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).

A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.