MONSTER FILM GIANTS – Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen occupies a unique position in motion picture history. Although neither a director nor a scriptwriter, he has exerted far more control over his films than most of the directors and writers with whom he worked. Without this “Creator of Special Visual Effects,” there would have been no 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), no 1th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), no Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—and the world of fantasy film would be the lesser for it. After Harryhausen’s retirement in 1987, at the age of sixty-seven, we have the complete career of a man whose willpower and individuality brought to life an impressive body of work
Like Willis O’Brien, his inspiration and mentor, Harryhausen brought the illusion of life to three-dimensional models through animation, then caused those figures to inter act with living humans. But Harryhausen achieved the extensive career that had eluded O’Brien; ultimately, he managed the almost impossible task of fusing the worlds of technician and artist. Recognizing that large budgets would not be forthcoming, he developed procedures that could, for the most part, be accomplished cheaply, quickly, and by one person alone. He also joined with a compatible businessman, Charles H. Schneer. For a quarter of a century, these two initiated projects and produced them independently, often with the financial backing of Columbia Pictures.
Driven by a need to give form to his mental images of exotic fantasy and wishing only to create the kinds of films that he himself wanted to see, Harryhausen accepted the need for compromise and, therefore, substantially achieved his goal. By satisfying his own needs, he admitted viewers into his private world of sights and experiences, which in turn stimulate the viewers imagination. Harryhausen embodies the technician as generous visionary; author Ray Bradbury, Harryhausen s friend since boyhood, has aptly praised “the delicious monsters that moved in his head and out of his fingers and into our eternal dreams.” In addition, as Harryhausen’s career developed, the entertainer evolved into an artist who expressed his complex personality and outlook.
Unlike most filmmakers, who must collaborate with their actors, Harryhausen is a God-like creator who constructs his “stars” and their performances. But despite such total power, he is no brooding eccentric confronting the mysteries of the universe in a mountaintop tower. Instead, he is modest and practical, yet the ambitious goals and the solitary creative struggle do exist, in a very modern blend of the ethereal and the mundane, of passion and patience. However, even the pragmatic technician withholds many details of his methods. “You’ll no longer be interested in the magician if he gives away all of his secrets,” he asserts.
The artist within Harryhausen, the inner, intuitive man, is only fleetingly glimpsed behind the careful planner and is perhaps vague even to himself. In a rare moment of introspection, Harryhausen once said, “I’ve been spending my life trying to duplicate a life-like action. Maybe I’ve got a Frankenstein complex. Maybe I’m an alchemist who wants to make the perfect Homunculus. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t attempt to analyze this desire. I find that if you analyze things too much, you analyze yourself out of existence. You can analyze anything out of existence!” Paradoxically, Harryhausen’s work involves the very essence of analysis—analysis of movement, of muscle flexing, of expressiveness. He can, in fact, analyze anything into existence! But for Harry hausen, analysis is a method of creation, a means to an end, whereas he wants viewers to respond with a spontaneous and emotional “appreciation of the ‘wondrous.’ ”
What we know about Harryhausen’s early years helps clarify his attraction to solitary work, his blending of art and technology, and his compulsion to control the worlds in his films and the world of the filmmaker. An only child, born in Los Angeles on 29 June 1920, Harryhausen spent much of his youth either alone or with his parents. They encouraged his interest in dinosaurs and lost civilizations by taking him to the LaBrea Tar Pits and the Museum of Natural History, and they bought him a book illustrated with Charles R. Knight’s dramatic paintings of prehistoric life. Somewhat shy and introspective, the young Harryhausen must have enjoyed the secure excitement of these ancient, imagined worlds. An ability to sketch was redirected by a school assignment to build models of old Spanish missions, which produced “a yen for three-dimensional objects rather than flat ones”and a satisfaction in construction that links him to his father, a machinist.
Harryhausen combined his varied interests by building prehistoric dioramas. Then, in 1933, he saw King Kong. “I came out of the theater stunned and haunted,” he recalls, and “haven’t been the same since.” Somehow, his models and settings had come to life. Kong inspired an interest in film technique, but less as a way of expressing thought and feeling than as a means of giving life to his dioramas, of showing the
After learning about single-frame animation, Harryhausen borrowed a 16mm cam era and, with an improvised cave bear model, shot his first footage. His father helped build the articulated skeleton, an old coat of his mother’s provided the fur, and the family garage became a studio. “It was a thrill to see the object move by itself,” says Harryhausen, and that thrill—that feeling of power—would be conveyed, years later, by the magicians in his Sinbad films. When Sokurah, in Vie 1th Voyage of Sinbad, uses
the force of his will to invest a skeleton with life-like movement, he probably evokes Harryhausen’s own feelings of control and of achievement. But Harryhausen went further. In one early experiment, the young filmmaker himself interacted with the giant bear. Later, the adult Harryhausen appeared in test footage for the unmade The Elemental* and for It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). Convenience was no doubt his motive, but the self-sufficient boy and man must also have enjoyed inhabiting his own
In 1939, Harryhausen met Willis O’Brien, whose “interest and encouragement,” he recalls, saw him “through many a difficult period.” The serious-minded young man was already obsessed with animation: “If I wasn’t doing something, learning something, reading something useful, I felt that I was wasting time.” He therefore took college courses in acting, in art and anatomy, and in film editing and art direction. While “doing puppet shows and stringing puppets for a doll company,” he built models with his father and filmed them in the family garage. Finally, he got a full-time job doing animation for several of George Pal’s Puppetoon shorts, including Hoola Book, Jasper and the Watermelons, and Tulips Shall Grow. Meanwhile, he began his own film, Evolution, but left it unfinished when he saw the “Rite of Spring” segment of Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which covered similar territory.
According to a friend from Pal’s crew, Harryhausen never grew up: “He’s just a kid at heart.” At the same time, though, he never had a “normal” childhood or adolescence. Ray Bradbury recalls, “We used to talk for hours on the phone, and we’d never talk about girls—we’d talk about dinosaurs!” Even at the age of twenty-seven, Harryhausen’s social life was “negligible. My main interest was my job.” To director Eugene Lourie, the thirty-two-year-old Harryhausen was “a very old, young man.”
Not surprisingly, he remained a bachelor until he was forty-two. This is not to say that Harryhausen was antisocial. “He was not gregarious,” explains a different member of Pal’s crew, “but he was fun to be around and laughed easily.” His interest, however, was not in reality or the exploration of human nature through art and literature but in creating a private world and controlling an illusion of life.
While working for Pal, Harryhausen’s “real desire was to be involved with a serious feature fantasy film,” but the difficulty of achieving that goal was dramatized in 1942, when Willis O’Brien joined the Puppetoon crew. Harryhausen’s pleasure at working with his idol must have been muted by the fact that the only full-time professional in his chosen field had settled for the same job as a novice.
During World War II, Harryhausen spent about three years in the army, making training films until his discharge in 1945. Back in Los Angeles, he bought some out dated 16mm film and animated four nursery rhymes: “Little Miss Muffet,” “OldMother Hubbard,” “The Queen of Hearts,” and “Humpty Dumpty.” To these he added a brief introduction, in which Mother Goose makes a movie projector appear and uses it to present the scenes, a situation that—by blending film, magic, and storytelling—suggests Harryhausen’s view of his activity. A nontheatrical distributor then bought the eleven-minute Mother Goose Stories (1946) for sale to schools and libraries.
In 1947, Willis O’Brien hired Harryhausen as his assistant on Mighty Joe Young (1949). Under O’Brien’s supervision, he did 80-85 percent of the film’s animation. It was “a long-awaited dream come true”—with one disturbing aspect. According to a friend from that period, “I’d never heard him complain about anything before, but he’d have tears in his eyes. ‘I can’t work,’ he’d say. ‘It’s just impossible!’ He couldn’t do anything because of the unions! He couldn’t light a scene—he’d have to have an electrician and two gaffers. . . . He couldn’t paint a puppet, because that was a union job, too. He was terribly upset.”|y Not only did this assembly-line approach hinder creativity, but it made the end-product far too expensive.
After completing Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen received a taste of the frustration O’Brien had long endured. He assisted in O’Brien’s futile preparations for Valley of the Mist, while his sketches and test reel for a production of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds aroused no studio interest. So he continued to hone his skills by making more shorts, this time with narration written by his former drama teacher, Charlotte Knight. In Little Red Riding Hood (1949), Harryhausen gives the wolf a muscular, slinky stride that anticipates his saber-toothed tiger in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The film also reveals a wariness of violence: the wolf doesn’t eat Grandma, and he dies off-screen. An amusingly gawky bird in Hansel and Gretel (1951) predates the phororhacos of Mysterious Island by ten years, and the image of Hansel locked in a cage returns in The 1th Voyage of Sinbad. In Rapunzel (1951), Harryhausen varies his
usual long and medium shots with a few close-ups, a subjective shot, and a dramatic moment when a character strides so close to the camera that an image of her hand holding a pair of scissors fills the screen.
Then chance, or fate, introduced Harryhausen to Jack Dietz and Hal Chester, independent producers who had a script for a low-budget picture about a sea monster called The Monster from Beneath the Sea. In June 1951, a story by Ray Bradbury had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (later retitled “The Fog Horn”) told of a lonely sea creature’s attraction to an isolated lighthouse, which, in confusion and frustration, it destroys. Months later, Dietz and Chester asked Bradbury to revise Vie Monster from Beneath the Sea; he declined the job, but noted a similarity between the script and his story. As a result, the producers bought the film rights to the story, which they integrated into the finished film. Dietz and Chester also adopted Bradbury’s title. In addition, the film’s rhedosaurus closely resembled the Post’s illustration by James R. Bingham, except that Harryhausen made the head and forearms larger.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) also owes a debt to The Timing (1951), because both films begin at an Arctic military post. The Thing, however, featured an alien from outer space that remained in the Arctic, while The Beast borrowed from King Kong (successfully re-released in 1952) by making its creature prehistoric and bringing it to Manhattan. The Arctic Giant (1942) may also have provided inspiration. In this Superman cartoon, scientists discover a frozen prehistoric creature; after thawing out in Metropolis, the beast breaks through a building, steps on cars, and causes the collapse of a bridge.
Before employing Harryhausen, Dietz and Chester hired set designer Eugene Lourie to direct. Lourie supervised a week of location filming in New York City, then shot the rest of the live action in California, after which Harryhausen spent about six months doing the special effects. The small budget limited what he could accomplish, but Harryhausen “found it a fortunate experience because it taught me to design and achieve certain effects without going into very costly processes.” To save time and money, he animated the model creature in front of rear-projected, live-action shots, which eliminated the need for much postproduction laboratory work.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms delays introducing its characters and basic situation by adopting a semi documentary style, with a narrator intoning about “Operation Experiment” over shots of airplanes and servicemen. Not in the shooting script, this opening emphasizes the experiment—the test dropping of an atomic bomb—so the introduction of the film’s true subject will surprise viewers. It also establishes a realistic context for the fantastic events to come and lets the producers pad the film with cheap stock footage. More narration was added to identify Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) and Colonel Evans (Kenneth Tobey), a task the script had over looked. The documentary style disappears when Nesbitt and another man investigate the explosion’s effects. After they glimpse the dinosaur, its movements start an
avalanche, which knocks Nesbitt unconscious and kills the other man. Rescued, Nesbitt is shipped to a New York hospital. So far, the characters are just bundled-up, anonymous figures seen in static long shots, but the brief views of the monster have impact. Usually, it appears behind a curtain of snow, then strides quickly out of sight.
In the film’s main section, Nesbitt tries to prove the truth of his story. Of course, the viewers have also seen the creature, so we know that he’s right, but the characters keep us interested. As Nesbitt, Paul Christian has a straightforward and pleasantly honest manner. That alone would not be enough, but he is supported by Cecil Kellaway’s charm as Dr. Elson, a paleontologist; by Kenneth Tobey’s firmness as Colonel Evans; and by Donald Woods s vitality as a Coast Guard officer. In the role of Lee Hunter, Dr. Elson’s assistant, Paula Raymond conveys a sincerity that helps transcend stereo type. The dialogue also gives the characters dimension, as when Lee Hunter says, “I make coffee strong enough to enter the Olympics,” and Colonel Evans, wary of being thought crazy, jokes that “eagles on a straitjacket are not regulation uniforms.” The comments of two lighthouse keepers neatly reverse our expectations: The old man mentions hearing a new song he liked, and the youth waxes nostalgic about old ballads “that warm ya even when the fog is a foot thick.”
In one satisfying scene, Nesbitt and Lee examine drawings of dinosaurs to identify the one he saw. Nesbitt notes that he is an atomic scientist and she a paleontologist. “Between us,” he says, “we span the ages. You deal with the past, I with the future.” When she responds, “Look how uncomplicated the past was,” he adds, “And how bright the future can be.” The comment about their professions has shifted gracefully into a hint at mutual attraction, and the actors support this implication with their delivery and the pause that follows. “Well,” Lee finally says, “let’s get back to the present,” and they look at more drawings. At the scene’s end, Lee says, “Phone me if anything exciting happens.” Nesbitt replies, “I’ll phone you even if nothing happens.” This line sounds like the kind of flirtation he might indulge in with any attractive woman, but it could also be the comment of someone truly interested in knowing her better. Thanks to such moments, their romance seems less like a plot requirement and more like the interaction of recognizably real people.
