Our tribute to Ray Harryhausen comes to a close today with a look at the film widely recognized as one of the creator’s best. Throughout Harryhausen’s career, he brought not only rich and vivid creatures to life, but also worlds which previously had been almost impossible to bring to the screen. Jason and the Argonauts once again sees Harryhausen reaching new levels in his work on this movie; which in the almost sixty years since its release has come to be recognized as an essential.
Jason and the Argonauts follows the story with which most of us are familiar as the titular Jason (Todd Armstrong) puts together a crew in order to track down the mythical ‘Golden Fleece’ in Ancient Greece. The resulting adventure brings the young man into contact with not only a host of fantastic monsters, but also the Gods who are in the mood to… play. Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Honor Blackman and Patrick Troughtman co-star in the picture. Don Chaffey directs the film from a script by Jan Read and Beverley Cross.
Coming smack dab in the middle of his career, Jason and the Argonauts represents the pinnacle of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work. While he would continue in the industry until the 1980s, Jason and the Argonauts is the film most often mentioned in discussions of not only his most memorable, but his best works.
Truthfully, I found myself avoiding this film for quite a long time. As I sat down to watch Jason and the Argonauts, for some reason I felt as if I knew everything about this picture. The film’s many impressive sequences have been documented extensively in retrospectives for posterity. What else do you really need to know? How much better could it really get?
Well friends, as the final credits rolled, I found myself utterly stunned by this special movie. As I watched the action play out on screen, I was absolutely hooked and completely on the edge of my seat. By comparison, I mentioned in my look at Mysterious Island that I found myself a bit removed from the emotion of that particular feature. Sure, it was easy to visually enjoy the effects in the 1961 fantasy, but they didn’t always gel with the real world. However, Harryhausen solved all these problems by the release of Jason and the Argonauts in 1963.
Everything changes with Harryhausen’s work on Jason and the Argonauts. I watched this movie with the cynical eyes of a twenty-first century critic; however, I never once sat back and said “Oh, how cute!”. The effects in the film never feel dated. I hung on each and every moment, finding myself legitimately worried for the characters on-screen. This is particularly true as the action crescendos with our characters fighting a hoard of living skeletons. This sequence is one of the best crafted in modern cinema and the mind boggles at just how the effect was achieved in a pre-computer era.
The film brings together an impressive cast. Classic TV fans will recognize 1960s television staple Nancy Kovak as well as Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) and Honor Blackman (Cathy Gale from The Avengers). The cast unites around relative newcomer Todd Armstrong as Jason. The young actor meets the challenge of what must have been a complex film shoot while bringing a sense of strength and humanity to the iconic character.
Armstrong is an actor who never seemed to quite find his stride in Hollywood. Jason and the Argonauts stands as his first (and biggest) starring role on the big screen. He continued working until the end of the 1960s in movies like King Rat and The Silencers, as well as on television shows like Gunsmoke and Hawaii Five-O. However, by the 1970s, roles for the actor were few and far between. He passed away in 1992 at the age of 55.
To be honest, my biggest critique of this film is a bit of a persnickety one. Most know the mythological story of Jason from popular culture. My knowledge of the story comes mostly from the 1958 version of Hercules starring Steve Reeves. I was reminded of my fondness for this movie throughout Jason and the Argonauts and as a result, poor Nigel Green had an uphill battle to fight as Hercules due to me sitting there thinking “You’re not Hercules!”. Of course, this won’t be a detractor to most, but it was a very real problem for yours truly.
I’ve talked about the story and the acting. However, we’re all here for one thing, the Ray Harryhausen effects. Of course, the film doesn’t disappoint. As already mentioned, there isn’t a sequence here which isn’t heralded for its contribution to special effects and most have undoubtedly watched the many impressive scenes like the skeleton fight (even if you haven’t seen the movie). In terms of special effects, it is difficult to think of another film which comes close to the level of technical innovation, intricacy and execution that we see at play in this movie and everything gels seamlessly. Even almost sixty years since its release, the work in Jason and the Argonauts really holds up. The 1963 mythological fantasy can really be called one of the best.
We’ve spent the month of June celebrating the career of artist and special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. These films have been just a drop in the bucket of what was a wide-ranging and legendary career of more than forty years. There’s plenty of films we didn’t get the opportunity of discuss, from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to One Million Years B.C. and Clash of the Titans. Every time his work hit the big screen, Ray Harryhausen allowed filmmakers and creators to cinematically explore new worlds and new realities while at the same time influencing generations of special effects visionaries to come.
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!