One of the first things I had planned for my vacation was a trip to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wilshire. I’ve been there before for screenings and premieres, but I never realized they have a gallery in the building on the fourth floor. Some friends urged me to go, though, and thank god they did, because Toshi and Allen and I visited the Ray Harryhausen Exhibit, put together to celebrate his 90th birthday and his remarkable career.
God bless Sony for their Blu-ray releases of the Ray Harryhausen library, or at least as much as they own of it. We’ve already incorporated earlier titles like “20 Million Miles To Earth,” “It Came From Beneath The Sea,” and “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” into our regular rotation here in the house, and “The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad” caused a riot the first time we watched it. The last Harryhausen film we watched together was the 1981 version of “Clash Of The Titans,” when Warner released it on Blu-ray, and again… instant love.
Through all of this, though, there’s been one title I’ve been wanting to show them, and finally, SPHE has issued a gorgeous new high-definition transfer of “Jason and the Argonauts,” one of the greatest works of film fantasy. As soon as it showed up and Toshi saw the skeletons on the back cover, it was just a matter of time until we were going to screen it.
The films that Ray Harryhausen contributed to rarely used movie stars, and dramatically they could sometimes be stilted, awkwardly structured, or filled with stiff performances. Unlike some films, those things never seem to derail his movies in the least. In many ways, I think of “Jason and the Argonauts” as the quintessential Harryhausen film, and revisiting it with my sons, I love it more than ever.
Working with frequent collaborators Charles H. Schneer and screenwriter Beverley Cross, Harryhausen fashioned a quest movie, around ideas from Greek mythology. It makes a total hash of real mythology, but it doesn’t matter. The best Harryhausen films basically exist to get the characters from one fantastic set piece to another, and this has some of the greatest set pieces of his career. Two in particular stand out as perfect examples of the artistry that makes these films enduring treasures.
First, there’s Talos. The Argonauts make a stop for food and water on an island where they were sent by the Gods, with only one rule when they land: take only food and water, and nothing else. Of course, any time there’s a rule like this, that rule is going to get broken by somebody.
In this case, Hercules is the jerk. Toshi and Allen both said so.
A little ways inland, there’s a giant bronze statue of a warrior standing alone on a raised platform. Talos. And in the base of that platform, there’s a door. And inside that door, there’s a vault full of amazing gold and gems.
Take nothing but food and water. But there’s a vault full of wealth beyond dreams. Of course.
As we were watching, Hercules started to take the gold, and Toshi said, not even looking over at me, “Ooooooh… Hercules gonna get in trouble.”
Talos wakes up as soon as Hercules breaks the threshold, and then it’s on. He’s a wrecking machine. And he smashes up the Argonauts pretty good before they figure out how to stop him. And when it does happen, it’s painful-looking. Toshi was very upset that Talos had to die. He sympathizes with the giant monsters in the movies we watch these days. He cried at the end of the original 1954 “Godzilla,” so I know how much he loves these creatures and how seriously he takes it.
Here, he was upset because he told me Talos was just “doing his work,” and Hercules did break the rule, after all. That sort of crystal-clear moral choice is such a big part of mythology, and the film wisely plays Talos not as a villain, but as a consequence of certain actions.
The other indelible image in the film, and maybe the greatest individual image of Harryhausen’s whole career, is the battle between Jason and his men and a battalion of skeletons. There are few moments as perfect as the way the King scatters the Hydra’s teeth around, leading to every tooth sprouting into skeleton warriors. Each one that erupted from the ground got an audible reaction from the boys, and by the time all of the skeletons were ready for battle. Allen was on my lap, hiding his eyes behind my hand, and Toshi was behind his chair, careful to keep it between him and the television, just in case.
Ultimately, the reason these films burn their way into the permanent memory of viewers while so many more technically advanced films fail to do so can be summed up in one word: character. Every single one of the creatures in his films have genuine personalities. They’re not just monsters… they are just as alive as any of the human stars. They seem to have souls, something that is frequently lacking in modern FX work.
Whenever I hear people talk about how remakes are for kids who don’t have the attention span for older film or who won’t watch black and white or who can’t handle “old stuff,” I dismiss that entirely. It’s just not true. Kids have an appetite for whatever they are interested in, and if giant robots and monsters and flying saucers happen to be in black and white, that doesn’t seem to make any difference at all as long as I don’t make a big deal out of it. Kids still respond to these films in the exact same way we did when we saw them on TV or when kids saw the films in theaters in the ’50s and the ’60s. Great work really doesn’t age, and when people claim that movies are louder and dumber and more overtly pandering because that what kids demand, they are liars. Treat the audience… even and especially the kids… with respect, and they’ll respond.
Toshi and Allen certainly did, and one of the great moments in our shared geek life so far was getting off the elevator on the fourth floor of the Academy building and seeing Medusa in a glass case across the room. The boys both freaked out almost immediately, and they ran into the gallery, amazed and exclaiming at each new display. They saw the Kraken. They saw moon creatures and undersea creatures and drawings that detailed the inner workings of the various stop-motion figures.
In the last case in the last part of the gallery, we finally found what we came for. Not dinosaurs, although those were nice. Not sabertooth tigers, although those were great. Nope… there was one case featuring all of the “Jason” figures, and when they laid eyes on Talos, the Hydra, and the skeleton warriors, the response was incredible. I knew Toshi would be excited, but I didn’t anticipate the way Allen lost his mind at the sight of Talos. We spent almost two hours in the gallery (not counting the time we spent admiring the Chuck Jones/Warner Bros. exhibit in the lobby of the building right now), and the boys haven’t stopped talking about it since. As much as they loved the Natural History Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits and Chinatown and kite-flying and the beach and everything else we did during the week, every single day, they mentioned how much they wanted to go back to see “all the magic people.”
I can think of no better way to describe Harryhausen, whose work continues to excite and amaze, and I want to thank all the magic people who worked with him bringing his amazing work to life and preserving it for modern audiences to rediscover and pass down like the treasure it is.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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