The rhedosaurus appears only three times during this central section. In a scene of it attacking a ship, the script describes only two shots of the beast: one of its head, seen through the pilot house window, and a final one of it overturning the vessel. Harryhausen provides more, including an impressive entrance as its head rises in the fore ground and two views of the ship’s destruction. During the lighthouse sequence, Harryhausen develops a poetic quality by placing the animal in silhouette. The creature’s third appearance occurs after Dr. Elson descends in a diving bell to find it. This sequence develops an emotional pull, as we enjoy Elson’s pleasure at seeing alive what he previously knew only in fossil form, while we also anxiously anticipate his expected loss. Unfortunately, although Elson says he can see only the monster’s leg and shoulder, we view the entire creature in diorama-like long shots that prevent us from sharing Elson’s sense of claustrophobia. Other shots (not in the script) do present Elson’s perspective by showing the creature’s head as it moves toward the camera. Here, Harryhausen again gave the producers more than the script demanded, but the extra shots do not always fit the scene s dramatic needs.
When Elson dies, the filmmakers wisely trade spectacle for feeling: Instead of seeing the bell destroyed, we stay on shipboard as communication stops, which leads to a scene in the museum as Lee reacts to Elson’s absence. Here, she cries in Nesbitt’s arms and he comforts her. This—plus a quick kiss before Nesbitt leaves to kill the monster and an embrace afterward—is as far as the romance develops. Such restraint adds to the relationship’s believability.
The loss of Elson, the film’s most likeable character, signals a general loss of contact with the characters as people. From here on, spectacle dominates as the film jumps rapidly from place to place and person to person. When the monster climbs ashore in lower Manhattan, anonymous figures flee or are killed. After a news broadcast becomes narration over impersonal stock footage, Colonel Evans learns that the creature’s blood carries a “virulent disease,” so shooting and explosions must be avoided. Then, Nesbitt reemerges to suggest firing a radioactive isotope into the beast’s open wound.
As the rhedosaurus tromps through the city streets it shakes a car here, eats a police man there, and knocks over a building or two. Harryhausen’s animation of this is smooth and detailed, with effective visual touches. One striking shot, not called for by the script, shows the monster from a low angle turning away and swishing its tail close to the camera. At night, a spotlight moves restlessly across the creature, and there are dramatic flashes when the animal touches some high-voltage wires. Harryhausen also provides more complex images than the script demands. In one case, we see the monster’s jaws grasp a policeman and pick him up, whereas the script has that part of the action occur off-screen. Two incidents in the screenplay, however, do not appear in the film. In one, a young woman—”partially dressed, evidently having just taken a shower”—is shocked when the beast’s head appears at her window; in the other, the monster tears the Brooklyn Bridge apart.
Only when one recalls Kong’s New York quest for Ann Darrow does this film’s weakness become clear: The rhedosaurus has no purpose or goal as it wanders about, and when it stands amid the curlicues of a roller coaster, it has nothing to do but chew the scenery. In the script’s version of this climax, the beast dramatically, and pathetically, becomes tangled in the coaster’s collapsing girders. When Nesbitt and a sharp shooter set out with the isotope, the sharpshooter is crushed by falling debris, so Nesbitt does the fatal deed himself. Meanwhile, a fire starts, and Colonel Evans rushes to Nesbitt’s rescue. Owing to Harryhausen’s suggestions, the film offers a more elaborate finale in which the girders do not collapse around the monster. Seeking a clear shot, Nesbitt and the sharpshooter (Lee Van Cleef) ride the roller coaster to a high position, then get out to take aim. The isotope hits its target, and, as the beast’s writhings jar the structure, the coaster breaks free and races wildly along the track, crashing and
starting the fire. The two men climb down, avoiding both the fire and the monster.
This sequence has some impact, but it never creates a strong sense of confrontation or even substantial risk, because events rarely feel connected to each other. From the moment the men run to the roller coaster until they stop and load the rifle, we have fourteen shots of them and the people watching but none of the beast; with the men ace thus omitted, the segment feels prolonged. When Van Cleef aims and fires, he does so quickly, with no suspenseful obstacles to overcome. The film then intercuts between the empty coaster rushing along the track and the men walking the opposite way, but the car does not endanger the men and the monster receives only one shot of the thirteen used, so the editing creates little suspense. After the car merely falls off a broken end of the track, Lourie intercuts between the beast reacting to the isotope and the men climbing down, but the monster has no impact on the men and their
need to avoid the fire lacks urgency.
This climax doesn’t build consistent excitement, but the sights we see do hold considerable interest, thanks to their novelty. At the end, the film is turned over to Harryhausen’s beast, which finally has something meaningful to do. It circles, falls onto its elbows, rears up for a final scream, then collapses and is still. The rhedosaurus had never been a sympathetic monster, but it is sad to see an animal in pain. Appropriately, the final shot is of the creature, not the human survivors.
Dietz and Chester grabbed a quick profit by selling The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Warner Bros, which, after adding a new musical score and one shot of a ballet performance, made a much bigger profit. Meanwhile, Harryhausen returned to his fairy tales. King Midas (1953)—which includes a malevolent-looking, bald-headed magician who anticipates Sokurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad—demonstrates Harryhausen’s increasing visual skill. One dynamic sequence, of Midas testing his golden touch, builds from long shots to close-ups of his hand entering the frame to change a series
of objects into gold.
Harryhausen was working on another fairy tale when Charles Schneer contacted him. The producer, Harryhausen recalls, “was interested in making something new and different from the normal type of adventure films.”21 Schneers idea of “new and different” was to have a monster from the sea attack a city! Specifically, he wanted a giant octopus to pull down San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, an event similar to the Brooklyn Bridge sequence omitted from The Beast. The live-action octopus/shark fight seen in The Beast may have inspired the use of an octopus, an idea reinforced by the giant squid in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954).The new film even used the same working title as The Beast, but its final title—It Came from Beneath the Sea—derives from the science-fiction film It Came from Outer Space (1953). Working with an even lower budget than he had on Vie Beast, Harryhausen saved animation time by giving the octopus fewer than its natural eight tentacles. As he explains, “Time is money and the more time one can save the better.”22 Money was also saved by including more stock footage than The Beast had, which gives the film a cut-rate, padded look.
Like its predecessor, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) starts in documentary style, with a narrator discussing atom-powered submarines, which again misdirects viewers before the first encounter with the creature. Unfortunately, this script never discards the crutch of using narration to provide information. “What was the nature of that nameless substance found caught in the damaged diving plane?” asks the anonymous voice. “A substance so strange, so inexplicable and alarming, that the best minds in the nation had to be called upon to solve the problem. Behind the guarded door . . . three people met.” The presence of this device makes the writers so lazy that they sometimes avoid dramatizing events even when narration isn’t used. We first learn about a newly devised torpedo, for example, while it is being loaded onto the submarine. As a result, the film becomes a fragmented series of highlights and not an evolving story.
At least, the opening scenes do improve on those of The Beast. Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), who commands the submarine, is clearly established as the main character, and, when something unknown grasps his craft, the viewer remains within the ship and sees no more than the characters do. Later, as Mathews and two scientists examine the rubbery material that was caught on the sub, they wear protective suits and helmets. Here, unlike in The Beast, our inability to “see” these people has a purpose: We are meant to be surprised when her voice reveals that one of the scientists is a woman, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue).
The three main characters lack the kind of personal involvement in the situation that Nesbitt had in The Beast, so the writers fill the gap by elaborating on a romance between Mathews and Joyce. Happily, they approach this familiar task in a fairly fresh way. Mathews is more than just flirtatious; he is a sexual predator, pushy and aggressive, cornering Joyce at every opportunity. (The Tiling had cast Kenneth Tobey in a similar role.) This overconfident chauvinist assumes, once they’ve kissed, that she will
immediately drop her plans for a research trip and stay with him—but she doesn’t. In The Beast, Lee Hunter had only been the professors assistant, but this heroine is the professor—the “head of Marine Biology at the Southeastern Institute of Oceanography”—and, as such, figures prominently in the plot. She determines that the rubbery mass is part of a giant octopus, she explains that it left the deep ocean because of hydrogen bomb tests, she designs the torpedo that will remain fixed in its target’s flesh, and she talks back to the skeptical higher-ups. Her male teammate, Dr. Carter (Donald Curtis), is just along for the ride.
The conflict between Mathews and Joyce reaches its peak after they first sight the monster. Mathews insists that Joyce be sent to safety, speaking to Carter as if she were not even present. Carter suggests asking her opinion. “What’s the difference what she says?” replies Mathews. Carter explains, “There’s a whole new breed [of women] who feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous as men. And they are! They don’t like to be overprotected. They don’t want to have their initiative taken away from them.” Carters speech, however, is forgotten when the submarine sets out to fire Professor Joyce’s torpedo at the creature and no one even suggests that she go along. The film’s final scene, though, returns to the original concept: Joyce won’t marry Mathews because she’s too busy, but she suggests that they collaborate on a book. The two kiss, and Mathews admits to Carter, “You were right about this new breed of woman.” A relationship has been established, but an untraditional one that blends work, romance,
and independence in a way that has always been rare in American films.
This unexpected anticipation of feminism grants the film a limited distinctiveness, but the blunt characterizations dilute its impact, with Mathews so irritating that no one could find him desirable. When Joyce gives in to romance during a beach embrace, Faith Domergue abruptly adopts a pouty sensuousness, and the extreme contrast with her earlier manner is jarring. Equally disruptive is director Robert Gordon’s handling of Domergue in an earlier scene. After Mathews asks if she is romantically involved with Carter. Joyce stands next to Carter and stares at him. When he asks her a question, she gets flustered and keeps staring. The idea of having her decide if she might really be interested is a good one, but the exaggerated execution doesn’t fit this self-possessed woman’s personality. Carter presents a different problem. The writers seem to have included him to create a romantic triangle, but after planting the seed, they let it die. The director never finds anything else for poor Carter to do, but still includes him in shots of Mathews and Joyce, so the character becomes a boring appendage.
Visually and dramatically, the film’s energy increases when the monster arrives in San Francisco. Unlike in Tiie Beast, the main characters participate in the action and confront the creature directly. The Golden Gate Bridge is electrified to keep the beast out of the harbor, but (unexpectedly and without explanation) electricity attracts it, so Carter drives out to shut off the power. This scene offers impressive spectacle and a sense of Carter’s vulnerability, as tentacles rise in the background, break through the bridge’s surface, and crush his car. Mathews drives to Carters rescue, but at this point the filmmakers’ control falters. Carter gets in the car and it speeds off in reverse. After a long shot of the octopus grasping the bridge, we see the car moving forward (without ever having turned around). Another long view shows the octopus starting to pull down a portion of the bridge, followed by four shots of the car driving off the bridge and reaching safety. Finally, in still another long shot, the creature continues to pull at the bridge. As happened in the climax of The Beast, the people at this point have no connection with the creature, but this is the only time such is the case in It Came from Beneath the Sea.
The octopus next surfaces at the city docks (just as the rhedosaurus had). Clearly, a sea creature can threaten only a limited amount of harm on land, but Harryhausen justifies public panic by having its tentacles snake their way through the adjacent streets. Like a whip cracking in slow motion, one giant appendage rolls down on a group of fleeing figures and, in a brilliantly gruesome touch, drags back, presumably spreading their bodies along the road like strawberry jam on bread. Another tentacle moves through a window and its tip waves about inside, as if looking for someone (evoking an unused incident in Tlie Beast’s script). A third knocks a helicopter out of the sky. The octopus must be driven back into the water, so soldiers with flame throwers send the tentacles into retreat.
Because the creature s destruction has to be “complete and instantaneous,” the scientists aim their torpedo at its only vulnerable spot, the brain. Thus, we have the same basic challenge as in The Beast, but in a revised and improved version. The torpedo hits its mark, but before it can be detonated the tentacles grasp and hold the submarine. The plot has come full circle, with a situation like the one in the first scene, and a character appropriately declares, “This is where we came in!”
Detonation would mean self-destruction, so Mathews swims into action. He fires a spear into a tentacle, only to be knocked unconscious. Carter then tries the same thing, though he is hardly qualified for the job. True, Mathews had rescued him on the bridge, but a reciprocal gesture would be dramatically necessary only if the script had developed their relationship. This weakness, though, matters less than having the main characters directly involved with the creature. In an impressive shot of Carter poised
in front of the creature’s giant eye, he fires point-blank. (Unfortunately, a poor technical effect makes Carter’s figure translucent.) The sub is released, Carter swims away with Mathews, and the torpedo is detonated. The Beast had ended on a shot of the monster, but It Came from Beneath the Sea simply blows its creature to bits, and we end with an epilogue that ties up the romantic loose ends.
