Sunday, April 19, 2020

Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) + Essay by Ray Harryhausen

Greek and Roman mythology had never been my favourite subject at school, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the legends and to realise that they contained a vivid world of adventure with wonderful heroes, villains and, most importantly, lots of fantastic creatures. In the late 1950s, the producer Charles H Schneer and I discussed filming a Greek legend. Between us we read all of them and decided on Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece. This would allow us the most flexibility for high adventure and fantasy. So it was that what would be known as Jason and the Argonauts was born, and of all the films that I have been connected with, it continues to please me most.

When it came to locations, it was only natural that our first choice would be Greece, but I found it to be very bleak and grey. At that time, the ancient ruins, other than the Parthenon, were mostly unrestored and too decayed for the project - even for the Phineas and the Harpies sequence, which required a ruined temple. So we turned to Italy, where I found perfect Greek ruins (Italy had been colonised by Greeks before the rise of Rome) and an abundance of coastal locations against which we could sail Jason's ship, the Argo.

It turned out, however, that we were not the only crew filming in Italy at that time. On one occasion, we were shooting a scene in which the Argo was to appear from around a rocky bluff. Everything was ready, the camera was rolling and we radioed the ship to start off. But what should come around the bluff but the Golden Hinde. The tension was broken when Schneer was heard to shout, "Get that ship out of here! You're in the wrong century." It transpired that another British film crew was shooting some footage for the TV series Sir Francis Drake, and their vessel, with its more powerful engines, beat ours around the cove.

In November 1961, I sent my father the designs for the model armatures: one Talos, one Talos foot and hand, one Talos arm and hand, one Hydra, two flying harpies, six fighting skeletons, one Jason and one Acastus. They arrived in February 1962, allowing me four months to make and paint the bodies before beginning the animation.

The first Dynamation sequence in the film is Talos, the massive bronze statue that comes to life on the Isle of Bronze. Talos did appear in the Jason legend: he was seven or eight feet tall and, when he came across strangers, would heat his body in a fire until red hot and embrace the unfortunate intruders. We had to alter this image: we did away with the hot embrace, and I made him a 100ft-high adversary, based on the Colossus of Rhodes. There are no remnants of the Colossus, but we know that it straddled the harbour of ancient Rhodes facing the open sea. Our Talos straddled a natural harbour, preventing the exit of the Argo. A Colossus in reverse.

The model of Talos is approximately 12in high. When it came to animating it, I was faced with a whole new set of rules. It seems ironic that, for most of my career, I have been trying to perfect smooth and lifelike animation action, but for Talos it was necessary to create a deliberately stiff and mechanical movement in keeping with a bronze statue sprung to life.

After Talos has apparently destroyed the Argo, the men struggle back to the beach where Talos pursues them. His massive form appears from behind a tall, jagged promontory and he turns his body to look down at the puny men on the beach. This was designed to be as impressive as possible. Like all good stories, hope is at hand when Hera tells Jason that Talos's weak point is his heel. He has to remove a cover to allow the giant's ichor (the life blood of the gods) to drain out. To enable Todd Armstrong to attack Talos's heel, we had a full-size plaster foot and ankle built in Italy. After much experimentation, the props department came up with a concoction for the ichor consisting of oatmeal and coloured water. As the ichor drains away, Talos totters, then falls towards the camera and on to the beach. I didn't use the main model for this, but a fibreglass one that I cut into cracked sections, filling the cracks with clay. During the animation, I shot a frame and gouged out a little of the clay, then shot another frame, slowly creating the appearance of cracks opening up on the body.

The next Dynamation scene was the torment of Phineas by the harpies. In the legend, they are described as having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture, with their feet and fingers armed with sharp claws. As always, I had to take some liberties with this description, making them bat-like to give a more practical and menacing appearance.

Following the encounter with the harpies, the story moves on to the clashing rocks and the god Triton. We searched for months to find an actor to play Triton. The part required one special qualification, long arms, because he had to be able to reach across miniature cliffs to prevent the destruction of the miniature Argo. Even on the miniature, the gap was quite considerable. We eventually chose an actor who was also a swimmer and thus able to submerge himself.

It was not an easy role. The poor man had to wear an uncomfortable rubber fish-tail corset and avoid all the complex mechanisms that controlled the tail. In addition, his wig was heavily lacquered to prevent the water making it look like wet noodles. After the first take of him emerging from the water, he looked a little ordinary, so I told him to stick his lower lip out, like the Royal Hapsburgs. This would give him a majestic and sinister appearance.

The whole sequence was shot in about a week on a small stage at Shepperton studios where we had built a special tank that included a wave device. When we built the set, we made the falling sections of rocks out of Styrofoam covered with plaster. Nobody, including myself, had considered any problems with this until we came to the first day of the shoot and found, on attempting to "clash" the rocks, that they merely floated in the water. Overnight, the construction shop made replacement solid-plaster rocks. The cinematographer Wilkie Cooper and I shot the sequence using high-speed photography, which exaggerated the splashes, giving the scene a dreamlike quality that perfectly reflects the surrealistic subject matter of a huge god holding back rocks.

Following the clashing rocks, Jason and his Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis, where they locate the fabled Golden Fleece. In the original legend, the guardian of the Fleece is a dragon that never sleeps. I felt that dragons were seen as medieval beasts, so, for our version, I searched through the Greek legends and came up with the seven-headed Hydra, which Hercules slays as one of his labours. The original creature had more heads than I could have coped with (100 according to Diodorus; 50 according to Simonides), and as soon as Hercules cut off one head, two grew in its place. The hero finally kills it with the help of Iolaus, who applies a burning iron to the wounds. For our film, this was too complicated, so I gave the Hydra seven heads and killed him with a sword through the heart.

As with Talos, the basic design of the creature came from classical vase paintings, although it went through many changes before I finally came up with the idea of making it serpent-like with a distinctive tail ending like a forked snake tongue. The seven heads were designed to resemble a dinosaur-like bird with curved beaks and two ear-like crests curving backwards, an image that would suggest prehistoric times.

The climax of the film is the battle with the children of the Hydra's teeth. When Acetes catches up with Jason he scatters the teeth while calling on the forces of darkness to avenge him of the crime. From out of the ground appear armed skeletons. In the legend it is rotting corpses, but we thought this would give the film a certificate that might have barred children, so we decided on seven skeletons.

Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Acetes to "Kill, kill, kill them all", and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronised to the actors' movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.

How do you kill skeletons? We puzzled over this for some time and, in the end, opted for simplicity by having Jason jump off the cliff into the sea, followed by the skeletons. It was the only way to kill off something that was already dead, and besides, we assumed that they couldn't swim. After filming a stuntman jump into the sea, the prop men threw seven plaster skeletons off the cliff, which had to be done correctly on the first take as we couldn't retrieve them. To this day there are, somewhere in the sea near that hotel on the cliff edge, the plaster bones of seven skeletons.

Jason and the Argonauts took nearly two years to complete and cost an unprecedented (for us) $3m. Although we had made the film under the title of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Columbia discovered that there had been an Italian sword and sandal movie starring Steve Reeves with the same title. So the publicity department came up with a fist of alternatives. Eventually we decided on Jason and the Argonauts.

When the film was released, it generally received good reviews, although Time magazine said that "they have dreamed up monsters Jason never saw, including a steam-powered King Kong, built of bronze, with a drain plug in his heel". Well yes, we do take "liberties" - because the film has to appeal to general audiences, and you can't do that if you stick to every detail. It was also unfortunate that the film opened in the US at the same time as the public was becoming tired of the Italian muscle epics that we had desperately tried to avoid being associated with.

As almost a footnote, Columbia submitted the picture to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration as a special effects contender. We expected it to earn at least a nomination for visual effects, but it was ignored. The picture that won was Cleopatra. I am told by certain Academy members that my film was seen then as nothing very extraordinary, but how could that be, when at the time nothing like it had ever been done for the screen? --Ray Harryhausen, The Guardian