Clash of the Titans (1981) **½
Clash of the Titans... Ray Harryhausen’s last stand. I first saw this rather garish throwback to the early 60’s when it was brand new, at one of the last drive-ins in Maryland— the old Governor Ritchie in Glen Burnie. (It’s now just one more of that town’s myriad strip malls and shopping centers.) That was the way to see any movie with giant monsters in it, and I was duly impressed at the time. (It probably didn’t hurt to be seven years old, either.) But alas, this is one movie that has not held up terribly well. It’s hampered by a one-trick script and some of the absolute worst acting anyone’s ever gotten away with at a major studio, and shockingly enough, Harryhausen’s creatures— as always, the real point of the film— are mostly a bit on the shabby side, as a result of the pernicious synergy between the runaway inflation of its era and the long production schedule required by any movie that features this much animation; an effects budget that seemed quite generous when the project was green-lighted would lose much of its buying power over the three or four years during which the film was in production. Indeed, Clash of the Titans would have been a really depressing way for the grandmaster of 50’s and 60’s stop-motion animation to go out were it not for one thing: the second half of the movie features the very finest work Harryhausen has ever done, including two monster set-pieces that are, all by themselves, enough to redeem the whole film.
As the title would imply, Clash of the Titans is set, more or less, in the world of ancient Greek mythology. It begins with King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston, from Tales that Witness Madness and Maniac) shutting up his teenage daughter, Danae (God Told Me To’s Vida Taylor), and her illegitimate infant son, Perseus, in a snazzy wooden coffin, and dumping her into the sea after giving a defiant speech addressed to the gods of Olympus. Unbeknownst to Acrisius, one of the seagulls circling above the site of this cruel execution is really the sea god Poseidon (Circus of Horrors’ Jack Gwillim, who’d already done this once before in Jason and the Argonauts), who then flies back to Olympus to report on the king’s doings. Zeus (Laurence Olivier, of The Boys from Brazil and the 1979 version of Dracula) is seriously pissed. Evidently, it was the king of the gods himself who got Danae knocked up, and he has Poseidon guide mother and child safely to a remote but hospitable Aegean island, then orders a typically Jovian excess of retribution against Acrisius. Poseidon is to whack the city of Argos with the full power of the wind and the sea, and to let loose the Kraken— the last of the Titans— “to make certain that no stone stands and that no creature crawls.” Divine overkill at its finest.
Twenty-some years go by, and the baby Perseus grows up to be Harry Hamlin (whose talents as an actor can probably be inferred from the fact that he later wound up in the cast of Silent Predators, one of the worst movies about killer mutant snakes ever made). Up on Olympus, we see proud papa Zeus exulting in the development of his bastard offspring. But his good mood is soon spoiled, for Zeus then turns his attention to the next mortal down on his Godly Shit List, an arrogant young man called Calibos (Neil McCarthy, from Mutator and The Monster Club). Calibos has been a real pain in Zeus’s ass, his crowning offense being the wanton slaughter of the god’s herd of flying horses, which used to hang out at a scenic spot somewhere in western Anatolia, known as the Wells of the Moon. Calibos has been cut miles of slack in the past because his mother, Thetis (Maggie Smith), is an Olympian herself, but now Zeus is through with him. He curses Calibos, turning him into a furry beast-man with goat horns, a lizard’s tail, and a split hoof in place of his left foot. Looks like divine nepotism can only get you just so far.
But Thetis can be just as vengeful as Zeus can, and anyone with the slightest familiarity with the Greek myths knows the gods were constantly making trouble behind each other’s backs. One night, Thetis scoops Perseus up from his island and deposits him in the amphitheater of Joppa, the capital of Phoenicia and not incidentally her own sacred city. Ammon (Burgess Meredith, from Beware! The Blob and The Manitou), the old playwright who lives at the amphitheater, at first takes Perseus for a prowler, and tries to scare him away, but he softens up his approach a bit when he realizes the young man hasn’t a clue in the world where he is or how he got there. (Actually, it might be better just to say Perseus hasn’t a clue in the world, period...) A few hours and the story of his royal heritage later, the young demigod and the old poet are fast friends.