After finishing It Came from Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen joined Willis O’Brien to animate the prehistoric segment of the documentary The Animal World (1956). Reminded once more that O’Brien’s insistence on large budgets had limited his output, how could Harryhausen resist the lure of Charles Schneer? A finished work—even a low-budget one—is far more satisfying than unproduced plans. One
cannot wait for backing. One must take control and make one’s own fate! By teaming with Schneer, Harryhausen surely made the right decision. Twelve films exist to prove it.
Convinced that the only way to make such movies cheaply was to work alone, Harryhausen developed a one-man assembly-line technique. Believing that “it is most important to start off with essentially a strong visual impression,” he first made about a dozen large drawings of possible creatures and encounters. He and a writer then created a screenplay based on these images. “The picture is built around the fantasy sequences,” he explained in 1974. “It has to be!” Harryhausen also planned the basic set design and sometimes sketched every shot in a sequence, especially those involving special effects. “It’s important to get what we want on paper first,” he has said, “because it’s terribly costly to try to invent on the set” or “to shoot more than we intend to use.” This detailed planning would occur before a director was even hired.
During live-action filming, the director handled the scenes without animated figures, but with Harryhausen usually on the set. If the schedule was tight, he might direct one scene while the director worked on another. As for the effects sequences, either Harryhausen directed them or, he said, “I let the director know what I need and he directs it.” Much later, Harryhausen animated his models and combined them with the previously shot footage. “I usually edit those sequences myself, then talk it over with Charles [Schneer]. If we see that we can improve it, he gets his two cents in. Then the director looks at it.” It is not clear how many cents worth of input the director got.
By dominating this process, Harryhausen made his pictures in an efficient, economical way, while shielding himself from conflict by hiring people who knew from the start that they would be working for him, not with him. Unsurprisingly, his favorite part of the procedure was the planning, because “that’s where most of the imagination comes in.” Later, “there’s also a great deal of enjoyment in the anima
tion.” The middle stage, which involved the most work with other people, satisfied him least.
Harryhausen’s determination to create the effects alone derived from both practical and personal motivations. Because animation requires monitoring many small stages of movement, attention has to be completely focused on the work; “sheer will power” kept Harryhausen going. Concentration also allowed him to establish a personal connection with his models. “This illusion depends on an inward feeling for movement,” he says, which is “locked inside the animator until it is freed by the use of stop motion photography.” Solitude freed his imagination to add the spontaneous character details that give a creature individuality and create a performance. The young Harryhausen’s flirtation with acting here found its perfect, indirect form. “I suppose,” he admits, “that I act through my models,” and these actors “never talk back or criticize what I’m doing.”
Before animating a dueling skeleton for The 1th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen took fencing lessons. “It’s very difficult to explain,” he says, “but. . . you have to almost put yourself in the figure, and I felt it was very important that I got the feel of it.” While working on Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen felt comfortable with just one of the four gorilla models. “It was the only figure . . . which I could successfully
manipulate into the many complicated poses I visualized in my mind. It’s really quite fascinating how one can become attached to a mass of metal and rubber.” As if self-conscious about this admission, he adds, “It may be that it was all in my own mind.” The technician is forever ill-at-ease with the artist who drives him on.
Harryhausen’s working method, which “requires you to have the mentality of a monk sometimes,” grew naturally from the personality of the boy who filmed in his parents’ garage. He did not move out into the world and find a job. Instead, the man who, in director Nathan Juran’s words, is “complete unto himself” designed a career that fit his private needs, providing the security of complete control. “I managed to find my little niche,” he says, “and stayed there out of everybody’s sight.” In effect, he turned the vast, intimidating film industry into the neighborhood garage.
At the same time, Harryhausen took on so many creative tasks that no individual could possibly excel in them all. Harryhausen explains that he bases his decisions on technical demands and budgetary limitations, and it is hard to argue with this, yet such argument would have to occur for a Harryhausen film to rise to the level of King Kong. He worked hard to make good, imaginative pictures, but he never worked with a person who could take him further than he might go alone, as Merian C. Cooper did for Willis O’Brien.
This limitation could already be seen in 1955. Vie Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had been an original work, the first film in which humans confront a creature revived (or antagonized or mutated) by atomic energy. As such, it created a formula that other films copied. It Came from Beneath the Sea was merely one of those other films. Significantly, Eugene Lourie had dominated The Beast, but Harryhausen dominated Beneath the Sea. He devised a visually striking creature and he refined the action climax, but he lost what believability Vie Beast’s human characters had possessed. The next two Harryhausen-Schneer projects—Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth—also feature attacks on major cities—further variations on the formula.
In the 1950s, “flying saucers were a big news item,” recalls Harryhausen, “and Charles wanted to make a science-fiction film about them.” They were an item not only in tabloid newspapers but also in Hollywood production offices, as witness The Tiling (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Vie War of the Worlds (1953). So the two men joined the bandwagon, concocting (with horror veteran Curt Siodmak) a story in which beings from a disintegrating solar system attack Washington. Although “suggested by” Major Donald E. Keyhoe’s 1953 book Flying Saucers from Outer Space, the final script of Earth us. the Flying Saucers (1956) takes only a few details from that nonfiction work. Unlike the film’s authors, Keyhoe emphasizes the saucers’ lack of aggressiveness and states that the Air Force ordered its pilots not to fire on them.
Typically, Harryhausen approached the film as a technical and imaginative—but not a dramatic—challenge. He was attracted to “seeing just how interesting one could make an inanimate object such as a rounded metal spaceship.” He even made his task more difficult by designing saucers that constantly whirl and that create around themselves a transparent, shimmering shield. As a result of this emphasis on technical execution, the film is the most simplistic of all Harryhausen’s features. Little distracts from the basic subject: an alien encounter of the hostile kind. Even the now-expected opening narration declines to mislead viewers, instead presenting the “facts” of some saucer sightings and quoting a fictional Air Force order “to fire on sight at any flying objects not identifiable.” From the start, we expect impressive scenes of battle and destruction.
The filmmakers do not even try to give their characters personalities. Romance is avoided by making the male and female leads newlyweds, and their relationship hardly matters to the plot. They also face no major decisions or conflicts. For example, the aliens contact Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) because he heads a satellite launch program, and from then on all he does is react to them. Marvin’s wife (Joan
Taylor) suffers a worse fate. Unlike the heroine of It Came from Beneath the Sea, she has no identity of her own, existing only as a scientist’s wife and secretary and as a general’s daughter. Instead of people and feelings, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers stresses factual details. The “foo lights” that sometimes float about are remote-controlled spy devices, an “Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank” extracts a person’s knowledge and stores it, and the aliens operate in a dimension in which time moves much faster than in ours.
The screenwriters included many useful suggestions for building energy and character throughout the film, all of which the filmmakers ignored. Harryhausen himself may be to blame in the scene of the Marvins sighting their first saucer. In the script, it appears behind their car, then in front. Marvin tells his wife, who is driving, “Go after it!” She “steps on the gas and drives ahead at full speed. The saucer easily out speeds them. . . .Then with startling suddenness, it reverses direction and comes back at the car with incredible speed. … It looks as though it is about to crash into the car.” Carol swerves “off the road and across the adjoining empty field. The speeding car rocks and bounces dangerously over the uneven ground, threatening to flip.” In the film, after the saucer appears in front of the car, Carol merely pulls over and Marvin gets out and looks up, as the object quickly departs.
In other scenes, director Fred F. Sears omits the script’s ideas and finds no alternatives. When a messenger interrupts the Marvins’ dinner with important news, the script has him arrive in a medium shot that pans as his jeep “skids through a tight turn and stops close to the barbecue party.” Sears settles for a stationary long shot of the jeep pulling up, so the effect is calm instead offense. In a later scene, Carol is loaded with supplies and “nearly bumps into” her father. As they talk, he “helps her recover a falling package.”Then, he “holds the lab door open for her.”The film omits these reasonable, if not especially novel, interactions; the two just meet, talk, and part. When Marvin tries to contact a saucer, he “wipes the sweat off his brow and looks anxiously around for a place to dispose of his cigarette which is burning his fingers. Finding no ashtray, he drops it on the floor.” Such details, which heighten the intensity of events, cannot be found in the film, which the directors failure of imagination dooms to flatness
The writers’ ingenuity, however, was limited to such touches, and in the basic plot they resort to arbitrary manipulation. As soon as the military decides not to use atomic weapons on the invaders, Marvin gets an idea for a new kind of weapon. When his prototype isn’t satisfactory, an otherwise unnoticed scientist recalls a suggestion made between scenes by a doctor from New Delhi. “Of course!” exclaims Marvin, and the solution has been found. To keep the final battle limited to Washington, the film assumes—without explanation—that all the saucers have converged on thatcity from around the globe.
The script’s biggest weakness, though, is its vagueness about the aliens’ purpose, which may reflect a conflict between the optimism of Major Keyhoe’s book and the filmmakers’ desire for a saucer attack. At first, the aliens seem like victims of our shoot-first mentality: When a saucer lands and three figures emerge, soldiers immediately open fire. The aliens respond by killing people and blowing up buildings. Later, atape recording reveals that they thought they had set up a meeting, and Marvin learns that they feared our satellites might be weapons directed against them.
The aliens seem sympathetic, if over reactive, until they demonstrate their power by destroying a battleship and declare that they could easily conquer us. The result, though, would be a wrecked planet and a hostile population, so why not avoid fighting and reach an agreement? They give Earth fifty-six days to arrange a meeting of world leaders for this purpose. Instead, Marvin and the military devise a weapon and test it on a saucer that lands nearby. One alien dies and the saucer fires back, killing people and blowing up a vehicle, a bomber, and a building. It then drops the bodies of two brain-drained prisoners and leaves. When the time limit runs out, the aliens cause an explosion on the sun, which leads to eight days of “meteorological convulsions” (and many stock shots) that cripple the earth and lead to the final battle—Earth’s counter attack.
The film implies that the aliens want us to capitulate without resisting, but was that their intention from the start or did it result from our firing on them? Would they have settled for some kind of immigration and resident-alien status? The exposition of this issue is so confused that the film cannot quite be the simple them-against-us action picture that it evidently wants to be.
Such limitations aside, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a film of action, and that action is fairly spectacular. Marvin’s weapon nullifies the magnetic force that powers the saucers, causing them to crash
impressively: One hits the Capitol dome and another topples the Washington Monument. “The collapse of the buildings,” recalls Harryhausen, “had to be animated frame by frame. That meant that each brick was suspended with invisible wires and had to change position with every frame of film. Dust and debris were added later. It was something I would never do again.”
This climax is noteworthy, but a few brief moments remain at least as long in the memory. These fragments use photography not just to show events but to dramatize them. A close-up of the captured general is taken from an extremely low angle, with the aliens’ ominous brain machine visible above him. After the attack on the launch center, when the Marvins realize they are trapped in their underground command post, we see them in an extreme long shot, as the walls and a staircase press toward their tiny figures.
Such shots may be the work of the director and/or photographer, but others include Harryhausens effects. The final destructive binge ends with the Marvins standing in front of the gaping Capitol dome, with a crashed saucer on the buildings steps, and the graphic power of this image transcends the facts of what it shows. An even more resonant moment occurs when Marvin meets the aliens on a beach. A shot
of him walking into tight close-up is followed by an extreme long shot from above as he stands by the previously unseen saucer. Marvin’s unexpected nearness to the camera and the abrupt shift of angle and distance create, for a few fragile seconds, an almost primal sense of mystery: A man alone, by the vast ocean, in darkness, steps toward the massive unknown. Who needs a big budget when a creative sense of cinema is available? What counts is not the special effect but how it is used. These moments were not described in the shooting script. Did some alchemical blend of talents suddenly produce art here?
Discussing Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Harryhausen reveals a limited grasp of its elements. At one point, he justifies the pale human characters: “When you’re trying to tell a tale such as we do in the saucer picture, you either spend the time trying to develop characterization, or you spend the time developing the destruction, which is what these pictures are all about.” Two sentences later, he declares, “That picture, I thought, had good, rounded characterizations in it.”40 Trying to have it both ways, he develops a defensiveness that can blind him to the reality of his own work. A complete filmmaker dare not view action and characterization as mutually exclusive, nor can he confuse competent acting with rounded characterizations.
Just after completing The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Harryhausen had felt “a longing to go to Europe.”41 Without the funds for a vacation, he outlined two films that would require European locations. In The Elementals, large, winged creatures invade Paris, and The Giant Ymir placed an animal from Venus in modern Rome. One of The Beast’s producers had bought The Elementals, but nothing resulted. After Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Charles Schneer evidently ran out of ideas for films, so Harryhausen
offered The Giant Ymir. The outline “had most of the key situations in it,”42 he recalls, but “its many faults stood out like the boot of Italy on a map.”43 He turned for help to Charlott Knight, who “rounded out the live characters and put a great deal more sub stance in the story.”44 A script was written, and Harryhausen got his trip abroad.
