Culture Clash

Here’s Donald Benson on CLASH OF THE TITANS — just the kind of thing I like to see in a mini-blogathon!

I got to know Harryhausen films on television, not seeing one on the big screen until THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, after which I saw several more at UCSC and at some revival houses. I also took to browsing sci-fi and film magazines at the campus library. This was just before STAR WARS ushered in a special effects revolution.

My second-hand amateur guesswork: By the time of CLASH OF THE TITANS, Ray Harryhausen films had become a little like Disney animation features. They were marvels of craftsmanship and artistry, still the gold standard for new generations of animators and effects wizards inspired by dueling skeletons. But somehow they were less relevant as movies. They were generally well-written and directed, and looked better than their modest budgets, But they were of a style that felt increasingly old hat no matter what new wonders Super Dynarama wrought, just as Disney’s 60s animations settled into a rut despite unmatched character animation. 

Part of this was dictated by necessity. Harryhausen and Schneer would get Columbia to put up some money and go make the movie. Everything on the live action shoot had to be precisely pre-planned because of the budget and the effect requirements; no room for auteur directors (I believe they were brought on when much had already been set in stone).

Harryhausen certainly had artistic ambitions. He wanted to do War of the Worlds and a Baron Munchausen feature; test footage for both projects can be seen in a DVD documentary. Would these have broken the mold, or turned out as solid but predictable additions to the Harryhausen canon? As it was, there evidently came a point where the only projects they could get financed were two more Sinbad adventures. They weren’t sequels and Harryhausen was still pushing forward — SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER has a prince turned into a baboon, and the animated baboon delivers a character performance — but the subject matter must have felt like a clear retreat.

By 1981 films like JAWS and STAR WARS revolutionized effects AND created the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen’s hand-wrought magic may have paled slightly next to technological breakthroughs (the way older fantasies paled next to Harryhausen), but they were oddly buoyed by same eager suspension of disbelief that allowed the Muppets to star in movies. More problematic was the blockbuster mentality. Harryhausen and Schneer were comparatively minor players; their fantasies fell into a weird dead zone between gigantic studio epics and low-rent matinee fare. Ray Harryhausen decided to go big … and then go home.

COTT was billed as his farewell performance, which meant something because he was finally being recognized as the guy who made all those films kids grew up on. It revisits the Greek myths of his most highly regarded film, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and brings back the same scriptwriter, Beverley Cross (his wife Maggie Smith plays a ticked-off goddess). There are ambitious effect sequences and an interesting experiment: the beast-man Calibos is an actor in close shots, and an animated creature in longer shots; an effect managed with editing as I recall. More money was spent, there were big names in the cast, and Harryhausen had a little more help in his animation studio. 

My main memory is that the effects were nifty, and the usual Harryhausen vibe was there under the glitzier trimmings. What I wonder is, how much of their usual control did he and Schneer give up to make their exit with a would-be blockbuster? 

As late shows go, it can be counted as a happy ending. Harryhausen did better and more memorable films, but COTT was a showy final bow and presumably a nice bundle for retirement. And after a lifetime of painstaking stop-motion work he spent his remaining years as a beloved elder statesman to the now somewhat-glamorous special effects industry, taking bows and at some point doing a heroic sculpture of Dr. David Livingstone, an ancestor of his wife. Better than going out on the frankly minor Sinbads, and probably better than trying to compete with his own proteges and/or CGI.

Donald Benson

4 Responses to “Culture Clash”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    I remember that when I saw CLASH OF THE TITANS in the theater, the ride on Pegasus was what most impressed me. The goddam cute owl seemed a STAR WARS-ism. I was mildly startled that one saw exposed female breast … and I kept my reaction to Harry Hamlin to myself.

    At least one Harryhausen picture, THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, had an auteur as a director — Cy Endfield. Desmond Davis, the director of TITANS, has a certain *cachet* as well, what with SMASHING TIME and GIRL WITH GREEN EYES.

    One thing one does miss in TITANS is the presence of a dynamic Bernard Herrmann score.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Trivia note: COTT and “Jason and the Argonauts” both featured Bond Girls. Honor Blackman, pre-“Goldfinger” and maybe pre-“Avengers”, was Hera in JATA. Ursula Andress, post- “Doctor No”, was Aphrodite in COTT. Andress, who I don’t think had any screen time with Harry Hamlin, made up for it off camera.

  3. The Harryhausen pics always had very good composers — but nobody’s as good as Herrmann at this kind of thing.

    Apparently the damn owl was always in the script and Ray’s films took so long to make it predates Star Wars, but it played as an R2D2 knockoff when the film came out and was an unnecessary and very unmythic bit of cutesiness.

    Medusa, on the other hand, is one of the best set-pieces Ray eve did, and some credit belongs to Desmond Davis and his DoP, the excellent Ted Moore, for the atmospheric build-up.

  4. The truth that dare not speak its name is that most of Harryhausen’s films aren’t very good; the acting, writing and directing are proficiently mediocre at best and often worse — who but Charles Schneer would cast Gila Golan in their film: she was an inept actress who ended up being dubbed. Harryhausen’s effects set pieces are the only real stars of the films and the only reason to see them. The Herrmann scores are the only other reliably outstanding element in these films. Even Harryhausen himself stumbled: its very obvious that the men fighting the twelve skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts are not really fighting them: their swords never connect or appear to touch the skeletons, they’re swinging at nothing. Apparently, Schneer and possibly Harryhausen thought of the films merely as showcases for his effects to the exclusion of everything else.

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