Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Greatest Odyssey Of The Ages – for the first time on the screen

Jason is the son of a murdered king and sets out to reclaim his father’s throne from King Pelias. He must lead a quest to the island of Colchis where he is to retrieve the fabled Golden Fleece, which is said to bring about peace and prosperity to any nation that holds it. With the help of the goddess Hera, Jason enlists the help of the bravest men in Greece and builds a huge ship to sail in. They are not prepared for the many mythical creatures that they encounter on their way.

 

Tom Hanks once famously said “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane…..I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.” He’s not too far from being spot on either. Every once in a while, a film is released which inspires a generation of filmmakers to break into the business. Sam Raimi, John Landis, James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton have all been quoted at some point in saying that this film has been one of their influences in getting into the filmmaking business. The amount of respect this film has received from such Hollywood pedigree is amazing. I’ve always preferred The 7th Voyage of Sinbad but this always gets more of the plaudits and recognition.

It’s really hard to be too critical of Jason and the Argonauts because it’s not the sort of film which will blow you away with its direction, its acting or its script. It’s a film which is here to create spectacle, a sense of awe and an ability to transport you into a fantasy world. Maybe it’s a guy thing (I mean look at that list of filmmakers, they’re all male) but its ability to stir the imagination is second-to-none.

I do feel sorry for the directors in Ray Harryhausen’s films. No one ever remembers their name. People refer to them simply as ‘Harryhausen films’ and it’s a fitting tribute to the effects maestro’s influence and legacy in the movie making industry that such recognition is the case. Jason and the Argonauts is really your standard Harryhausen film in which the story serves the special effects for the most and everything else is second nature. It’s not overly faithful to the myth, some of the sub-plots are weak and forced and the acting is pretty stodgy at times. The scenes with the humans are rather dull and there’s a lack of drama or purpose to a lot of them. The acting isn’t wonderful either. Todd Armstrong vanished off the planet after this film and his lines have all been dubbed – it’s a pity because I would love to have heard how he sounded. Nancy Kovak, as the love interest who comes into the film too late and seems rather forced, is also dubbed. There are noted roles for British actors such as Honor Blackman and Patrick Troughton, as well as plenty of other minor British talent including Douglas Wilmer, Jack Gwillim, Laurence Naismith and Nigel Green. Green’s Hercules may make for one of the most ridiculously entertaining versions of the mythical strongman to ever grace film. He’s not some bulked up Italian muscleman but rather a middle-aged man with a bit of a gut on him!

Harryhausen’s special effects may lack the fluidity of today’s CGI and some of the effects have clearly not dated well but there’s denying the one thing that keeps them popular – they feel real and they feel alive. Each creature has character, its own mannerisms, its own little quirks and attitude. The final fight sequence between three human actors and three stop-motion skeletons has arguably never been bettered on the big screen. It’s a three minute fight which took Harryhausen four months to complete and it’s breathtaking in its complex choreography. The skeletons look stunning and Harryhausen even manages to instil a bit of evil into them with their grinning mouths relishing the slaughter. It’s an iconic moment and one of cinema’s most important in the field of special effects.

As great as the skeleton sequence is, my favourite creature will always be Talos, the 100ft bronze giant. I dare anyone not to get the shivers when he comes to life, tilting his head slowly to the side to see Hercules stealing from his tomb. It’s a pity that this sequence is so early on in the film because nothing else matches the sheer awe, wonder and spectacle of this scene and everything else seems low key. Ironically, the most important part of the myth, the seven-headed Hydra, seems such a let down when it appears. I understand the logistics in Harryhausen not being able to follow the legend that every time one of the Hydra’s heads is cut off, another two grow back but the monster is still killed off way too easily.

Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack is also amazing and one of his best. He manages to match the images on the screen with a riveting and exciting score. His Scherzo Macabre piece of music during the skeleton fight is impressive and really enhances what you’re seeing on screen. Not only is the sound suitably ‘Greek’ but you also believe the notion that this is some fantastical quest in a mythical era with the Mediterranean looking as good as it ever has with the beautiful cinematography really doing the locations justice.

If there’s one thing that always annoys me, even to this day, is the ending of the film. It finishes rather quickly with the promise that “there will be other adventures for Jason.” We never get to see whether he makes it home to reclaim his throne. The film didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone had hoped which is a real shame because if they could see how well-revered and legendary the film has become, they would have filmed a sequel.

 

Jason and the Argonauts is forty years old at the time of writing this review but it still holds up as one of the best films of its genre and a landmark film in technical achievement. It’s cliché to say it but they really don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a timeless classic.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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