Commentary by Judy Harris
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I have been a fan of stop motion animation as well as other film special effects for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure how I first learned about special effects, but certainly FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND provided hours of entertainment and background information when I was growing up.
Jim Rodkey asked me to write something about the work of Ray Harryhausen, and I agreed but only if I could rewatch his films to refresh my memory. Jim has great admiration for not only Harryhausen's work but also the films in which they exist. Unfortunately, I view the films with a more critical eye and feel, in certain instances, Harryhausen's effects are an oasis in a desert of mediocrity.
In addition, it's been my experience that things to which I was first exposed as a child have a greater resonance to the adult me - I am better able to overlook their flaws - than things I first saw as an adult. The first Harryhausen film I saw was 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, when I was about 10 years old. This made a powerful impact on me and the Ymir has remained a favorite creature.
I was able to catch Harryhausen's earlier work on TV while I was still fairly young and uncritical, but seeing it on TV's small screen did not have the intensity of seeing 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH at a movie theatre on a much larger screen.
Actually, my first exposure to Harryhausen's work were ViewMaster reels I had of dinosaurs. At the time, of course, I had no idea they were from the documentary THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), but they sparked a life long interest in dinosaurs and I spent many happy hours projecting them against a wall, trying to make them larger and larger.
A complaint of mine that applies to many of the science fiction films of the '50s (including several involving Harryhausen) is they take a very slow, documentary approach that is fairly dull to watch (especially with the hindsight of someone used to the quick cutting and instant gratification provided by present day TV and movies). I believe I am not alone in liking horror and science fiction films because I want to see something I haven't seen before. I've always enjoyed monster films, and I prefer the type where the monster is a character that is followed throughout the film. Too many of the films in the '50s treat the monster as a bogeyman, to be kept off screen as long as possible, and then to be shown only in brief glimpses, often obscured, until the climactic battle to the death late in the film. This particular formula shows up over and over and makes watching many of these older films pretty tedious, because there is little or no action or excitement for long stretches of time and often the human characters are not very interesting, believable or likable.
The last film Harryhausen worked on, CLASH OF THE TITANS, was released in 1981. Coincidentally this is also the year the first film using go-motion, DRAGONSLAYER, was released. Go motion is a computer-assisted way to animate puppets in which the model is moved slightly while the frame is exposed so that when the film is played back at its proper speed, the puppet character has a realistic blur just like a human being would have. Go motion also has the advantage of repeatability, because the computer memorizes the minute incremental moves of the puppet and can reproduce them exactly, so that if a mistake is made, hours or days of work need not be lost, but the computer need only be reprogrammed.
While stop motion films were still made after the introduction of go-motion, there were fewer and fewer of them; and eventually even this sophisticated and technical form of special effects has come to be superseded by computer generated imaging, in which the character does not exist as a puppet at all, but only as images on a computer screen which are then matted into the live action background plates. JURASSIC PARK is the most widely ballyhooed example of completely realistic CGI characters, although some of the dinosaurs were live action animatronic robots for some sequences. However, JURASSIC PARK seems to be the death knell for animation using puppets, as more and more movies, such as CASPER and DRAGONHEART, are using CGI to create "realistic" characters who speak and are integral to the plot.
To coincide with the release of CLASH OF THE TITANS, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an extensive exhibition of Harryhausen's work, including his very detailed preproduction drawings and many of his puppet models (some for unrealized projects). I found it interesting to note at that time how much larger the puppets seemed for CLASH than for his earlier films. According to information included with the release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS on laser disk, Harryhausen intended to donate all his models to a museum in Germany that was due to open in 1995 which also included Forry Ackerman's extensive collection of science fiction memorabilia.
I have been fortunate to see Harryhausen in person at science fiction conventions held in Manhattan; he is a very low key, modest individual and never complains about the hours of backbreaking work that have gone into any of these films or brags about the great artistry apparent in his work.
Although he was never even nominated for a special effects Oscar for his groundbreaking work, today's filmmakers acknowledge how he inspired them and that he is the only special effects technician who is considered the "author" of his films (John Landis says that Ray Harryhausen is the author of Ray Harryhausen films), Harryhausen was finally awarded an Oscar - the Gordon E. Sawyer award - for lifetime achievement in 1992.
It has been an interesting exercise looking again at all the Harryhausen films in a fairly short amount of time. It is popular to criticize the FRIDAY THE 13TH series and similar films for introducing characters who are not developed and then killing them off in gruesome ways, and I must say the theme which strikes me after rewatching all these Harryhausen films is pretty identical. Almost every stop motion creature that is introduced is minding its own business in its own natural setting until the human hero of each film comes across it, and then there's a fight to the death, with the creature almost always being killed in as gruesome a fashion as possible. Many of these films I saw as a child and this violence didn't bother me at all, but it bothers me very much now, and I can't help wishing that more fantasy films were made where the fabulous creatures created by means of special effects were treated as actual characters with rights and feelings and not as just scary monsters to be blown up, burned, stabbed or bludgeoned.
1. FAIRY TALES (1949)
Jim Rodkey was kind enough to lend me tapes of two of Harryhausen's stop motion fairy tales, RAPUNZEL and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, which I had never seen. These are approximately 10 minutes each and completely narrated, with the narrator providing the character voices for the small amount of dialogue.
Harryhausen used replacement head animation, the way George Pal did for the Puppetoons. Basically you have a posable, jointed body and the artist sculpts and paints different heads for every expression the character must display. When the time comes for the character's expression to change, you just stop the film and pop on the new head. For these fairy tales, there is more of a lap dissolve when the new expression appears.
Rapunzel is basically a two set story, the tower where Rapunzel is initially held captive and the desert where she is marooned after the witch discovers she has been visited by the prince.
The most impressive aspect of this fairy tale is Rapunzel's hair, which actually looks pretty realistic. In a twist imposed on the original tale, the hair magically braids itself when the witch casts a spell every time she climbs up.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD is much more elaborate and the forest setting is extremely detailed and attractive with a very appealing story book look and lovely bright technicolor hues. The area where Red stops to pick flowers had a realistic moving body of water matted in.
The villain in most dramas is the best role, and here, too, the wolf is more interesting than Red or her Granny. The wolf is quite vicious looking with many prominent teeth. The script sanitizes the story slightly in that Granny does not get eaten, but rushes out of her cottage, leaving her nightcap and shawl behind for the wolf to use as a disguise. Likewise, the wolf is killed off screen by the huntsman who comes to Red's rescue.
The various expressions of terror on Granny's face when she is confronted by the wolf are very realistic and varied, compared to the more extreme and limited expressions of Red and of the puppets in RAPUNZEL.
In 2002, the 50-years unfinished TORTOISE AND THE HARE was completed by two Harryhausen fans, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, with Ray's assistance, and broadcast on the Turner Classic Movies channel in June 2003. The new footage was digitally matched to the old, and it is impossible to tell the old from new footage. Harryhausen provided the original puppets, including all their replacement heads, except for the tortoise, which was rebuilt All the sets had to be rebuilt and matched as well. As with RED RIDING HOOD, the woodland setting was detailed and attractive. The tortoise moves in a very dinosaur-like way, reminiscent of a triceratops; the rabbit and the fox, who is the judge of the race, are less realistic, walking upright and wearing clothing. The story is faithful to the original with few modern additions, except that when the rabbit is angry at losing, the collar of his turtle neck sweater gets caught on a windmill, so he suffers additional embarrassment by being dangled in the air. A nice touch was that the fox started the race by blowing up and breaking a balloon and then takes a short cut to the finish line on a pennyfarthing bicycle.
On June 29, 2005, the Turner Classic Movie network premiered Harryhausen's 1949 MOTHER GOOSE STORIES, composed of 4 short nursery rhymes introduced by Mother Goose and her goose, who emerge from a story book. First up was LITTLE MISS MUFFET, then OLD MOTHER HUBBARD, in a nicely detailed cottage. I had only ever heard the first stanza of this nursery rhyme, so I was quite surprised that it had many more. Then THE QUEEN OF HEARTS whose tarts are stolen by the knave, and finally HUMPTY DUMPTY; this last nursery rhyme had more characters than the previous three, as the king's horses and men showed up at the end to try to reassemble poor Humpty.
Following the broadcast of the MOTHER GOOSE STORIES, Turner then premiered Harryhausen's 1950s era FAIRY TALES, which were even more detailed than the nursery rhymes and had narration. First up was LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, which I discuss above.
Next was HANSEL AND GRETEL, which was somewhat of a revisionist version of the Grimm's story, where Hansel and Gretel set off voluntarily into the woods to search for berries. A duck eats the bread crumbs they have been dropping to find their way home. The green faced witch spots them and through magic creates an instant gingerbread cottage to lure them to her. No sooner are they inside then she puts Hansel into a cage and gets Gretel to feed the fire. Gretel makes short work of the witch who disappears into the fiery oven, and this causes the cottage and cage to disappear, whereupon a woodland rabbit shows the children the witch's treasure chest, just as their woodsman father shows up. Another extremely detailed and attractive series of sets.
Next was RAPUNZEL, which is discussed above, and then the story of KING MIDAS, again a slightly revisionist version where a genie appears from a coin to grant the greedy king his dearest wish, a golden touch, but returns at the end to allow the king to rid himself of the curse and return to life the statue to which Midas had accidentally turned his daughter.
The final fairy tale was THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE, which is also discussed above.
Harryhausen's inspiration for becoming a stop motion animator was seeing KING KONG when he was about 13. He was inspired to build his own puppets and make his own amateur films and actually got to meet Willis O'Brien, the great special effects artist responsible for KONG. When Obie was preparing MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, he chose Harryhausen to be the lead animator. In the opening credits, O'Brien is billed as "Technical Creator" while Harryhausen is listed as "First Technician". You can imagine the thrill it must have been for Harryhausen not only to work with someone he admired as much as O'Brien but also on another gorilla film.
