Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Clash of the Titans

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As June draws to a close, it’s time for my last piece on the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. The last film I’ve chosen was remade in 2010, but pales to the original. While the update has more modern effects and some good actors, it doesn’t have the charm or imagination of the 1981 version.

Like Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans deal with Greek gods and mythical beasts. This time instead of Jason and Hercules going on a quest, we get Perseus.

Perseus (Harry Hamlin), the son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), solves a difficult riddle. In doing so, he  wins the hand of the Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) in marriage. Trouble arises when Calibos (Neil McCarthy), the princess’s former love, and his mother, the Goddess Thetis  (Maggie Smith) enter the picture. In order for the dreaded Kraken not be released, Andromeda has to be sacrificed and Perseus searches for the Medusa. Only Medusa’s head can stop the Kraken.–IMDB

Yes, Clash of the Titans is the film that brought us the great line, “release the Kraken!” Now, let’s talk about Ray Harryhausen’s effects in this film. It was the last film he worked on and the first where he had assistants. Despite this film being the end of his career,Harryhausen still managed to deliver the goods. The design of the Kraken sea monster is particularly impressive. While the design doesn’t have the fluid motion of, say, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Kraken feels very real in the flesh tones and the stop motion is pretty convincing.

My favorite Harryhausen creation in Clash of the Titans though is the design of Medussa. The snake hair, the glowing green eyes, the reptilian body…it’s quite striking visually. The image of her *spoiler alert!* severed head, is one you will not soon forget. It’s really amazing how Ray Harryhausen brought Medusa to life exactly the way I pictured her from my studies of Greek mythology.

The last special effect I want to mention are the giant scorpions. The blood that drips from Medusa’s head creates the scorpions, because of course. Now, these are some pretty convincing giant scorpions, They make the ones in The Black Scorpion from 1957 look quite benign. A can of raid will not save you from these arachnids. The scorpions in Clash of the Titans have a design and movement to them that reminded me of some of the creature design in The Lost World from 1925. The battle that Perseus has with them is quite thrilling. Granted, it’s not the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, but that’s setting the bar pretty high.

Clash of the Titans was a good film for Ray Harryhausen to go out on. His unique visual touch is still there. There are also some top-notch actors, including Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier. As far as popcorn movies go, it’s a pretty good one.

That’s it for Ray Harryhausen month. I hope you enjoyed the look back at the career of the special effects pioneer. Before there was ILM, there was Ray Harryhausen.

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Summer Movie Blogathon: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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I interrupt my usual blog entries to bring you my entry for the Blog of Darned Summer Movie Blogathon. I chose to write about a film in the category of summer blockbusters. And the film I have chosen is (drum roll please…) Raiders of the Lost Ark! A throwback to Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, it’s simply one of the most fun films ever made. But it’s more than just a fun action picture.

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One of the things that sets Raiders of the Lost Ark apart from the mindless, CGI-filled monstrosities you see in theaters these days is its craftsmanship. This was a movie made by people who loved movies. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, already a household name for directing Jaws (the original summer blockbuster) and produced by George Lucas who took us a rollicking adventure through space in Star Wars. Both men knew how to direct thrilling and smart action pictures. Their combined creative forces made for one of the most exciting films to come out of the 80s.

The story, for those who have inexplicably not seen it, follows the adventures of archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he has adventures (and in some cases misadventures) pursuing archaeological artifacts. The film opens in a South American jungle in the 30s. Indiana Jones is after a golden idol hidden in a temple. To retrieve it he must outwit dangerous pursuers and deadly booby traps. It is in this opening sequence where my fascination with movies began. After Indy retrieves the idol, the temple starts to collapse on itself and even more booby traps are unleashed. One of them is a giant boulder. When I saw Raiders for the first time, that scene blew my mind. I wore out countless copies of the film on VHS (sorry mom and dad!) trying to see the trickery of how the filmmakers did it. But the scene in the idol’s temple was just a warmup for a film that was gone to have wall to wall amazing stunts, witty writing, and introduce us to one of the great movie heroes.

Indiana Jones is eventually tasked by the government to go after the Ark of the Covenant. They want Indy to get it before the Nazis do. Part of the reason he’s asked is that he studied under Professor Ravenwood at the University of Chicago. Ravenwood acquired a headpiece to the Staff of Ra. It’s a medallion that, put on a staff of the proper height, will reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. To get it, Indiana Jones has to go back to an old flame. That would be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

The two of them parted ways on less than amicable terms. But they are brought back together to get the Ark. After Nazis try to get the medallion from Marion and her bar in Nepal is destroyed. From there, Marion accompanies Indy to Cairo. There Indiana Jones finds the location of the Ark after setting the Staff of Ra in the right place at the right time in the map room. This leads the archaeologist to the Well of the Souls. You probably remember that scene as the one where Indiana Jones famously says, “snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant. But getting it back to the United States isn’t so easy. He’s thwarted by his adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman), an archaeologist who has been hired by the Nazis. Belloq seals Indiana Jones and Marion in the Well of the Souls. Eventually they escape and go to get the Ark back from Belloq and the Nazis. Along the way Indy has to fight a Nazi pilot, get involved in an epic truck chase, ride a Nazi submarine, and then on an island the Ark is opened at…well, I don’t want to give away the great surprise in that scene.