Retitled 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), this film solidified Harryhausen’s crearive position: He wrote the original story, supervised the screenplay’s development, and shot the on-location footage. His fondness for King Kong clearly influenced the plot’s structure. An early version had first recounted events on Venus, with that planet substituting for Skull Island as an isolated spot where monsters are found. The final story omits Venus, but the parallel remains, with the monster discovered and overpowered on an island (Sicily), then brought to a major city (Rome). There, held in place by metal belts, it is exhibited to reporters. Like Kong, the Ymir breaks loose and stalks the city’s streets, wreaking havoc and lowering real estate values. Finally, it falls from the city’s most famous building.
Unlike Kong, this creature has no clear goal except survival—although survival can be a strong and valid goal on its own, and viewers readily empathize with the Ymir as a lonely victim defending itself in a strange, unpredictable world. Still, this limited goal weakens the plot’s development. Kong broke his bonds because of what he perceived as danger to Ann Darrow, but the Ymir escapes because an accident short-circuits the electrical system that keeps it unconscious. This accident is not even explained; it occurs for the filmmakers’ convenience. Equally arbitrary is the setting of the climax at the Colosseum. “I rather fancied having the Ymir in the final reel leave a mass of new ruins among the old,” is Harryhausen’s reason for choosing that location.45 By contrast, Kong headed for the tallest building because he had lived on Skull Island’s highest mountain.
In one significant respect, Harryhauscn here surpasses both King Kong and his previous films. He designed the rhedosaurus to look like a dinosaur, and his octopus was, like Kong, derived from reality, but the Ymir is totally imaginary. Like a tyrannosaurus, it stands upright on two muscular legs and has a heavy tail for balance. Unlike a tyrannosaurus, it has long, muscular arms that end in three large talons. Its face, less fierce than a dinosaur’s, is sensitive and even vulnerable, with an almost feline quality owing
to its whisker-like folds. A truly impressive conception, the Ymir combines stature and ferocity with mobility and expressiveness. It also offers variety. The other beasts had entered their films full-sized and ready for action, but the Ymir arrives on Earth unborn, in a small canister. Because our atmosphere upsets its metabolic rate, the creature rapidly grows to the size of a man, and then even larger. This allows the film to introduce the alien early and to save the giant menace for later.
The script provides no information about the Ymir’s intelligence, but Harryhausen’s animation of the creature’s movements—its “performance”—adds details that suggest a subtle nature. When quite small, the Ymir is startled by the sudden switching on of a light. It turns away, shielding its eyes, then rubbing them. It also brushes its snout ingenuously and looks, by turns, curious, confused, and quizzical. At other
times, of course, it snarls menacingly. This wide range of expression creates a distinct identity, making the Ymir as striking an entity as anything devised by Willis O’Brien.
Thanks to careful writing, the film’s human characters move into and out of the action with unobtrusive ease. Two fishermen and Pepe (Bart Bradley), a young boy, rescue Colonel Calder (William Hopper) and another man from a spaceship that crashed in the sea. With the local doctor away, a villager recalls the presence of Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) because Pepe had sold specimens to him. Leonardo is only a
zoologist, but his granddaughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor), attends medical school, so she cares for the injured men. Meanwhile, Pepe discovers the canister and sells its contents to Leonardo. Thus, the characters’ paths cross in a logical, efficient manner that continues throughout the film, and this occurs without a reliance on narration.
The supporting characters are quickly, but vividly, sketched. Although the aggressive salesmanship of Pepe grows somewhat overbearing, his scene with Dr. Leonardo has a relaxed humanity as Leonardo teasingly humors the boy, while clearly feeling affection for him. In the role of General MacIntosh, Thomas B. Henry is an acceptable military figure (as he was in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), but his harsh voice makes the statement “It’s tragic the others died in the moment of their glory” sound like an insincere afterthought. In Flying Saucers, John Zaremba played a scientist who steps out of the background to offer important information, then disappears. This awkwardness is avoided in 20 Million Miles by combining several minor figures into one continuing character, Dr. Uhl, also played by Zaremba.
The hero and heroine are better matched than any pair in Harryhausen’s earlier films. Marisa is independent and assertive, but not overpowering, and the crisp arrogance of Colonel Calder is justified by the pressure of circumstances. In four effective scenes, their initial antagonism develops not into romance but into a more convincing affectionate respect.
They first meet in the village hospital, where Marisa tries to stop Calder from disturbing the other survivor with questions. Worried and impatient, he snaps at her to leave him alone. Because he assumes she’s a nurse, Marisa retorts that she’s a doctor, then adds, “Or, almost a doctor.” Calder continues talking to the dying man, so she injects him with a sedative. Throughout, we understand both characters’ perspectives:
Calder must obtain information before the other astronaut expires, while Marisa is insecure as a “doctor” but determined to do the right thing. The scene contains edgy tension and real anger.
When they meet again, on the road to Rome, Calder greets Marisa with, “Well, hello, Almost-a-doctor,” which (to William Hopper’s credit) sounds slightly more nasty than teasing. Later, when the two are more relaxed, Marisa admits to having been “inconsiderate and self-centered,” and Calder responds, “All you’ve done is try to help. All I’ve done is snarl at you.” He offers to make it up to her “over a table for two in a dark cafe.” “With a candle burning on the table?” she asks, knowing the routine but interested nonetheless.
During their next encounter, at the Rome zoo, the two flirt in a friendly fashion. “You caught me unprepared,” she says. “I’ve been cooking over a hot creature all day.” He responds with, “You’re getting lovelier every time I see you—or is it the lights in this room?””Well,” she replies, glancing toward the Ymir, “next to that, I look dandy.” This banter enlivens the characters in an appealingly unexpected way. Then Marisa takes the initiative, reminding Calder about the dinner offer and warning that the candle is “burning lower and lower and lower.”This is as involved as the two ever get, so the film does not have to push them too far, too fast. The result—characters who strike an appropriate balance between being distinctive individuals and filling the needs of the plot—was not achieved easily, for the apology scene is not in the shooting script and the zoo dialogue was changed considerably.
Director Nathan Juran responds well to these characterizations. During the hospital scene, he reinforces the conflict by having the actors speak at the same time, which happens there but nowhere else (and isn’t indicated in the script).The mutual apologies are exchanged while Marisa changes a bandage on Calder’s arm. When someone calls him, he starts to leave but is pulled back by the bandage roll, which Marisa still holds. As she cuts him loose they exchange looks, having noticed that this bit of business reflects a new link between them.
Often, Juran devotes extra visual attention to Marisa. At the end of the hospital scene, she moves to a window and closes the shutters; then, as she turns around, the camera tracks in for a close-up of her. After a shot of Calder from her point of view, we return to the close-up as she says, in an angry tone and mostly to herself, “Pleasant dreams.” Here, Juran conveys both Marisa’s professional dedication and her personal resentment. In another scene, she and Leonardo discover that the Ymir has grown larger overnight. When the man leaves, instead of following the script’s direction that Marisa watch him, “fondly amused,” Juran has her stare with interest at the off-screen cage, then move closer to it. These few seconds support her later ability to draw conclusions about the Ymir, such as, “I guess I frightened it as much as it frightened me” (a line not in the shooting script). Joan Taylor’s characterization gains much from suchthoughtful, essentially cinematic, opportunities.
Overall, Juran uses images more creatively than Harryhausen’s previous directors, and his background as an art director probably influenced the scene of two fishermen searching the spaceship for survivors. The interior shots are claustrophobic and threatening, with vague foreground shapes, deep shadows, and pervasive steam mingling in tight compositions. Modest and unpretentious, Juran has described himself as “just atechnician who could transfer the script from the page to the stage and could get it shot on schedule and on budget.”46 He admired Harryhausen’s specialized skills, saying,”! learned real fast from him.”
In return, Harryhausen enjoyed working with Juran, but only because he “understood the problems” of making a special-effects picture.48 Dwelling on the compromises imposed by his small budgets, Harryhausen never seems aware of what directors actually do, aside from working with actors. He once even declared that “the quality of each picture a director works on depends largely on how much money is in the budget. Generally, he employed only directors who fit his image of them as crafts men and who accepted his plans without asserting themselves. By “learning” from Harryhausen and viewing himself as a hireling, Juran evidently struck the right chord, while unobtrusively improving the film with his own contributions. Not surprisingly, Juran and Harryhausen made two more films together, whereas only one other director (Don Chaffey) returned for even a second stint.
Harryhausen’s special-effects scenes in this film represent his most cinematically effective work thus far. A confrontation with the Ymir in a barn provides a good example. As Calder prods the creature from its hayloft perch and toward a waiting wagon, long shots of the whole area are intercut with shots of just Calder. Only when the Ymir becomes angry and hits at the pole do we also have close views of the creature. When a farmer panics and attacks the animal, a series of varied shots keeps the viewer involved in the action: Calder stops a man from firing his rifle; the farmer picks up a pitchfork; he advances on the Ymir in a long shot of them both, followed by close shots of the farmer thrusting and of the Ymir’s back with the pitchfork stuck in it. Further close-ups of the farmer and of the Ymir in pain build the moment’s intensity. Finally, as the men back out through the doorway, we have a close, intimidating view of the Ymir advancing toward the camera.
The films monster-in-the-city climax resembles, but improves on, the endings of Tlie Beast and Beneath the Sea. The escaped Ymir’s fight with an elephant starts in the zoo, then progresses to a street. When the victorious Ymir moves on, Calder follows. He knocks the creature down with his car and pursues on foot, until it takes refuge in the Tiber. Here Harryhausen borrows some action from Beneath the Sea: The monster rises behind the men, disappears again, then erupts through the bridge surface. But even as he recycles these events, Harryhausen improves on their staging. This time, the beast appears in the foreground of the shot and its bulk fills the screen, blocking our view of the people. By placing the creature so near the camera and varying what we see, Harryhausen heightens the impact.
The hunt for the Ymir in the Colosseum contains striking compositions taken from high or low angles and with extreme contrasts in depth. Also notable is a shot that tracks along a row of corridors, following Calder s wary movement in the back ground; the series of empty spaces extending into the distance adds to our uncertainty about where the monster might next appear. All of these shots can be credited to Harryhausen, who had supervised the location filming in Rome.
“I always find it rather upsetting to have to kill off the ‘villain,’ ” admits Harryhausen, adding that he prefers to do so “with a touch of pathos.”50 The death of the rhedosaurus had some emotional force, but his octopus and saucers remained sterile Enemies. In 20 Million Miles, Harryhausen creates his first semi tragic death scene. The creature stands atop the Colosseum in futile defiance. Wounded, it clasps its side and struggles to stay upright, then loses its footing and hangs onto the building’s edge with one arm. The soldiers fire at the structure, the stones give way, and the Ymir falls with them to its death. The pathos here develops not from the fact that it dies, as happened with the rhedosaurus, but from the effort the Ymir makes in its struggle against death. The sight of this creature clinging desperately but heroically to life is followed by a shot of only the barrel of a tank’s cannon as it fires the final barrage—an image that is both dramatic punctuation and an almost abstract summation of the act of killing.
A balance of relief and regret at the Ymir’s demise is evoked by a high-angle shot of the plaza far below, as Calder s tiny figure moves from the cluster of soldiers to Marisa standing on the sidelines, a point of view that puts humankind in its insignificant place. This mood is unfortunately broken by a blunt medium shot of Dr. Uhl and General Macintosh, as Uhl utters the pretentious and unnecessary statement, “Why is
it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?”
With 20 Million Miles to Earth, Harryhausen came as close as he ever would to matching King Kong. Its creature is truly central to the film, and the hero and heroine arguably have more personality than Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow in Kong. Yet those qualities which make Kong great continued to elude Harryhausen. None of the characters has an emotional relationship to the creature’s predicament, and even that predicament remains vague. We see the Ymir on its own in just one extended sequence, as it explores a farm, and then its actions are ambiguous. Why, for instance, does it stare at the sheep or move toward the sound of the barking dog? Is it hungry? Does it want to communicate with these animals? Is it afraid, or only curious? The viewer’s imagination can provide answers, but few clues are given to help it along.
Ultimately, the film lacks the nuances found in King Kong: the beauty-and-the-beast motif that relates Ann to both Jack and the gorilla, the filmmaking context that comments on the very film we are watching, the overtones of colonialism that derive from the white man-native relationship, and the forceful leader’s overreaching quest. Probably another achievement of that sort and on that level is impossible. It is part of Harryhausen’s heroism that he sought to match the unmatchable, to do as if for the first time what had already been done. It is part of his achievement that he came as close to success as he did.
Having made four horror-adventure films in which a monster threatens the familiar, civilized world, Harryhausen may have felt a need to diversify. Perhaps he also realized that 20 Million Miles to Earth was an accomplishment in that vein that he might never top. At any rate, the search for his next story again led him to an earlier idea, a fantasy-adventure that sends his characters to an unknown, exotic land. In a
sense, he turned for inspiration not to the final, Manhattan portion of King Kong but to the earlier, Skull Island section. He also replaced the modern world with the “much more colorful” mythic past.
