Like most kids, I spent my pocket money on stupid crap – plastic toys which fell apart within weeks, comics, stickers, and a fistful of E numbers. The only purchase I stand by is Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which I bought on VHS and watched so many times the tape wore out. It was my first exposure to the genius of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, who sadly passed away last month in London, aged 92. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was watching some of Ray’s very best work (Talos – the Hydra – an army of skeletons). The skeleton fight alone took him four months to create, painstakingly moving each model frame by frame, and then layering it over the footage of loin-clothed actors waving cardboard swords. For me it’s one of the most thrilling scenes in the history of cinema, and worth every second of effort.
Ray had been inspired as a young boy by the stop-motion work in King Kong (1933) and his life long friend, Ray Bradbury (the science fiction writer best known for Fahrenheit 451), remembered them making a childhood pact “We’re going to grow old but never grow up. We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.” As an adult, Ray Harryhausen would animate not only dinosaurs, but aliens, a host of mythological creatures, and even a caveman, in such classics as It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and the honorable flop, The Valley of Gwangi (1969), one of the few western/fantasy films ever made (probably for good reason).
Director John Landis hit the nail on the head when he commented that Harryhausen’s creations were “not only the stars of those movies, but the main reason for those movies to exist at all.” Most of the films had terrible scripts and shockingly bad acting, with Ray’s creatures being the only believable thing on screen.
His last film, Clash of the Titans (1981), suffered from many of the same problems as his previous efforts, though at least this time Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith were on hand to add a little thespian clout, even if the former did spend most of the film chewing the Olympian scenery. Just for fun, watch the original Clash of the Titans back to back with the 2010 remake. Ray’s special effects, post-Star Wars (1977), were already passé by the time the film came out, but compared to the digital blurs of the remake they seem positively alive. Who cares if the rest of the film is terrible, at least it’s fun. The remake takes itself very, very seriously, and also has possibly the most unimaginative tagline for a movie ever. I can imagine the board meeting now –
“So we need a tagline for the Clash of the Titans poster. Any ideas?”
“Titans will Clash?”
“I love it!”
Nice one Hollywood.
Ray’s creatures were never realistic, but their herky-jerky movements across the screen only add to the magic of watching them. They’re like characters let loose from a dream, unbound by the rational relationships of time and space, and they owe much to that childhood sense of wonder he and Bradbury promised to retain. To watch any of his films now is to go back to childhood, to a time when you believed in monsters.