Jason and the Argonauts (1963) - Illustrated Reference Essay
Jason and the Argonauts was directed by Don Chaffey and premiered on 19th June 1963. Starring Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall MacGinnis, Honor Blackman, Michael Gwynn, Douglas Wilmer, Jack Gwillim, Patrick Troughton and Nigel Green. Screenplay by Jan Read & Beverly Cross. Music by Bernard Herrmann. 104mins.
Jason searches for the fabled Golden Fleece in the land of Colchis.
Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) was 13 when he saw King Kong (1933) on the big screen, he was mesmerised by the magic of the special effects bringing Kong to life. He went back and saw Kong again and again, over 200 times according to various interviews.
Harryhausen read everything he could about the making of Kong and became very interested in the art of stop-motion animation. He got his first job at Paramount after presenting them with a demo reel of some stop motion dinosaurs he created. He started working at George Pal’s Puppetoon series of shorts.
Willis O’Brien, the special effects master on King Kong, hired Ray as his assistant on a film he was working on at RKO, Mighty Joe Young (1949). Ray ended up doing most of the stop motion animation on the film which won an Oscar for its visual effects, picked up by Willis O’Brien..
It was the appearance of King Kong again that would kick start Ray’s solo career in special effects. Kong was re-released successfully in 1952 and Warner Bros Studios wanted to make a monster movie, they hired Ray to animate The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The film was a hit inspiring the Japanese to make their own giant sea monster, Godzilla (1954).
For his next film It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) Ray started a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer (1920-2009) which would continue throughout his career. Two science fiction films followed – Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), which featured the Ymir, a monster from Venus.
Ray’s first movie in colour was the Arabian Nights fantasy The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), the film featured two Cyclops, a snake woman, a fire-breathing dragon, two-headed Roc, a sword fighting skeleton, a genie and a wicked sorcerer, it was Ray’s biggest hit of the 50’s.
He followed Sinbad with The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961). But for his next film Ray looked at the myths of Ancient Greece for inspiration.
Jason: Are you a priestess?
Medea: l serve in the temple of Hecate.
Jason: A dancer. ls Hecate the god of the Colchians?
Medea: A goddess.
Jason: l heard they worshipped a strange idol. The skin of a ram.
Medea: lts fleece is of gold. The gift of the gods themselves. lt brought us peace and prosperity.
Jason: We’ll put you ashore tomorrow. Perhaps you’ll show us to the city. Now tell me your name.
Medea: Medea. Who are you?
Jason: My name is Jason.
Todd Armstrong (1937-1992) / Jason
Born in Missouri, USA, Todd Armstrong’s films include – Walk on the Wild Side (1962), King Rat (1965), and Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966).
Nancy Kovack (1935-) / Medea
Born in Flint, Michigan, Nancy Kovack’s films include – Diary of a Madman (1963), The Outlaws is Coming (1965), The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), The Silencers (1966), Frankie and Johnny (1966), Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) and Marooned (1969).
Gary Raymond (1935-) / Acastus
Born in London, England, Gary Raymond’s films include – Look Back in Anger (1959), The Millionairess (1960), El Cid (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Laurence Naismith (1908-1992) / Argos
Born in Surrey, England, Laurence Naismith’s films include – Mogambo (1953), The Dam Busters (1955), Richard III (1955), A Night to Remember (1958 as Captain Smith), Camelot (1967 as Merlin), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Scrooge (1970), Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972).
Niall MacGinnis (1913-1977) / Zeus
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Niall MacGinnis’s films include – The 49th Parallel (1941), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), Knights of the Round Table (1953), Helen of Troy (1956), Alexander the Great (1956), Night of the Demon (1957 as Julian Karswell), Billy Budd (1962), The War Lord (1965) and Island of Terror (1966).
Honor Blackman (1927-) / Hera
Born in London, England, Honor Blackman’s films include – A Night to Remember (1958), Goldfinger (1964 as Pussy Galore), Shalako (1968), To the Devil a Daughter (1976), The Cat and the Canary (1978) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). TV series The Avengers (1962-1964) as Cathy Gale.
Michael Gwynne (1916-1976) / Hermes
Born in Somerset, England, Michael Gwynne’s films include – The Camp on Blood Island (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), Barabbas (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Deadly Bees (1967) and Scars of Dracula (1970).
Douglas Wilmer (1920-) / King Pelias
Born in London, England, Douglas Wilmer’s films include – Richard III (1955), El Cid (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), A Shot in the Dark (1964), Khartoum (1966), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966 as Nayland Smith), Patton (1970, Cromwell (1970), The Vampire Lovers (1970), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Octopussy (1983).
Jack Gwillim (1909-2001) / King Aeetes
Born in Kent, England, Jack Gwillim’s films include – The Battle of the River Plate (1956), Sink the Bismarck (1960), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Thunderball (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), Patton (1970), Clash of the Titans (1981 as Poseidon) and The Monster Squad (1987 as Van Helsing).
Patrick Troughton (1920-1987) / Phineas
Born in London, England, Patrick Troughton’s films include – Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Gorgon (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), The Omen (1976 as Father Brennan) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977 as Melanthius). Patrick was the second actor to play Dr. Who (1966-1969) on TV.
Nigel Green (1924-1972) / Hercules
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Nigel Green’s films include – Reach for the Sky (1956), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), Zulu (1964 as Sgt Bourne), Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Ipcress File (1965), The Skull (1965), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965 as Nayland Smith), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967), Deadlier than the Male (1967), The Wrecking Crew (1969) and Countess Dracula (1970).
