Six decades of sailing the seven seas of eye-popping adventure with Ray Harryhausen and Jason and the Argonauts
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the June 30, 2023 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
There are moments where, if asked, I may tell you that I think 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest motion picture ever made. At least, I’m positive that six-year-old me felt that way. Star Wars may have blown my little mind as a child, but it was seeing this mythological adventure that truly shattered my skull and made my eyes shoot out of their sockets.
The first time I saw director Don Chaffey and visual effects maestro Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece was at Spokane’s Magic Lantern Theatre during its annual children’s film festival. It was the early days of summer, weeks before I’d stand in line for hours on end waiting to watch The Empire Strikes Back. I remember this so clearly because it was the first time I was allowed to see a movie without family supervision. Sure, I was with a group of adult-supervised kids, but my parents stayed home, and that made this moment inherently memorable.
Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the front row, I was shocked by how murderously violent the opening was. A victorious king suddenly going berserk and murdering the children of the monarch he had just deposed, including a heroic sister protecting her infant brother? Nasty stuff. But then comes Hera (Honor Blackman), Queen of the Gods, coldly staring down this vile human monster, proclaiming that a “one-sandaled man” would be his undoing. I was instantly hooked.
It only got better from there. Jason (Todd Armstrong), that one-sandaled man fabled to avenge his family’s murder and slay the evil King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), assembles his Argonauts by holding the first Olympic Games. He travels to Mount Olympus and has a face-to-face meeting with Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) and Hera. The Argonauts sail the seas of the known world, encountering carnivorous harpies, rocks that send sailors to an early grave, and the gigantic Talos, a warrior made entirely of bronze, who is awakened from his statuesque slumber by a selfishly bumbling Hercules (Nigel Green).
But Chaffey and Harryhausen happily save the best bits for the final act. Jason and his ragtag crew are in search of the mystical Golden Fleece, and they journey to the far-off kingdom of Colchis to find it. While there, they encounter the tyrannical King Aeetes (Jack Gwillim) and are betrayed by the duplicitous Acastus (Gary Raymond). Jason also saves the life of Madea (Nancy Kovack), the kingdom’s high priestess, and the pair fall hopelessly in love almost immediately.
This leads to two of the greatest fantasy moments in all of cinema history. The first is Jason’s discovery of the location of the Golden Fleece, immediately followed by his spectacular battle with the seven-headed hydra. It’s very thrilling, filled with eye-popping acrobatics that magnificently showcase Harryhausen’s stunning stop-motion creature effects nicely.
Yet that’s nothing compared to the climactic battle not too long after. Using the teeth of the hydra, Aeetes creates a small battalion of skeletal soldiers and unleashes them on Jason and two of his men. As dated as the effects may be, the resulting fight is as spectacular today as it was 60 years ago. It’s bone-chillingly effective, the shrieks of the undead soldiers echoing throughout the theater, and while this clash between human and skeleton has stood the test of time brilliantly, back in 1980, I was certain this was the greatest thing my young eyes had ever seen.
Granted, all these decades later, my adult eyes frequently still feel the same. The genius of what Harryhausen accomplished — not just here but throughout his deservedly celebrated career, from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Clash of the Titans — was that all of his incredible creations had personality. While they never looked entirely “real,” they still felt genuine. They were all characters in their own right. They had an internal fire that lit up the screen, giving each interaction or confrontation with their human counterparts a weight and a meaning that could not have existed otherwise.
Chaffey is likely best remembered for his television work, including directing episodes of The Prisoner, The Avengers, and The Protectors. But he also handled Pete’s Dragon, The Magic of Lassie, and One Million Years B.C., not to mention several smaller productions, ranging from film noir to swashbuckler to full-blown melodrama. Yet this remains his finest hour. Chaffey keeps the pace moving, knows when to augment the most important emotional beats, and allows Harryhausen to strut his creative stuff without any unnecessary visual nonsense.
Fantasy adventures have come a long way since Harryhausen’s heyday. But filmmakers as varied as Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro have mentioned on multiple occasions how much the special-effects pioneer’s work influenced them, and they are far from the only ones. The magic this stop-motion maestro could conjure was second to none, and his influence is still being felt in this CG-animated age where anything can be conjured up, actors can be digitally de-aged, and the possibilities to create bigger, ghastlier, and more dynamic monsters appear to be endless.
Yet Harryhausen remains atop the visual effects mountain, and Jason and the Argonauts is his masterpiece. The man himself felt it was his best film, and I am not about to argue with him.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary, Jason and the Argonauts is available to purchase digitally on several platforms.