Jason and the Argonauts (1963) ***
After leaving the dying monster-rampage genre for the more fruitful pastures of outright fantasy with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen obviously realized he was on to a good thing. Within three years, he’d followed up the Sinbad film with similarly impressive work on Mysterious Island and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Then, in 1963, came what is probably the most fondly remembered (if also the most seriously flawed) of Harryhausen’s 1960’s monster-menagerie fantasy films, Jason and the Argonauts.
This movie was Harryhausen’s first explicit foray into the Greco-Roman mythological universe that so dominated the fantasy genre in the early 60’s. (I say “explicit” because the Sinbad movies, despite being nominally set in the world of Arabic legendry, owe at least as much to Homer as they do to the 1001 Nights.) Most of the time, as you’ve probably noticed, movies about Greek heroes meant movies about Hercules. But by ‘63, the Italians pretty much had the Hercules market cornered, so the producers of this film wisely took as their starting point the lesser-known story of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, as told in the Argonautica. It was a good move, allowing Jason and the Argonauts to stand out from the pack in a way that no movie of its time and genre does, with the possible exception of the original 1957 Hercules.
Like any self-respecting Greek epic, Jason and the Argonauts begins with a prophecy. The would-be conqueror King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer, of The Vampire Lovers) is told by his court sage that Zeus (who’ll be played by Niall MacGinnis, from Curse of the Demon and The Viking Queen, when we see him in person a bit later) has decreed his domination of a neighboring city-state. Unfortunately for Pelias, the god has also decreed his death at the hands of one of the children whose birthright he plans to usurp. This two-edged prophecy leads Pelias to do exactly what everyone else who’s ever had their future similarly foretold has done. After his soldiers have seized the city for him, he sets about preemptively killing the three princely siblings, on the theory that he can’t be killed by someone who is already dead. But we’re talking about the will of the gods here, so of course one of the kids gets away, smuggled out of town by a fleeing palace guard. By the end of the day, Pelias has not only failed to thwart the prophecy, he’s also managed to piss off Hera (To the Devil... a Daughter’s Honor Blackman, best remembered as Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore), under whose special protection the slain children had been. As a parting shot, Hera appears to Pelias and adds a colorful little detail to her husband’s prophecy: Pelias will die by the hand of a man with one sandal.
Some twenty years pass, and Pelias spends most of them on a Herod-like quest to ferret out Jason, the escaped son who is supposed to end his reign. One day, while Pelias is roaming the countryside looking for Jason, he accidentally falls into a stream, and nearly drowns. A young man (Todd Armstrong) sees his struggles from the riverbank, and dives in to haul Pelias ashore, and when he does, the king notices that his savior seems to have lost a sandal during the rescue. Pelias, no fool, knows what that means just as well as we do, but he also knows that the gods have no intention of allowing him to kill Jason personally. Therefore, Pelias invites the lad back to his camp, where it comes out in conversation that Jason understands that he is his land’s rightful ruler, and that he intends to overthrow the usurper Pelias, and put an end to his corrupt and incompetent reign. (It’s a good thing for everybody that Jason has never seen Pelias before, and thus doesn’t realize whom he’s talking to.) Jason’s speech gives the king an idea. After hearing Jason’s lament that he has no way to rally the people behind him, Pelias suggests that he should do something spectacular to establish a reputation as a hero; in fact, the king thinks he knows just the sort of deed that would command the people’s respect. Jason should undertake a quest to capture the legendary Golden Fleece, which is said to hang in a tree on an unknown island at the end of the world. That would get people’s attention.
You might ask (as Pelias’s son, Acastus [Gary Raymond], will in just a moment) why the king would plant such an idea in Jason’s head. It’s simple, really. Pelias knows that he is not allowed to kill Jason, so instead, he’ll try to goad the man into doing something that is sure to get him killed by someone or something else. And attempting to burgle a godly treasure, I’m sure you’ll agree, puts one’s life at risk in a way that few other things do. But just to be on the safe side, Pelias wants Acastus to join Jason on his quest. That way, there’ll be somebody around to make absolutely certain the upstart prince never comes back.
Jason likes Pelias’s idea, but he has no clue how to get started. Hera was tight with his family, though, so she arranges for Hermes (Michael Gwynn, from Scars of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein) to bring him to Mount Olympus for an audience with the gods. Hera must have known that her favorite mortal works well under pressure, because this meeting with the somewhat skeptical Zeus proves to be just what Jason needs to get his creative juices flowing. As the gods question him, Jason extemporizes what sounds to me like a pretty damn good plan. First, he’ll commission the famous shipwright Argos (Laurence Naismith, from Village of the Damned and The Valley of Gwangi) to build him a vessel for the voyage. Then, he’ll send out word throughout all of Hellas that he’s holding a competition to select a crew of adventurers worthy of such a mighty ship— you can never go wrong with an appeal to a hero’s ego. All Jason wants from the gods is some idea which way to sail, and a little help in getting through the occasional tight spot. With directions to the Golden Fleece and an IOU for five favors from Hera (unfortunately for Jason, this visit to the gods counts as one of them, as does Hera’s pulling the strings to arrange for him to encounter Pelias in the first place), Jason returns to the world of mortals, places an order with Argos for the toughest triaconter he’s ever built, and announces his contest to the heroes of Greece.
