Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Jason and the Argonauts


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.


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