As with KING KONG, also written by Ruth Rose, the pace of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is quite brisk; the animated Joe makes his first appearance nearly 15 minutes into the film and from the time he appears, he is integral to the plot, if not necessarily on screen constantly.
The film has many exciting action sequences, and Joe is not always shown sympathetically. In his first appearance, he breaks into the camp of the theatrical producer (Robert Armstrong) who is on safari in Africa to round up wild animals for his new theme Hollywood nightclub. Joe breaks into a cage and attacks a lion, which ultimately escapes, and then tangles with the rodeo cowboys Armstrong has hired as a publicity gimmick, and finally he nearly kills Armstrong by throwing him off a cliff, but is prevented in time by Terry Moore, the grown up version of the little child who acquired him as a baby gorilla.
Like KING KONG, however, once Joe is brought to America against his will, things go badly for him. When I first saw this on TV as a child, I don't remember being bothered by it, but I have grown into quite an animal rights person, and now all I can see is one instance after another of animal abuse, the very least of which is keeping Joe locked in a cage for 17 weeks. The fact that it's a stop motion animal doesn't make it any easier to watch; and this has prevented the adult me from enjoying what is obviously a fast paced film with generous chunks of stop motion animation.
Even when Joe is not very much on screen, as in the sequence after he has been sentenced to death for his rampage at the nightclub after he has drunk 3 quarts of whiskey, the car chase to get him to a waiting ship so he can escape back to Africa is very edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting.
The laser disk version restores the red tinting to the climactic fire at the orphanage in which Joe risks his life to save three youngsters, his mistress and her beau (Ben Johnson). In addition to Joe, some of the human characters are occasionally replaced by stop motion puppets in scenes where they have to interact closely with Joe or where the stunt made it too dangerous to use the real actor; among the humans for whom a puppet stood in occasionally are the three leads, Terry Moore, Ben Johnson and Robert Armstrong.
The fast pace of the film and the frequent screen time allotted to Joe, who is certainly the film's main attraction, are directly attributable to the script and it's a shame that the next several films that Harryhausen worked on as the main special effects coordinator were not graced with similarly exciting and balanced screenplays.
Seeing this for the first time as a child on TV, I remember being very thrilled by the dinosaur, a made-up one (which I didn't realize at the time) called a rhedosaurus. The two scenes that stuck in my memory were the underwater scene with the diving bell and the end where the Beast is trapped near a rollercoaster at an amusement park.
Seeing it with adult eyes, it certainly takes too long to get rolling; although the Beast shows up briefly 10 minutes into the film; and is seen again 10 minutes later; the whole Arctic prologue and attempt by one of the survivors (Paul Christian) of an avalanche to get someone to believe he's seen a huge monster takes up 40 minutes, which is nearly half the running time.
For the first hour, all the scenes with the Beast are either during a blizzard, at night, under water or deliberately blurred through glass, so it isn't until he comes ashore in lower Manhattan that we get to see him in daylight. I had not seen lower Manhattan when I first saw the film, but subsequently I've had occasion to become familiar with it, and even though it's changed over the years, you can tell at least some sequences were really filmed in the Wall Street area; this neighborhood is typically deserted on Sunday morning, when most of the filming probably took place (and possibly why this sequence takes place in daylight!), and while it doesn't compare with seeing KING KONG at a well known landmark like the Empire State Building or the Ymir at the Coliseum in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, it's still amusing to me to see the Staten Island Ferry depot and the statue of George Washington, which are well known lower Manhattan landmarks.
It's a shame so much time was wasted on getting the Beast to Manhattan because once it's arrived, the film is practically over. We discover it carries some germ that causes anyone near it to become ill, and once it's been shot by the Army, its blood is so lethal, there's danger of a plague breaking out. Although this complicates the Army's job of getting rid of the Beast, who must be killed without shedding any further blood or being burned for fear of plague, the solution to this problem is arrived at instantly: a radioactive isotope shot by a marksman (Lee Van Cleef, not even mentioned in the cast) into the existing wound.
The ending is quite exciting, taking place, as previously mentioned, at an amusement park at Manhattan Beach. The marksman has to ride the rollercoaster to the top of one of the hills to get in position; and after successfully shooting the Beast, the coaster car accidentally gets away and crashes, starting a fire, so Christian and Van Cleef have to climb down the rollercoaster infrastructure through flames.
Harryhausen does a good job of matching the sparks and flames (which surely were superimposed) to the Beast angrily crushing the skeletal rollercoaster in an attempt to escape the flames. In many ways, this sequence reminds me of KING KONG, which was an inspiration to Harryhausen: a prehistoric creature who comes to Manhattan, destroys some landmarks, kills a few people, and then is killed off through modern technology.
The script is variable; it is unbearably slow for the first hour, and the character of the paleontologist (played by Cecil Kellaway), while likable, doesn't ring true; he scoffs at reports of a living dinosaur but on the basis of two different people picking out the same drawing, and no other evidence, he's suddenly prepared to put his reputation on the line and demand the Army close all shipping lanes! On the other hand, the plot development of the Beast carrying germs and causing plague has the ring of verisimilitude lacking in most other films about giant creatures.
The design of the rhedosaurus is unlike any known dinosaur; it has the reptilian skin that dinosaurs were then thought to have, but it moves fairly quickly, unlike the majority of scientific theory which then thought dinosaurs were antecedents of cold-blooded lizards and moved sluggishly. The current theory is they were ancestors of warm-blooded birds and moved quickly, as seen in JURASSIC PARK. Because the rhedosaurus is four legged, rather than two legged (like the T-Rex and Raptors of JURASSIC PARK, for instance), its body is more lizard- or reptile-like, so presumably its relatively quick movement was just to make it a more lively and interesting antagonist. It is not really given any good closeups; the couple of closeups of its head are blurred because they are point of view shots of potential victims through window glass.
For his first film on his own, BEAST is a worthy debut for Harryhausen, which is, unfortunately, not bettered by the less exciting IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.
Seeing this (again) as an adult, I can tell I must have been very fidgety when I saw it as a child on TV; the film is very slow moving and talky with absolutely no action whatsoever when the octopus isn't on screen and those occasions are relatively infrequent. As an adult, I'm surprised to discover it's a film actually aimed at adults, taking a very documentary approach and, in common with THEM ( also released in 1954) and similar films that tried to hide the creature from the audience so its revelation would be a surprise (surely not the correct approach for a film that displayed its monster in all the posters and advertising), a good half hour or so passes before you even see the giant octopus.
After the first little glimpse of the giant octopus about 10 minutes into the film, you don't see it again for nearly another half hour, and this second look is again very brief.
It's not until the film is more than half over, when it attacks San Francisco, climbing the Golden Gate Bridge and laying siege to the Embarcadero that you really get a sustained look at it. Up until then, it's all been tentacles and closeups of the suckers. Even when you finally get a good look at the octopus, it's not really that exciting a creature, having little scope for personality compared, for example, to MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Instead, I find myself admiring Harryhausen's clever way to integrate the octopus puppet into live actions scenes with water, by superimposing a mist or little whitecaps. Also impressive are the miniature buildings Harryhausen constructed only to destroy as the octopus rampages through San Francisco; these seem more accurate and realistic than the creature itself.
In fact, the octopus' best moment is a closeup of its giant eye, underwater, just before the charge lodged within its brain is detonated and it's blown to bits. With its slow pace, incessant narration (almost always a bad sign in a science fiction film), lack of urgency (the head of marine biology takes 13 days just to figure out it's an octopus from the hunk of its tentacle retrieved from the submarine it plowed into), male chauvinism and overall low key approach, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is pretty much a museum piece.
The pacing of this film is improved from the earlier Harryhausen films; you see the flying saucers not only under the opening titles but also 5 minutes into the running time; and 20 minutes in, the saucer has actually landed and several aliens emerge.
However, this is followed by a long dull patch in which the central character, a scientist played by Hugh Marlowe who has been sending unmanned rockets up in space has to convince the government bureaucracy to do something about the UFOs.
Harryhausen does what he can with the saucers, making them spin and tilt and shooting them and their point of view from various angles, but they are not a very satisfying antagonist, being even more featureless than the giant octopus of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.
Likewise the aliens are on screen mainly inside featureless space suits; they walk slowly and stiffly as if the gravity of Earth makes them heavy; often they are shot to appear small in the frame, positioned so you can see their size relative to the saucer. When one is killed (very easily by a mere rifle shot), there is only a glimpse of the head of the creature inside - a mummified thing with indistinct features that fades in a minute or so.
Although the aliens are ruthless in their desire to take over the Earth and cold bloodedly toss out of a flying saucer Marlowe's father-in-law and a policeman they have been using as living databases, the film does not really present them menacingly either in the way they are framed or in the music that underscores their appearance.
The showcase for Harryhausen again is more in the miniatures of buildings the UFOs attack and destroy - here it is famous and not so famous Washington monuments, including the Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol Building. Apparently the producers weren't brave enough to blow up the White House the way the makers of INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) do in their catchy trailer!
Even these sequences of the saucers attacking recognizable Washington buildings would be more exciting if the live action with which they are intercut was more dynamic but, for the most part, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor look on with very little expression to "sell" the believability of these scenes.
Tim Burton's MARS ATTACKS (1996) lovingly recreates not only Harryhausen's UFO design (and in greater numbers than stop motion would ever allow) but also actual sequences of the destruction of Washington monuments from this seminal film, and this time in color!
6. THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956)
I think I first found out about this from books that listed and synopsized genre films. Of course, it's not a genre film, in the sense that it's not science fiction or horror or fantasy. It's a well intentioned but boring documentary about the evolution of life on Earth, produced, directed and written by Irwin Allen, who eventually went on to fame via big budget disaster films, like THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO.
After many years, I was finally able to track down a video of this at a science fiction convention. I am not sufficiently a masochist to rewatch the entire film for the purpose of this commentary, but I have rewatched the Harryhausen sequence, which begins about 15 minutes into the film and runs for about 8 minutes.
