The search that became a legend. A colossal bronze statue coming to life. The ocean god Poseidon rising from the depths. An army of skeletons emerging from the earth. Released in 1964m Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts contains some of the most recognisable special effects in cinema, all thanks to stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen. But to remember Jason purely based on the effects is to neglect the many other elements that make it timeless.
Arguable precursors to the big budget blockbusters, the sword and sandal epics were the go-to for family-orientated entertainment, and Jason and the Argonauts is the finest example. Set in the fantastical Ancient Greece where mythical monsters roam the lands and bored Gods meddle in the lives of mortals. Legendary hero Jason and his assembled band of Greece’s finest embark on a quest for the Golden Fleece, encountering creatures and obstacles of folklore along the way.
The image of Poseidon holding back the crumbling sea wall as the Argo (the ship from which ‘Argonauts’ is derived) slowly drifts beneath his mammoth, outstretched arm has been etched into mind since my first viewing (so much so, I rewrote [plagiarised] this scene in a Year 5 assignment). But having not seen Jason in many years, I was curious as to how well it would hold up. I needn’t have worried, Jason still embodies the spirit of swashbuckling adventure as well as it did decades ago, and sure, the effects are not ageless, but this merely adds to their charm.
Harryhausen himself has said Jason is his favourite of the fifteen pictures he worked on, and it’s understandable why. It’s not merely a showcase of special effects, it’s an exciting tale of courage, honour and adventure that can’t fail to capture the imagination. The effects aid the telling of the story and add to the scope of the production. And what an impressive scope it is. Harryhausen has created creatures on an unimaginable scale. An early encounter with the awakened statue of Talos towering above the Argo, halting its escape is staggering and speaks testament to Harryhausen’s ambition.
It has been said that Harryhausen didn’t like to make things easy for himself. This is no more evident in a later encounter in which Jason does battle with the seven-headed Hydra. Those familiar with the method of stop-motion will understand the complexity that goes with animating so many posable appendages. But of course, the one scene that overshadows them all, the climactic encounter with an army of sword wielding skeletons. Harryhausen was eager to beat the skeleton battle he animated for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad a few years earlier (“Why have one skeleton when you can have seven?”). The scene earns its status as a classic, the mind-boggling intricacy that has inches high models clashing swords with the full-size performers boggles the imagination.
At its core, Jason and the Argonauts is a tale of adventure, and maintains an innocence we no longer see. It’s guaranteed to excite younger viewers and provides a great gateway to a bygone era of cinema. Any older viewers hesitant that it hasn’t aged well need not worry.Jason is as gripping at it was a decade ago, and I imagine half a century ago.