Cinophile: Jason and the Argonauts

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[column size=one_half position=first ] How times have changed. Were this film made today, it would have been a huge summer tentpole – a SFX extravaganza with a big budget and big stars. But 1963 was a different time, when special effects were still in their infancy and considered more of a side-attraction than anything that could add substance to a film. This makes Jason and the Argonauts all that more astounding.

The movie takes us on the familiar tale of Jason, a Greek warrior who sets out to find the Golden Fleece, a mythical object of great power. He needs this in order to take back his kingdom, usurped from his father by King Pelias. The new king sullies the temple of Hera by killing Jason’s sister there, prompting the goddess to aid Jason. With this rather substantial backing, he heads across the seas to recover the fleece, but not before attracting a crew than includes the legendary strongman Hercules.

The result is quite spectacular. Jason and the Argonauts blended the best of stop-motion animation and overlay technology to create something that must have been incredible in its day. In many ways it still stands up to today’s special effects efforts.

Much of the meat on this bone is from Ray Harryhausen, the godfather of stop-motion and one of the gods of special effects. He and his team spent months crafting the various action scenes, which would include the towering iron guardian Talos and the climactic fight with skeleton swordsmen. Along the way audiences are also treated with evil harpies and the multi-headed hydra. Audiences were also spoiled by the other effects, created by layering film elements over each other.

This allowed a tiny Jason to visit the gods in Olympus and rendered a giant Triton, messenger of the sea, rising out of the ocean and pushing apart massive cliffs. Today all that is rather expected from a film, but in 1963 it was fresh. Not only that, but the degree of artisan passion oozes from the set pieces – the teams behind this film’s fantastic visuals truly loved what they did and wanted to create something special.

Jason and the Argonauts came at a strange time, when there have been a flood of swords & sandals films, many dealing with Jason’s quest for the fleece. This is perhaps why it didn’t get that much attention from movie goers. While the film made back its $1 million budget, it only doubled it. In contrast James Bond’s debut film Dr. No, also released that year, cost the same but made nearly $60 million. Jason and his crew were resigned to history, but like any true classic refused to stand back. It has since become recognised as one of the greatest fantasy films of all time and many have declared it their all-time favourite film. Today it remains very watchable and you cannot help but wonder about all the kids who saw this went it first appeared, blown away by its unbelievable visuals. [/column] [column size=one_half position=last ]

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The towering bronze guardian Talos was inspired by Sergio Leone’s movie Colosso di Rodi, which took place in the ancient city of Rhodes. The city famously had a huge copper statue guarding its entrance – something that has been reused in countless fantasy creations. After seeing Leone’s movie, Harryhausen was inspired to create Talos’ design for the film.
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Even though it was a box office disappointment, the movie is regarded as a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s best work – something he admitted himself. Other than the giant Talos and the seven skeleton warriors, he also created a multi-headed hydra and flying harpies. The film was originally to be another of Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies, but it changed to Jason. A sequel was planned to chronicle Jason’s voyage back, but the box office failure saw Harryhausen return to making more Sinbad movies instead.
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The famous skeleton fighting scene took Ray Harryhausen and his team 4 months to animate, even though it only lasts three minutes. Each shield of the skeletons depicts a monster that he had made for previous movies. Jason and the Argonauts is considered to showcase Harryhausen’s best work – even he admitted as much. When Tom Hanks gave Harryhausen a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1993, he called it the greatest film ever made.

Best Scene: Fighting skeleton, giant statues pulling boats out of the ocean, gods rising from the seas and moving mountains, Jason’s uncannily manicured beard… really, take your pick.

Best Quote: “The gods of Greece are cruel! In time, all men shall learn to live without them.”

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: June 2, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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