It is introduced by shots of some dinosaur skeletons at a museum; then a jump cut to a close up of a brontosaurus (ah, the names of my youth; these are now called apatasauruses in paleontological circles but they'll always be brontos to me). Accompanied by rather horror movie kind of music, there is some questionable narration that tells us the dinosaurs weren't caring parents and probably died out due to some cataclysm.
We see the birth of a baby bronto out of an oval egg, a passing allosaurus, a stegosaurus, which is attacked by a cerebosaurus (?), which looks pretty much like a T-Rex except there's a prominent horn on its nose. After the stegosaurus is killed, a second cerebosaurus jumps into the scene and the two dinosaurs fight, eventually falling off the edge of a very high cliff.
Then a triceratops ambles on screen; and you can see the abdomen expand and contract as the creature breathes - even in 1956 Harryhausen had obviously discovered a way to insert a bladder into his puppets. A T-Rex shows up but before it can attack the Triceratops, the cataclysm the narrator had promised occurs, the seminal eruption of a volcano. The scenes with the Harryhausen models are intercut with live action sequences of real volcanoes and streams of actual molten lava, which tend to make the animated sequences look all the more unrealistic.
In keeping with scientific theory current in 1956, the four legged dinosaurs move sluggishly and the 2-legged guys drag and swish their tails. All the dinosaurs look more like their cousins from Willis O'Brien's THE LOST WORLD (1925) than the streamlined, detailed versions from JURASSIC PARK (1993) (which is hardly surprising as O'Brien designed the animals). In the main, I'm sorry to say, the dinosaurs seem quite puppetry, although I'm sure they were amazing back in 1956. Certainly I just couldn't get enough of them when I was a kid and the only access I had was still projections of my ViewMaster slides.
However, this is just one of those sequences that has not withstood the test of time, although I am bound to report the video I have is of rather muddy quality, and it's possible this sequence would work better with more vivid color and crisper cinematography. Still, PBS and the Discovery Channel have now produced much more exciting and up to date documentaries on dinosaurs and THE ANIMAL WORLD is now merely a curiosity piece.
7. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
I was 10 when I saw this and I really loved it, the first Harryhausen film I had ever seen and on the big screen, too. I have seen it a number of times over the years but not recently, and when I watched it again for the purposes of this commentary, I felt that same inability to enjoy it that spoiled MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, namely I felt for the Ymir as a poor besieged animal, and had virtually no sympathy for any of the human characters.
Although he did not receive any screen credit, this film was based on a story by Harryhausen called THE GREAT YMIR, although the creature in the film is never identified as an Ymir and the poster merely called it a "space beast".
One of those great 50's rockets with fins crashes into the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily. A couple of fishermen, thinking to rescue anyone on board, approach and enter through a hole which breaches one side just at the water line. Inside they find some of the crew dead and two alive, who they pull to safety, minutes before the rocket sinks into the sea.
What I accepted as a 10 year old seems ludicrous to me now. Space blast offs and re- entries are such a media circus in real life, it seems impossible now to think that even simple fisherfolk living in Sicily wouldn't have heard of a U.S. rocket sent into space 14 months earlier and be unable to recognize from newspaper photos what the rocket looked like.
Pepe, a young boy who was on the boat with the fishermen, finds a canister floating near the shore, which he opens. A gelatinous substance is inside. He takes it to Dr. Leonardo, a zoologist vacationing with his granddaughter, Marissa, a medical student, and sells it for 200 lire.
One of the men from the rocket is badly disfigured with what looks like radiation burns. The other, Col. Bob Calder, is only slightly banged up. It also seems ludicrous to me that Calder wouldn't immediately get in touch with the U.S. Government to let them know the rocket landed safely, but no one even asks him if he has relatives he wants to contact to let them know he's OK.
When Marissa returns from treating Calder at the hospital to her grandfather's trailer, the Ymir emerges from its gelatin cocoon. She calls her grandfather, who puts it in a cage in the back of the trailer. He doesn't seem much of a zoologist because he doesn't bother to leave it any food or water and instead of gazing at it for hours, which is what I would do, he just goes back to bed.
The Ymir is one of Harryhausen's very best designs; it is bipedal with a humanoid body but three-fingered hands and feet like a cartoon character. It has ridges along the back of its head and back, with spines at its elbows; and a long tail which it swishes constantly. It makes a hard to describe hooting noise that must be from a real live animal or bird, but I have no idea what it could be.
Next day the Ymir has grown another two feet or so (with no food or water!) and Dr. Leonardo, thinking it is some kind of mutation, decides to take it to the zoo in Rome.
Meantime, the US military has arrived and posts a reward for the canister, enticing Pepe to admit he found it and sold the contents to Dr. Leonardo. Calder and his military friends set out to track Leonardo down and arrive just minutes after the Ymir has escaped from Leonardo's truck, having grown to man size and broken through the cage bars.
Finally, after 30 minutes without much explanation, we discover the Ymir is a specimen of Venusian life brought back in order to learn how it breathes the noxious fumes of that planet.
The Ymir, loose in the Italian countryside, frightens some horses and sheep. It seeks shelter in a barn where it rips open a bag of feed and starts to eat but is attacked by the farm dog in a sequence shown entirely in shadows.
Calder arrives and with a long stick, tries to prod the Ymir into a cart, but at only a day old, it's already too smart. The farmer stabs it with a pitchfork and the Ymir attacks the farmer in retaliation. Calder hits it with a shovel and all the military troops shoot it with no effect, so they lock it in the barn, but it breaks out.
Calder reveals the creature eats sulphur and feels it may be attracted to the base of Mt. Etna which is rich in sulphur deposits. The Italian government refuses to help catch it, wishing only to kill it, but the US government negotiates an agreement that if Calder is able to catch it before it harms anyone, they will be able to take it alive for scientific study.
The troops track it to a waterfall and shoot at it with flamethrowers. By this time, it is quite a bit larger than man-size. Calder drops some sulphur from a helicopter and when the Ymir goes to eat it, he is trapped beneath a heavy net which has also been dropped from another helicopter. Quickly, the military move in and electrify the net, mercifully knocking out the besieged beast.
At the American Embassy in Rome, General Macintosh calls a press conference to reveal the details of the Ymir to the world. Three members of the press are permitted to go to the Rome Zoo where the Ymir, now even huger, is kept under constant sedation by means of electricity, and is also manacled hand and foot and at its waist.
Scientists who have been studying the Ymir suspect its swift growth is the result of Earth's atmosphere having upset its metabolism. They reveal it has no heart or lungs, just a network of small tubes throughout its body. An accident causes a power failure, shutting off the electricity which was anesthetizing the Ymir, who wakes up, breaks out of its chains and crashes through a wall. It attacks a nearby elephant in a prolonged fight over the streets of Rome, with some famous landmarks in the background. (Although the Ymir looked huge inside the zoo building, it is the exact size of the elephant and gives the impression in these scenes of being smaller than it looked inside the zoo or in later scenes at the Coliseum).
Calder deliberately drives his car into the Ymir, who disappears into the Tiber, so the military toss grenades into the river for hours, finally forcing the Ymir to the surface. It emerges under a bridge and heads toward the Coliseum.
At the Forum, which is across the street from the Coliseum, tanks with flame throwers attack the Ymir, who knocks down some pillars, crushing some of the soldiers (yay!) The Ymir crosses to the Coliseum and starts to climb. Calder shoots it with a bazooka, forcing it to climb to the very top of the Coliseum, tossing down more hunks of this ruined edifice to crush the soldiers below.
Two things strike me about this - when the heck did they film this because I've been to Rome, and the Coliseum is a magnet for traffic - both cars and tour busses and zillions of tourists. It just amazes me to think the Italian government cooperated to the extent they did, clearing the streets around the Coliseum and letting the filmmakers shoot inside the Coliseum itself.
The other thing that strikes me, of course, is that this is an homage/ripoff of KING KONG at the Empire State Building.
After more artillery attack the Ymir, Calder again shoots it with the bazooka, and despite it having no internal organs, it seems to be a fatal wound. The Ymir falls to its knees and topples to its death below, amid the rubble from the Coliseum.
The Ymir is one of the best fantasy creations of the motion picture industry and setting the film in Rome with its colorful buildings is a stroke of genius. I am unable to suggest any better plot than the one the script presents but, nevertheless, the adult me is saddened by the single minded brutality meted out to the Ymir.
For his first full length foray into color, Harryhausen chose the wonderful fairy tale of Sinbad. The film begins with Sinbad returning home to Baghdad where he is a prince. Accompanying him on his voyage is his bride to be, Princess Parisa (although they seem curiously formal with each other, she calling him "My Captain" and he calling her "Princess").
The ship has been blown off course in a fog and lands at the island of Colossa, a place greatly feared because of the fierce Cyclops who live there. A mere 7 minutes into the film, we see a Cyclops and he is just one of the best creatures Harryhausen ever created. Towering above the humans, he has one huge eye with a sharp horn on his forehead just above it. His feet are cloven hooves and his lower torso is hairy like a goat. His upper body is scaly and there are raised bumps all over his skin and along his spine.
The Cyclops is chasing Sokurah, the Magician, who has stolen a magic lamp from the Cyclops' treasure chamber. Sinbad and his men fight the Cyclops with the help of Sokurah, who calls upon the genie to set up a barrier to help them escape. However, the Cyclops throws a rock, which causes Sinbad's boat to capsize and Sokurah drops the lamp, which the Cyclops regains. Sokurah offers Sinbad jewels to return to the island, but Sinbad refuses, as he's en route home to his wedding.
Once in Baghdad, Sokurah provides entertainment for the Caliph's court by turning Parisa's servant into a snakewoman who does an undulating dance, her four arms wiggling bonelessly. When the Caliph isn't sufficiently impressed to reward Sokurah with a boat and crew to return to Colossa, Sokurah enchants the Princess as she sleeps, shrinking her to a couple inches in height.
