RE:View – Clash of the Titans (Part I)The Dark Herald
“Greek and Roman myths contained characters and fantastic creatures that were ideal for cinematic adventures. If some of the adventures were combined with 20th century storytelling, a timeless narrative could be constructed that would appeal to both young and old.”
Clash of the Titans was both the end and the beginning of an era.
It was first of the Eighties sword and sorcery movies, but it was also the last Ray Harryhausen film. And it was quite the swan song. In a career that stretched decades, this film is easily his best. Although I’m afraid, that does raise the awkward question, how good were the rest of his films?
And does this one still hold up?
Clash of the Titans started in a way that doesn’t happen anymore. Someone wrote an original script. For values of original anyway. In 1978, veteran screenwriter Beverly Cross put pen to paper and created a screenplay based on the Perseus myth. Her original screenplay would have earned the picture an R rating but we’ll get back to that. She massaged her work until the British Board of Film Classification gave it a thumbs up with an “A” certificate. With that in hand, she started shopping her script around and naturally sent a copy to a man who had produced her work before, Charles H. Schneer.
As soon Schneer fell in love with the story he started “getting the band back together.” You see Schneer and Cross had worked together on Jason and the Argonauts as well Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Since Clash of the Titans was going to be a sword and sandals flick that was heavy on the special effects, Schneer didn’t think twice. He probably didn’t think once. Calling Ray Harryhausen was probably more of a spinal reflex.
In 1933, a thirteen-year-old Raymond Frederick Harryhausen saw King Kong for the first of many times. While watching in wrapped fascination while a black and white herky-jerky clay monkey shambled back and forth on the screen, an artist was being born. By the time, “twas beauty that killed the beast,” was uttered. Harryhausen knew what he wanted to do with his life.
While in school young Ray spent what little of his money that was available on his own tiny stop-motion studio. After meeting the man who did the effects for King Kong, he followed his advice to study anatomy as well as filmmaking.
It paid off. His demo reel was enough to get him hired on the spot by George Pal.
This worked out well for Harryhausen for reasons he couldn’t have seen coming. He was drafted.
The army after looking over Private Harryhausen’s list of skills shipped him over to the Army’s Special Services Division. This was where the Hollywood types that ended up in uniform got sent to make propaganda, training, and entertainment films. He was just a goffer, a grip, and a clapper, basically doing all the “here’s my shit-bird” jobs on the set but that didn’t matter. Who you know in Hollywood is critical to your success and Harryhausen was suddenly rubbing elbows with the likes of Frank Capra and Mikey Rooney. It gave him the golden Rolodex.
When he left the Army he landed a gig on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Harryhausen’s career began in earnest.
What set Harryhausen apart was his attention to detail. He didn’t move a clay creature’s arm unless it was anatomically possible for it to move in that direction. He experimented constantly with paint to make certain that it would stay the exact shade of color while it was baking under studio lights. He invented a process called Dyna-motion that allowed for (a reasonable degree) of interaction between live actors and his stop-motion creatures.
But what he did to really set himself apart was to give his sculptures a soul. There was something behind the eyes of his creatures. Watching them on screen you knew they could feel anger, pain, shock, and disappointment. He could even manage the near-impossible task of getting them to act with each other.
Here’s a clip from Sinbad and Eye of the Tiger. Advance to the 4:00 minute mark.
(*sigh*) Yes, it’s scene where Jayne Seymour is skinny dipping but try to get past that, please.
While Harryhausen was never a rich man, he was incredibly influential. Ask the likes of James Cameron and Joe Dante who was their favorite filmmaker when they were kids and the answer is always the same. Ray Harryhausen. It was his movies and everybody else’s. As a bleeding-edge Gen-Xer, I can still remember the excitement I would feel if the TV Guide said, one of his movies would be on this Saturday afternoon.
By the time Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was in theaters, it was Ray Harryhausen that was the star of the show. Which was a problem for that movie because Patrick Wayne was a terrible Sinbad. Everything else was okay but John Wayne’s son was horribly miscast in a swashbuckler role.
As a result, the film seriously underperformed. It earned out, but Columbia was rather cautious when Schneer shopped his new property to them. Eventually, they got cold feet and pulled the plug in pre-production. Schneer liked the property enough to start shopping it around everywhere, finally ending up at MGM.
MGM didn’t just like it, they were nuts about it. The modestly budgeted kid’s movie had its expense account mushroom by a factor of five. The gods of Olympus were going to be played by the biggest names on the British stage with Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus himself. The reason was obvious, “look at all the stars in this one.”
The leads would be less well known. Although, there was a frantic effort on Schneer’s part to shoot down the last-minute studio of suggestion of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Perseus.
Let’s take a look at it.
The film opens with the ancient Greek soldiers escorting a beautiful woman and her infant son to a rocky shore. King Acrisius fills us on his version of events and orders his daughter and grandson put in the box and thrown into the sea. He slowly takes off his helmet revealing the cold visage of veteran actor Donald Houston. The soundtrack makes its presence felt at this point in a pretty big way.
We see a rat with wings and the opening credits roll. Nobody does credits like that anymore, the vast expanses the bird is flying over combined French horns trumpeting a call to adventure speaks of exploration and journey into the great unknown. The soundtrack is head and shoulders above the 2010 version and remains the element of the film that has aged the best.
I’m afraid the same can’t be said of the initial visual effects. The seagull kept disappearing while it was on its way to Olympus.
Regardless, when you see the mountainside turn to snow and the credits are winding down you know you’ve arrived at Olympus. Quite a few people would sneer at the miniature city of the gods but I still think it has charm. It did what it needed to do. You have no doubt that it is Olympus.
The seagull turns into the god of the sea and reports the prelude to his brother. Zeus is furious at the blasphemy of the king throwing his daughter and grandson into the sea in the name of Zeus. This is staggeringly tactless since Perseus is Zeus’s son.
Zeus gives an awkward bit of dialog that introduces the gods by name but it was either that or hang signs around their necks. He then pronounces sentence on the king.
“My Lord Poseidon I order you to raise the wind and sea. Destroy Argus! And to make certain that no stone stands and no creature lives, I command you to let loose the last of the Titans.
Release the Kraken!”
A four-armed stop-motion kaiju attacks Argus. While Zeus personally kills the king. Which takes care of one or two loose ends so far as Perseus is concerned. In the original myth, Danae was only locked away in the first place because her son was prophesied to kill her father.
And speaking of Perseus’s MILF, we check back in on Danae her breasts bare, feeding the infant demi-god. Nudity didn’t happen in PG movies back in 1981. I think Clash got away with it because it was masquerading as semi-educational and there was no sexual content. There was supposed to be more nudity in the original script with Andromeda bound naked to the rock. While she has frequently been depicted that way by artists since 1600, it was too tough a sell to the censors. That and Pegasus got ripped apart in that version of the script.
And I am out of time for tonight. Hopefully, I can get the rest of this up tomorrow.
End Part I
Yes, I will be doing Legend next week. Since the poll was pretty close, I decided to go with the one that has the greater cultural impact. Everyone knows where “release the Kraken!” came from.