Again, Zeus is pissed. But what’s done is done, so Zeus contents himself with ordering the goddesses to provide Perseus with a set of divine gifts: a helmet from Athene (The Dream Demon’s Susan Fleetwood), a sword from Aphrodite (Ursula Andress, from The Mountain of the Cannibal God and the Hammer version of She), and a shield from Hera (Claire Bloom, from The Illustrated Man and the original The Haunting). The three mystical arms show up propped against their respective goddesses’ statues in Ammon’s amphitheater the following morning, and both Perseus and Ammon are suitably awed. Naturally, these aren’t just any old weapons, either. The sword can cut through solid marble, the helmet confers invisibility on its wearer, and the shield... well, I’m not really sure what makes the shield so special, because its divine enchantment somehow never made it into the final cut of the film. In any event, Perseus feels sufficiently emboldened by his gifts from the gods and the divine favor they imply to brave the dangers of the open road, and take his first look at downtown Joppa.
It isn’t a pretty sight. The place is filthy, smelly, and plagued by biting marsh flies, and there’s a man being burned at the stake in the center of the agora. A city guard named Thallo (Hunchback’s Tim Pigott-Smith) informs Perseus that the burning man is a royal suitor. The Princess Andromeda (the utterly useless Judy Bowker, from the 70’s-vintage TV versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Count Dracula) had been betrothed to Calibos, and ever since he was cursed by the gods, it’s been open season on the girl’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately, Calibos— whose descent from the city’s patron goddess gives him a fair amount of pull in town, no matter how ugly he has become— requires that Andromeda’s suitors answer some devilish riddle in order to win her, with the losers going to the pyre currently burning in the town square. Now that’s the kind of thing that gets a man’s attention, and if that man happens to be an ancient Greek, it’s also pretty likely to be taken as a challenge to his arete. So of course, Perseus returns to Joppa that night, and with the help of his helmet of invisibility, sneaks into Andromeda’s penthouse bedchamber in the royal palace to see for himself what all the fuss is about. Just seeing Andromeda would have been enough to sell him on the rather foolhardy idea of vying for her hand in marriage, but when a huge stop-motion vulture flies down to the palace roof with a golden cage, and when Andromeda’s spirit gets up out of her body, sits down in the cage, and goes off with the giant bird, that really gets Perseus’s heroic juices flowing.
But how, exactly, does one follow a giant vulture? Pay attention now, because this is when we first encounter the only plot-advancing device screenwriter Beverly Cross knows. Perseus tells Ammon what he saw at the palace, and then begins moaning about the impossibility of the task he has set before himself. Ammon thinks it over for a bit, and has an epiphany. “Wait,” he says, “there just might be a chance— remote, I grant you...,” and then launches into a spiel about Pegasus, the last of Zeus’s winged horses, who comes to drink at his favorite watering hole on each night of the full moon. Needless to say, the moon just happens to be full at the time, and Perseus not only catches Pegasus drinking at the Wells of the Moon, but ropes, mounts, and tames him as well. We’ll be seeing this pattern a lot before the movie is through— an “impossible” challenge presents itself; Perseus turns to somebody (usually Ammon) for advice; that somebody says something like, “there just might be a chance;” and the next adventuresome episode plays itself out. Okay once or twice, but it gets old pretty fast.
Anyway, having secured himself a flying ride, Perseus follows the vulture the next time it comes for Andromeda, and soon finds himself in the swamps ruled by Calibos. He watches from the safety of his invisibility as Calibos orders one of his savage flunkies to write down the next suitor’s riddle for the princess (bonus points for writing the riddle in Greek, and for the “barbarous” grammar used by Calibos’s scribe; deductions for using lowercase letters [which wouldn’t be invented for another 1200 years or so], and for misspelling “Calibos” on the parchment), making sure to get a good, close look at the scroll when it is presented to her. But when Perseus tries to sneak away, Calibos notices the footprints he leaves in the sandy ground, and attacks him. Athene’s helmet tumbles off of Perseus’s head into the bog while he struggles with the beast-man, but he soon turns the tables on his opponent. The next afternoon, when Queen Cassiopeia (Dune’s Sian Phillips) ritually re-extends the offer to compete for her daughter’s hand, Perseus steps up. Andromeda then delivers her riddle: “In my mind’s eye, I see three circles joined in priceless harmony. Two, full as the moon; one, hollow as a crown. Two from the sea, five fathoms down. One from the Earth, deep under the ground...” Because Perseus has already met Calibos, he knows that the cryptic verse describes the ring the monster wears on his right hand— a gold band surmounted by two enormous pearls. And for added dramatic effect, he produces the very ring— with Calibos’s hand still attached— from beneath his cloak when he gives his answer. He then announces to the people of Joppa that, in exchange for the brute’s life, he forced Calibos to foreswear his curse upon the city, and that they will be troubled by him no more.