When she is found the next day, her father blames the Caliph. Sokurah promises to help bring her back to normal, but he requires the shell of the egg of a Roc for the potion, and this is found only on the island of Colossa, so Sinbad agrees to return. However, only his faithful Haroufa is willing to accompany him to face the Cyclops, so Sinbad must recruit the remainder of the crew from prison where only those murderers facing certain death by hanging agree to come.
The Caliph also builds a giant crossbow, to Sokurah's specifications, to use against the Cyclops. On the voyage, the convict crew mutinies, but Sinbad regains control of the ship when the convicts are all driven temporarily mad by the sound of sirens from an island south of Colossa.
Once back on Colossa, and forty minutes after we have seen the first Cyclops, we see him again, as he captures Sinbad and his crew as they despoil his treasure chamber. He puts them in a cage all except for one whom he ties to a spit and begins to roast.
Spying Sokurah nearby, Sinbad calls for help, but Sokurah ignores him and sets off to find the magic lamp. So, Sinbad releases the Princess from her tiny house and places her on the roof of the cage, so she can unlock it. Once free, Sinbad grabs up a flaming torch, using it to blind the Cyclops, which he then lures to the edge of the cliff, where it falls to its death.
Refusing to turn the magic lamp over to Sokurah, Sinbad leads the men further into the island where they come upon an enormous Roc egg. It begins to crack open and a 2- headed chick appears. Before Sinbad can stop them, the convicts have killed the chick which they proceed to cook and eat.
Meanwhile, Sinbad has let the Princess out of her house and she asks to be allowed to enter the lamp. There she meets the genie and learns his name is Baronni. Baronni wishes to be freed of his slavery to the lamp and shows the Princess a riddle which is the clue to gain his freedom. Reluctantly, he also tells the Princess the charm to summon him.
While this is going on, the Mother Roc returns and kills a few of the convicts, picking up Sinbad and dropping him in her nest, luckily with the magic lamp. Sokurah meanwhile picks up the Princess.
When Sinbad wakes up, he rubs the lamp and the genie tells him the Princess is in Sokurah's castle. The entrance to this is through a wonderful cavern that is the best set in the film. The entrance is guarded by a dragon, which is chained to a wall; the genie shows Sinbad how to get past it.
Sinbad forces Sokurah to return the Princess to her normal size. He refuses to return the lamp until they're safely back at the ship, so Sokurah uses his magic to bring a skeleton to life, which engages in a sword fight with Sinbad. This is certainly the most exciting sequence in the film (and one can't help wishing it lasted longer than 2 minutes, although it must have been very tricky to choreograph), and Kerwin Matthews is wonderfully athletic and totally believable fighting against the skeletal opponent which Harryhausen wouldn't be adding to the film until months later.
Defeating the skeleton, Sinbad and the Princess enter the cavern where the Princess sees a river of lava. Remembering the riddle, she tells Sinbad to throw the lamp into the lava, freeing the genie, although they both believe no one could survive such a fiery heat.
As they try to exit the cavern, another Cyclops enters, so Sinbad frees the dragon. The dragon and the Cyclops fight, with the dragon victorious. Sokurah leads the dragon after the fleeing Sinbad and Parisa but the crossbow he designed is used against the dragon who, mortally wounded, falls on Sokurah, killing him.
Back on the ship, Baronni, now a human which was his greatest wish, applies for the job of cabin boy, and Sinbad agrees, reveling in the Cyclops' treasure which Baronni has thoughtfully placed in the cabin.
When I saw this as a child, I enjoyed every minute of it, but seeing it as an adult, I find it pretty violent. Almost the entire crew is killed by either the Cyclops or the Roc; and roasting someone live on a spit is about as gruesome as you can get. Sinbad's only friend in the film, Harufa, is killed with a spear by Sokurah, with great glee. And even though the Cyclops is a bad guy, it's very unpleasant to see him blinded with the flaming torch. Chicken eater that I am, I can even feel sorry for the poor Roc chick killed when hardly a minute old.
Nevertheless, this is a thrill packed adventure. Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and Torin Thatcher as Sokurah are excellent in their respective roles. In fact, the film was such a success that a very similar film, with these two actors in very similar roles, JACK THE GIANT KILLER, was made in 1962 by another producer. The animation for that film was done by Gene Warren, Wah Chang and Jim Danforth. Kathryn Grant seems too contemporary as the Princess, and Richard Eyer (whose billing is better than Torin Thatcher's!) is simply too low key and flat as the genie. Making this character a child seems a bad idea imposed only so he could turn into a cabin boy at the end.
Certainly the film would not be as thrilling without the wonderfully evocative music of Bernard Herrmann, which was released as an album and is exciting to hear even without watching the film.
This is probably the most delightful of all the films Harryhausen worked on and, while it is by no means faithful to the famous Jonathan Swift novel, a surprising amount of the original satire comes through, especially in the Lilliput sequences.
Very little time is spent in Gulliver's first world, that of his own home town of Wapping, England; within the first 10 minutes, we are already in Lilliput where Gulliver towers over the inhabitants. These Lilliputian sequences work amazingly well in looking absolutely realistic with the performers' sightlines aligned right where they should be. Many of these effects were done by means of forced perspective, where Kerwin Matthews would stand closer to the camera so as to appear large, while the actors playing the Lilliputians would stand farther away so as to appear smaller in comparison. Therefore, there are no matte lines or differences in the resolution of the grain of the film, because the effect was captured "in camera" all at the same time.
There's something very fascinating about miniature things, so I feel the Brobdignagian sequence works better. Here Gulliver is reunited with his fiance Elizabeth and placed in a miniature palace. After they are married, they run away for a brief honeymoon, where Gulliver is dragged down a hole by a squirrel before being rescued by Glumdalclitch, the little girl who found him on the beach.
When Gulliver cures the Queen's stomach ache, he arouses the jealousy of the court sorcerer and is accused of witchcraft. He is then forced to fight one of the King's other miniature creatures, a crocodile, which he defeats with the help of a pin the Queen gives him which he uses as a shield and a sword he takes from a decorative box.
Many of the sequences throughout the film are "sold" not only by Kerwin Matthews' earnest performance but also by the wonderful props - which include Glumdalclitch's braid, which Gulliver climbs to escape from the squirrel hole, and an oversized chessboard. Likewise the miniature of the Lilliputian town which Gulliver strides through is very detailed and believable. The camera angles also help enormously: shooting Gulliver from low to the ground when he's the giant in Lilliput (sometimes holes had to be dug in the sand to get the camera low enough!) and shooting from higher angles with him small in the frame when he's so tiny in Brobdignag.
The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is atypically light and tinkly in spots, which adds to the overall fairy tale feel of the story. Although it contains fewer stop motion creatures than most Harryhausen films, GULLIVER works better than most because Gulliver himself is the special effect and you care about him and his plight.
MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is minor Harryhausen in a tepid retelling of what should be a rousing Jules Verne tale. Despite a typically bombastic score by Bernard Herrmann, there is a curious lack of energy or urgency throughout this adventure film.
It begins unpromisingly in a military prison during the Civil War where several Northern prisoners escape during a tremendous storm in an unlikely conveyance, a reconnaissance balloon. The storm lasts so long, the balloon winds up in an unnamed island in the Pacific.
Everyone survives and immediately they locate giant clams which Gary Merrill, a war correspondent, makes into a nourishing soup. Thirty leisurely minutes into the running time, the first Harryhausen creature makes its appearance: a giant crab. Publicity reveals Harryhausen used an actual crab instead of fabricating a puppet. In classic horror movie style, one of the crew is caught up in the claw of the crab, but it all ends happily when the crab is tipped over into a hot spring and there's seafood once again for dinner.
Harryhausen's next contribution, nearly an hour into the running time, is a giant bird never identified (except in publicity material where it was called a Phororhacos) but which looks like a very young chicken without its full compliment of feathers. Although this bird towers over the cast, its lack of feathers gives it a youthful appearance, so that it doesn't seem to engender much of a threat. Again, once it's killed, there's fowl for dinner.
Less than ten minutes later, the young lovers, Michael Callan and Beth Rogan, are threatened by giant bees, and these are certainly the best Harryhausen creations in the film. They are much huger proportionately than the chicken or crab and while they don't make any attempt to sting the humans, the very alien-ness of their insectoid features is unsettling in something so big. They also play on the claustrophobia of any audience member so inclined when they wall up the lovers in a cell of their honeycomb.
Finally, more than 90 minutes into the 105 minute running time, a nautiloid shows up, but it is curiously stationery on the ocean floor and merely rolls its eyes and waves a few tentacles, once again grabbing an unlucky human, who is nevertheless rescued fairly speedily. The nautiloid appears to wear a huge shell on its head, for no discernible reason, and I can't help thinking this is because it might have been hard to animate the empty-sack-like look of an octopus or squid which by 1961, when MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was made, most discerning audiences might recognize as realistic. David Hicks has contacted me to say nautiloids did exist, did have shells like this, but did not have eyelids. Tsk tsk.
All of the stop motion sequences are relatively brief and give the film an episodic feel, especially for Harryhausen fans who have come precisely to see his work and have a fairly long wait for it. Moreover, it's difficult to think of most of these creatures as anything other than potential food sources; they don't seem to be characters in the sense of earlier Harryhausen films that followed a single creature throughout the entire film (the rhedosaurus of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or the Ymir from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH) or the more fantastic and infinitely more interesting creatures of the Sinbad and Jason films (the Cyclops, the Dragon or Talos, for example).
There are some beautifully composed nature shots using Harryhausen's sodium screen process, including one of a huge log which bridges a deep chasm, that certainly brings to mind a similar log-and-chasm from KING KONG, but for the most part the matte paintings of the island are unrealistic and don't match the actual location.
