Revisiting Childhood Movies Part I

Greek Mythology meet the king of claymation effects - Ray Harryhausen

Greek Mythology meet the king of stop-motion effects – Ray Harryhausen

Clash of the Titans

  • Director:  Desmond Davis
  • Writer:  Beverly Cross
  • Producer:  Ray Harryhausen  /  Charles H. Schneer
  • Stars:  Harry Hamlin, Judy Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Award Nominations:  none from groups I track
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  12 June 1981
  • Box Office Gross:  $41.09 mil  (#11  –  1981)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #29  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  30
  • Nighthawk Notable:  Highest Attractiveness / Acting Ability Ratio
  • First Watched:  August 1981 at a drive-in in Fullerton, CA in a double feature with Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  @50

Thoughts as a Kid:  When I first watched this film, we had just moved to California about a week before.  We went, as a family, to the drive-in for a double feature of Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As I remember it, though my siblings may dispute it, it started with Clash, which we arrived part-way through, then had Raiders, which was our main reason for being there, then played Clash again, which we stayed till where we had come in and then we went home.  Clash just seemed at the time, to a kid about to turn seven, as some good fun (it’s possibly it gave me nightmares – every film until I was about 10 seemed to give me nightmares and I’ll be damned if I know why).  But all I really remembered was that we had seen it.  And then about a year or two later, it came to HBO.

By then, things had changed.  I had started reading what became probably my most read book throughout elementary school, one that I kept coming back to, probably having weeks where I read it every single day: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. This is an absolutely wonderful book, one that gives the story of all the most well-known Greek myths but in a way that kids can easily understand and enjoy, and filled with wonderful illustrations (the married pair, Igrie and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire also did other books that were similar that I never knew about until decades later, like their Book of Norse Myths, which was re-issued a few years ago with an introduction from Michael Chabon).  So, this time when I watched this film about the myth of Perseus, I still enjoyed the fact that here were the Greek myths alive, in living color.  And yet, it was wrong.  It was available to read right on page 114 – Danaüs, Perseus and the Gorgon.  The beginning was correct – how Perseus and his mother were set adrift by his grandfather in response to her pregnancy (though not because she was pregnant but because her son was fated to kill his grandfather).  And some of the other parts of the film were right – how Perseus seeks out Medusa to claim her head, the gifts from the gods, the three Witches, what happens in his battle with Medusa, that he rescues Andromeda and marries her.  But so much of it was also wrong – not just stuff that was clearly added for the film like the silly mechanical owl, but problems with the myth.  Like how it was Perseus who accidentally kills his grandfather, rather then the wrath of Zeus, or how Perseus comes upon Andromeda coming back from his mission for Medusa’s head rather than going on the mission to save her, or how Pegasus actually springs from the neck of Medusa when he beheads the Gorgon (it was really Bellerophon who would tame and ride Pegasus when he battled the Chimera, while Perseus had winged sandals).

I still enjoyed the film for what it was (indeed, I felt enough fondness for it that in April of 2010, when Veronica and I got a date night while visiting my sister we saw the remake in the theater), but I was also irritated at what it was not, and that was a faithful retelling of the myth that I had read so many times by this time.  What the hell was this Kraken that had nothing to do with Greek mythology?  Why does Medusa’s head turn him to stone when it is the blood of the sea creature after Perseus stabs him that gives the Red Sea its name?  And where were the rest of the gods, this rather unobtrusive crew that never got directly involved in the film while Athena and Hermes (who never even appears) actually came to Perseus?  Who is Thetis, this supposed major goddess who is not a holder of one the seats in Olympus (she’s a Nereid, a daughter of Poseidon’s predecessor, which makes her, I suppose a demi-Titan and she’s the mother of Achilles)?  I still kept watching the film, for the fun parts – the battle with the scorpions (nowhere in the myth), the evil of Calibos (who really comes more out of Shakespeare than Greece), the beauty of Andromeda.  But I knew it wasn’t really all that good and by the time I started rating films, it managed to pull of a low *** or sometimes even a **.5, depending on how I felt at the time.

Thoughts Now:  I am a some-what believe in the Auteur Theory.  But one thing I go with is that sometimes it’s not the director who’s the auteur.  Look at David O. Selznick and his passion for a film like Gone with the Wind and you know who’s the auteur there.  And in this case, we also have an auteur, whose vision heralded this project from conception to release and it’s not director Desmond Davis, whose directorial career was mostly uninspired and unnoteworthy.  No, the real creative force here is, of course, Ray Harryhausen, that master of stop-motion effects, which he called Dynamation.  For years Harryhausen stop-motion effects had dazzled viewers, most notably in Jason and the Argonauts, which I wish I had seen as a kid because it has some of the same issues as Clash but also the same strengths and its strengths are better than its weaknesses.  It’s those effects that are the real star of the film and watching this film again, for the umpteenth time, I was maybe more impressed than ever, even in the age of amazing computerized visual effects (maybe because of those effects).  I can look at an early shot, like when the flood comes and wipes out the city of Argos and I know that the water is from a miniature but that the people are real and I am amazed at how Harryhausen managed to set up that shot.  Or the way the stop-motion figure of Calibos can be in the same shot with a real actress (all sarcastic comments aside) and  it looks more integrated an effects shot than films from last year.

