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Jason and the Argonauts contends with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the most popular Ray Harryhausen epic, and it's also his own personal favorite. Filmed on sunny Italian locations with production values that local sword 'n' sandal pix could only dream of, Jason is Harryhausen's baby from one end to the other. Its string of bravura animation set-pieces are buffered by dramatic scenes, but in this case a fine cast and a strong story -- the myth of the Golden Fleece -- carry the film through in great style. Topping the cake is yet another superb score by Bernard Herrmann. The highly individualistic Herrmann sets so strong a tone for every scene that it's mentally difficult to separate his music from Harryhausen's images. With more animation and other effects than any of his previous pictures, Jason was a highly satisfying matinee dazzler back in 1963. 1
The adaptation doesn't take too many liberties with the root mythological tale, which varies considerably depending on which source is consulted. Jan Read and Beverley Cross's screenplay deals with the interplay of the Greek Gods by placing them in a gilded Olympus suggestive of a film blanc heaven. The well-paired Niall MacGinnis (Curse of the Demon) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) are Zeus and Hera, husband & wife deities that work out their domestic squabbles by playing chess games with ambitious mortals like Jason (Todd Armstrong). They keep tabs on Jason's adventures by consulting a celestial TV perhaps inherited from our old Egyptian friend Im-Ho-Tep.
The Olympian interludes add a wry humor to the proceedings. Jason shows up as the "man with one sandal" to fulfill a curse placed on the venal King Pelias. The wild quest to bring back the prize of the Golden Fleece gets a thumbs-up, mainly because Pelias wants Jason out of the way. The King sends along his son Acastus (Gary Raymond of El Cid) to make sure. With a crack crew of athletes and warriors, including the popular Hercules (Nigel Green), Jason sets sail in a proud ship built by Argos (Laurence Naismith). After tangling with various fantastic obstacles put in his path by Zeus, Jason reaches the far-off land of Colchis. He falls in love with the sorceress Medea (Nancy Kovack), but without the aid of Hera falls victim to treachery. Medea's father King Aeëtes (Jack Gwillim) has no intention of allowing the Argonauts steal his nation's most prized possession.
Of all of Ray Harryhausen's movies, Jason and the Argonauts is closest to his personal interests. He found mythological fantasies more exciting than science fiction monsters, and wanted very much to tell the story of the Golden Fleece in classic terms. Harryhausen seems to have been less conscious of the glut of Italian muscleman fantasy product. Although he greatly improved on those pictures in terms of special effects, Columbia apparently couldn't distinguish Jason in the movie marketplace, and ticket sales lagged.
The film is of course now a legend unto itself and contains some of Harryhausen's most difficult animation and classiest designs. The bronze giant Talos creates an intimidating sense of scale as it stalks Jason's men on a beach. The harpies scream and claw as they're captured, apparently animated while under a net. The seven-headed Hydra is Harryhausen's most successful mythological creation, a beast so well designed that it seems biologically credible. And the skeletal "Children of the Hydra's Teeth" do much more than top the single skeleton warrior in 7th Voyage. Soldiers battling armies of the dead recur in classical paintings, giving the combat a macabre edge. The sight of Jason and his swordsmen fighting them en masse is also a brilliant substitute for the lame battle scenes of other sword 'n' sandal epics. A triumph of Harryhausen's technique, the sequence must have required more animation work than the rest of the movie put together, as the seven skeletons fight in so many individual camera setups. Unlike most Harryhausen set pieces, the skeleton battle constantly cuts to new angles. With so much happening simultaneously in each shot, it's hard to keep up -- which prompts the use of words like, "breathtaking".
Kids back in 1963 reacted strongly to almost everything in the picture -- I remember being concerned about the murder of children in an early scene. Tipped off by Famous Monsters magazine, many of us waited anxiously for the next jolting effects scene to begin. We were also thrilled by Nigel Green's hale & hearty Hercules and cheered the announcement of his name. We fully accepted the idea that a strong man shouldn't have to be so buff that he couldn't walk through a normal door. As in The Magnificent Seven, the assembling of Jason's all-star collection of sailors / assault troops primed us for what we hoped would be the greatest sword & spear battle of all time.
The film's smoothly professional acting also impressed us. With all of those classy English accents flying about, Jason and the Argonauts had a credibility that the various Sons of Hercules lacked. Even the middle-aged Laurence Naismith looked righteously rugged, dressed only in a loincloth and clinging to the prow of the Argo: "Pull 'til your hearts burst and your backs break!" 2
In his old "Film Fantasy Scrapbook" Harryhausen mentioned that he was impressed by the fact that the hero Jason's big quest is really a raid for loot; the Argonauts are little more than thieves. Those foreigners beyond the clashing rocks have exactly what Greece needs, a magic charm that brings peace, plenty and prosperity. Todd Armstrong's nice-guy hero doesn't get in the way of the colorful supporting actors and the giant monsters, but it's odd to see Medea as virtuous: she sells out her father, her country and her religion for a fling with the new boy in town. There's a reason why the movie doesn't dig into the psychology behind the myths -- Jason and the Argonauts is a splendid fantasy of spectacular adventure. 3
Sony's Blu-ray of Jason and the Argonauts is the finest presentation of the film I've seen, and I saw it twice when new. Forty-seven years can dim one's memories but I know I was aware that certain parts of the film looked 'dusty' (read: grainy) and that the color values sometimes shifted. I agree with other web observers that the Hydra seemed to be bluer, and that the Day For Night Harpy sequence was originally a bit darker, like the D for N in The Guns of Navarone. Ads for some foreign markets tout prints by Technicolor, which surely would have been an improvement.
