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Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts(1963)

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teaser Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

It's obvious from watching the films of Tim Burton that he was influenced by fantasy and horror films such as movies starring Vincent Price, the Hammer Films of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and even some of the more creepy Disney films. But "another kind of film that influenced me were the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen like Jason and the Argonauts with monsters animated in stop-motion. I thought those monsters were the greatest."

And Tom Hanks, who awarded Harryhausen with a special Oscar® in 1992, even remarked, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made." Who's going to argue with anything that those unlikely two might have in common? Especially when it's the wild and wooly fantasy flick - Jason and the Argonauts (1963)?

Imagine that your dad has built up a huge business - furniture or gun-running or something - but that instead of you getting to become president when he dies you're instead toddled off to Luxembourg while some scheming toadie takes over the company. That's pretty much Jason in a nutshell. His dad is king of Thessaly, except that too-smart-for-his-toga Pelias decides to do away with dad and toss baby Jason into the ocean. Nice plan, except that the big momma goddess Hera saves Jason from drowning. Once Jason grows up, Pelias decides to get him out of the way by sending Jason off on an undoubtedly fatal quest for the Golden Fleece (sheep's wool made of gold, something you don't find at Wal-Mart or even Tiffany's). Jason rounds up all his frat brothers - Hercules included - and heads off to fame, fortune or painful death. Their ship is called Argo, hence the sailors are Argonauts. Along the way are monsters, princesses, monsters, storms and monsters. (This isn't quite the way ancient Greeks told the story, but hey, they're all dead now.)

All the wonderful goings-on in Jason and the Argonauts are the result of Ray Harryhausen's famous stop-motion animation techniques. (Stop-motion uses a small model of, say, a skeleton where one single film frame is photographed, then the model is moved very slightly and another frame is photographed. When the film is run through a projector, the skeleton will appear to move.)

As a young lad, Harryhausen was inspired by stop-motion in the 1925 version of The Lost World and by the time of Jason and the Argonauts had perfected his skills working on such films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). No matter how talented or nimble the animator, stop-motion is very time-consuming. For instance, Harryhausen noticed how popular the skeleton fight had been in his earlier film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and decided a skeleton army would be even better. He was right, but it took four months of work just for one scene that's only on screen about three minutes. Perhaps that's one reason Jason and the Argonauts is Harryhausen's personal favorite film.

While the animation and effects had to be done in a special studio, the cast and crew actually went to Italy for the exterior scenes, filmed in and around a small town called Palinuto. They ran into one major cultural misunderstanding when actress Nancy Kovack (Medea) resorted to wearing a thick sweater at the chilly 6 a.m. calls. The sweater, the only one Kovack had, was purple, which the locals considered the color of death and aroused their ire. The filmmakers worked out the problem so that filming could continue, which included a dance that Kovack had just learned in Rome a week before shooting started. (She would later marry conductor Zubin Mehta, leave the movie business and bring a losing embezzlement suit against a former Whitewater partner of Bill Clinton.) Other casting trivia: Todd Armstrong, who played Jason, had been doing real-estate work when the wife of a Columbia executive spotted him. And of course James Bond fans will recognize Honor Blackman (Hera) from her infamous role as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964).

Speaking of gold, the film was originally to be called Jason and the Golden Fleece but an Italian movie with the title The Golden Fleece prompted the Americans to retitle theirs using "Argonauts." In an ironic twist, the Italian film - by cult director Riccardo Freda - instead ended up with the title The Giants of Thessaly (1960). (Of course, "The Golden Fleece" has turned up in numerous places over the years; a few years earlier Tintin and the Golden Fleece (1961), a French film, was released. And a couple of decades later a comic book appeared entitled Indiana Jones and the Golden Fleece. The fleece must be a little tarnished by now.)

Topping all this excess of monstrous goodness is a score from Bernard Herrmann. Los Angeles native Herrmann was one of the greatest film composers and this score is widely considered one of his best. That's really saying something for a career stretching from Citizen Kane (1941) up to Taxi Driver (1976). But Herrmann's numerous scores for Hitchcock films may be his best known. Who can forget the brooding and screeching strings of Psycho (1960) or the haunting, bittersweet music for Vertigo (1958)?

But now we're really starting to wander from Jason and his fleece-hunting Argonauts. Classics are like that, you know: one thing leads to another leads to another. Which reminds me - we forgot to mention the sea monster in Jason and the Argonauts. Oh well, you'll figure it out. (Hint - he's the one with the giant fish tail.)

Producer: Ray Harryhausen, Charles H. Schneer
Director: Don Chaffey
Screenplay: Beverley Cross, Jan Read, based on the poem "The Argonautica" by Apollonious Rhodios
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Editing: Maurice Rootes
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted, Antonio Sarzi-Braga, Herbert Smith
Visual Effects: Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Hayward
Cast: Todd Armstrong (Jason), Nancy Kovack (Medea), Gary Raymond (Acastus), Laurence Naismith (Argos), Niall MacGinnis (Zeus), Michael Gwynn (Hermes), Douglas Wilmer (Pelias), Jack Gwillim (King Aeetes), Honor Blackman (Hera).
C-104m. Letterboxed.

by Lang Thompson and Jeff Stafford

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