Hermes: Zeus, King of the gods of the Greeks. Write in the ashes, so that l may read the future… l see a great tree at the end of the world. And in its branches hang the skull and skin of a ram. They gleam and shine, for it is a prize of the gods. A golden fleece.
Searching for a suitable Greek hero, Ray settled on the story of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Ray started on pre-production drawings and scriptwriters were hired. The film had the working title of ‘Jason and the Golden Fleece’.
Ray had seen Todd Armstrong in the film Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and thought he would be a good Jason. It was later felt that his American accent was too strong and his voice was dubbed by English actor Tim Turner.
It wasn’t just Todd that was dubbed, leading lady Nancy Kovack was dubbed by BBC radio actress Eva Haddon, which makes one wonder why they cast American actors if they were to dub them into English later?
The decision was made to film Jason in Italy with some scenes filmed on sets at Shepperton Studios in England.
At one point the film was to have started in modern times with tourists visiting some ancient Greek ruins, an old man approaches them and tells them the story of Jason, there would than be a slow dissolve to Ancient Greece.
The epic music score was by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). Herrmann had famously collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on some of his greatest films. He had also provided excellent scores for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Three Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island.
For the film Ray created the bronze giant Talos, two harpies, the seven-headed Hydra and seven skeleton warriors. Other mythological creatures considered were Cerberus the 3-headed dog which guarded the gates of the underworld and the two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis.
Talos the Bronze giant standing over the harbour and picking up the Argo was a stand out sequence everyone remembers. Ray had purposely given Talos stiff, jerky movements since he was supposed to be a living bronze statue. In a poll Empire magazine had listed Talos as the 2nd greatest movie monster of all time, no.1 was the original King Kong.
Phineas: Jason, l’ll tell you what you want to know only if you meet my price.
Jason: What is your price?
Phineas: Free me from these tormenting Harpies.
Acastus: lf Zeus sent them to plague him, we can’t interfere.
Phineas: That’s my price.
Jason: Then we’ll meet it Phineas. We’ll make you the master of the Harpies.
The sequence with the two harpies was filmed at the ancient ruins of Paestum in Salerno, Italy. The biggest temple, 2,500 years old, was used for the scene where Jason and his men trap the harpies tormenting blind Phineas.
Argos: Pray to the gods, Jason!
Jason: The gods of Greece are cruel. In time all men shall learn to live without them.
The god Poseidon was originally meant to be a stop motion creation too but Ray was already too busy animating the other monsters, so an actor was used for the scene where the Argo passes through the clashing rocks. Another memorable sequence in the film, enhanced with Bernard Herrmann’s superb score.
Jason’s battle with the seven-headed Hydra took ages to film. Ray had to remember which Hydra head was moving forward and which was moving backward, frame by frame, and the rest of the body and tail had to be animated too.
King Aeetes: Hecate, queen of darkness! Avenge yourself against the Thessalians. Give me the children of the hydra’s teeth. The children of the night!
The biggest challenge for Ray was the climactic sword fight between Jason, Castor, Phalerus and seven sword-brandishing skeletons, children of the Hydra’s teeth. It took Ray Harryhausen four months to animate the sequence which lasts about five minutes on screen. It was the most difficult sequence he had ever worked on.
Jason and the Argonauts was one of the top 10 movies of the year at the UK box office but in America the film had got lost amongst all the Italian Sword and Sandal epics that were coming out at the time, usually starring Steve Reeves or Gordon Scott.
Moviegoers assumed Jason was just another Italian film and ignored it. Jason would be successfully re-released in the 1970’s along with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Thanks to the worldwide success of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).
Jason and the Argonauts is Ray’s favourite of his films, “I suppose Jason and the Argonauts would be the most complete film that I’m delighted with. There are bits and pieces I would like to do all over again but that’s wishful thinking.”
Incredibly the film did not receive an Oscar nomination for special effects. The award that year went to Cleopatra.
It wasn’t until 1992 that the Academy decided to honour Ray with a special Oscar, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, presented to him by Tom Hanks who had lobbied the Academy to give Ray an Oscar for his work in fantasy cinema.
In his introduction of the award Tom Hanks said “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”
Zeus: For the moment, let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze and each other. The girl is pretty and I am always sentimental. But for Jason, there are other adventures. I have not finished with Jason. Let us continue the game another day.
The Critics Wrote –
“Rambling semi-classic mythological fantasy which keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek and provides a framework for some splendid stop-frame animation.” (Leslie Halliwell)
“This absurd, unwieldy adventure — if that’s the word—is no worse, but certainly no better, than most of its kind. The ingredients are the usual milling hordes of warriors with historical or mythological footnotes, monsters, magic and carefully exposed limbs and torsos.” (New York Times)
“Among the spectacular mythological landscape and characters brought to life through the ingenuity of illusionist Ray Harryhausen are a remarkably lifelike mobile version of the colossal bronze god, Talos; fluttery personifications of the bat-winged Harpies;
– a miniature representation of the ‘crashing rocks’ through which Jason’s vessel must cruise; a menacing version of the seven-headed Hydra; a batch of some astonishingly active skeletons who materialize out of the teeth of Hydra, handsome Todd Armstrong does a commendable job as Jason and Nancy Kovak is beautiful as his Medea.” (Variety)
“A splendidly spectacular treatment, rich in mythical monsters, trick camera effects and muscle-flexing men.” (Daily Herald)
“A terrific adventure for all ages, featuring harpies, a seven-headed hydra, duelling skeletons and other phenomena. It boasts some of the greatest stop-motion animation in screen history (by courtesy of Ray Harryhausen) and a surprisingly intelligent script.” (Chris Tookey).