The fantastic stop-motion Medusa from the 1981 Clash of the Titans.

The fantastic stop-motion Medusa from the 1981 Clash of the Titans.

That is not to say that all the effects shots on the film are perfect.  The opening titles sequence, which seems bizarrely pointless until you realize that you are following Poseidon, has some nice shots of a real seagull combined with a pretty ridiculous looking model seagull.  And there are two different scenes of the Kraken being released from his underwater cavern and both shots are obviously the same shot recycled.  But overall, there are a lot of really good effects shots in this film, effects shots that look much better than they do in the remake and the sequel because they integrate actual characters into the scenes.

I talk so much about the effects of the film because they are the best thing about the film and they are the reason to see it.  Harryhausen had done amazing effects for decades (not the the Academy ever seemed to notice – they didn’t so much as nominate him once before they gave him the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in 1992) and this was his swan song.  Though he is still alive at the age of 92, this was his final feature film.  And he left it all there on the screen – the giant vulture, Calibos, the Kraken, the scorpions, Pegasus, Medusa, even the silly little mechanical owl.  They still manage to bring the film to life in a way that the remake and sequel can’t come to life.

Not that there aren’t problems with the film.  The producers decided to use the exact same kind of casting that had worked so well for Star Wars, which was still in theaters when this film went into production – they took complete unknowns for the two stars (Judi Bowker had done some work but wasn’t well known and this was Harry Hamlin’s first starring role) and backed them up with a group of major British actors, including Maggie Smith (who had just won her second Oscar), Siân Phillips (who had recently been in I, Claudius) and the most distinguished actor of the century, fresh off an honorary career Oscar, Laurence Olivier.  But what had worked so well in Star Wars didn’t work nearly as well here, partially because it turned out that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford had loads of charisma and chemistry, Peter Cushing had the perfect level of villainy and Alec Guinness was the most sublime mentor ever and partially because everyone just falls dead on the screen in Clash.  Hamlin would have enough charisma for a television lawyer and Bowker could look pretty (and show off her very nice butt – I was stunned going back and seeing the two different nude scenes – the other being Vida Taylor at the beginning – that nothing got said about this growing up) but neither could do much in the way of acting.  And while the major stars had their own reasons for being in the film (Olivier was in bad health and wanted to provide a nest egg for his kids, as per Robert Osborne in his introduction to this on TCM this month, as Olivier is the star of the month, and Maggie Smith was married to the writer), none of them actually add much.  The lines are, for the most part, ridiculous.  Ironically, the mythology that Lucas created added more heft to his silly lines and created a new mythology out of one film than the actual mythology was able to do here.  We have even the original Bond girl, Ursula Andress (who never could act), who stands around and even gets on the poster but only has one actual line.  Indeed, the only performance really worth remembering is Tim Pigott-Smith, who seems to enjoy the film he’s in, has good reaction shots and has the great moment that I have always remembered where he yells out “Perseus!” and throws him his sword before being stabbed in the back.  Although, to be fair, they also got great actors for the remake and they still couldn’t give them a script worth a damn and so it was again a waste of great casting.  And Hamlin is a better actor than Sam Worthington, who would get two movies to show off his bad acting.

There are also other problems.  Most of the direction is pretty bad, much of the dialogue is ridiculous and some of the cinematography is badly done.  And some of the scenes don’t make any damn sense.  Perseus chases the vulture in the same direction that he later races on Pegasus to get back to Joppa, even though they are opposite ways.  And it seems like Perseus walks faster from the amphitheater to the city than it takes him to fly when he desperately needs to be there.  And where the hell did the third scorpion go to?  But there is some talent there as well.  The score works very well for the kind of film it is.  And the editing, I noticed, is particularly well-done, often working around shots that can’t be done, hiding things in the effects, or blending quite well the effects with the real action shots.  And the makeup works just as well as the Harryhausen effects, blending well the made-up actor playing Calibos with the full-body shots which are always stop-motion.

And there is some cleverness at work in the film as well, some ideas that don’t come from Greek mythology but seem particularly inspired.  The whole idea of all the people of Greece being statues up on Olympus that the gods can manipulate as they will is brilliant.  That allows for one of the subtlest shots in the film, when Zeus, when no one is looking, takes the collapsed Perseus and simply stands him back up so that he can race to the heroic finish.  And since they didn’t want to bring in the nymphs of the north who give him the magical bag they come up with an idea for how Perseus’ cloak can hold the head of Medusa.

So, overall, I was more impressed with the film as a film than I had been in a long time.  It is what it is – a fantasy film that provides some good entertainment.  Now, in a year when it could end up on a double bill with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s not that impressive of a film, and it takes some silly liberties with the Greek mythology that it is portraying.  But it also provides some wonderful moments that showcase the talent of a truly remarkable filmmaker, and it’s a good reminder that if you have never seen any of the work of Ray Harryhausen then you could be much worse off than starting here.