For years, 16mm copies of Jason placed Medea's temple dance way out of sequence, before the Argonauts reach Colchis. The Blu-ray of course fixes this while improving on all earlier home video releases. Grover Crisp of Sony wisely chose a slightly taller 1:66 aspect ratio, which adds image to the top and bottom of the frame while placing narrow pillars at the sides of the HD image. Harryhausen purists will be pleased to see less cropping of the effects. The added color detail of Blu-ray brings out hidden character in the main title artwork, and gives the green highlights on Talos' bronze skin more definition. Likewise, the Golden Fleece is returned to its impressive sparkly-but-organic look -- the golden glow effect has been toned down quite a bit.
The grain factor comes and goes, as it always did. Far less marked than on earlier transfers, it's fairly inseparable from Harryhausen's effects technique, given the range of film stocks available to him back then, and I think that reasonable viewers will understand. Likewise, optical shots are always softer than original photography, although many of the sodium-vapor traveling mattes created in England are nearly perfect. I'm guessing that a few conventional blue-screen shots were done in Rome. The only real offender is a shot of Medea recovering aboard the Argo, where we can see the Argonauts rowing through the wicker screen behind her. The blue fringing is pretty severe. 4
The audio is very strong, with one track spread out into 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio. Bernard Herrmann fans are really going to appreciate that. It's a detail, but I resent the disc designers using the main title theme behind the main menu. When we toss Jason into the player, we can't wait to hear those crashing chords behind the Columbia logo. Hearing them excerpted before we get there is just as much a spoiler as giving away major plot points in a trailer. Viewers who want foreign language tracks and subtitles are urged to retain the earlier DVD, as only English appears on the DVD.
Sony planned to go light on new extras until Ray Harryhausen's close associates took pains to lay down a pair of excellent commentaries. In London, writing partner and biographer Tony Dalton accompanies Ray on one of his best movie tracks. Dalton prompts interesting responses from the 90 year-old Harryhausen without pushing or prodding, and Ray seems to be having a very good time. From Los Angeles and New Zealand, director Peter Jackson and effects supervisor and director Randall William Cook dig deeper into the movie from the point of view of childhood fans that made Harryhausen's work a cornerstone of their own film careers.
Cook (pictured left with the actual Hydra animation puppet) describes going through Ray's Pacific Palisades garage storehouse of old materials, finding old puppets, puppet molds, artwork, and high-quality still photographs. Harryhausen's original mint-condition 16mm and 35mm film dailies for his entire American career were stashed away as well -- and Jackson is in the process of transferring all of them to 4k video. The dailies are Ray's uncut animation takes as he first saw them back from the lab; Jackson reports that 95% of the shots were animated in one take only. Free from the marketing manipulation of earlier Harryhausen Blu-rays -- no bogus colorization informercials and no intrusive fan host "extras" -- these new frills give Jason a good sendoff on Blu-ray.
There are a couple of surprises in the older extras as well. Earlier featurettes reprised are the docu "The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles" and the testimonial interview montage "The Harryhausen Legacy"; and the charming John Landis interview with Ray. Skeleton fight storyboards are another extra. A selection of trailers includes one original British trailer -- it's on the poky side and doesn't emphasize the Dynamation effects enough -- and some trailers and TV spots from the 1975-'76 reissue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jason and the Argonauts Blu-ray rates:
1. Hey, more unsolicited personal input. Not having anybody to see this thing with, I took a bus into downtown San Bernardino at age eleven (boy, were those safer days for kids) and sat with my jaw in my lap for the entire show. Talos had me frozen with fear and the Hydra and the skeletons were sights my eyes could not believe. Having seen and loved the Francisi/Bava Hercules movies just a couple of years before, I was primed for something similar, which Jason definitely was not.
2. Of course, a few moments of mirth can be gleaned from the British accents, too. As pointed out by the original notice in The Monthly Film Bulletin, King Aeëtes' head retainer raises an eyebrow and answers his liege lord in pure Cockney: "Yew mean the high princess of Heh-caw-tee?"
3. Don't get me started on the subsequent misery of Jason and Medea, a gory tragedy of domestic abuse and revenge. No wonder there was no sequel to Jason, as the official follow-up is a timeless lesson of what happens to women who love ambitious and unscrupulous glory-hunters. When my kids were heavily into mythology in junior high I asked if they were shocked by Medea's story. My daughter answered that the story of Medea and Jason was tame compared to many myths, which are coded chronicles of human weakness, vice and crimes. I think that smart schoolteachers, politically restrained from addressing real-life issues, use the original tales to make kids think about the harsh facts of life.
4. Maybe "severe" in this case should mean "noticeable". Real "severe" applies to dozens of shots in the Marshal Thompson adventure movie Flight of the Lost Balloon, which seems to have been lost for good, as it hasn't played anywhere in ages. The balloon basket shots were all done blue-screen to place the actors in the clouds. The blue fringing matte lines are so broad that they're thicker than the rope lines supporting the basket. It's like watching a big blue spider's web dance around in every shot.
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T'was Ever Thus.