Archive for Ray Harryhausen

20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2021 by dcairns

Inspired by the Karel Zeman documentary we didn’t watch a Zeman film but instead looked at Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. First time I’ve made it through the thing, more or less, without drifting off. And yet, it’s not THAT boring.

It’s an impressive technical feat — everything they need to do, they pull off, and Bob Mattey’ giant squid is a wow. No wonder they brought him out of retirement to do Bruce the shark in JAWS. Quick! What was Richard Fleischer’s lawyer’s name? If we knew that, we would know what the squid should be called.

Melvin? Ken? Diablo?

Jules Verne’s episodic, meandering novel has given the adaptors some trouble — scenarist Earl Felton had written a couple of LONE WOLF movies (yay!) and a few small-scale works for Richard Fleischer, including the fantastic THE NARROW MARGIN, and suddenly he’s charged with penning this undersea epic which never had much of a plot. Once the protagonists are taken prisoner by Captain Nemo (James Mason) there’s nothing to do except wander around the magnificent Victorian sub, and go for the occasional jaunt. It all looks great but there’s no dramatic ticking clock to say anything in particular needs doing.

It’s interesting that Nemo is an ambiguous character and the fellow most sympathetic to him, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) is also most sympathetic to us. No strong decision seems to have been taken as to who Peter Lorre is playing, so the film’s best actor is somewhat rudderless, although as Fiona pointed out it’s kind of nice to see him playing somebody basically nice. And then there’s Ned Land, whaler and troilist, an appalling lout-hero, ably personated by Kirk Douglas, giving it both knees as usual. This seems to connect somehow to the Harryhausen/Juran FIRST MEN IN THE MOON — both feature delightful Victorian scifi vehicles (see also Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE) and thuggish heroes contrasted with appealing but powerless intellectuals. The Harryhausen movie actually made this WORK, though. (And this almost brings us back to Zeman, since his BARON PRASIL begins with a modern cosmonaut meeting Munchausen on the moon, much like FIRST MEN’s NASA opening, drafted by Nigel Kneale.)

THE BLACK HOLE, it’s been pointed out, is Disney’s unofficial remake of LEAGUES — Maximilian Schell even borrows James Mason’s beard (well, he had no further use for it) — to the extent of stealing the maelstrom from Verne, which doesn’t appear in the movie, and putting it front and centre and calling it a black hole. Where LEAGUES is meandering, though, HOLE is violently incoherent, though it does have an insane psychedelic/religiose ending which elevates it to the category of something or other that happened.

This must surely have been storyboarded to within an inch of its life but, curiously enough, Fleischer’s compositional genius isn’t much in evidence. I guess it’s his first Scope film.

Asides from the actors named above, the movie has one other favourite figure, Percy Helton, who turns up at the start as a salty sea-dog, looking less grotesque than usual in a beard of his own. He should’ve kept it, or vice versa. It’s one of those no-moustache Irish jobs, which usually make people look worse (Lincoln pulled it off, sorta), but dear Perc has the kind of face you can’t disimprove upon, so he ends up looking quite cute — from goblin to garden gnome.


Posted in FILM with tags , on November 9, 2020 by dcairns


We have booked tickets to the Ray Harryhausen exhibition! But since we are a pair of slugabeds, we booked late and the only tickets were for January. So expect a report then.

Culture Clash

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 6, 2019 by dcairns

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