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).

The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) ****

The 1960s was awash with movie megalomaniacs, most courtesy of the spy vogue. You could also count on secret agents for trailing in their wake bevies of beauties. So no surprise then that criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has his own gang, his “brides,” although they are hardly volunteers, being the kidnapped daughters of top scientists. His plan for global domination this time consists of transmitting energy as sound waves, using miniaturization, a sonic death ray, with enough power to destroy a city.

The result is good hokum, a thriller set in the 1920s with a cracking pace, plenty of action, explosions, burgeoning romance, and  plot that gets more complicated by the minute as a tribe of worthies try out to outwit the evil genius. There is a terrific lair – where the disobedient end up in a snake pit – a passable laboratory, chases, truth serums (“the dust that loosens tongues”), hypnotism, bait-and-switch tricks and decent special effects.  Three stories race along in a parallel pell-mell: Manchu needs one more kidnapping to complete his complement of daughters; the good guys headed by Fu Manchu’s old adversary Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) are trying to locate the bad guy’s secret location while at the same time attempting to find out where he will strike next. 

While Fu Manchu is indestructible – supposed dead after the previous film – his henchmen (and henchwomen) are all too human. It takes three attempts to kidnap Manchu’s next victim. They are easily identifiable by their giveaway cummerbunds and bandannas and their method of assault is not kung fu but brawling so a good solid British punch of the old-school soon sorts them out. Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) is a chip off the old block, delighted at any opportunity to torment the brides.  

The brides wear diaphanous gowns that might have been a job-lot from the set of She, but are far from compliant, even rebelling at one point, and employing vicious fight tactics. Fans of director Don Sharp will find him every bit as inventive as in The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead. It’s another Harry Alan Towers (written under his pseudonym Peter Welbeck) production so that means an international cast. Two television cops, British Rupert Davies (BBC’s Maigret) and German Heinz Drache (cop in a Francis Durbridge series), plus Francois Mitterand’s brother-in-law Roger Hanin, provide solid support. Not forgetting Burt Kwouk as a henchman. Brides of the Year include French Marie Versini (German western Winnetou, 1963) and Rhodesian Carole Gray (Curse of the Fly, 1965). The film did not prove much of a jumping-off point for other brides such as Ulla Berglin, Danielle Defrere and Anje Langstraat, for whom this debut was as far as their careers went.

Christopher Lee, despite the dodgy moustache, is resplendent, exuding evil, and with a gift for rising again (just like Dracula) as he would do for another three films in the series.

Note: The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead are reviewed on this blog.

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