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Jason and the Argonauts

The name of Ray Harryhausen is legend. He’s one of the great special effects pioneers, responsible for bringing a wide variety of monsters to vivid life, principally through the use of stop-motion animation. So naturally, bringing him on to adapt Greek mythology was a match made in Olympus. Clash of the Titans is the obvious example, though I’d argue that Jason and the Argonauts — made almost twenty years earlier — is the superior film.

Granted, the cast of Jason is quite a bit weaker. Niall McGinness, for example, may be serviceable as Zeus, but he’s hardly Laurence Olivier. There’s also the matter of our hero, Jason, who we’re explicitly told is supposed to be twenty years old. Todd Armstrong might be able to act the part of a great Greek hero, but I’ll be damned if he looks a day under thirty. Hercules gets it far worse, as the great son of Zeus is played by a man roughly twice the proper age for it. Still, most of the problems that I have with the cast are just nitpicks. For the most part, the actors all play their parts with just enough eager campiness to suspend disbelief. Particular kudos are due to Honor Blackman, who turns in a fine performance as Hera.

Still, there are two key reasons why Jason is a much better movie than Clash. First is the all-important story. In every possible way, Jason proves to be a far better adaptation of its source material than Clash ever was. There are inevitably a lot of changes made and some padding added, but the changes here make sense. For example, the interaction between Jason and Pelias is crafted much more carefully than Jason just walking up to Pelias and demanding his rightful kingdom as in the text. Instead of getting killed by sea nymphs, Hylas is crushed by a giant living statue crafted by Hephaestus (Yes, Hephaestus actually made robots in the mythology. Look it up.). Instead of the long and convoluted means of confronting the harpies in the text, the movie’s Argonauts take the much more straightforward method of simply caging them. The list goes on and on.

All of these changes make the story far more coherent, and they’re all things that might actually have happened in an ancient Greek myth. The same cannot be said of Thetis (who had precisely zero reason to be in Clash), Calibos (who came out of absolutely nowhere), or Bubo (need I say more?).

That said, there are a few problems with the story. To start with, Acastus’ sudden disappearance and reappearance made absolutely no sense. First he’s left for dead, then he somehow manages to travel a great distance underwater before surfacing alive and well later on. Speaking of which, Poseidon seemed ill-used in this movie. I didn’t appreciate how Zeus’ brother — easily one of the pantheon’s most powerful and feared gods — was used as nothing more than a chess pawn by Hera. There’s also the matter of Medea, who falls in love with Jason far too quickly to be believable. Then again, this is still an improvement over the source text, in which Medea goes from zero to slavishly devoted in precisely the amount of time it takes for Cupid to fire an arrow.

Hercules (who was actually known as “Heracles” in the original Greek, by the way) presents a far bigger problem, as he defies orders to steal from a treasure that he knows belongs to the gods. “If they’re guarding it so terribly,” he reasons, “the gods must not want it.” I’ll remind you that Hercules is the son of Zeus. The King of the Gods is his father. If anyone should know better than to risk the gods’ wrath, it ought to be this guy. Oh, and this was something the filmmakers added, so there’s no pinning it on the source material.

Still, this wasn’t remotely as stupid as how the filmmakers ended the movie. With a friggin’ anticlimax. It’s seriously like the filmmakers just ran out of money, so they ended the big climactic fight in the lamest possible way and then wrapped up the movie with a flimsy sequel-bait denouement. Though to be fair, it’s worth noting that the filmmakers were trying to make a “happily ever after” kind of story, which is definitely not where Jason and Medea were headed. To paraphrase Orson Welles, “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop your story.”

Moving on, there’s also the matter of the special effects. I will gladly go on record stating that the effects in Jason are far and away better than anything in Clash. The Medusa was quite good, but the harpies look fantastic by comparison. The Kraken might be iconic and all, but the statue of Talos was brought to life with phenomenal results. There were a dozen living skeletons on the screen all at once, and every single one of them looked better than Calibos ever did.

Even when I think about the awkward “Clashing Rocks” sequence, any misgivings I have about it are balanced out by the gods’ awesome teleportation effects. Yes, Jason’s fight with the Hydra was hilariously awkward (And the Hydra never gets his head cut off. What gives, Ray?), but then came the fight with the skeletons.

Oh, that climactic fight with the skeletons. That fight scene might have ended in disappointment, but it was still an awesome sequence that made the whole film worth watching. Not only was the choreography very impressive, but the fight actually showed living actors and stop-motion puppets seamlessly interacting with each other. They were parrying blows, disarming each other, and even rolling off of each other. All these decades later, I still find myself wondering just how that scene was accomplished. This is the kind of spellbinding work that made Harryhausen such a revered master to begin with.

Jason and the Argonauts is very campy and the cast could’ve been a bit stronger, but it’s still the best film adaptation of Greek mythology I’ve ever seen, bar none. A lot of smart decisions were made in the process of adaptation (even if there were a few bad decisions as well), and the effects are fantastic even by modern standards. This is a fun little adventure that doesn’t deserve to be shadowed over by Clash of the Titans. Definitely worth a look.

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