Okay, so that’s the story. But what is it that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark such a great popcorn movie? The action and stunt work is top-notch. There’s the iconic boulder scene in the opening act. But there’s also the shootout in the bar when Indy saves Marion from the Nazis. Then Indy and Marion are chased again through an Egyptian open market. It is here where another iconic Indiana Jones scene takes place. Jones runs into a gifted swordsman. There was originally supposed to be an epic sword fight between Indy and the swordsman. But sadly, Harrison Ford became ill the day it was supposed to be filmed.

The famous scene in which Indy shoots a marauding and flamboyant swordsman was not in the original script. Harrison Ford was supposed to use his whip to get the sword out of his attacker’s hands, but the food poisoning he and the rest of the crew had gotten made him too sick to perform the stunt. After several unsuccessful tries, Ford suggested “shooting the sucker.” Steven Spielberg immediately took up the idea and the scene was successfully filmed.–IMDB

The look on Harrison Ford’s face as he takes the swordsman out is absolutely priceless.

And then there’s that great truck chase. Just when you think the movie can’t be anymore exciting, it does. The elaborate sequence took eight weeks to film. And it contained an homage to a classic western. As Internet Movie Database notes:

When Indy is dragged under and then out behind a moving truck, it’s a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s similar famous stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). In fact, it was a stunt that stuntman Terry Leonard had tried to pull off the year before, and failed to do so, on The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981). He was thrilled at the chance of having another shot at it, but only agreed to do it if his friend & colleague Glenn Randall Jr. was driving.–IMDB

Don’t you love it when one classic pays tribute to another?

But, as I said earlier, Raiders is great not just because of its thrilling action. It works because of the chemistry of its lead actors. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen play perfectly off one another. Ford is an absolutely believable action hero and Allen is wonderfully spunky. Marion is the one of the few women ballsy enough to go toe to toe with Indiana Jones. Not many people would go right up to Indy and punch him in the face. And the supporting cast is equally wonderful. There’s Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody, Indy’s boss. You may remember him from A Room With A View. Also along on the quest for the Ark is digger Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). He has one of my favorite lines. At the Well of the Souls, upon seeing the snakes he says, “asps. Very dangerous. You go first.” Finally, there’s Paul Freeman’s Belloq. A hero is only as good as his villain. And as far as villain’s go, Belloq is a pretty good one. He’s what Indy would be like had he gone over to the dark side. That makes them great rivals.

In addition to the talented cast, Raiders is a blast because it has some wonderful writing. The story was written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and the screenplay was written by Lawrence Kasdan. Among Kasdan’s credits? The Empire Strikes Back. No wonder the dialogue in Raiders was so fun to listen to.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is well-crafted. A lot of the credit for that goes to two people: director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. There are some absolutely beautiful shots in this film. The closeup of Indiana Jones’ face covered in shadow as he leaves Marion’s bar, a wide shot of Indy’s silhouette against the desert landscape during sunset as Indy and his crew are digging for the Ark…the list goes on, While many action pictures get lost in special effects and technology, Raiders excels as a rollicking old-fashioned action picture in the proud tradition of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The film was designed to be an homage to Saturday matinée serials. And it succeeds magnificently on that level. This is a great edge of your seat action film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also benefited from the contribution of composer John Williams. He not only created one of the great heroes themes, he also gave us some great  action music. Pay close attention to the way he uses the brass section to created 40s-style chords to signal the arrival of the Nazis. There’s also the great mystical music that’s the theme of the Ark, used to great effect in the Map Room scene and the scene where the Ark is opened at the end. Then there’s the smoldering love theme for Indy and Marion, as well as all the great action music. My favorite of the action tracks is the music during the truck chase scene.

Raiders has an energy level that you rarely see in any action film. The filmmakers had fun making it and it comes through on the screen. It’s no surprise that over 30 years since its release that it’s as popular as ever. Indiana Jones is on practically every list of great movie heroes. And while the sequels were fun in their own right, the original is still the gold standard. The ads were right. Adventure does have a name. It’s Indiana Jones.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

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Greetings, readers! This week I continue my look at special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. For week three I’ll be writing about The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It’s another rollicking adventure movie enhanced by Harryhausen’s special effects wizardry.

