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Clash of the Titans

For better or worse, Ray Harryhausen, the visual wizard behind the mythological spectacle Clash of the Titans (1981), is the father of modern special effects pictures. George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic team may have perfected this sort of thing with Star Wars (1977) (which has reached the level of overkill with the recent Lord of the Rings epics) but Harryhausen was the first effects wizard whose name was uttered with reverence by fantasy aficionados around the world. You knew what you were getting with a Harryhausen stop-action film, and he was more than happy to deliver it.

The main difference between Harryhausen and Lucas, of course, was that Harryhausen was working well before the dawn of computer animation and huge budgets (due to lack of money, his giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) had only five arms, instead of eight). Harryhausen's brand of magic was produced through sweat - his creatures were moved inch by inch, then photographed frame by frame to create the illusion of life. Monumental patience was crucial to his success.

In many ways, Clash of the Titans is best suited for children, though the by-now quaint nature of its effects should delight movie fans of all ages. Harryhausen's previous ventures, such as Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), were unusually inventive but just as equally hamstrung by weak casting and wooden performances. So the producers aimed higher with Clash of the Titans. It features a stellar cast of actors, many of them famous for their stage work in Shakespearean productions. Here they're playing toga-clad second bananas to Harryhausen's fantastical creations. But that's part of the fun.

In an interview with Dan Scapperotti for Cinefantastique magazine, screenwriter Beverly Cross recalled, "I had the idea for Clash of the Titans in 1969 while I was living in Greece, on an island called Skiathos. It's very close to Seriphos, the island where legend has it that Perseus, the son of Zeus, was washed ashore in a trunk." In the movie, Harry Hamlin plays Perseus and fights an assortment of outlandish creatures in an attempt to save the beautiful Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Zeus (Laurence Olivier) gazes down from the heavens while Perseus goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Thetis (Maggie Smith, whose husband, Beverley Cross, wrote the script), Hera (Claire Bloom), and Athena (Susan Fleetwood, the sister of rock drummer Mick Fleetwood).

Although producer Charles H. Schneer maintained at the time "we have given form to what has been in the eye of people who have read the story of Perseus and Andromeda since the Greek myth was first put on paper," Clash of the Titans's parade of evil strays quite a distance from the original legend. The sea monster that destroys the city of Argos in the opening scene comes from a popular Norwegian myth. Calibos, Lord of the Marsh, is based on Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The giant Vulture and the Forest Scorpions also have zero to do with Greek mythology, and some critics singled out Bubo, the Owl of Brass, as an R2-D2 rip-off. But, it was all Greek to Harryhausen.

Still, it's fun to see Harryhausen's special brand of stop-motion animation compete with live actors, even though the master was loathe to explain how he did it (for the Cinefantastique interview): "I think there's a point where you lose interest in the picture. It's the same principle as a magician. I think there's far too much delving into, and analysis of, special effects...It's a pity that too much is discussed about how it's done because it destroys the illusion. And that's what business we're in, we're in the business of illusion. Just like a magician." Despite this comment, Harryhausen will admit that one favorite aspect of working on Clash of the Titans was his creation of Medusa, the Gorgon. He considered it "a mood piece with a lot of mysterioso lighting, plus the challenge of keeping the 12 snakes on her head in motion while she is in motion as well." Yet, for all the care Harryhausen lavished on the film, it was shut out of the 1981 Oscar race in the special effects category by the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Dragonslayer.

Directed by: Desmond Davis
Screenplay: Beverley Cross
Produced by: Ray Harryhausen, John Palmer, Charles H. Schneer
Visual Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Original Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Production Design: Frank White
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Editing: Timothy Gee
Costume Design: Emma Porteous
Cast: Harry Hamlin (Perseus), Judi Bowker (Andromeda), Burgess Meredith (Ammon), Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Claire Bloom (Hera), Maggie Smith (Thetis), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Sian Phillips (Queen Cassiopeia), Flora Robson (Stygian Witch), Freda Jackson (Stygian Witch), Donald Houston (King Acrisius), Neil McCarthy (Calibos).
C-119m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Paul Tatara



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