And now, at long last, we get what came to this movie looking for. The crew of the Argo (Jason named the ship in honor of its builder) sets sail, and keeps going until they’re damn near out of food and water. This, it would seem, is one of the hazards of sailing into uncharted waters— you can never be too sure when you’re going to reach land where you can take on provisions. Jason calls in one of his favors from Hera, and she directs him to the secret island where the god Hephaestus used to run his smithy. The crew is welcome to all the food and water they can find, but it is of the utmost importance that they take nothing else. Talos wouldn’t like it. But we all know that somebody is going to disregard the goddess’s orders, and that somebody ends up being Hercules (Nigel Green, of Stranger from Venus and The Skull, who I’m afraid is no Steve Reeves— or even Reg Park, for that matter). While he and Hylas (John Cairney, from Flesh and the Fiends) are out foraging, they come across one of Hephaestus’s treasure vaults. Hercules thinks the giant bronze sewing needle he finds within would make an excellent javelin, and against his companion’s warning, he takes it out of the vault when he’s through looking around. Bad move, as those of us in the audience who noticed the 75-foot bronze warrior— plainly labeled “Talos”— mounted on top of the vault could have told them. This statue immediately comes to life and starts kicking ass. (Note the jerkiness of the animation here. I’m pretty sure Harryhausen did this on purpose to convey stiffness of the monster’s bronze body, because Talos is the only creature in the movie animated this way.) The bronze giant chases the Argonauts off of the island, and then smashes their ship while they try to escape. Finally, Jason calls in another favor from Hera, who identifies the monster’s weak spot, but clearly the gods are determined to have somebody pay for the stolen needle, because the defeated Talos falls on Hylas, crushing him.
This has the effect of depriving the Argo of two crewmembers, for Hercules (who was too busy running away from the falling giant to see what became of Hylas) refuses to leave the island on the now-repaired Argo until he has found his erstwhile companion, whether alive or dead. He figures it’s the least he can do, considering it was his fault the statue came to life in the first place. Not only that, the desertion of Hercules nearly ends the mission, as the rest of the crew don’t want to leave without him. Jason has to spend his last favor from Hera on convincing his men to carry on without Hercules, and getting directions to the next stop on their itinerary. Hera instructs the Argonauts to seek out a man named Phineas, who will be able to guide them from here on, and the picture cuts to an old blind man (Patrick Troughton, from The Gorgon, who also played the second incarnation of Dr. Who) sitting down to eat his supper in the midst of a ruined acropolis. This, as you probably guessed, is Phineas, and he’s going to be a very happy man when the Argonauts finally catch up to him. Phineas, you see, is on the gods’ shit list, and every night when he tries to eat dinner, a pair of harpies come swooping down to steal his food from him. (Phineas gets one of the best lines in the movie here, as the ravenous harpies gobble up his meal: “Mighty Zeus, I was a sinner— I never tried to pretend otherwise. But I did not sin every day!”) A day or two later, Jason and company arrive at Phineas’s ruin and make a deal with him. If they do something about his harpy problem, he’ll tell them how to get to the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts capture the monsters that very night, and the old man tells them to sail northwest until they pass through the Clashing Rocks, then turn northeast. The Island at the End of the World will be just a couple of days’ sailing away.
So what, do you suppose, are the Clashing Rocks? Would you believe a pair of steep cliffs that overlook a narrow channel, and which have a distasteful habit of raining boulders down on any ship that tries to pass between them? Our heroes get to see the Clashing Rocks in action before they must deal with them directly, because they arrive at the channel just in time to watch another ship get smashed to pieces between the cliffs. So it’s a good thing for Jason and his crew that Hera doesn’t mind cheating from time to time; even though Jason has already used up all five of his favors, she sends the second-string sea-god Triton to hold the Clashing Rocks still until the Argo is safely past. This not only saves the Argonauts, it gives them a chance to rescue the one survivor from the other ship, a young woman named Medea (Marooned’s Nancy Kovac) who happens to be a priestess on the Isle of the Golden Fleece.
Now in the moral universe you and I inhabit, it would be an ethical dilemma of the first order if the godly treasure we had come to spirit off to our homeland turned out also to be the cornerstone of another civilization’s prosperity. But the moral universe of Greek mythology is very different from ours, and Jason and the Argonauts is never truer to the myths than in this next phase of the movie, in which nobody seems to be bothered by the idea that our heroes are about to deprive Medea’s people of their gift from the gods just so that Jason can have enough bragging rights to lead a revolution when he gets back home. But considering the overall tenor of the movie, it seems awfully strange that the filmmakers do nothing to acknowledge the moral complexity of the situation when sleazeball Acastus tips King Aeetes (Jack Gwillim, from Circus of Horrors and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) off to Jason’s mission on his island. When Aeetes sics a pack of skeleton warriors on the fleeing Argonauts after Jason removes the Fleece from its tree, he becomes just another villain in the eyes of the script. Likewise, when Medea betrays her people by helping Jason escape the king’s clutches, the script treats her like just another one of the good guys.
None of that, though, is nearly as problematic as the movie’s ending. You might have figured Jason and the Argonauts would conclude with Jason’s triumphant homecoming and subsequent recapture of his father’s usurped throne. If so, you’d have been wrong. Instead, the movie just kind of stops when Jason and Medea make it back to the Argo with the Golden Fleece. The conversation between Zeus and Hera that unfolds over this non-ending in voiceover hints that Jason’s revolution and Pelias’s fall will be dealt with in a sequel, and I suppose that might have been minimally acceptable had that sequel ever been made. But it wasn’t, and so the conflict that serves to motivate the entire story is never even addressed, let alone resolved. Jason and the Argonauts is such a fun movie up until this point, what with all the hydras and harpies and fencing skeletons, that I can somehow forgive this gigantic fuck-up, but there’s nothing you can say to defend it. I still like the movie— I’ve always liked the movie— and all I can think of by way of explanation is that I willingly allow myself to be distracted by Harryhausen’s signature hocus-pocus and ignore the fact that the story screeches to a halt before it can reach the actual conclusion. But it’s still a lazy fucking way to end a flick, and if it pisses you off too much for you to enjoy Jason and the Argonauts, I understand completely.