The cast is oddly subdued and unheroic (Callan, in fact, plays a coward and at one point, the Northern soldiers are all set to toss from the balloon to certain death an unconscious Union soldier). All the characters show a uniformly unrealistic lack of surprise at the size of the creatures they encounter (except for the bees, each of these creatures travels alone) and after a passing remark, they never discuss this remarkable gigantism again. The origin of the giant creatures is all explained away 75 minutes into the film when Captain Nemo shows up, but even he is low key and defeatist in the face of that old chestnut of island adventures, the erupting volcano.
I was 16 when I first saw this. As an adult, I have fond memories of the many wonderful stop motion sequences, but seeing it again recently, these effects sequences are like succulent raisins dropped into a very bland pudding. All quest films are pretty much the same and, to give this script its due, I don't see what else could have been done at the beginning to set up the plot and introduce the many characters. Well, I guess one thing they could have done is hire more dynamic actors, because the overall tone of this film, despite the thrilling Bernard Herrman score, is sedate and occasionally funereal. I can't really say the creatures are more interesting than the human characters, but I can say they are certainly more animated.
Once the film gets rolling, however, about 30 minutes in, it starts off with a bang: Talos, on the Isle of Bronze, the "foundry of the Gods". Talos is a huge, skyscraper size bronze statue which comes to life when Hercules, disobeying Jason's command, steals a javelin from a treasure chamber discovered at the base of Talos' statue.
Talos is a very striking opponent, not only for his great size but also for his eerie eyeless look, which gives him an expressionless, implacable appearance. Whatever malleable material Harryhausen fashioned him from, he certainly appears believably metallic. Talos strides around majestically, crushing a few of the Argonauts until Jason, seeking the assistance of his patroness, Hera, discovers his weakness, which is an opening in his heel. When this is opened, some smokey life essence seeps out. Talos clutches at his throat, as if choking; cracks appear on his body, and he eventually topples, breaking off bits of himself.
The next obstacle to overcome are two harpies who have been plaguing the blind prophet Phineas (played by a pre-DOCTOR WHO Patrick Troughton). The harpies don't have much detail in their faces, but their feet are an odd horseshoe shape that gives them a very alien appearance; they are the size of a man and with their leathery wings, make formidable opponents. With the help of the Argonauts, they are trapped in a net and caged.
With the information supplied by Phineas, Jason and his shipmates set sail through the Clashing Rocks. Before they are trapped themselves, they see another ship go down, but are saved from the same fate by the sudden appearance of King Neptune, fish tail and all, who holds apart the rocks until their ship, the Argo, is clear. Neptune is played by an actor and is relatively disappointing compared with the other fantasy creations in the film.
When Jason and the Argonauts eventually land at Colchis, where their quest has led them, they find the golden fleece guarded by a 7-headed serpent called the Hydra. This is a great design and one can only wish its appearance in the film lasted a little longer. In fact, Jason overcomes the Hydra a little too easily. However, the King of Colchis has his men gather up the Hydra's teeth. Pursuing Jason and two of his men, he sows the teeth into the stony ground and from each tooth grows a skeleton, complete with sword and shield: the children of the Hydra's teeth.
For anyone who grew up admiring the sword fight with the skeleton from SEVENTH VOYAGE, a sword fight of 3 men against 7 skeletons was eagerly anticipated. In fact, it is an enormously exciting sequence of about 4 minutes (which took Harryhausen 4 1/2 months to animate), with a wonderful musical accompaniment by Bernard Herrmann (similar to that underscoring SINBAD's skeleton fight) that makes use of some kind of clacking percussive sound like fingers snapping to suggest bones. In the end, Jason has to jump off a cliff in order to escape the last 3 skeletons, which perish in the sea, while he swims safely to the Argo.
Although the quest for the fleece is successful, Jason's ultimate goal to regain his throne which set him on the quest is left up in the air. Possibly a sequel was planned, but in any event, it never was made.
The laser disk version of JASON has a few surprises for fans of the film. Apparently Harryhausen had an idea for a film called THE ELEMENTALS which was about some man- sized bat creatures, and he had created some test footage of these, with himself as the human being attacked; the basic design of the creature was later incorporated into the harpies of JASON. Brief footage of this test sequence, showing one bat creature, is on the laser disk, along with production stills, lobby cards and posters advertising the film. At the very end of the laser disk, to reward the faithful who stick around for every single credit, is a rerun of the skeleton fight before Harryhausen's work area has been matted out.
I realize it's hard for scriptwriters to write believably colloquial dialogue for films set in ancient Greece; and I imagine it's hard to deliver such lines with a straight face, especially when you're a guy wearing a short skirt, but there are so many other myths involving wonderful creatures, I can't help wishing more films of this type had been done, not only by Harryhausen but also by other artists who specialize in special effects films. In fact, Harryhausen's last film returned to classic myths with CLASH OF THE TITANS.
12. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)
Often when I see a film a second time that irritated me the first time around, I will be more forgiving (and enjoy it more), because the anticipation I had before seeing the film initially is replaced by a recollection of the film's pacing and outcome. However, even on a second viewing FIRST MEN IN THE MOON irritates me because, darn it, I want to see something about the moon (and something from Harryhausen), and I want it pretty quickly.
Instead, there's a 14 minute sequence set in the then present of 1964 about a multiracial moon landing, before a leisurely flashback to a low key comedy set in Victorian times about a zany inventor and his greedy neighbor. I've always been a great fan of Lionel Jeffries, and he is superb in the role of Professor Cavor, inventor of the antigravity paint, cavorite (and it suddenly flashes on me how wonderful he would have been as DOCTOR WHO), but this is not why I've come to see the film, and the first 50 minutes just drag for me.
Once Cavor and his neighbors get to the moon, however, things move very quickly; they almost immediately fall through the moon's surface into a subterranean cavern where there is oxygen; spot the local inhabitants, the insectoid, bipedal Selenites; and narrowly escape from another scary stone bridge over another chasm only to discover the sphere in which they traveled to the moon has been dragged away by the Selenites (shades of the Morlocks similarly carting away the Time Machine!)
The underground sequences look as if they had been filmed in a real cavern, although, in fact, the sets are mostly miniatures with the actors combined via traveling mattes. There are wonderful alien touches of multicolored crystals thrusting up from the ground. The Selenites themselves are not very frightening, but they share the caverns with some huge red-eyed caterpillars (called mooncalves in the publicity material) which rear up on their hind legs, clacking their mandibles and roaring, and that's pretty exciting.
Once on the moon, Edward Judd proves a man of violence, throwing the much smaller Selenites into a chasm and shooting with an elephant gun the head Selenite who seems encased in a swirling green crystal. This is so totally out of left field, after the charming Victorian opening, I find it very jarring.
Most of the Selenites are played by what appears to be children in costumes; but some of them are stop motion puppets. The reason for making some of them puppets baffles me, but the puppets move with a daintiness that eludes the live actors and are much more alien and charming for that fact.
I didn't have the luxury of viewing these Harryhausen films in chronological order, and this was the last one I watched. I had a hard time tracking it down. No video store in Manhattan had it available for rent. Jim Rodkey sent me a copy, but it got lost in the mail. Finally, Mark Berry (who is writing a comprehensive book on dinosaurs in the cinema) was able to get a tape of the British version of this to me, which he tells me is 6 minutes longer than the U.S. version.
Although I had not seen this film since I first saw it in 1967, I was surprised when I couldn't find the tape in any video store, because even though it is nearly 30 years old, it is one of the best known movies of Raquel Welch, whose shapely body in its skimpy skin bikini was probably the most impressive special effect in the film. However, now that I've been able to watch the film again, I can see why it is no longer on the shelves of video stores. I had remembered the film had no dialogue, but I had forgotten it had narration. Narration is almost always a sign of a bad movie, although I admit a film with no dialogue needs all the help it can get.
The film is also very slow, with a pre-credit sequence (created by Hammer stalwart Les Bowie) that encompasses the actual creation of Earth. Eventually, we are introduced to the Rock People and told by the narrator this is a story of sibling rivalry between the two sons, Tumak (John Richardson) and Sakana (Percy Herbert), of the tribe chieftain Akhoba (Robert Brown).
There's an extended sequence showing the whole tribe eating, and it's clear they are little more than animals, fighting over food instead of sharing. The elderly are even more disrespected by these primitives than in our own time; earlier an old man had fallen into a pit dug to trap a warthog, and left to die there; now another elderly man is hit by a rock for trying to get something to eat.
The chief's son, Tumak is pushed off a cliff by his own father in an argument over food. He wakes up none the worst for a fall that would kill anyone else and sets off on a long trek. Almost immediately he comes across the film's first "dinosaur" which is, unfortunately, played by an iguana, just like in the first version of this story, ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) and in FLASH GORDON (1936) and in KING DINOSAUR (1955). It's an appalling decision but once you come to terms with it, you have to admit this iguana blends seamlessly into the live action footage and is actually pretty menacing, not only because of its huge size in comparison to John Richardson, but also, mainly because of the excellent roaring and hissing sound effects expertly synched up with the animal's mouth. In addition, there is a giant prop tongue to further "sell" this effect.
The next creature Tumak spies is a brontosaurus, which moves its neck in a rather undulating snaky way and, looking somewhat out of place in such a rocky setting, quickly passes out of the film. (According to Harryhausen's FILM FANTASY SCRAPBOOK, it was intended to have another sequence with the bronto at the end of the film, but it would have added another 2 months to the production schedule, so the sequence was dropped.) Immediately afterward, Tumak sees a giant spider, which is also quickly off the screen.
After crossing a desert and reaching the ocean, Tumak comes across a tribe of blonde people, and this is something which I find objectionable. Time and again, science fiction films present two societies as homogeneous groups - the Rock people, for instance, are all dark haired, swarthy people; while the Shell people are all fair skinned and blonde. These tribes live, apparently, only 2 days walk from each other, so there is no reason for any kind of physical difference like this; it is such a hoary old science fiction cliché.
