Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Director: Don Chaffey
Writers: Jan Read and Beverly Cross
Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack and Niall MacGinnis

The Plot: During our opening credits, a man named Pelias leads an army to take the throne of Thessaly. Once there however, he goes a bit overboard and murders nearly every living person. There are few who escape, but the king’s son is amongst these and his name is Jason. Pelias is told by the gods that it is prophesied that Jason will some day return for the throne which is rightfully his, and that if Pelias should interfere (ie; kill Jason), his life will end. So, as time goes by Jason grows and becomes a very strong and determined young man. As Pelias ages, he one day falls from his horse into the river and is surprisingly assisted by a young stranger. This stranger reveals himself to be none other than Jason who has set out to fulfill the prophecy. Pelias hides his identity and tells Jason of “The Golden Fleece” which will make the soil of the land fertile, cure the sick and surely win the hearts of people of Thessaly. Jason takes Pelias’ advice and begins his quest to find a ship and men to sail with. He finds the most talented and strongest men in Greece, builds the greatest boat the world has ever seen and is protected by the queen of the gods, Hera, who has promised to help him on three occasions if needed. The crew sets out to travel to the opposite side of the world, in a quest full of danger, action and amazing special effects! Along the way Jason confronts monsters of all sorts, fights with statues and falls for the lovely lady Medea.


The Review
To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about the last Rogue Roundtable (cavemen being our last topic, and the review being Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks). I didn’t have many films to choose from and when I found one that was weird enough, I didn’t quite care for it. So, I was fairly anxious to get the “caveman” review out of the way because I couldn’t wait to get to this month’s topic. This month we pay tribute to the work of Ray Harryhausen, cinematic special effects magician. Although I have only seen but a handful of his work, I knew the exact film I wanted to tackle for this special occasion. A film that has held a very special place in my heart for a long time: Jason and the Argonauts. I can’t quite recall how I first saw the film, but I think I might have come across it on a late-night program called “100% Weird” many years ago. The show would broadcast movies that were as bizarre as the title hinted at for the most part, but they would also feature classic horror films or generally forgotten pieces of cinema. They also had a knack for playing many mythological films, including many films featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen. This was my introduction to both Harryhausen as well as the sword-and-sandal genre, and it is still the pinnacle by which all others are judged within my mind.

Although I am speaking with nostalgic blinders on, without a doubt, but for me Jason and the Argonauts has a definite magical quality to it. Everything about the movie seems to emit a “film-classic” shine. It’s the sort of production where it doesn’t seem so cliche to throw out lines like “They don’t make ’em like this anymore”, because that is absolutely true. Few films would have the guts to dare be this imaginative in this millenium. From the get-go, the movie looks to deliver on only one promise and that is: entertainment. The legitimate myths that comprise this story are definitely on the outlandish side, which in essence gave Harryhausen a blank check of sorts. Seen through the eyes of a modern viewer, some might watch Jason and the Argonauts and laugh at how hokey the clay animation seems by today’s standards, but if an audience member feels that way they might be missing the point. Yes, by today’s standards the effects are most certainly without realism, but there’s a greater art at work here than just attempting to duplicate reality. The animation in itself is the real beauty, and what I would recommend viewers keep their eye upon. A tedious and highly detailed work, despite it not looking “real” the claymation is certainly beautiful to look at. The close attention to the minute details that Harryhausen put into his work when creating these monsters and the incredibly in-screen special FX work helped inspire an army of future filmmakers.

With a story as obviously as huge as Jason and the Argonauts is, you would probably expect it to have a relatively relaxed pace and go the usual route of a true epic, but the film doesn’t hold to such standards. Instead it seems to move along at a running speed. At just over 104 minutes it never once proves to be boring, which suits the film and its audience very well. Rather than trying to give heed to every little aspect of the original story, the director instead chooses to give us the juiciest details and always skips to the good stuff. This fast-food approach may not deliver the most emotional resonance, but it is exactly what an action/adventure yarn like this should do. It may not go for the jugular in presenting an authentic Greek tale, but it more than delivers in the entertainment department. After Jason initially sets out on his quest for the Golden Fleece, the film seems to swim from adventure to adventure. It loses only an ounce of steam when Jason is introduced to his love-interest, but it quickly picks back up as Harryhausen delivers some of the most mind blowing claymation work ever seen in cinema.

I will admit to it, the special FX are generally what make the movie. When you recount all of the greatest moments of the film, chances are you’re going to talk about the monsters. Jason fighting with the hydra was a definite standout, but the biggest bit of animation is obviously when the “argonauts” take on a team of skeletons who are awaken from the grave to do battle. The scene is quite famous by now, and for good reason. The skeletons may not be the largest or most mind blowing creatures the “argonauts” fight during the film, but from a technical scale it’s probably the movie’s largest achievement. The claymation and the live action are well placed together and it proves to be the most realistic battle of the film. The skeletons have shadows that dance around them as they fight, and it actually looks as if the swords really do clash. It’s a beautifully orchestrated dance that proves to be one of Harryhausen’s crowning achievements and is a cinematic sequence that will never be forgotten. Jason and the Argonauts will probably be remembered more for this one scene than the actual “film” itself, but the FX are just one part of the whole package.

The film may have been shot on sets and nowhere near the locations that are represented in the film, but Jason and the Argonauts definitely creates an atmosphere that manages to deliver upon some manner of realism. The beauty of the backgrounds around these characters, as well as the classy costumes and stunning cinematography. These things really set the mood for the film and they help to solidify a dose of realism. Sure, it may not follow the original story to pitch perfection, but Jason and the Argonauts proves to be a magnificent display of storytelling. It’s an ever-flowing story and the actors more than pick up their end of the slack. Todd Armstrong, who plays the lead Jason, was perfectly cast in the role. He exhumes a confident charisma, but isn’t just an average superhero. His character is, at the least, a vulnerable man, unlike the gods he often tempts. Armstrong manages to give the character a somewhat naive, but well rounded emotional range. Nancy Kovack, who plays Medea, may not have been chosen for her acting abilities alone, but can you really blame the casting agencies? She’s one of the most beautiful women I think I have ever seen in a classic film. Her character doesn’t really make an appearance until the latter half of the film, but once she is on board it’s hard to forget her face. I said earlier that the introduction of the love interest slows the film down some, and that is completely true. Thankfully the plot continues to move along as well as it does, but the few moments of character development between Jason and Medea felt rather bland for my tastes. Not that I usually have anything against a good romance, but for what seems like such a masculine movie for so long the dependency on a female lead felt as if it sucked some of the the air out of the film. Perhaps that’s just my misogyny talking though. The rest of the cast are for the most part made up of supporting actors, from the Argonauts to the gods. The only character who really matters most is Jason. The one supporting actor I truly notice when I watch the movie though is Nigel Green who plays Hercules, only because I’m not used to seeing Hercules portrayed as such a normal man. I suppose it’s all those years of watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys coming back to haunt me. When I think of the character Hercules, I rarely picture a middle aged man with a relatively average muscle tone and a full beard. However, I guess that’s a personal problem, now isn’t it?

The Conclusion
What else can I say, if you’re an average film fan I’m sure you have at least heard of the film. If you haven’t, then by George get out your door and head to the videostore. It’s a classic of both mythological epics and clay animation. Ray Harryhausen is a name that will be well remembered well into the future, and it is because of the work done on titles such as this one. He was a pioneer in his field and deserves all the reverence he has gained over the years. I can’t stress how much I, and I would like to think the majority of movie geeks, admire and respect his work. Now, everybody go out and pick up one of his films to celebrate along with us Rogues!

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