To cut straight to the chase, here’s a rundown of the plot. It involves magic, a map. and mystical creatures. It’s the stuff that Saturday matinée serials are made of.

Sinbad (John Phillip Law) and his crew intercept a homunculus carrying a golden tablet. Koura (Tom Baker), the creator of the homunculus and practitioner of evil magic, wants the tablet back and pursues Sinbad. Meanwhile Sinbad meets the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) who has another part of the interlocking golden map, and they mount a quest across the seas to solve the riddle of the map, accompanied by a slave girl (Caroline Munro) with a mysterious tattoo of an eye on her palm. They encounter strange beasts, tempests, and the dark interference of Koura along the way.–IMDB

There are some great Harryhausen effects as always. There’s a sequence of a griffin fighting a one-eyed centaur. Although that sequence was originally supposed to look very different. As Internet Movie Database notes,

The Griffin, which fights the One-Eyed Centaur, was originally going to be a Neanderthal man, according to Ray Harryhausen’s early concept art for the project (illustrated in charcoal pencil). The “Neanderthal man” concept would later be realized into the Troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).–IMDB

So at least Harryhausen got to film what he originally wanted in another Sinbad movie.

My favorite Harryhausen sequence in the movie is the fight between Sinbad, his men, and the six-armed goddess Kali. Kali has a sword in each arm. That’s not something you see every day.

Eat your heart out Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn! It’s one of the great sword fight scenes in classic cinema. And this sequence was an homage to a film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to work in movies.

Harryhausen paid tribute to one of his inspirations, The Thief of Bagdad (1940), with this film. Both had the same composer, and Kali’s dance copies many moves of the six-armed robot in the 1940 film. The Hindu-style temple in the 1940 film is echoed in the Hindu-style carvings of Lemuria, and the look of the Lemurians is based on the 1940 film as well; there are other echoes and influences to be seen by those familiar with both films.–IMDB

It’s great when artists pay tribute to their own inspirations.

It should also be noted that there was a special effects sequence that was supposed to feature snakes. But it was cut.

A “Valley of the Vipers” sequence was devised by Ray Harryhausen. This would have featured both real snakes and giant animated snakes. However, this sequence was unused, as producer Charles H. Schneer was afraid of snakes (and argued that the scene would upset pregnant women).–IMDB
To quote Indiana Jones, “snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Although I’m terrified of snakes too, I would love to have seen what Harryhausen did with that concept.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is not my favorite Harryhausen film. That would be Jason and the Argonauts. But it does tell a fun story and have some great action sequences. My favorite is the duel with Kali. Ray Harryhausen worked on two other Sinbad movies: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Both are work a look. One final note, the score for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was done by Miklos Rozsa. It’s one of the most overlooked scores of his impressive career.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

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It’s week two of my spotlight on special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. Last week I discussed his work on Jason and the Argonauts, including the iconic skeleton fight sequence. This week we go from Greek gods and monsters to aliens. Yes, this week I’m spotlighting Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). The 1950s brought us many great science fiction b-movies. This was one of them.

Alien invasion movies generally involve aliens who want to make friends with us (E.T.) or aliens that want to wipe out the human race (War of the Worlds). Earth vs. the Flying Saucers falls into the latter category. Rockets sent up to explore the possibility of future space flights suddenly disappear. The answer? Aliens.

Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) heads up Operation Skyhook, which is tasked with sending rockets into the upper atmosphere to probe suitability for future space flights. Unfortunately, all the rockets somehow disappear. While investigating this strange occurrence, Russell and his new wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are abducted by a flying saucer. The aliens demand to meet with certain people in order to negotiate. It turns out to be a ruse. The Martians only want to kill them. The invasion has begun and if Russell and Carol can’t find a way to stop these creatures by getting past their defenses, it may be the end of the human race.–IMDB

The aliens don’t really want us to take them to our leader. They just want to kill us all. The cultural exchange program of Close Encounters this is not. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the special effects for 1956 are pretty good. While Ray Harryhausen considered it his least favorite film, his work here is definitely worthy of study.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is notable for being the last film to use one style of animation. As Internet Movie Database notes:

This was the last movie in which Ray Harryhausen used stop-motion to create collapsing buildings. He said it was too much work.–IMDB

That’s kind of a shame because Harryhausen was so good at it. But thankfully he was so inventive that he kept leaving his mark on modern movies. Anyone that’s seen Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks! and goes back to watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers will see similarities, especially in the way the look of the UFOs and the general plot. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, while a b-movie, influenced a whole generation of science fiction films.

While the plot of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is formulaic, the special effects work is not. First, there’s the design of the aliens. Most science fiction films today show aliens as looking very human. In this film, they have metal suits and weird helmets. When the helmets come off, their faces have this creepy mangled, melted look. The creatures look nothing like us and they do not come in peace. The design adds to the paranoid feel of the film.