Around 1954, Harryhausen had prepared some drawings and a ten-page outline describing the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor. Similar Arabian Nights material had appeared in two versions of The Thief of Bagdad (1924 and 1940), but later films replaced the fantasy elements with broad comedy and tame female flesh. Harryhausen wanted to shift the emphasis back to magic and adventure, but when RKO s Son of Sinbad (1955) proved a box office disappointment, producers rejected Harryhausen’s idea. In 1957, though, Charles Schneer accepted the challenge, so writer Kenneth Kolb, in Harryhausen’s words, “tied the drawings together with a story line.”
The result, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), reveals how completely Harryhausen reacted against Son of Sinbad. His hero is not a reckless, picaresque thief but a sturdy ship’s captain who avoids unnecessary risks. Instead of rebelling against the Caliph, Sinbad is treated like a prince. Uninterested in seducing every female around, he is a one-woman man engaged to a princess. Also dropped is Son of Sinbad’s comic tone. Nor’does Harryhausen’s hero resemble the Sinbad of the Arabian Nights, however, for that seaman is not a ship’s captain or even a crew member but a merchant who sets off on trading expeditions only to be stranded in unfamiliar locales. Harrowing experiences make him regret his ambition, but he always survives and returns home rich. Harryhausen’s Sinbad owes more to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn than to the Arabian Nights.
In visualizing Sinbad’s adventures, Harryhausen took only two concepts from the seven voyages in the Arabian Nights: the giant, flying roc whose newly hatched chick is killed for food and the man-like giants who roast their captives on a spit. Harryhausen embellished these creatures by giving the roc two heads and making the giants one-eyed, like the Cyclopes in The Odyssey. From elsewhere in the Arabian Nights
came a genie in a lamp and an evil sorcerer, while The Odyssey provided its sirens, now called “demons.” To all of this, Harryhausen added a fire-breathing dragon and a dueling skeleton.” The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was unique,” Harryhausen rightly asserts. “Nothing quite like its contents had been seen on the screen before.”52 it is a fast moving adventure filled with real magic, a feature that broke new ground for Harryhausen and for fantasy films in general.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad immediately plunges viewers into a tense situation, with Sinbad’s ship lost on a foggy sea at night. In the morning the fog lifts, revealing the island of Colossa, so Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his men row ashore in search of fresh water. When Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) rushes out of a cave pursued by a Cyclops, the sailors try to help, while the magician summons a genie from the lamp he carries. The genie constructs an invisible barrier to protect the men, but Sokurah drops the lamp and the Cyclops strides off with it. Onboard ship, Sokurah offers “the treasure of a hundred years” if Sinbad will help him regain the lamp. Sinbad refuses because his bride-to-be. Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), is on the ship and her safety takes precedence. This opening grabs the viewer’s interest with its dramatic, unexpected events, while introducing the main characters and setting up the plot’s premise. Because the film is not a horror fantasy, nothing is lost by revealing a major menace like the Cyclops so soon, and much is gained by offering a sample of the wonders to come.
In Bagdad, the Caliph refuses Sokurah’s request for a ship and crew, so the magician shrinks Parisa to only a few inches in height. When the Sultan of Chandra blames the Caliph for his daughter’s condition and threatens war, Sinbad asks Sokurah for help. The magician knows of a potion that can restore Parisa to normal size, but it requires a piece of a roc’s eggshell from Colossa. Sinbad agrees to set sail, and because the potion can be used only in Sokurah’s castle, the tiny Princess goes along.
From here on, the film moves quickly from one spectacular action scene to another. The crew mutinies, but wailing demons drive the men mad and Sinbad, using earplugs, regains control. On the island, some sailors find the Cyclopes’ treasure but are caged by one of the giants; Sinbad blinds the Cyclops with a torch and lures it over a cliff to its death. The hungry sailors discover a roc’s egg, killing and eating the baby roc that emerges. In a calm interlude, Parisa enters the lamp, where the young genie (Richard Eyer) reveals his desire to be a real boy and explains how to summon him. The roc carries Sinbad to her nest, and Sokurah kidnaps Parisa.
After Sinbad evades a fire-breathing dragon and forces the magician to restore the Princess to normal size, Sokurah brings a skeleton to life and orders it to kill Sinbad. The two duel until the skeleton falls from a staircase and shatters. Sokurah destroys a stone bridge, but the genie provides a rope, so Sinbad and Parisa swing across the chasm. The dragon snaps its chain, and as it fights a Cyclops, Sinbad and the Princess sneak out. Then Sokurah leads the dragon out of the cave, but the sailors stop it with an arrow fired from a giant cross bow.The dragon falls on the magician, crushing him, then staggers to the shore, where it dies.
Harryhausen’s tendency to start with ideas for dramatic sequences had earlier challenged his writers to justify those scenes and link them together smoothly. The 7thVoyage of Sinbad reduces those burdens. Because the adventure format usually involves a quest that takes the hero through a series of dangerous encounters, it is almost by definition episodic, and in a mythic world exotic creatures simply exist and are
The script manipulates its characters and their actions less than the Arabian Nights tales do, but more than is desired in a modern plot. Often, events happen solely because they are convenient or dramatic. Because Sokurah has extensive magical powers, his desire for the lamp, which drives the plot, seems overstated. Also, the magician has announced that “there is nothing I would not do” to regain the lamp,
and the Caliph knows he is manipulative, yet when the Princess shrinks, Sokurah’s blatant scheme goes undetected. After the roc carries Sinbad to its nest it just flies away, and Sinbad descends without difficulty. The dragon breathes fire except when forced to stand near the wall, so Sinbad can walk past. Later, it snaps its chain because the writer wants it to fight the Cyclops. Sokurah’s castle contains a spiral staircase that
leads nowhere because the skeleton needs a place from which to fall and because one of Harryhausen’s drawings had included it. Nonetheless, these contrivances do not seriously damage the film. The events themselves are so striking and occur at such a rapid pace that the viewer is successfully distracted.
Characterizations of the hero and heroine also had presented a problem in Harryhausen’s films. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers avoided the issue by making the couple newlyweds, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad does something similar: Sinbad and the Princess are due to be married, but an obstacle must first be overcome. The people in this film enter fully formed and do not change, and their choices are clear-cut and simple, but the actors flesh out the characters in a satisfactory way. As Sinbad, Kerwin Mathews is
sturdy and reliable without being stiff or excessively nice. Kathryn Grant’s Princess Parisa is giddily cheerful, but that appears to be a deliberate decision. In the role of Sokurah.Torin Thatcher creates, without self-consciousness or camp, a larger-than-life figure of considerable intensity. His ironic voice, penetrating eyes, stern jaw, and shaven skull make for a character almost more intriguing than the monsters.
Beneath the magic and Arabian Nights paraphernalia of the film, the bones of King Kong may still be detected, providing solid support: A strong-willed obsessive (Sokurah/ Carl Denham) leads the stalwart hero (Sinbad/Jack Driscoll) and his loved one (Parisa/Ann Darrow) to an uncharted island inhabited by giant animals. The foggy approach to both islands reinforces the parallel. This time, however, the obsessive is an out-and-out villain who lives there and controls some of the creatures.
The creatures themselves also have precedents in Kong. The upright Cyclops evokes a tail-less and scmihuman tyrannosaurus, the dragon echoes the long-necked brontosaurus, and the roc suggests a pterodactyl. Only the skeleton is a totally new men ace. But these similarities do not mean that Harryhausen’s designs lack freshness and individuality. The Cyclops is an especially vivid concept, with its block-like head, horn, single eye, and flat nose blending with a hairy, satyr-like lower body to form a
harmonious whole. Still, the similarities reveal how thoroughly King Kong embodies the essence of fantastic adventure and how hard it is to break free of its influence.
Harryhausen’s casting of a child as the genie—and the character’s desire to be a real boy, which is unrelated to the main plot—suggests that he and Schneer were seeking viewers the way works geared for children often do. However, the filmmakers are wary of making their dangers too extreme or intense. For every evocatively gruesome incident, such as a Cyclops crushing sailors with an uprooted tree, several others are deliberately undercut. For example, a Cyclops ties one victim to a spit that rotates over a fire, but instead of developing the man’s plight, the film cuts to other events, ignoring him until help arrives. An adventure film should create real fear for its characters’ welfare, but Harryhausen worried about going too far: “We would have lost a great number of children from our audience.”
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad minimizes other emotions, too. We do find a hint of sadness when Sinbad discovers his first mate’s body and gently touches his face, but the moment passes quickly. Also, Sinbad’s voice holds a note of true concern when he calls out for the Princess after Sokurah has taken her away. But the filmmakers seem uncomfortable with such strong feelings and rarely even suggest them.
Director Nathan Juran’s command of the camera is evident in the lively action scenes. During the mutiny, for instance, Sinbad is attacked in the background of a shot, then slams onto a table in the close foreground; the camera frequently pans with the characters’ movements; and there are several tight close-ups, such as one of Sinbad’s fist hitting a villain’s bare stomach. However, these efforts are damaged by the fact that many blows don’t land forcefully, and a few don’t land at all. The demon sequence put Juran’s skills to the test. Unexpectedly forced to film with the ship docked, he improvised the illusion of a rough sea by synchronizing a rocking camera with the actors’ staggering movements, while an airplane propeller acted as a wind machine and the Barcelona fire department sprayed water all over the deck. Because Juran had to keep these shots brief and close to the action, the scene gains in impact.
Elsewhere, Juran’s visual sense heightens a scene’s effect in small but significant ways. Shadows move across Sokurah’s face when he tries to convince Sinbad to return for the lamp, which adds to the actor’s menacing intensity. Later, when Sinbad approaches Sokurah in his castle, an extreme long shot of the two men includes chains and a skeleton’s legs hanging in the foreground; this adds depth to the action, while establishing the skeleton’s presence for later use. The need for editing is just as great in a special effects sequence as in other action scenes, but one cannot just shift the camera’s position and film additional shots the way one can with living actors. The animator must therefore keep reminding himself
that a distant view can establish the general layout, but other shots are needed to develop the drama. Also, having models move toward or away from the camera while interacting with live actors requires the time-consuming calculation of perspective and relative proportions. The Cyclopes scenes reveal Harryhausen struggling with these issues.
The first cyclops emerges from the cave in an extreme long shot and moves from left to right, remaining at a constant distance from the camera.This viewpoint keeps the audience outside the action and Harryhausen, realizing this, immediately cuts to a powerful close shot facing the cyclops and taken from a low angle. As the scene progresses, the film cuts between the long shot and closer views of Sinbad slashing at one of the Cyclops’s legs, a sailor attacking the other leg, and Sokurah calling on the genie
for help. In contrast, the scene of the cyclops lifting the intruders out of its treasure cave and putting them in a cage includes only the minimum shots necessary. Most of the action occurs in a single static long shot of the cage, the cyclops, and the rocks containing the cave. The only other shots are of the men in the cave and of the Cyclops’s face peering down through a hole in the roof. The scene is impressive because of what we see happening, but its animated-diorama look severely limits its power.
Sinbad’s duel with the skeleton, beyond being a technical tour de force, is also an exciting bit of filmmaking, owing to the way the action was planned and shot. With a fencer standing in for the skeleton, Juran filmed the entire sequence in live action. Then, each shot was recorded again, this time with Sinbad fighting alone. Much later, Harryhausen animated his skeleton model and combined it with the figure of Sinbad. Because the scene was choreographed like a traditional, live-action duel, the shots
seem chosen with the action, not the animation, in mind. As the fight moves from the magician’s lair to an outer area and up the spiral staircase, we see the combatants sometimes together and sometimes separately, as well as shots of the magician and Parisa watching. From the moment the skeleton takes its sword until it lies shattered on the ground, the film cuts thirty times. This sequence takes the special effects for granted and was directed without evident regard for the needs of the technician; as such, it appears to be a true collaboration between Harryhausen and Juran.
In 1958, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was an eye-filling, imagination-stirring spectacle (one that still holds up quite well). It was also Harryhausen’s biggest financial success to date. In England, though, children under the age of sixteen could see it only if accompanied by an adult. “I was incensed and outraged,” recalls Schneer. He later had the film reclassified by removing the skeleton duel and part of the dragon-Cyclops fight. The United States offered no such difficulties, so Schneer and Harryhausen shifted their base of operations to London, where they could confer in advance with the censors. Another major lure was the availability there of a new sodium backing process for combining separate images into one shot.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad marked the end of Harryhausen’s artistic apprenticeship and led directly to a quartet of equally ambitious and confident films. Unlike the previous features, these four adapted preexisting stories, yet they also reveal—sometimes consciously and sometimes not—the evolution of concepts, images, and attitudes that mark them as Harryhausen’s first truly personal creations.