And so it might have been, were it not for the mother of the bride. You know how it goes at weddings— somebody always says or does something incredibly stupid to offend one of the more important guests. Well in this case, Cassiopeia has the temerity to describe Andromeda as being “even more beautiful than the goddess Thetis herself,” while she’s standing in the shadow of the giant statue of Thetis that dominates the back wall of Joppa’s main temple! Never, ever do that. Trust me, the gods don’t generally stand for that sort of thing. In fact, Thetis is so put out that she causes the head of her statue to fall off and come to life, and orders the tactless monarch to sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken at sunset on the summer solstice, just a month away. If Cassiopeia refuses, or if Andromeda has been deflowered by the time the solstice arrives, the Kraken will destroy Joppa as it destroyed Argos. So there.
And now it’s time to go through that plot riff I described a few paragraphs ago. When Perseus asks how a person might fight against the Kraken, Ammon says there’s no way known to man................. “but there may be a way known to woman.” Ammon is talking about the Stygian Witches, three unfathomably ancient sisters, physically blind, but oracles without peer. The catch is, they live far, far away and are cannibals. Great. And just to make things that much more difficult, Calibos (who’s been seething for revenge ever since he lost that fight with Perseus in the swamp) has his marsh-dwelling throwbacks horse-nap Pegasus, forcing Perseus, Ammon, and the detachment of soldiers lent to them by Cassiopeia to ride to the witches’ cave the old-fashioned way.
It’s about this time that the gods get involved again. Because Perseus lost his gift from Athene, Zeus insists that the goddess replace it with another. Her omniscient magic owl, Bubo, in particular. Athene doesn’t like that plan very much, so she has Hephaestus (Pat Roach, of Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja) make her a robot duplicate to send in the real Bubo’s stead. Mechabubo arrives on the scene just in time to bail Perseus and company out of a sticky situation; they’ve gotten themselves lost in the desert, and they have yet to see the slightest sign of the Stygian Witches. The clockwork owl cheerfully leads them right to the spot.
(Allow me to digress for a bit on the subject of Mechabubo. I’m pretty sure everybody over the age of ten who watches Clash of the Titans hates Mechabubo with all their heart. This is as it should be; the goddamned robot owl is this movie’s Jar Jar Binks. Now a number of commentators— Liz over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist!, for example— have interpreted the inclusion of this brass monstrosity as MGM’s attempt to work in a good excuse for a Star Wars-like merchandising tie-in, creating demand for overpriced plastic Mechabubos among the film’s juvenile audience. And I’d say the same thing too, except for one little detail. Though there was indeed a line of Clash of the Titans toys, Mechabubo was not included among them. The line consisted of four 3¾-inch figures— Perseus, Thallo, Calibos, and Charon (whom we’ll be getting to shortly)— a to-scale Pegasus that was simply too shitty for words, and an immense Kraken figure about a foot and a half tall. But no Mechabubo. Somehow, knowing they put the fucking owl in this movie and didn’t even make a goddamned toy out of it makes Mechabubo even more offensive than he would have been to begin with.)
The Riff begins again once the adventurers reach the witches’ cave. The witches confirm the Kraken’s invulnerability to any sort of conventional attack, and since Perseus isn’t likely to find any Oxygen Destroyers lying around, it looks like he and Andromeda are pretty much fucked. But again, there might be a way— “But a way even more dangerous than the Kraken itself!” If Perseus were to go to the Isle of the Dead and cut off the head of the gorgon Medusa, he’d have a weapon against which not even the Kraken could stand. You see, the gaze of the gorgon— even if she’s dead— will turn any creature that meets it to stone. It’s easier said than done, of course; like one of the witches says, Medusa isn’t just going to give her head away. And even if Perseus can kill her, there’s the small matter of Medusa’s poisonous, caustic blood. Again, just great.
Something totally unexpected happens at this point in the movie, though. Clash of the Titans suddenly gets good. It begins when Perseus and three Expendable Meat soldiers go to pay Charon, the Boatman of the River Styx, for the ride to Medusa’s island, and realize he’s the Grim Reaper. (Now you know why they bothered to make a toy of this utterly unimportant character— what kid could resist a Grim Reaper action figure!?) The proceedings then take on a real horror movie feel when Perseus and company reach the island itself, as the soldiers are stalked and attacked first by Medusa’s two-headed watchdog, Dioskillos, and then by Medusa herself. Medusa is the crowning glory of Harryhausen’s career, a sort of rattlesnake mermaid with living snakes for hair, who’s as good with a bow as she is with her paralyzing gaze. Perseus is the only one who makes it off the island alive.
