A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 253 – Clash of the Titans (1981)

Clash of the Titans (1981) – November 8th, 2010

A little over 100 movies back we reviewed Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which was okay in general and a fairly decent adaptation of the book. It was based on Greek mythology, but not on any one particular story. It’s more about taking elements and figures from the ancient myths and bringing them into a new setting. This here, on the other hand, is a wee bit different. For one, it’s the story of a particular figure: Perseus (Percy Jackson’s namesake, but I digress). For two, it’s telling what appears to be an adaptation of the story of Perseus, but it’s wildly different from every version of the myth I’ve ever read.

I mentioned at the end of my Percy Jackson review that I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. When I was little I read a lot. Like, a hell of a lot. And my parents practically threw books at me in hopes of keeping me busy. One such book was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. I love this book. I could probably recite bits of it from memory. I read it and re-read it and memorized it and lingered over the illustrations for years. So while I wouldn’t ever presume to call myself an expert in Greek mythology, I do know some things. And one thing I know is that this movie is not precisely true to the original legend.

Since the movie follows Perseus, of course there’s a good deal of Perseus’ story. But the thing is, it’s all be altered here and there to make for more action and tension and epic vastness. After all, why just have a sea monster when you can have a supposed Titan? And why just have a Titan when you can steal the Kraken from another mythos? You can’t be too picky about the mythology here. If you are, it sort of ruins what is otherwise a fun movie. Personally, I do find it harder to handwave the alterations made here than those in many other movies (like last night’s), but I manage. What does it matter really? The root of the story isn’t all that dissimilar to the one I knew from my childhood.

Perseus, the son of Zeus, sets forth to slay Medusa and collect her head. His motivations in the movie are new and different, but still, off to Medusa he goes. And he does indeed meet the Graeae with their one eye, and he does indeed use Medusa’s head to turn a sea monster into stone, thereby saving Andromeda from being sacrificed. So what if he did it all specifically for Andromeda, instead of stumbling upon her just in time? The point is that the story does indeed follow some of the same arc as the myth, just with more sensationalism and divine bickering and Ray Harryhausen.

So here we are at the heart of the matter. While I do enjoy the sort of mix-and-match mythology of the plot, and I can appreciate why certain changes were made for the story to follow a good cinematic arc, the point of watching this particular version of this movie is the special effects. And they are indeed special in the non-ironic sense. They are so very memorable that they have become iconic. The Kraken is one of those things that gets shown in montages of memorable monsters. Medusa is amazing with her head full of snakes. There’s so much in here that is so much fun to watch purely from a technical point of view, it makes the cheese factor of the rest of the movie totally worth it. And there is cheese. This is a fantasy epic made in 1981. Of course there’s cheese.

But there are also a number of amazing actors involved, like Lawrence Olivier and Maggie Smith. There’s the fantastic Harryhausen effects and animation. Despite the cheese and the comic relief mechanical owl (fun to look at, but a real Scrappy Doo sort of role much of the time) and the sometimes odd changes in the details of the myths, it’s still fun. There’s something about the combination of it all that makes it enjoyable. You just have to put the Greek mythology books on the shelf and pretend you’ve never looked at them before.

November 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Clash of the Titans (1981)

November 8, 2010

Clash of the Titans (1981)

You know I don’t think I have ever seen this entire movie in one sitting. At least not without commercial interruptions and considerable editing for television. In my experience this has been strictly part of the domain of grainy UHF television broadcasts (probably on channel 38 or 56) in the bygone days of my youth. It feels almost sacrilegious to watch it now as a full movie with no ads for Jordan’s Furniture or whatever cheesy local TV ads would have gone into it. The movie has a fairly episodic feel to it which is a natural fit for syndicated viewing on late night TV. And I was rather shocked by the couple of bits of nudity that I had never seen before (tame though they are) because they had no place on a broadcast network.

This movie is many things. It is great Shakespearean actors standing around in togas and not really doing much acting. It is a mash-up of several Greek myths into a single story. It is vapid pretty boy Harry Hamlin waving a sword around at nothing and posing a lot because all the enemies were added in post production. And most of all it is the absolute pinnacle of the great film career of stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen.

The plot involves the epic adventures of young Perseus, son of Zeus, as he woos the gorgeous Andromeda. It has the general feel of the old Steeve Reeves Hercules films in that it uses characters and situations from several myths and kind of mashes them all up together. (Perseus pays a skeletal ferryman to cross the Styx river for example, which should properly be in Hades but is not in this particular movie.) But nobody is watching it for the plot or for any accuracy to the myths. You’re watching it for the fantasy, for the thrill and for the adventure of it.

Well do I remember my classmates in third grade animatedly describing the confrontation with the gorgon Medusa in her lair. These were moments of great cinema for us growing up and defined the myths for my generation. If ever anybody from my age group pictures Perseus with Medusa’s head facing the Kraken then it is from this movie that the pictures directly come.

Really I’m watching it tonight for the Harryhausen magic. The bluescreen techniques of the day might be kind of primitive, and the animation of today’s all CG big budget films may look smoother or cleaner, but this movie right here is the absolute peak of what can be done with stop motion. There’s just so much special effects work here. The giant Vulture, the Kraken, the Gorgon Medusa, the little golden owl, the two-headed dog (for some reason), the giant scorpions… it just goes on and on. My favorite bits of animation involve Pegasus the flying horse. There were a few shots where I couldn’t really tell if they were using a complex puppet or a stop-motion miniature, and there are a whole lot of shots that involve Pegasus struggling with human figures which must have involved painstaking work. I’m amazed by how natural the movements of Pegasus are and how, well, horse-like. Considerable reference and research must have been involved.

What’s more amazing is that all of these effects, all of these complex miniature shots (of which there are hundreds in the film) were done by three guys. THREE! The credits for the movie list Harryhausen and two assistants (Steven Archer and Jim Danforth.) According to IMDB the movie’s budget was $15 million, which even adjusted for inflation is only a little bit more than $36 million 2010 dollars. Compare that to the $125 million 2010 Clash of the Titans which had a couple hundred digital technicians working on the effects. There’s a charm to this 1981 film. A sort of disarming cheesiness and playfulness that you don’t find in Hollywood these days.

I’m really not sure how they got Maggie Smith, Lawrence Olivier, Ursula Andress and Burgess Meredith to appear in a cheesy eighties fantasy adventure film, and from the performances they give you get the impression that they’re not too sure either. I’ll bet there’s some great stories there. Olivier in particular has a charming glint in his eye as he hams it up as Zeus. It’s almost as though he’s winking at the audience, inviting them to find it as amusing as he does that he’s playing this role.

So mix swords and sandals adventure, a bunch of great actors who play their roles mostly for cheese, an epic adventure based on Greek mythology and some of the lowest budget and yet most amazing animation ever and you have… what? Not a great film, but an extraordinary one. An iconic clash of unlikely extremes. A colosal fish-ape doing battle with a burbling mechanical owl. A movie simply MADE for the vivid imagination of a nine-year-old boy – which is convenient since I was nine years old when it came out. We simply must get our hands on the Harryhausen Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts. But before that we’re now doomed to watching the 2010 re-make of this movie. Wish us luck!

November 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment