Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****

An absolute delight, great storytelling married to groundbreaking special effects produces an adventure picture of the highest order. Though mostly known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, its success also relied heavily on the direction of Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) and a great script. It’s one of the few films to benefit from not being viewed in its original size, the small screen minimizing the flaws of the special effects. In essence it’s a combination of three genres – the Italian peplum, the men-on-a-mission picture and the classic detective story. it was originally entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece (see below).

Plus there are interesting stabs at philosophy – if man refuses to believe in the gods do they cease to exist? And if the golden fleece brings peace and prosperity to a nation what will happen to that country when it is stolen?  And if various people can call on their own gods for help will that not create conflict in heaven as much as on earth? And the ultimately question – what can man achieve without celestial interference?

While the episodic structure derives from the clues meted out piecemeal to hero Jason (Todd Armstrong) during his long voyage to find the golden fleece these often come minus vital pieces of information ensuring that surprise remains a key element.

Without doubt the special effects are the triumph, although some work better than others. The highlights for me were the towering bronze statue of Talos and the skeleton warriors. I can’t be the only one who thinks that some of the visuals in Game of Thrones were inspired by the sight of Talos astride two land masses separated by the sea. Talos is not so much a man-mountain as an actual mountain, first viewed coming round the corner of a cliff top, his head topping it. But where, except for cunning Jason, the crewmen are viewed primarily in miniature in relation to the giant Talos, the skeletons are the same size as the adventurers and that fight scene all the more impressive as the ensuing battle appears completely real.

Scale allows Harryhausen to wriggle out of the problems of contact. If the creatures are out of reach anyway, there’s little need to attempt to bring them into close proximity. The way the Harpies are utilised, close enough to strip clothes from a blind man but otherwise hovering just out of reach, is a classic example of clever direction. The multi-headed Hydra, on the other hand, is the least convincing monster simply because it is impossible for Jason to get close to the beast. Scale is also one of the film’s best weapons. The scenes where a miniaturized Jason is transported to Mount Olympus to face the gods are well done as are the occasions when the gods peer down on tiny man.

Outside of the special effects and the varying degrees of excitement aroused, in the background is constant intrigue. Jason is the son of the King of Thessaly slain by the usurper Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) and his crew includes Acastus (Gary Raymond), son of Pelias, whose task is to cause trouble and if Jason succeeds in his endeavor to kill him. On top of that, there is a heavenly battle over Jason’s fate. Jason, having defied Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) by first of all refusing to believe he exists and that his life is determined by fate, becomes enmeshed in a battle between the king of the gods and his wife Hera (Honor Blackman) who grants Jason a get-out-jail-free card, the ability to call on her help, but only five times.

Jason determines to recruit his own team and in the manner of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Professionals (1966) they are all experts in their fields but unlike that film and The Dirty Dozen (1967) are willing conscripts. The team also includes Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney) and in the first of the film’s many surprises and reversals, the weedy latter is able to beat the muscular former in a contest of strength.

There is enough incident to keep the story ticking along but Don Chaffey fills in the blanks with montage, the various essentials of a ship – sails, oarsmen, sides, stern, figurehead, pace set by drumbeat  – and a full color palette from the bright blue sky, from dawn and dusk to sunset and night, a wonderful image of rowers at sunset on the sea the pick. He also makes great use of the sea – pounding surf, storms, the sea turned tempest by the clashing rocks, a shipwreck. And we have dancing girls, colorful costumes, ancient backdrops and the sense that the budget has been well spent

Some scenes call for immense skills in coupling special effects with real characters. For the clashing rocks sequence five elements are simultaneously in play: the crew in danger, a tempest, rocks crashing into the water, the ship itself and Neptune.

And the romance is well handled dramatically: if Jason rescues Medea (Nancy Kovack) then she too rescues him. Love produces conflict. To love Jason, Medea must betray her country. There is hardly a moment when Jason, confronted either by monsters or kings, does not face death.  

In addition, there is a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, 1960).

Any top-notch acting would have been overshadowed in any case by the special effects. Which is just as well because the entire cast is drawn from the lower strata of the stardom ladder. Todd Armstrong, from the Manhunt tv series (1961), needs only not to mess up, which he manages adequately. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman, 1963) does well to make an impact given she does not appear until the final third. This did not turn out to be much of a star-making vehicle for either. Honor Blackman drops the slinky persona with which she had made her name in The Avengers tv series (1962-1964) and instead plays a confident goddess willing to out-maneuver husband Zeus.

The rest of the cast comprises a regiment of future movie supporting actors – Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), Niall MacGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966). Future television stars ranged from Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who) and Scottish actor John Cairney (This Man Craig, 1966-1967) to Laurence Naismith (The Persuaders, 1971), Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968), Mike Gwynn (Poison Island, 1965) and Andrew Faulds (The Protectors, 1964).

The screenplay was written by Jan Read (First Men on the Moon, 1964) and Beverley Cross (The Long Ships, 1964), husband of Maggie Smith. Cross returned to ancient worlds again for producer Charles H. Schneer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981)

Although the ending appeared to leave the door open for a sequel, none was made. A huge box office hit in Britain, it did not repeat its success elsewhere.

I first saw this film as a boy and was so enthralled I wouldn’t have noticed if there was anything awry with the special effects. I have not seen it since. Coming at it with some degree of scepticism I found that attitude misplaced for I was equally enthralled.

Catch-Up: Nigel Green’s portrayal of Hercules was a far cry from his normal screen persona of martinet. His movies previously reviewed in the Blog are The Skull (1965), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Africa Texas Style (1967).

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****”

  1. Such a very nice review you made. I’m delighted to know I’m not the only fan of this “old” movie. “Old” is not the correct word, mythological is better. Like the gods in Olympus, the effects of Harryhausen are not getting old. There’s real life in it, as it seems. There’s a kind of magic in this art of stop motion as I wrote in my own article.
    I’m glad to read what you wrote about the philosophical echo of the scenario. The image is an enchantment, but the story reveals a true questions about belief and deity. The conflicts at work in the movie are questionning our very actual society, in a so acurate manner.
    Thank you for this relevant analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked the very bold approach to belief, very unusual for this genre, and made for a far more thoughtful movie than it is ever given credit for, the likes of yourself excluded of course. Before blue screen and CGI stop motion was the most effective way of achieving special effects and most of this is seamless. Highly imaginative stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a pleasant surprise you are reviewing a pure escapist Greek fable! Good and colourful entertainment till today. Believe this genre started with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jack The Giant Killer starring Kerwin Mathews. It appears to me Jason and the Argonauts , an American production are strangely helmed by British stars, if I am not mistaken. Good review as always.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I rewatched this on Film 4 last month, and was relived to see that, while there are flaws in the back projection, the effects do offer some quite remarkable moments. There’s something to be said for one-man special effects, they have character….

    Liked by 1 person

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