We meet Loana of the Shell people (Raquel Welch) who saves Tumak from a giant turtle (an archelon, according to Mark Berry, dinosaur connoisseur). There is a similar roar on the soundtrack for the turtle, but it is not as effective as the one for the iguana, although the turtle looks absolutely realistic. The Shell people attack it with rocks and spears and drive it into the ocean.
The Shell people carry Tumak into their cave, and we see they are more highly evolved than the Rock people. They don't fight among themselves; they share food; they have already discovered art, as can be seen by the cave paintings, and one of the elders appears to be using a drawing to teach the younger tribe members. They have developed a rudimentary language; they cultivate vegetables; they sew and have invented a spear which is better than any weapon of the Rock people. They even laugh, a concept foreign to Tumak.
Meantime, Sakana has managed to push his father off the top of another cliff and has taken over control of the tribe. Later, Akhoba will limp into camp to spend the rest of the film a cripple.
An allosaurus arrives at the camp of the Shell people and kills a couple of them. The Shell people hang back in fear but Tumak seizes one of the spears and attacks it, giving the others courage to join in. Eventually Tumak kills the allosaurus by stabbing it in the gut with a tent pole of a lean-to the creature has knocked down. This is a very exciting and well choreographed sequence, with the interaction between the stop motion creature and the live actors totally believable; the death of the allosaurus is filmed from below as if we were Tumak and the creature were jumping over us.
We see the Shell people also bury their dead, a concept foreign to the Rock people.
All these lessons in polite society are lost on Tumak who fights with Ahot, one of the Shell people, over a spear (and, subliminally, over Loana) and is on the verge of killing him when the other Shell people arrive and prevent him. The elder banishes Tumak from the tribe, and Loana follows him.
They retrace Tumak's earlier trek and in a cave where there's food and water, they must hide from some even more primitive creatures; I suppose this is meant to be the missing link because while they're very ape like in their grunts, they walk upright, except for some slight sloping forward in the shoulders; these creatures are mostly shown in long shot or in deep shadows, so you never get a good look at them. Eventually, Tumak and Loana escape through a hole in the roof of the cave.
Almost immediately they encounter a Triceratops, and almost immediately the Triceratops is attacked by an upright dinosaur, similar to the allosaurus, with a boney horn on its nose (a ceratosaurus, according to Mark Berry, my dino expert), but there are many interesting shots of Tumak and Loana, who have taken refuge in some rocks, trying to sneak away but unable to avoid the lashing tail of the two legged dinosaur; the Triceratops eventually gores the other creature to death.
Loana has meanwhile been able to escape and blows her shell to summon help. The Rock people arrive as Tumak emerges from his hiding place, and there's a battle during which he nearly kills his brother, but Loana prevents this. Likewise Loana fights with Nupondi (Martine Beswick), Tumak's original mate, but though she overcomes her, Loana refuses to kill her.
Loana introduces the Rock people to swimming and while they are all splashing away, a pterodactyl attacks, swooping down and grabbing Loana; this sequence (the film's most famous) is enhanced by closeups of Raquel Welch in the grip of giant prop claws (this entered the pop world as a poster which could be purchased at many a poster store).
The pterodactyl means to feed Loana to its young in their rocky nest (sort of deja vu here with both SINBAD's Roc feeding its young; and JASON's harpies) but luckily for Loana, it is attacked by a rival pterodactyl and during their battle, it loses its grip on her and she falls into the ocean.
Loana makes it to shore, luckily near the Shell people, and rallies them to seek out Tumak; although this journey previously took two days, the Shell people compress time and meet up first with Tumak (returning to his tribe from a fruitless search for Loana, whom he believes the pterodactyl has eaten) and then with one of the younger members of the Rock people who communicates that his brother Sakana has once again taken over the tribe.
A battle between the Rock people and the Shell people ensues, but before it gets very far along, the inevitable volcano erupts, causing earthquakes, which kill Akhoba; despite the rocks falling everywhere Tumak takes time to kill his brother.
All the color is leached out of the post-volcano sequence, and I'm not sure if that's a fault of time or the director's original intention. However, Loana, Tumak and some others survive and presumably will link up ensuring survival of the human race by merging the Rock people's aggressiveness with the Shell people's domestic skills.
You have to wonder, aside from money and the chance to be in a film with Raquel Welch, why anyone would want to be in a film where he had to run around half naked and do very physical stunts and have no dialogue. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. was filmed on the island of Lanzarote, and I would certainly not want to have been climbing those sharp looking rocks and taking the kind of tumbles featured in this film with my arms and legs bare. It makes you wonder how our cave ancestors ever survived winters, if they were able to fashion coverings of fur only over their loins and not their extremities.
I was 22 when I first saw GWANGI, and I remember not liking it; I hadn't seen it since, so it turned out to be quite a traumatic experience to see it again. As I mentioned when I wrote about MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, in the intervening years I have developed into a great animal lover, and this film just abounds in sequences of animal abuse and, unfortunately, quite a lot of it is to real animals, namely the horses ridden by the actors and stuntmen.
Rewatching GWANGI now, I had to avert my eyes time after time as the horses were forced to fall (and in one case jump into a tub of water surrounded by flames). There was no Humane Society disclaimer in the end credits, but even if no horse were permanently injured, I feel no animal should have been put through what these horses were for the sake of a film.
So, I rewatched GWANGI with gritted teeth and felt very hostile not only to the scriptwriter (William E. Bast), producer (Charles Schneer) and director (James O'Connolly), but also to all the human characters, who seemed an unlikable lot, particularly the love interests, James Franciscus and Gila Golan, who are more interested in exploiting animals for a quick buck than in trying to make their relationship work.
The first Harryhausen creature on screen is an eohippus, a miniature horse with 3 toes on his front legs and four on his back. This is a charming creature who is introduced to the tune of a music box in a very GULLIVER kind of sequence.
The gypsies (who have warned Carlos, a circus performer, not to take anything from the Forbidden Valley for fear of the terrible wrath of Gwangi) steal back the tiny horse to return it. The circus people give chase and discover a valley hidden behind some rock formations, which they destroy so they can gain entrance.
Once inside the valley they are attacked by a pterodactyl and this scene is enhanced by the use of a live prop which matches Harryhausen's stop motion creature surprisingly well in a sequence in which Carlos grapples with it and eventually breaks its neck.
At about 50 minutes into the film, we finally get our first look at Gwangi, who is an Allosaurus, I guess, although this is never overtly stated. Almost as soon as he appears, he has a shouting match with a four legged horned dinosaur which Laurence Naismith, playing a paleontologist, identifies as a styracosaurus. However, both dinos back down and Gwangi claims the dead pterodactyl.
After spending the night in a cave, all the cowboys come to the aid of Franciscus, who is being chased by Gwangi while trying to restock his water supply. This is one of the major setpieces of the film, as the cowboys circle around and rope Gwangi, who eventually bites through the ropes and escapes only to renew his fight with the styracosaurus.
For some reason, Carlos decides to intervene and stabs the horned dinosaur, and Gwangi manages to finish the poor beast off. Possibly in some kind of karmic revenge, Gwangi kills Carlos shortly thereafter. Certainly I shed no tears for Carlos.
All the cowboys bolt back through the opening they made in the mountain. Gwangi follows and, in attempting to squeeze through, he causes a rockslide, knocking himself out. Immediately Franciscus rides up and ropes Gwangi's jaws shut (another oversized prop, this one not quite as good a match for the stop motion Gwangi), while Richard Carlson, with dollar signs in his eyes, decides to cart the dinosaur back to town to exploit in the circus.
There Gwangi is housed in a tent surmounted by a huge balloon. The old gypsy woman, who has been the main source of dire predictions about Gwangi, sends her dwarf companion to release the dinosaur by unscrewing the bolts of his cage, but the plan backfires when the tent is removed before the paying audience and the press to reveal Gwangi with the dead dwarf in his jaws. In the ensuing riot of audience members bolting from the arena, the old gypsy woman is crushed to death underfoot.
Once free of the cage, Gwangi has a brief fight to the death with a circus elephant before exiting the arena, with another audience member in his jaws. While the cowboys saddle up and shoot Gwangi with rifles, the rest of the townspeople take refuge in a beautiful cathedral, but Gwangi uses his powerful tail to push open the doors and follows.
Everyone escapes through a different set of doors, except for Franciscus, Golan and the little Mexican orphan, Lope, who has been tagging along throughout the film. When Franciscus accidentally sets off the huge church organ, this distracts Gwangi and Franciscus is able to stab him in the head with a ceremonial spear. Franciscus tosses some flaming embers at the dinosaur, as he, Golan and the child dash out of the cathedral, and these cause a huge fire, which ultimately kills Gwangi and destroys the beautiful building. Only Lope sheds a tear for the noble Gwangi.
This is an overwhelmingly gruesome and unpleasant film, and it's really unbearable the way the camera lovingly lingers over Gwangi's death throes as he burns to death. The concept of cowboys and dinosaurs came from Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brien, and I'm sure the idea of once again working with dinosaurs, which figured so largely in KING KONG (an inspiration for Harryhausen's choice of career) was irresistible, but one can only wish the end result were less grisly and mean spirited. It appalls me now to think of children being exposed to this nasty film.
Against popular opinion, this is my favorite Harryhausen film. I was 27 when I first saw it, so this is not fond childhood memories speaking. I just feel this film had the best script, the best villain and the best actors of any Harryhausen film, and while some of Harryhausen's stop motion sequences started to seem formulaic to me, he still could do amazing and surprising things, such as the ship's figurehead which comes to life. Along with SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, this is the only other film for which I recall Harryhausen getting a story credit.
A winged creature flies over Sinbad's ship and his men shoot at it, causing it to drop a gold amulet. The men fear the amulet will bring bad luck, but Sinbad ties a string around it and puts it around his neck. This causes him to have a vision of a veiled girl with an eye tattooed on the palm of her hand.
The ship goes off course during an evening storm. Come morning, Sinbad swims ashore alone and is accosted by Koura, the Black Prince, who demands the golden amulet. Sinbad refuses and, stealing a horse from Koura's assistant, Achmed, he rides into town. Koura follows and causes the city gates to fall before the Sultan's army can apprehend him.
