Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and after the relative disappointment of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), I felt much relief over that fact.
I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless. Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...). It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years. It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.
Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well. This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.
En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos. A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules. Later, Jason defends the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece. The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.
After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack). She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra.
But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure. Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....
If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here. For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage.
For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers. In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends." And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place. Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...
And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo. Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love. As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.
Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children. Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities. The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.
I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight. It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance. The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece. You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries. None of that occurs here. The battle seems virtually flawless. Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too. A real show-stopper.
I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods. Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981.
But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory.
It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted. Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.
I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness. All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency. The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others. There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.
That's a message I hope Joel has intuited and internalized during the course of our Harryhausen film odyssey.