Jack Sher and Arthur Ross had already written an adaptation of Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels when Charles Schneer took on the project. Harryhausen then had their script revised “to incorporate our techniques,” and She stayed with the project to direct The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960). In Swift’s 1726 novel, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver visits four countries, but the film retains only the first two: In Lilliput the people are six inches tall, so to them Gulliver seems a giant, but in Brobdingnag the situation is
reversed, with the inhabitants ten times larger than Gulliver. (The third “world” of the title refers to Gulliver’s home, England.) Swift’s satire of eighteenth-century English life is, of course, dated, but his exposure of human nature’s absurdity remains relevant. The book has a complex tone, with some of Gulliver’s comments meant to be taken at face value, while elsewhere Gulliver is mocked.
Written in the style of contemporary travel accounts, Gulliver’s Travels lacks a conventional dramatic structure, so the filmmakers added incidents to give the action an orderly progression. In addition, over the centuries the book had been “cleaned up” and treated as a children’s story. Harryhausen and Schneer continued this tradition, while keeping some of the satire. “We could have told a straight adventure story,” Harryhausen explains, but “we retained the message phases that were intrinsic to the plot.” The result may tilt more toward cuteness than irony, but Harryhausen deserves credit for trying something different. Taken on its own terms, the film has virtues.
It first introduces the life Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) leads in England, where, owing to the poverty of his patients and his own generosity, his medical practice is floundering. Elizabeth (June Thorburn), Gullivers optimistic fiancée, wants him to buy a rundown cottage for their home. “Can’t you be content with what we have?” she asks. “But we don’t have anything,” he replies, adding “I want to help the sick without being sick inside myself with worry and debts.” One incident epitomizes their world: When Elizabeth trips and drops some money, the greedy landlord picks up the coins, while Gulliver helps Elizabeth to her feet. Concluding that “you have to be rich and important to be anything in this world,” the disillusioned idealist sets sail for the East Indies in the hope of making a fortune. This opening sequence has lively, entertaining dialogue and is very efficient—too much so, perhaps, for it lasts just six minutes and feels rushed.
Swift paid little attention to Gulliver’s private life, so the film’s version is mostly new material, with the romantic couple (like Sinbad and Parisa) facing an obstacle to their marriage. The writers also created a more precise motivation for Gulliver’s journey, one that allows him to learn the emptiness of ambition and self-importance. When Gulliver returns home he is, we are meant to believe, happy to settle for the
rundown cottage. Thus the film teaches a neat and conservative moral that tames the book’s expression of anger at humanity.
Elizabeth stows away on Gulliver’s ship, which fits her assertive nature to an extent but is still largely a manipulation that keeps her involved in the plot. During a storm, Gulliver is lost overboard and washed ashore at Lilliput. The events in this part of the film follow the novel closely: Gulliver is tied down with numerous tiny ropes attached to stakes driven into the ground; he is granted freedom after swearing a loyalty oath; he steals the fleet of Lilliput’s enemy, Blefuscu; and he puts out a fire in the Royal Palace,
which ironically inspires the Empress’s resentment. Swifts Gulliver extinguished the fire by urinating on it, but in the film he spits a keg-full of wine on the flames, which is more tasteful, while still allowing the Empress to be angry at this “uncouth, vile, filthy, evil, dirty, spitting, and spewing animal.” Gulliver also antagonizes the Emperor by refusing to annihilate Blefuscu. Accused of treason, and unwilling to use his strength to oppress either Lilliput or Blefuscu, Gulliver flees from the island.
The Lilliput segment retains much of Swift’s ironic commentary on human nature and social institutions. The candidates for prime minister must prove their ability by walking a tightrope and juggling. “A man in high political office,” explains the Emperor, “must always maintain his balance in a crisis” and be able to juggle problems so that they seem to disappear. The Emperor admits he doesn’t need a prime minister
to fight a war, “but I need one to blame in case we lose it.” He also says, “I trust and have abiding faith in the integrity and reliability of any man that I can kill.” Later, the Empress tells her husband that she knows Gulliver is in danger because “criers are going through the square now, proclaiming your kindness, and that means that some body’s going to be executed soon.” This witty dialogue does not derive directly from Swift, but it is consistent with his outlook.
Unfortunately, most of the dialogue is delivered so that instead of sounding reason able until we realize its absurdity, it immediately sounds unreasonable. The only exception occurs when the Minister of Defense criticizes Gulliver’s capture of the fleet. “Who ever heard of a war without anyone getting killed? Where’s the sacrifice, above and beyond the call of duty? Where’s the heroism?” He says this as if he believes it, and for a few seconds the film’s style almost matches the book’s. Also, Swift’s Lilliputians are skilled in mathematics and mechanics; their Emperor is a “patron of learning,” his movements are “graceful,” and he courageously stands his ground when confronted by Gulliver. The film turns these people into clowns. Fearful of Gulliver, they stumble clumsily down a flight of steps and could never be a valid threat to anyone. In Lilliput, farce overwhelms satire.
When the film visits Brobdingnag, all that remains from the novel is the fact that a young girl, Glumdalclitch, affectionately cares for Gulliver, which allows Harryhausen to give children in the audience an identification figure. In the book, Gulliver at first fears the giants, assuming that anyone that large must be savage and cruel. The Brobdingnagians, in turn, assume that anyone as small as Gulliver couldn’t be rational or dignified. Once they realize that he is like themselves, they treat him well.
Although Gulliver comes to like the Brobdingnagians in the novel, he can’t help but be nauseated by the sight of them eating, by their body odor, and by the giant spots and pimples on the fashionable ladies’ skin. He is astute enough, though, to real ize that he probably looked to the Lilliputians the way these people look to him, and that his countrymen would seem the same if viewed closely. In short, he recognizes the gross nature of the human animal, despite its pose of civilization. Similarly, for all the kindness and respect they show him, the Brobdingnagians can’t help but treat Gulliver with condescension. Ultimately, he is just their pet, forced by his size to be humble. With his self-esteem undermined at every turn, he feels demeaned and humiliated. In short, he recognizes the insignificance of the human animal, despite its delusions of stature.
The film omits all of this and radically alters Swift’s tone. Initially the film’s Gulliver is afraid, but because he acts like a fool by hiding his face and not his body, we are urged to laugh at him instead of fearing with him. From here on, the Brobdingnagians are consistently benevolent, with no overtones of condescension. Only near the end, after he defeats the King at chess, does Gulliver feel a loss of dignity when he must, in effect, apologize for winning. Unfortunately, this occurs at the expense of the King’s character, for he suddenly becomes a childishly poor loser. Until that point, Brobdingnag is a paradise for Gulliver. He is even joined by Elizabeth, who had earlier been washed up on shore.
Swift failed to offer the scriptwriters a dramatic climax, for his Gulliver departs from Brobdingnag abruptly and accidentally. To solve this structural problem, Harryhausen adds a new character, Makovan, the courts alchemist. Seeing Gulliver as a threat to his position, Makovan accuses him of being a witch, but Gulliver uses his knowledge of chemistry to defeat the alchemist in a test. Despite this scientific oneupmanship, Gulliver is put on trial before the King. Elizabeth urges that he save himself by saying what they want to hear, so he concedes that science does not exist and that only a witch could beat the King at chess. Such self-abasement does Gulliver no good, for he is sentenced to death as a witch anyhow.
This situation may seem to go against Harryhausen’s fondness for magic, but we can gain insight into his thinking from the unused narration that was written to begin The 7th Voyage of Sitibad: “To a man out of the distant past we live in a world of unbelievable magic. At a touch of our fingers we produce light, heat, or sound. Men travel swiftly through the air and beneath the sea. We speak with friends thousands of miles away through a tiny wire. Familiar things, yet fantastic.” Science and magic are linked here, as they are in the activities of Makovan and Gulliver.
Until this point, Harryhausen had included only one use of animation, when a squirrel takes Gulliver to its nest. This occurs after he and Elizabeth, having been married by the King, foolishly sneak out of the palace for a honeymoon. The entire sequence, irrelevant to the main action, could easily have been omitted. Now, the King—who has a collection of (to him) miniature animals—decides to use his crocodile as Gulliver’s executioner, a rather sadistic plan that is inconsistent with the King’s character. It does, however, provide an impressive and exciting confrontation. The Queen tosses the helpless Gulliver a round pin, which he uses as a weapon, whacking the beast on the snout with it until the crocodile bites one edge and, after a short tug of war, tosses the object aside. Gulliver then grabs a latch pin from a jewel box and with it dispatches the monster. During this action we have several dramatic shots of the crocodile from Gullivers point of view, and the physical interaction as both hold onto the pin is amazingly precise. The illusion is so convincing that one wishes the scene were a more natural part of the film as a whole.
Glumdalclitch then flees with Gulliver and Elizabeth, as a lynch mob pursues. Finally, the couple float to sea in a basket. Later, they find themselves on an English shore, with no basket in sight. The dialogue suggests that, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), their adventures might all have been a dream. At any rate, Gulliver has learned the folly of ambition. This is an odd moral for Harryhausen to advocate, for his own
career illustrates that an individual can achieve major goals through ability and determination, but it is less contradictory to what Harryhausen stands for than Swift’s conclusion, in which Gulliver has come to see himself as merely unimpressive.
Technically, Gulliver is almost seamless. Nearly the entire picture depends on visual effects (if not on animation), and they are so smoothly integrated that the viewer takes them for granted, responding as if it were a “realistic” work. Although one might wish for greater complexity, the film is reasonably intelligent and offers more food for thought than most movies designed for children.
Like Gulliver, Harryhausen’s next film had a finished screenplay before he and Schneer became involved—an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island, which takes place during the American Civil War. In it, some Northern soldiers escape from a Confederate prison camp in a hot-air balloon, only to be stranded on an unknown Pacific island. No doubt the involvement of Captain Nemo and his disabled submarine, the Nautilus, hooked Harryhausen’s imagination. The book, however, completely avoids fantasy, dealing in a practical fashion with the castaways’ survival. “We had to take great liberties” with the story, Harryhausen admits, to include giant creatures that the characters could fight and he could animate. At one point during revisions, the island was populated by dinosaurs (as in King Kong); at another stage, it had an Egyptian origin.
Eventually, the writers let Captain Nemo solve the problem. Like the novel, the film Mysterious Island (1962) includes several strange events that are ultimately explained as the benevolent, anonymous actions of Nemo (Herbert Lorn): Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) is discovered safe on shore after being lost at sea, a bullet is found in some meat, a chest floats ashore with items the castaways need but
can’t make, and an attacking pirate ship unexpectedly explodes. To these incidents, the film adds the discovery of large oysters, a giant crab, and massive bees as another facet of the same mystery. Nemo, it turns out, has created them to provide the world with an inexhaustible food supply. Thus, the animation scenes feel like a natural part of the plot. Harryhausen did, however, retain from the earlier concepts a prehistoric phororhacos (which viewers naturally assume is some kind of chicken), a giant nautiloid
cephalopod, and the underwater remains of an ancient city that combine Greek buildings with Egyptian statues.
The addition of Nemo’s experiments is consistent with Verne’s confidence in science and his rejection of fantasy. Just as Harryhausen’s Gulliver explains the alchemists “magic” as a form of chemistry, his Island provides a pseudoscientific explanation of what seems to be fantastic. After he finds a large oyster, one character in the film remarks, “It’s almost supernatural, isn’t it?” Verne offers a precedent for this, when a man is so impressed with the way his companion creates fire that he thinks, “If Cyrus Harding was not a magician, he was certainly no ordinary man.” At the same time, the plot change does have a result that Verne would not have condoned. All of the seeming magic now originates with Nemo, the sorcerer-like outsider who has his own secret methods. Verne’s faith had been embodied not in Nemo but in Captain Harding, who is “a compound of every science, a possessor of all human knowledge.” Under Harding’s guidance, the castaways do more than survive. They recreate modern industrial society, complete to the manufacture of steel, and do so with available contemporary knowledge. The film’s castaways accomplish much less.
The novel also emphasizes the group’s cooperation in a common effort, with Harding’s knowledge and ingenuity making him the natural leader. He is far more an engineer than a soldier.The film’s writers, recognizing that such a situation lacks conflict, alter the relationships. Pencroft (Percy Herbert), a Northern sailor in the book, becomes a Southern soldier who resents working under a Northerner. Gideon Spilett (Gary Merrill), a war correspondent, now has an edge of sarcasm that antagonizes Harding. The new Captain Harding takes command because he is the ranking officer, and as such he assigns duties, gives orders, and inspires resistance. He has become more soldier than engineer. In another change, Herbert Brown, a fifteen-year-old orphan in the novel, has aged a few years and functions as the obligatory teenage heartthrob (Michael Callan). He also has more personality than in the novel because of his cowardice, which he overcomes during the attack of the phororhacos.