Once in the city, Sinbad's gold amulet attracts the attention of the Grand Vizier whose head is encased in a golden mask. He shows Sinbad a vault and explains his face was burned in a fire that destroyed most of the pictographs on the wall. Sinbad pieces together his gold amulet with a larger golden piece the Vizier has, and when he holds it up to the fire, the shadow it casts on the wall pictograph reveals a nautical chart.
All this has been overseen by the winged creature who dropped the gold amulet earlier. The Vizier spots this creature and tells Sinbad it is a homunculus, a spy for Koura, who knows all they know. They chase it but it turns to ashes when Sinbad grabs it. Its earlier wounding has caused Koura intense pain; the black magic he practices takes its toll by aging him; with every spell he casts, he gets visibly older, weaker, greyer.
En route to his ship, Sinbad is accosted by a merchant who wants him to take on his drunken son, Haroun, as a crew member. Sinbad is not interested until he meets the merchant's servant, Margiana, who has a tattoo of an eye on her palm. A deal is struck and Margiana and Haroun are sent to Sinbad's ship.
Sinbad has made a chart from the wall pictograph and feels they are heading for the mythical island of Lemuria. Koura has hired a ship of his own and follows Sinbad. When Sinbad notices, he tries to lure Koura's ship onto the rocks to be dashed to pieces in a fog. So Koura casts a spell which brings to life the figurehead on Sinbad's ship.
This is my favorite Harryhausen creation in the film. The figurehead is believably wooden and is even unfinished in the back where she used to be attached to the lumber of the ship. She kills one crew member and tosses him casually overboard, then she breaks into the main cabin where she steals Sinbad's chart. Sinbad and his men attack her, but Koura calls her to return, so she breaks through the side of the ship, falling overboard. Eventually she floats to the surface and the seamen of Koura's ship haul her aboard so he can give the chart to the captain.
Koura is now visibly aging and explains to Achmed how the demons of darkness consume him a little every time he calls on them. Nevertheless, with his own blood, Koura reanimates the homunculus and sends it to spy on Sinbad, who has a great lead.
Sinbad's ship has landed at Lemuria, an island with huge stone carvings along the shore line. His party finds a shrine in a clearing, which is the temple of the Oracle of All Knowledge. Inside there's an underground cavern where they show their golden amulets to a caped guardian who summons the Oracle. His appearance is very similar to the Wizard of Oz: a great bodiless head which appears in a ball of flame, only this head is a wonderful metallic mask with many horns. The Oracle speaks a long riddle, which Koura overhears through his homunculus. The clearest thing the Oracle says is to go North to find the third golden tablet.
Koura pours a potion at the entrance of the shrine, causing an explosion which seals Sinbad and his party inside. However, there is an opening high above them, so Sinbad fashions an arrow and ties to it a rope made from the turbans and sashes of his crew in order to shinny up to safety. When he's almost out, the homunculus attacks him, but one of Sinbad's crew kills it with an arrow. Again, Koura reacts with great agony as his alter ego is destroyed.
Koura is now in the lead, but he and Achmed are surrounded by green skinned Lemurians and taken to their temple where they are to be sacrificed to the local god, Kali. Koura throws a potion on the huge statue of Kali, bringing her to life and commands that she dance for him. Kali is another favorite Harryhausen creature, with her 6 arms, eyeless face and graceful movements.
Koura sends the Lemurians away in order to seek the third gold tablet, as Sinbad and his party arrive. Sinbad tosses a sword to Koura, challenging him to a fight to the death, but Koura tosses the sword to Kali, where it multiplies into 6. As with the skeleton sword fights of the previous SINBAD and JASON films, this is one of the most exciting sequences in the film. Even with Sinbad's crew joining in, Kali seems undefeatable until Haroun creeps up behind her and pushes her off a ledge, where the statue smashes to pieces, revealing the third golden tablet inside.
Because Sinbad and his men have destroyed their god, the Lemurians grab them, intending they be sacrificed. In the ensuing melee, Koura has managed to get the third golden amulet; he unites all the pieces into a single tablet and announces it tells of a Fountain of Destiny where the gifts of youth, a shield of darkness and a crown of untold riches will be given to anyone who tosses in the three golden amulets.
Margiana holds up her hand to protest the impending death of Sinbad, showing the tattoo. It turns out she must have been originally from Lemuria because this is the mark of the chosen one of the Centaur, and Margiana is lowered into a pit where he is summoned by sounding a horn. This is another one-eyed creature, this time with the body of a horse. As soon as he arrives, Margiana faints, and he carries her off through a tunnel.
To cause a diversion, Sinbad has the Vizier reveal his face, which is horribly disfigured by burns. This causes enough of a distraction that Sinbad and his crew are able to jump into the Centaur's pit to pursue Margiana.
Koura drops his box of magic potions on a steep cliff, but with a magic chant he is able to cause a landslide to remove the rocks blocking his way into the underground cavern that houses the Fountain of Destiny. Looking older and greyer, and so aged he can barely move, Koura makes his way to the Fountain where, with an enormous effort, he tosses in the first tablet.
Meanwhile, Sinbad has found Margiana where the Centaur has deposited her. She is amazed he followed her instead of Koura. Nevertheless, the Centaur's cavern leads to the Fountain of Destiny, and when Sinbad arrives at the fountain he sees Koura has been restored to the energy of youth - his wrinkles and grey hair gone. While Koura exults in his renewed youth, Sinbad steals the two remaining gold tablets.
Koura calls on the fiends of darkness to rid him of Sinbad. The Centaur enters with a club and starts to fight Sinbad, until the prophesied forces of good send a Griffin, a creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. They fight, but Koura wounds the Griffin, weakening it so the Centaur is able to kill it off.
Sinbad jumps on the Centaur's back and stabs it repeatedly. Screaming in agony, the Centaur slumps to death atop the Griffin.
Koura steals back the two remaining gold tablets and tosses another one into the fountain. He and Sinbad fight with swords, as Koura slowly disappears behind an ever- growing shield of invisibility, which is the shield of darkness promised by the Oracle. But Koura makes the mistake of stepping into the fountain where he becomes faintly visible, allowing Sinbad to see him and strike a fatal blow. As Koura dies, dropping the third golden amulet, the fountain turns red.
In the still reflection of the water, Sinbad sees himself royally garbed with a jeweled crown. The crown slowly surfaces through the water, but Sinbad offers it to the Vizier, whose face is magically restored as his golden mask disappears.
While he doesn't quite have the energetic athletic enthusiasm of Kerwin Matthews' Sinbad, John Philip Law cuts quite a dashing figure as Sinbad. Caroline Munroe, like Kathryn Grant before her, strikes me as a little too contemporary as Margiana. However, Tom Baker is simply superb as Koura. It must be incredibly difficult for any actor to react wordlessly to an imaginary creature that will be added to the film months later, but Baker is able to achieve this without in the least seeming hammy. He's also totally believable in scenes where he must mime tremendous agony at the effort of animating his winged alter ego, the homunculus. It's a great help that his character is unredeemably evil and doesn't have to pretend affability the way Torin Thatcher's Sokurah had to in 7TH VOYAGE. In fact, the part of Koura was instrumental in landing Baker the title role in DOCTOR WHO, although it is about as opposite as you can get from the genial, heroic Doctor.
What strikes me as formulaic about the film is that it seems to be trying to recapture the highlights of previous Harryhausen films. The Centaur is highly reminiscent of 7TH VOYAGE's Cyclops; the homunculus is more vaguely similar to JASON's Harpies (I believe it is the only Harryhausen creature where the model is the exact size as the creature is meant to be in the film). The fight between the Centaur and the Griffin harkens back to 7TH VOYAGE's fight between the Cyclops and the Dragon. Even the sword fight with Kali has echoes of the sword fights with the skeletons in both 7TH VOYAGE and JASON. Only the figurehead which comes to life seems fresh and interesting. However, I'm sure if I had seen this film as a child, especially if I hadn't seen any of the other Harryhausen films, I would have been completely bowled over by it, and it still remains my favorite.
I was 30 when I saw this on vacation in San Francisco where it was on a double bill with some atrocious Philippine genre film whose title I can no longer recall. I didn't much like it then but seeing it for only the second time in 1996, I find myself more kindly disposed toward it, although it really has no standout animation sequence, and like the previous SINBAD film, many of the creatures echo earlier Harryhausen creations.
The film begins with the abortive coronation of Kassim as Caliph and then switches to Sinbad and his crew coming ashore after a year's voyage to find the town walls locked well before curfew. They are lured into the tent of a merchant where Zenobia suddenly appears and a mere 10 minutes into the film summons some demonic creatures with skeletal bodies but insectoid eyes who try to kill Sinbad and his men. They escape and manage to evade the demons by toppling a pile of logs on them.
Princess Farah shows up and Sinbad takes her back to his ship where she tells him her brother Kassim has been magically transformed into a baboon and none of the court doctors or magicians has been able to transform him back.
The next day as Sinbad prepares to set sail to consult with the legendary sorcerer Melanthius, Zenobia (Farah's stepmother) shows up to threaten and find out what Sinbad plans. Her son Raffi has fashioned a mechanical heart made out of gold, which Zenobia places inside a bronze statue of a Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man. When it comes to life, she names it Minaton and orders it to power a mechanical ship by turning a crank that sets in motion 6 pairs of oars and then sets off in pursuit of Sinbad, who has sailed off with Princess Farah and Kassim in his baboon form.
Without too much trouble, Sinbad locates Melanthius (these sequences were filmed at the ancient abandoned city of Petra which is noted for its beautiful pink rocks). Melanthius tells them Zenobia must be a powerful witch as he is unable to undo her spell and advises Sinbad to journey to Hyperboria because only in the shrine found there at the top of the world is there magic powerful enough to return Kassim to his true shape.