The other noteworthy effects are the UFOs, especially at the end when they crash into government buildings in Washington, D.C. at the end. While the scenes may look a little cheesy to us today in the age of ILM, they were impressive for the time. There’s an impressive sequence of a flying saucer attacking a jet. I learned from Internet Movie Database that it was based on footage of an airshow crash.

But, as I mentioned, the real stars of this film are the scenes at the end of the attack on Washington, D.C. The UFO’s go after the U.S. Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument…basically every essential D.C. landmark. The model work is more detailed than you might expect for 1956. The buildings are obviously models, but when they get struck by the flying saucers, there’s a realism that you don’t expect in special effects of that time. That’s why Ray Harryhausen continues to be so highly regarded. His effects could overcome even the most predictable plot lines. Watching his imagination at work is something to behold.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers isn’t the best film Ray Harryhausen worked on. But it’s a fun b-movie, and he’s a major reason why. The creepy look of the aliens and his stop motion UFO attack sequences make it a good popcorn movie. Other films have had bigger budgets and more advanced effects, but not nearly as much imagination.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Jason and the Argonauts

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Another means another spotlight on this film. For the month of June I will be highlighting the work of Ray Harryhausen. Today we take for granted that you can just make special effects happen with computers. Now, that isn’t to say special effects artists today don’t work hard and doing it with computers doesn’t require a lot of skill in its own way. But before there was Industrial Light & Magic, there was Ray Harryhausen. He was basically a one man band who relied largely on imagination to make film special effects. And, as you’ll see this month, he created some pretty impressive effects without the aid of modern technology.

The first Harryhausen film I will be discussing is Jason and the Argonauts. It’s a thrilling adventure film from 1963 puts the classic Greek poem Jason and the Golden Fleece on the big screen. For those that haven’t read the poem or maybe haven’t seen the film in a while, here’s a brief overview:

Jason (Todd Armstrong) has been prophesied to take the throne of Thessaly. When he saves Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) from drowning, but does not recognize him as the man who had earlier killed his father, Pelias tells Jason to travel to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece. Jason follows his advice and assembles a sailing crew of the finest men in Greece, including Hercules (Nigel Green). They are under the protection of Hera (Honor Blackman), queen of the gods. Along the way they battle harpies, a giant bronze Talos, a hydra, and an animated skeleton army.–IMDB

Jason and the Argonauts is an old-fashioned red-blooded adventure movie. It’s one of the most fun film viewing experiences I’ve ever had. The film is skillfully directed by Don Chaffey and features a wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann. Now, let’s talk about Ray Harryhausen’s great effects work on this film.

Ray Harryhausen considered Jason and the Argonauts his best film. It’s not hard to see why. The film contains my favorite Harryhausen effects sequence: the skeleton army fight. It’s towards the ends of the film, but is more than worth the wait. And here’s a bit of mind-blowing trivia about that scene.

It took Ray Harryhausen four months to produce the skeleton scene, a massive amount of time for a scene which lasts, at the most, three minutes.–IMDB

In the dark ages before computers, special effects was very long and tedious work. But Harryhausen’s four months of worked paid off magnificently. It’s one of the most thrilling scenes in classic film history. Ray Harryhausen filmed the sequence, as he did all of sequences, in stop motion. Stop motion is a filming technique in which successive positions of objects (such as clay models) are photographed to produce the appearance of movement. So for a three-minute fight scene, imagine how many different positions the skeletons models had to be filmed in to get the movement to look exactly the way the filmmakers wanted? And I want to throw in this but of trivia because it’s a nice touch that Ray Harryhausen added.

The skeletons’ shields are adorned with designs of other Ray Harryhausen creatures, including an octopus and the head of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).–IMDB

It’s a great nod to other films he worked on. For a film made in 1963, the stop motion looks seamless. The skeletons look like they’re genuinely fighting Jason and his crew. The scene must be seen to be fully appreciated.

But the skeleton fight isn’t the only reason to see Jason and the Argonauts. Another great Harryhausen effects sequence involves Talos, a giant statue coming to life. Imagine the biggest bronze statue in a museum coming to life and wreaking havoc, and you get an idea of what to expect from the scene.

Pretty neat, huh? Jason and his ragtag crew also battle a hydra (a multi-headed snake) and harpies (flying creatures that look part human and part bat). All of them look incredible and make this a truly thrilling adventure film.

Ray Harryhausen could make Greek mythology come to life just as well as aliens (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), atomic age monsters (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), and prehistoric creatures (One Million Years B.C.). His imagination was a gift to classic film and paved the way for ILM and great special effects artists of the modern era, like Stan Winston. I look forward to sharing his work with you this month.