To explain Nemo’s experiments, the film tempers his anger. Verne’s Nemo is (likeJonathan Swift) a disillusioned idealist disgusted by humanity; Harryhausen’s Nemo isdisturbed not by people but by the concept of war. As a result, he seeks to eliminate famine and economic competition, the presumed causes of war. He hopes to achieve a paradise similar to the one Harryhausen’s Gulliver imagined he could create on Lilliput, what Gulliver called a country where “none of you will ever be hungry again,
no man will ever steal or be jealous of what another has.”This turns Nemo into a man with whom the sincerely wholesome Harryhausen can feel comfortable. Even though Verne might have disliked these alterations, his characters are too idealized and similar to each other, so the changes help create a more solid, satisfying film.
A more arbitrary addition involves Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her
niece, Elena (Beth Rogan), who are washed ashore after an unseen shipwreck. But if one accepts this contrived arrival, the women’s presence is far from disturbing. Their English cultivation contrasts nicely with the Americans’ practicality, and the script neatly avoids the usual complications. Instead of being arrogant, Lady Mary realistically adapts to the need for work; Elena does not adjust as easily, but neither does she become a problem. There are no romantic triangles, and the inevitable romance between Elena and Herbert is understated. (A plan to have the couple married by Nemo near the film’s end was wisely discarded.)
The film’s climax contains the largest amount of new material. In the book, the island’s volcano erupts after Nemo dies; the movie retains the eruption, but Nemo plans to escape by patching and raising the sunken pirate ship. Work begins, but when the eruption starts sooner than expected, Nemo gives up and Harding suggests placing the balloon inside the ship and inflating it, an idea that neatly links the film’s end with its beginning. But the filmmakers, not content with this race against the volcano, also include a confrontation with the giant nautiloid cephalopod. “The tentacles required almost microscopic movements in order to give the illusion of a slow under sea effect,” recalls Harryhausen,58 but that very slowness limits the scene’s excitement. After this digression—which interrupts the suspense, instead of adding to it—the plan works, although Nemo dies in the process. As the survivors sail off, they vow to work “for a peaceful and bountiful world.”
Harryhausen carefully introduces all of Mysterious Island’s creatures. Searching the beach for food, the men do not realize they are standing on the back of a massive crab until it rises under them. The phororhacos initially appears only as a shadow that falls on Spilett while he is fishing; we do not see the beast itself until it bounds into the camp. When Herbert and Elena discover a honeycomb, the sound of buzzing is heard well before an inhabitant returns. The nautiloid cephalopod has perhaps the most dramatic introduction: The camera starts on some men working underwater, then moves into darkness until it comes upon a giant eye that fills the screen. In staging these encounters, Harryhausen rarely finds much for his creatures to do, but one hardly notices because they are just opponents for the humans to defeat (and, often, to eat). For example, the excellent crab conflict makes the men the focal point
of the action as they dart about trying to master the monster, and the editing gives a feeling of activity despite the humans’ useless lunges at the stoical creature. The story is the people’s, and the creatures are just part of their environment. We do not feel that the film exists for the sake of showing the animals, which was the case in Harryhausen’s films prior to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. The success of Mysterious Island derives not from the convincing special effects, which can be taken for granted in a Harryhausen film, but from the fact that the “normal” scenes are also worth watching. Because the novel contains no giant animals, the basic plot is interesting in itself, and director Cy Endfield supports it with tight pacing and active visuals that grip viewers from the start. After a vigorous, economical impression of Civil War battle, we cut to the inside of a cell as the prisoners prepare to escape. Here, and in the balloon gondola scenes that follow, End field achieves visual variety in a constricted setting through multiple camera setups and continual shifts of actor and camera position. These scenes involve viewers in the
characters’ plight, so we needn’t endure patiently until a monster arrives.
The film never returns to this level of energy, but Endfield doesn’t completely relax his grip, either. He also has the discipline to underplay moments that someone else might have overstated. For example, he stages an early exchange of looks between Herbert and Elena by placing them near the camera, but on opposite sides of the screen, while two others interact in the background. Such discretion avoids cliche andmakes the characters more believable.
Although Mysterious Island derives from the basic fantasy-adventure formula (uncharted island, stranded humans, giant beasts), it possesses enough integrity and originality in all departments to stand solidly on its own. It may not contain Harryhausen’s most spectacular effects, and viewers are as likely to recall the story and the relationships as they are the monsters, but the film is one of his best.
Harryhausen next returned to his own pet project, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). In filming Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, he wanted to include the interaction of humans and the gods, an element which previous films on related subjects had ignored. After Harryhausen made his drawings, Jan Read wrote a script, which Beverley Cross revised. “Ray was very positive about which special effects he wanted to do,” recalls Cross. “It was just a question of how we would string them all together in the neatest, most lucid way.” Harryhausen had first been attracted to Greek mythology when, as a child, he learned about the Colossus of Rhodes, a gigantic statue of Apollo that stood at the entrance to that islands harbor.”If I could only build a statue that big!” he had thought, and the wish “stayed with me through the years.”
Existing for centuries only in oral form, the Greek myths accumulated multiple layers of often contradictory details, until they became a complex fabric of sudden digressions, inexplicable assumptions, and seemingly arbitrary actions. As a result, the screenwriters faced a daunting mass of elements to choose from and modify or replace. That they achieved a coherent plot is in itself a major accomplishment. No adaptation could ever be truly faithful to the source—there is no definitive source—
but Jason and the Argonauts does capture the Greek view of existence. At the same time, the film repeats and clarifies some of the concepts and images already encountered in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, and Mysterious Island, turning it into an unexpectedly personal work. Of all his movies, says Harryhausen, Jason” pleases me the most.”
In the legend, Jason is rather easily convinced to seek the Golden Fleece, so the screenwriters had to clarify his motivation. First, they introduce Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), who wrests the throne of Thessaly from King Aristo. Warned that he will eventually lose the kingdom to one of Aristo’s children, Pelias tries to kill all of his rival’s offspring, but Aristo’s son Jason is taken to safety. Twenty years later, the goddess
Hera (Honor Blackman) arranges a “chance” meeting between the two men: She startles Pelias’s horse, which throws him into a river so Jason (Todd Armstrong) can rescue him.
Afterward, not realizing the King’s identity, Jason complains that during Pelias’s rule Thessaly has changed “from the pride of Greece to a savage, evil land” whose people “need more than a leader—they must believe the gods have not deserted them.” To achieve this, he plans to seize the throne and obtain the Fleece, which “has the power to heal, bring peace, and rid the land of plague and famine.” Pretending support, Pelias advises Jason to get the Fleece first, hoping that he will be killed in the process. This adaptation clarifies matters by establishing a clear need for the Fleece. One might wish that the current state of the kingdom had been shown, not just described, but much time has already been devoted to exposition and the filmmakers understandably elected to be concise.
The god Hermes brings Jason to Mount Olympus, where Hera explains that she can help him, but only five times. Then Jason gathers his crew and the ship Argo is readied for a journey that parallels the one in The 7th Voyage, with the distant Colchis replacing Colossa. When the Argonauts grow weak, Hera directs Jason to the Isle of Bronze, but warns him to take only food and water. Once ashore, though, Hercules and Hylas discover a hoard of treasure within the pedestal of a huge metal statue. Because Hercules takes a giant brooch pin, the statue—of the warrior Talos—comes to life and attacks the Argonauts. This situation matches that of Sinbad’s crew in the Cyclops’s cave, except this time Harryhausen establishes a more precise cause-and effect relationship between the discovery of treasure and the giant creature’s attack.
The initial movements of Talos inspire awe and dread: Its head turns to gaze on the thieves, then it slowly descends from the pedestal, steadies itself, and advances. After that, as the figure trudges along the beach and the men run about, the sight’s novelty fades and the scene loses its intensity. True, Talos reaches through a stone arch and drags its hand back through the sand, but that action was performed more menacingly by a tentacle in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Excitement returns when Talos, standing astride a channel, picks up the ship and shakes it so that the crewmen fall to the water below (as Kong had once done with a fallen log). Finally, Hera tells Jason, “Look to his ankles.” He does so and finds a pin, which he unscrews, while Talos patiently waits. With its life-fluid draining out, the figure clasps its throat, cracks, and crashes to the ground.
Very little of this derives from the myth. In fact, the original figure was not even a giant, but Harryhausen used Talos to satisfy his desire to re-create the Colossus of Rhodes. His impressive animation fully captures the statue s creaking stiffness, and he carefully tailored its movements for something of such size. The result looks stunning and feels as if it might be an actual mythic encounter.
The Argo is repaired, and Hera tells Jason to sail to Phrygia, where Phineas (Patrick Troughton) will give him further information. Blinded for misusing his gift of prophecy, Phineas has fallen victim to the bird-like harpies, who steal his food and otherwise torment him. Phineas cries out to Zeus,”I was a sinner—I’ve never tried to deny it—but I didn’t sin every day. Why then do you punish me every day?” Rebelling against Zeus, Phineas refuses to provide information until Jason frees him from the harpies, so the men enclose a ruined temple with nets and trap the creatures within. The Argonauts then enter the improvised cage and wave their swords at the creatures. This causes a lull in the action, for despite a lot of running around, nothing happens. Finally, Phineas and the Argonauts emerge and the net is dropped directly onto the harpies, which could have been done right away. Phineas now reveals that
the way to Colchis is between the Clashing Rocks.
In Harryhausen’s version of the Clashing Rocks, ships entering a narrow channel are threatened with an avalanche of boulders. This is demonstrated by the destruction of a vessel from Colchis, which works neatly into the plot because Jason rescues Medea from the wreck. Jason’s method for passing between the rocks is visually striking, but also inexplicable. Hera supposedly can no longer aid Jason, yet we see her move the figure of Triton, a giant merman, on the Olympian game board. Phineas had given Jason a pen dant of a similar-looking figure, and now Jason, angry at the gods’ cruelty, rips this pendant from his neck and throws it into die water. Thereupon, die giant figure of Triton emerges and braces both sides of the channel, as the Argo passes under one arm.
The reason for Triton’s emergence is far from clear. We don’t know the nature of the pendant, and because Jason rejects the gods, why would his throwing of it cause a god to help him? If Hera’s movement of the Triton game piece summons him, how can she break the rules and help when Jason is supposedly on his own? This kind of “illogic” can and does appear in myth, but probably should not in art.
Jason’s meeting with King Aeetes of Colchis presents some fascinating thematic points. Medea has said that the Fleece brought “peace and prosperity” to her city, and Aeetes insists that its loss will cause “plague and famine and the destruction of our country.” (This important part of the film’s plot does not derive from the myth.) Aeetes then has Jason and his men arrested and condemns them to death. Like Gulliver, Jason has so far done only a good deed—rescuing Medea—yet he is treated like a traitor. Unlike Gulliver, he really does intend to undermine the country’s welfare, so we cannot help but consider Aeetes s position valid. The irony is pointed and even profound: In order to bring peace and prosperity to his own land, Jason must undermine a country that has done him no harm.
Meanwhile, Medea has fallen in love with Jason and wishes to help him, but as a Priestess of Hecate and a loyal citizen, doing so would make her a traitor. The film plays down this predicament: In the myth, Medea was also Aeetes’s daughter, so the film’s omission of that detail makes her choice less difficult. Also, from The 7th Voyage on, Harryhausen’s films avoided love and romance as much as possible. The shooting script did confront this subject, for in it Jason flirtatiously comments on Medea’s beauty, she realizes that he had undressed her after the rescue, and she thinks aloud about “the way he held me” and “the feel of his skin under my fingers.” The film, however, omits this preparation for Medea’s actions. As a result, we see her set him free, but must assume her motive. Still, Medea’s dilemma remains in the film—albeit weakly—and helps give it substance.
In the script, Medea leads Jason to Hades, where they pass the two-headed guardian dog Cerberus and Charon ferries them across a lake, as floating figures grasp at their boat. Then Jason enters the Pool of Hecate, the waters of which will protect him from injury. Harryhausen never filmed this lengthy and rather passive sequence, so Jason continues to function as a traditionally vulnerable hero.
Before gaining the Fleece, Jason must defeat a hydra. This creature (borrowed from Hercules’s adventures) is a triumph of choreographic animation, with its seven heads and necks all moving at the same time. In a powerfully dramatic introduction, the heads seem to burst into view and toward the camera. During the fight, editing creates a good illusion of activity as Jason waves his sword and dodges, while the hydra’s heads bob and weave. The only physical contact occurs when the beast picks Jason up with its tail, then puts him down again. Finally, Jason plunges his sword into the hydra’s chest and the waiting is over. The mythic hydra had presented a greater challenge for Hercules, because whenever a head was severed, two grew back in its place. Harryhausen wanted to have Jason slice off a few heads, too, with at least one new one growing back each time, but fear of the British censor restrained him. Unfortunately, he had nothing with which to replace that action.
