted when a replica of the Golden Hind sailed into view. The British television series Sir Francis Drake (1961) happened to be filming in the same location. Producer Charles H. Schneer shouted, “Get that ship out of here. You’re in the wrong century!” at the British crew, dispelling any tensions that arose from both shots being lost.
  • The skeletons’ shields are adorned with designs of other Harryhausen creatures, including an octopus and the head of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
  • Contrasting with Bernard Herrmann’s all-string score for Psycho (1960), the soundtrack was made without a string section. This leaves the brass and percussion to perform the heroic fanfares, and the woodwinds along with additional instruments (such as the harp) to dominate in the more subtle and romantic parts.

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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