Perseus, however, still has one last obstacle between him and Andromeda’s safety: Calibos. The vengeful beast-man has been following our heroes on their trek across the desert, and he makes his move the night after Perseus’s battle with Medusa. While everyone is asleep, he sneaks into the heroes’ camp and sticks Medusa’s head (which is hanging from a tree, wrapped up in Perseus’s cloak— and don’t ask what’s protecting that cloak against the effects of the gorgon’s blood, which has already displayed its power to dissolve a god-forged shield... there is an explanation, but it’s way too complicated to go into) with the trident he now wears on the stump of his hand. This causes some of Medusa’s blood to drip onto the ground, where it unexpectedly generates a trio of scorpions, which grow in seconds to the size of a largish car. The battle between the heroes and the scorpions is the second major highlight of the film; these monster bugs are every bit as good as the ones Willis O’Brien created for The Black Scorpion back in the 50’s, and their anatomical detail is a bit more accurate. Again, Perseus is the last man standing, and he survives his rematch with Calibos, too, although he’s so worn out by the end of it that it doesn’t occur to him to retrieve his magic sword from the dead brute’s body afterward. (At least I’d like to think that’s why Perseus just wanders off without the last of his original three gifts from the gods— but I’ll admit there’s a good chance he’s just an ungrateful, absentminded twit.)
Anyway, the big quest has used up the whole month allotted to Andromeda before her scheduled sacrifice, so it’s already Kraken time when Perseus drags his weary bones back to Joppa. It’s a good thing Mechabubo spent the last couple days of the trip springing Pegasus from his captivity in Calibos’s swamp, because otherwise there’d be no way Perseus could get to the shore in time to stop the last of the Titans from eating his bride. But get there he does, and the gorgon’s head performs as advertised, turning the Kraken into a giant stone statue that immediately collapses under its own incredible weight.
I still enjoy this movie whenever I watch it, but it sure does have its problems. The worst of these is the cast. Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, and Claire Bloom are the only performers in the film who can actually act, and even they don’t seem to have seen the point in doing so here. Harry Hamlin as Perseus really makes me long for Kerwin Matthews, or even Nigel Green, while Judy Bowker’s performance as Andromeda is embarrassing even by the extremely low standards of sword-and-sandal heroines. The so-called actors aren’t exactly helped by Beverly Cross’s script, which saddles them with consistently impossible dialogue and repeatedly puts them in situations they lack the talent to pull off. On the other hand, you’d really have to try to be bored by Clash of the Titans, which seems much shorter than it is because of the pace at which it keeps the action coming. The mythological underpinnings of it all are a bit tweaked, as usual (Calibos is obviously Shakespeare’s Caliban with a Hellenized name, while the Kraken comes from Norse mythology, not Greek), but much of the tinkering is understandable. Sure, Pegasus was really Bellerophon’s mount, but the substitution makes good dramatic sense; I can think of only one flying conveyance that would be dorkier than the mythological Perseus’s winged sandals, and that’s a pink velvet codpiece equipped with a Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp. (I must say, though, that I find it irritating— perhaps inordinately so— to see a rinky-dink sea nymph like Thetis promoted to Olympian status, while important deities like Ares, Apollo, Hades, and Artemis don’t even get a walk-on.) But what really makes the movie is Ray Harryhausen and his monsters. Admittedly, a lot of them look like they had the budgetary rug pulled out from under them at the last minute, but the ones that don’t are the best he’s ever made. The Kraken is a fascinating combination of human, fish, ape, bird, crocodile, and cephalopod elements, and even if it doesn’t really get to do much, it still looks awfully cool just sitting there, waving its tentacles around. The scorpions are some of the best stop-motion bugs ever to appear in a movie, and the face-off between them and the heroes is as well and imaginatively choreographed as the famous fencing matches against the skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. And as for Medusa, let’s just say that she gave me and my brother nightmares when we saw Clash of the Titans at the drive-in, and that I was absolutely obsessed with gorgons for years afterward. Taken as a whole, the movie’s not that great, but I never get tired of watching the Medusa episode, and I think it at least is a fitting capstone for Harryhausen’s career.