This post is part of the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Debbie Vee at Moon in Gemini, and what better film to cover, than a movie where swords and sandals have great significance.
A one-sandaled man shall come
The prophets tell Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), he will be victorious in battle; he shall win the throne of Thessaly from King Aristo because Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) has ordained it. In tribute to the gods, Pelias offers his sword to Zeus. However, Zeus has also ordained that Pelias will lose the throne to one of Aristo’s children.
To circumvent the fates, Pelias takes back his sword to kills Aristo’s three children. He discovers Aristo’s two daughters in the temple of Hera, praying for help, Pelias murders the older daughter Briseis. Hera (Honor Blackman) witnesses the atrocity.
PELIAS. It is the will of Zeus.
HERA. No, it is your will. Zeus has given you a kingdom; the rest will be your own doing. The gods abandon you. A one-sandaled man shall come, and no gods shall protect you.
PELIAS. A one-sandaled man?
HERA. The child who has escaped you. Jason.
PELIAS. Then why was I not told the whole prophecy? Why did Zeus drive me to kill her, when I only needed to kill Jason?
HERA. Zeus can’t drive men to do what you have done. They drive themselves so that the gods may know them, and that men may understand themselves. Killing Jason will do you no good. Kill Jason and you kill yourself.
Hera insulted by the desecration of her temple wants to help Jason, because Briseis called upon Hera five times, Hera may assist Jason five times.
Twenty years later, Pelias is unhorsed and falls into the river. A young man rescues him, as the young man emerges from the water and Pelias notices he is wearing only one sandal, it is Jason en route to reclaiming his throne. Rather than killing Jason (Todd Armstrong) directly, Pelias pretends to help Jason, advising it would take a miracle to unite the people of Thessaly. He sends Jason to the ends of the earth to bring back the mythic golden fleece, and so the adventure begins.
Jason is shortly whisked off to Mount Olympus, where the gods offer their help, Jason denies their help:
ZEUS. The gods are best served by those who want their help least.
Jason holds an athletic competition, presumably the first Olympics, to recruit men for the voyage, his crew includes the demi-god Hercules (Nigel Greene), Hylas (John Cairney) an intellectual who uses brains to outwit Hercules. Jason then seeks out the ship builder Argos (Laurence Naismith) who builds a mighty ship, and then men set forth from Thessaly (located in Greece) to Colchis (located in Georgia). Their journey across the Black Sea is dangerous and exciting.
The film is well-cast, and if we forget that the love interest Medea (Nancy Kovack) is the same Medea who will later murder her children in the play by Euripides, then it is quite a charming love story, too.
I hesitate to call many films a “masterpiece” but Jason and the Argonauts is one the GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME!
And it is all thanks to special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen is known for many great films including The Clash of the Titans (1981), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Mighty Joe Young (1949), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). And while he worked on many sci-fi and fantasy classics, Jason and the Argonauts is, in my opinion, his greatest work.
Their perilous journey includes encounters with Talos a giant walking bronze statue. According to Harryhausen:
“I made him a 100ft-high adversary, based on the Colossus of Rhodes. There are no remnants of the Colossus, but we know that it straddled the harbour of ancient Rhodes facing the open sea. Our Talos straddled a natural harbour, preventing the exit of the Argo. A Colossus in reverse.
The model of Talos is approximately 12in high. When it came to animating it, I was faced with a whole new set of rules. It seems ironic that, for most of my career, I have been trying to perfect smooth and lifelike animation action, but for Talos, it was necessary to create a deliberately stiff and mechanical movement in keeping with a bronze statue sprung to life.”
Later Jason encounters a blind man, Phinneas, tormented by Harpies; Harryhausen took a bit of artistic license in their design, “in the legend, they are described as having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture, with their feet and fingers armed with sharp claws. As always, I had to take some liberties with this description, making them bat-like to give a more practical and menacing appearance.”
As Harryhausen and his special effects crew sailed into uncharted waters, trial and error were a big part of the production:
“When we built the set, we made the falling sections of rocks out of Styrofoam covered with plaster. Nobody, including myself, had considered any problems with this until we came to the first day of the shoot and found, on attempting to “clash” the rocks, that they merely floated in the water. Overnight, the construction shop made replacement solid-plaster rocks.”
Later in pursuit of the golden fleece, Jason encounters the Hydra!
Harryhausen seems rather fond of purple creatures, “Gwangi” is the same lovely shade.
“The basic design of the creature came from classical vase paintings, although it went through many changes before I finally came up with the idea of making it serpent-like with a distinctive tail ending like a forked snake tongue. The seven heads were designed to resemble a dinosaur-like bird with curved beaks and two ear-like crests curving backward, an image that would suggest prehistoric times.”
And now we move on to…
“Give me the children of the hydra’s teeth, THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT!”
Production began in 1961; the film was released in 1963 due to the lengthy process of stop-motion animation.
“Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family.”
“What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end, the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.”
This post is part of the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Debbie Vee at Moon in Gemini. Be sure to visit her blog and check out all the other great entries!