Melanthius also warns this should be done as quickly as possible because the longer Kassim remains a baboon, the more of his human faculties he'll lose and the more bestial he'll become. In addition, if he is not crowned Caliph in 7 months, he forfeits the throne forever.
Sinbad persuades Melanthius and his daughter Dione to accompany them, and they all set off. To make up for time lost when her mechanical ship was beached on some shoals, Zenobia uses some of her remaining magical elixir to transform herself into a gull and flies to Sinbad's ship, where she appears as a tiny version of her human self. Melanthius captures her and discovers her tiny vial of elixir, but when he tests it on a bee, it grows to the size of a pigeon and attacks him. In the ensuing chaos, Zenobia frees herself, transforms into a gull and flies away. However, some of her elixir has been spilled and when she transforms herself back into her full size human form, one of her feet remains in the shape of a gull's webbed foot.
After 4 months, Sinbad's ship reaches Hyperboria and almost immediately they are attacked by a giant walrus. This is probably the best Harryhausen creature in the film, because it is the most realistic but it is not very exciting or important to the plot and after it kills a crew member, it just jumps back into the water, never to be seen again.
Next, Sinbad and his friends encounter a Troglodyte and, finally, after all these films where all the heroes felt the immediate need to kill whatever strange creature they encountered, Melanthius persuades Sinbad to drop his sword and try to befriend this ancestor of man. Trog can't speak English, but he responds to tone of voice, and he seems to have a rapport with the baboon. By drawing a picture of the shrine in the dirt, Melanthius gets Trog to point out the direction of the shrine and lead them to it. Trog also opens the shrine's huge door, saving Sinbad and his men valuable time.
Meantime, Zenobia and Raffi have reached the shrine also and, unable to find the entrance, Zenobia uses her magic to loosen some of the pyramid's blocks, which the Minaton removes, smashing himself in the process. Inside is a sort of whirlpool with a flickering blue light and the walls are lined with colossal Egyptian statues.
Melanthius tells Sinbad the baboon must be put in a cage and swung through the blue light, but before this can be accomplished Raffi tries to kill Melanthius and the baboon bites him; they both fall down the steps leading up to the shrine, and Raffi strikes his head and dies.
Kassim is restored to his human form by the magical power of the blue light, but while everyone's attention was on him, Zenobia has infused her spirit into the guardian of the shrine, a sabertooth tiger which had been encased in ice.
The tiger breaks out of the ice and attacks Trog, who is killed along with one of Sinbad's men. Sinbad fights it with a huge spear; when the tiger jumps at him, Sinbad angles the spear toward it, and the tiger is impaled on it; then Sinbad gives it the coup de grace with his sword.
The shrine, its walls having been breached by Zenobia and despoiled by the blood shed in it, begins to crumble, but everyone escapes in time. Kassim returns home within the 7 month deadline and is crowned Caliph; he rewards Sinbad with the hand of Farah in marriage.
One of the reasons I didn't care for this film when I first saw it was that none of the characters is particularly strong, although Margaret Whiting overacts enjoyably as Zenobia. Patrick Wayne's Sinbad doesn't really do anything much but serve as a chauffeur for the rest of the cast; it's really Patrick Troughton as Melanthius who moves the action along.
I also didn't think much of Kassim the baboon, although it's wonderful the way Harryhausen is able to get it to react to the live actors, playing chess and eating food they hand it. Since the advent of films in color, it's hard to make believable stop motion creatures who are fully furred, and both the baboon and the tiger at the end suffer from this.
Trog is highly reminiscent of the Cyclops from the first SINBAD film in his general body shape, posture and single horn in the middle of his forehead; and Harryhausen has previously done bees, although much larger, in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. The bronze Minaton is a pale imitation of Talos from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. The whole idea of going on a quest to a shrine seems too close to the plot of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and, in fact, the shrine itself is quite similar in its water and shining light aspect to the shrine of GOLDEN VOYAGE. One of the SINBAD films has to be the least well done and I'm afraid EYE OF THE TIGER is it.
17. CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)
I was 34 when I first saw this and had been writing film criticism for some time. Frankly, I didn't care for it at all. Seeing it again in 1996 for only the second time, I am astounded at how much I enjoyed it, even though it has all the faults that have repeatedly cropped up in earlier films containing Harryhausen's work, namely it is slow to get started and the Harryhausen creatures are not seen for periods as long as 40 minutes. Perhaps I look more kindly on it this second time around because, for a change, the Harryhausen creatures are not as interesting as the human characters.
One of the pleasures of seeing this film today is the cast. When I first saw it, I didn't like many of the performances, but somehow they all seen right to me now, and it is just wonderful to see some of these performers young (or at least younger) and good looking once again. In particular, Harry Hamlin, who I originally found miscast, now seems to be exactly right.
The plot is very complicated and involves many, many characters with unfamiliar, hard to pronounce names. To cut a long story short, Perseus is the son of Zeus. The Olympian gods are shown bickering and sniping among themselves, the goddesses in particular are very waspish, and scenes on Mount Olympus are almost like one of those prime time soaps. Zeus commands that Perseus be given a helmet, a sword and a shield. The helmet confers invisibility, which comes in handy when Perseus decides to check on Andromeda, a Princess. Just like in a Grimm Fairy Tale, any commoner can marry her if they can answer a riddle, but the riddle changes for each challenger and failure means death by burning.
By means of the helmet's invisibility, Perseus gains entrance to Andromeda's bedroom and sees her astral spirit carried away by a giant vulture. Unable to follow a flying creature, Perseus is advised by Ammon, a playwright who has befriended him, to seek out Pegasus, the last of the winged horses. Again the helmet of invisibility allows Perseus to get close enough to Pegasus to rope and tame him.
When Perseus follows the vulture the next night, he discovers Andromeda is being taken to Calibos, once her betrothed but now deformed by Zeus for his evil ways. Calibos is a typical Harryhausen creature, cloven hooved, horned, with claws and a tail. Sometimes he is played by an actor, when dialogue or human expression is required; and sometimes by a Harryhausen animation. Frankly, I find it distracting how the film cuts between the two, and I think this is one character that would have been better played by an actor in makeup all the way through (in this case Neil McCarthy in rather bestial, Satanic, pointy-teethed makeup by Basil Newall and Connie Reeve). Calibos provides the riddle for Andromeda's suitors.
Perseus presents himself as a prospective bridegroom and solves the riddle, having lopped off Calibos' hand (off screen) in the bargain. However, Andromeda's mother insults Theta, the goddess, in her own temple, calling down her wrath. In 30 days Andromeda must be sacrificed, a Virgin, to the Kraken, the last of the Titans.
Ammon advises Perseus to seek the advice of the Stygian Witches, 3 blind old cannibal women who share one eye (represented by a crystal ball). In the meantime, Zeus decrees another gift must be given to Perseus to replace the helmet of invisibility which he has lost during the fight with Calibos. Athena, refusing to part with her all knowing, all seeing owl, has Haephestus create a clockwork replica called Bubo.
This owl certainly annoyed me when I first saw the film; it is so totally out of place in a classic myth; seeing it again now, I find it only slightly less offensive; it is clearly the comic relief, and as with most comedy relief, very irritating and totally unnecessary.
With Bubo's help, Perseus obtains the Witches' eye and refuses to return it until they tell him how to defeat the Kraken. The Witches send him to the Isle of the Dead to obtain the head of Medusa, whose gaze can turn men into stone and whose blood is lethally poisonous.
To get to the Isle of the Dead, Perseus must cross the River Styx, paying a coin to Charon, the skeletal ferryman. Once there, he finds a ruin filled with statues of Medusa's victims in various contorted postures, men turned to stone. The way is further guarded by a two-headed dog, who must be Dioskilos. I've never heard of Dioskilos, but the end credits list all of Harryhausen's creatures (except the Vulture), so this must be the dog.
Killing the dog, Perseus makes his way inside Medusa's lair, dimly lit by candlelight. Medusa has the body of a snake; her hair is constantly writhing serpents; and she is armed with a bow and arrow. Medusa is probably the showpiece of this film, and her screen time is much longer than most of the Harryhausen creatures in films of this episodic nature.
Using his shield as a mirror, Perseus is able to behead Medusa, but while he and his men are sleeping, Calibos stabs the bundled up head, and Medusa's blood turns into three giant scorpions, which Perseus and his men must fight. After triumphing over the scorpions, Perseus kills Calibos and sends Bubo to rescue Pegasus.
By now it is the prophesied 30th day and Andromeda is led to the sea and chained up as a sacrifice to the Kraken. He is a giant sea creature with a long reptilian tail. His face and upper body are very similar to the Ymir of 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, and there is a touch of the Gillman from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON as well, although his hands are clawed not webbed.
Just as the Kraken is about to claim Andromeda, Perseus arrives on Pegasus, but he falls off, dropping the bound up head of Medusa into the sea. Once again Bubo comes to the rescue and when Perseus unveils Medusa's head, the Kraken not only turns to stone, but also crumbles to pieces.
With its stellar cast of mainly distinguished British stage actors, CLASH OF THE TITANS got a lot of publicity and its release coincided with an extensive exhibition of Harryhausen's preproduction drawings and actual models at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. The film contains many of Harryhausen's signature effects, such as the combination of a live action Harry Hamlin as Perseus roping a stop motion Pegasus. This particular effect runs through several Harryhausen films, from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG to GWANGI.
Calibos has the cloven hooves and general body posture of the Cyclops; and Medusa certainly is reminiscent of the snakewoman from 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (the giant vulture brings to mind that film's Roc as well). Even the scorpions harken back to the giant crab from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. (As previously mentioned, the Kraken is a distant cousin to the Ymir). So, in a way, CLASH is a summation and restatement of Harryhausen's work and, as such, it is a fitting valedictory appearance.
If you enjoyed reading my synopses/opinions of these Harryhausen films, I recently have collected some of the reviews I wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE under the title TIME CAPSULE, and these are now available in book form. Click here for details.