After the Argonauts flee with the Fleece, Aeetes gathers the hydra’s teeth. Confronting Jason, he spreads the teeth on the ground and armed skeletons emerge. Using the myth as a starting point, Harryhausen here borrows from himself: The skeleton duel had dominated The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and he probably assumed that multiplying the numbers would increase the impact. He was right, for although the viewer’s attention is spread out and one doesn’t know or care who is fighting alongside Jason, the almost constant physical interaction between the humans and the models makes this one of the most amazing effects scenes in Harryhausen’s career. No doubt it contains more action than the Talos, harpy, and hydra segments because, as in The 7th Voyage, Harryhausen 6rst staged the duel with stuntmen standing in for the skeletons.
Significantly, Aeetes’s situation is very different from that of Sokurah, so we understand and half support his actions. This time, the cry “Kill, kill, kill them all!” come from an outraged victim, not an obsessed villain. We still root for Jason, because skeletons do not evoke empathy, especially when they outnumber the humans, but the scene conveys a subtle, morally ambiguous overtone. In revealing and not always conscious ways, certain aspects of Harryhausen’s three previous films here flower on a thematic level. Sinbad’s desire to prevent an unnecessary war between two similar sides had functioned only as a superficial plot device and was soon forgotten; other than peace, we have no idea what success offers. Tlie 3 Worlds of Gulliver takes this further, with its emphasis on the Lilliput-Blefuscu war and Gulliver’s description of a paradise that the Lilliputians’ desire for power and revenge denies them. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver finds himself in just such a paradise, but it is lost through the King’s childish whim and Gulliver’s need for self-respect. Similar situations in Mysterious Island involve Nemo’s attempt to end war, which would produce some vague sort of paradise, and the attempt of the castaways to establish a civilized
society despite their personal conflicts.
Finally, in Jason and the Argonauts, we discover a rather mature vision of war’s causes and ironies: Both Colchis and Thessaly need the Fleece to make them feel the gods have not deserted them, and both seem justified in their determination to have it. Stability and happiness are fragile conditions, and those who seek them are neither purely good nor maliciously evil. Such concepts would not exist in this form in Jason and the Argonauts if the previous films had not already handled them in more limited ways.
Another concept that evolves through these films, and one possessing even wider implications, begins with Sinbad’s physical relationship to the tiny Princess, which is a detail included only for its novelty and plot function. Differences are more important to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, which relates size to dominance and subservience. The giants are concerned about the tiny ones’ welfare, but cannot escape feeling a sense of their own power and some degree of condescension, while the tiny ones struggle to
assert their strength, such as it is, and establish their self-worth. Mysterious Island contains no large humans, but Nemo is a mental and technological giant who manipulates the lives of the relatively “tiny” castaways in a benevolent way, but always with the implication that his influence could as easily be destructive. In a sense, Nemo is a subtler, more complex variation on the blunt villainy of the equally manipulative Sokurah in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
The stress on the gods’ relationship to humanity in Jason and the Argonauts links Nemo’s god-like involvement in the other characters’ struggle to survive with the explicit size contrast found in Gulliver. In Jason, a view of existence embedded in the previous films, but left unrecognized and undeveloped, finally becomes clear and conscious. These gods’ control of human life is summed up in two images: the tiny Jason held in the palm of Hermes’ hand, and Jason standing on the gods’ table-top map, where they move models of people and ships like pieces in a game to produce real effects below. Earlier, Gulliver’s standing on the Brobdingnagians’ chessboard was only a plot detail, but the comparable image in Jason has the resonance of a metaphor.
A key point is that although the gods aid and hinder humans, they also leave those earthly mortals a degree of independence and responsibility. “Zeus has given you a kingdom,” Pelias is told. “The rest will be up to you.” And Pelias, in his human weakness, is not satisfied and seeks to avoid losing the kingdom later. When he learns that he has killed one of his rival’s children needlessly, he asks why Zeus drove him to it. “Zeus,” he is told, “cannot drive men to do what you have done. Men drive themselves to do such things.” Similarly, Hercules goes against the gods’ command by taking Talos’s brooch pin, after finding the chamber door temptingly ajar; he rationalizes that if the gods left the treasure unguarded, they obviously do not want it.
Just as humans have the freedom to go against the gods’ will, they also must contribute to the help the gods offer. Zeus assures Pelias that he will defeat the King of Thessaly, but Pelias must nevertheless fight the battle himself, and when Jason asks how to defeatTalos, Hera says, “Fight Talos with your wits. Look to his ankles. There is nothing else I can tell you.” Later, instead of explaining how to get to Colchis, Hera
sends Jason to ask Phineas. The gods’ help goes only so far, and humans have to work for success and survival. This concept could already be seen when the genie in The 1th Voyage does not rescue Sinbad and when the Queen of Brobdingnag does not rescue Gulliver. Instead, they provide tools and/or information, which the heroes must make use of themselves. Nemo does the same kind of thing for the castaways.
Harryhausen probably empathizes with the independent Jason, who uses his strength and will to achieve a goal despite obstacles and resistance, but he also has much in common with the gods themselves. The scripts of his films had frequently indulged in god-like manipulation of characters and events, and in Jason the gods’ involvement in the characters’ lives offered Harryhausen the perfect subject, with behind-the-scenes manipulation becoming part of the film’s subject. Instead of the scriptwriters giving Jason an unexpected means of defeating Talos, Hera does it, and it is the gods who inflict fantastic creatures on the characters, in a sense actually bring ing them to life. The gods also reveal an interested, but distant, response to the characters. Harryhausen, the emotionally austere manipulator, has given himself a place in this film.
The overall tone of Jason and the Argonauts also reflects its creator’s personality. Harryhausen is a man who in one breath says “I don’t like depressing pictures”and in another states that he likes “subjects that are overshadowed by doom.” This seeming contradiction embodies his basic nature. When a future Argonaut defeats Hercules in a contest, Zeus says, “Let Hylas have his moment of triumph—while he may.” This statement illustrates the way the film (and the Greek worldview) undercuts human pride and delusions of achievement, yet does so not in a cynical or defeatist way. Individuals may be helpless pawns in the hands of powerful, mysterious forces, but those same individuals have the freedom to make their own success through strength, determination, and skill. “I think you can make your own destiny,” Harryhausen once declared, “but only up to a point.” Only after understanding Jason and the Argonauts can one realize that the film Gulliver avoids the bitterness of Jonathan Swift not just for commercial reasons but also because it is foreign to Harryhausen s outlook.
In 1963, both critics and audiences dismissed Jason, which Harryhausen attributed to people confusing his film with Italian “spear and sandal” epics. The public’s resistance, however, was more likely due to the film itself. Its moral complexity and the characters’ lack of control over their actions dilute the heroic adventure that audiences were led to expect, and the gods’ involvement keeps pulling viewers away from the action, so that the plot feels more abstract than immediate. The ending of the film exemplifies this tendency. As the Argo sails away, we see it not directly but from the gods’ point of view. Zeus states, “For the moment let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze, and each other. … I have not yet finished with Jason. Let us continue the game another day.” With that, he waves his hand and the image of Jason and Medea fades from sight. We are left in the mists of Mount Olympus, unable to share the characters’ moment of triumph. By concluding in this way, the film almost willfully refusesto satisfy the very audience it seeks to entertain.
Harryhausen could not have expected this material to be quite as personal as it became, for—like most artists—he bases his most interesting choices at least partly on instinct. Even thirty years later, commenting on a scene from the film, he stated, “I always had an intense interest in relationships between big people and little people,” adding, “I don’t know what it is about it—it just fascinates me.” Harryhausen need not articulate such matters. In Jason, the images and situations explain for him, but
such a fortuitous combination of elements would never occur again.
After completing Jason and the Argonauts, Schneer and Harryhausen turned to H. G. Wells s Tlte First Men in the Moon. As Harryhausen’s last adaptation of a literary work, it appropriately resembles the first, for both Swift in Gulliver’s Travels and Wells in First Men in the Moon use an imagined society to criticize their own worlds. Wells, however, offers two main characters: Cavor, a narrowly focused inventor, and Bedford, a narrowly focused businessman.
Harryhausen wished to retain the novel’s turn-of-the-century setting, but Columbia Pictures wanted it updated, so scriptwriter Nigel Kneale added a modern prologue in which UN astronauts land on the Moon, only to discover a note dated 1899claiming the satellite for Queen Victoria. Investigators then locate Bedford in a nursing home, where he recounts his tale and the film moves into the past, returning to the present only for a brief finale. This compromise satisfied both parties, but the studio also considered Kneale s adaptation too serious-minded. “The front office complained that women would not be able to identify with this picture, that it needed charm,” states Harryhausen,66 consciously echoing Carl Denham’s lament in King Kong. So another writer helped add both a woman and a sense of humor.
First Men in the Moon (1964), like the book, begins with Bedford (Edward Judd) eluding creditors after a business failure. He rents a country cottage, where he plans to make money and avoid real work by writing a successful play. Readily distracted, he listens as a neighbor, Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), explains his attempt to develop Cavorite, an antigravity substance. Cavor seeks knowledge for its own sake, while the pragmatic Bedford remains unimpressed until he sees a chance for wealth and power. When Cavor reveals his own intended use for Cavorite, a trip to the Moon, Bedford resists until he learns that gold exists there. Having discovered a practical purpose for the journey, Bedford insists on going along. Using Tlte 3 Worlds of Gulliver as a model, the filmmakers added the character of Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), Bedford’s supposed fiancee. Kate, like Gulliver’s 132 THE fiancée, tours the cottage and speaks of marriage, but Bedford, like Gulliver, wants to “sail away” to make a fortune. Gulliver, however, is a generous man frustrated by poverty, whereas Bedford is a self-indulgent manipulator. Here, the scriptwriters develop Bedford’s deceitfulness further than Wells had. It is not certain that he ever
planned to marry Kate, and he improvises a series of lies to her, claiming that he owns the cottage, that he has made progress on the play, and that a producer anxiously awaits it. He even illegally signs the cottage over to her and has her sell it to Cavor, so he can invest the money in Cavorite.
Such duplicity makes the film’s Bedford more unpleasant than the merely self deceiving, ambitious businessman of the novel. Consequently, because there was a need to present him as an acceptable romantic companion for Kate (and something like a traditional hero for the viewer), the filmmakers tried to soften the character in the actor’s performance. As guided by director Nathan Juran, Edward Judd avoids the necessary balance between charm and callous calculation, with charm winning out; despite a hint of swaggering foolishness, the man and his actions do not quite blend. Juran also uses farce to distract viewers from Bedford’s less positive qualities. At one point, when Bedford sits on a chair coated with Cavorite and rises to the room’s ceiling, Juran has Cavor bustle about, shout for help, and struggle with a ladder while Bedford delivers dialogue that the script had placed later. As a result, his passionate
words—”It’ll revolutionize shipping, locomotion, building. . . . We’re onto the chance of a thousand years! . . . Cavorite could rule the world!”—disappear into the background.
Like Elizabeth in Gulliver, Kate goes on the journey, although not as a stowaway. Having been served a summons by the cottage’s real owner, she angrily strides to the sphere and is pulled in just before it takes off. Once on the Moon, Bedford stakes his claim and the two men explore. The film omits the giant plants that grow up around the sphere, but the men’s adventures in the caverns below do follow Wells’s plot. When the novel’s characters return to the surface, they cannot find their sphere amid the thick vegetation. Here the film’s writers, having omitted the plants, borrow a plot twist from Wells’s The Time Machine: The Selenites have dragged the sphere underground.
The subsequent search for the vehicle and Kate occupies time that could have been devoted to the lunar civilization and the men’s responses to it. Even so, the film includes a few pointed facts about the aliens, such as their putting unneeded workers to sleep in cocoons. “A unique way of dealing with unemployment,” admires Cavor, who adds, with a revealing touch of uncertainty, “Entirely reasonable—I suppose.” The more realistic Kate then identifies a disadvantage of this reasonable procedure: “They’ll treat us the same way if they find they have no further use for us.”
The film contrasts the two men’s views of the aliens. Cavor seeks to communicate and share knowledge; he is curious about a society “different from ours,” one with “different standards.” It doesn’t at first occur to him that those very differences might place him in danger, but when it does, he’s willing to take the risk. Meanwhile, the skeptical and defensive Bedford attacks the Selenites as soon as they press in on him. “You’ve certainly given them a taste of human violence,” chides Cavor. Bedford later declares, “I haven’t your boundless confidence in those insects,” and Cavor responds, “You don’t try to understand.”
Without quite advocating Bedford’s aggressiveness, the film does suggest that Cavor’s scientific rationality is not the ideal perspective. During Cavor’s interview with the Grand Lunar, the ruler’s questions and Cavor’s replies reveal the absurdity of Earth’s society. The Lunar concludes, rightly enough, that if humans detest war but still engage in it, they must be “defective.” This puts Cavor in the rather unscientific position of defending imperfection. The Lunar, knowing that violence will result if more earthlings arrive and that only Cavor can make Cavorite, decides to keep him on the Moon. As Bedford accurately warns, “This is not an audience. You re on trial!” Bedford’s suspicion of “those insects” appears to be borne out, and Cavor’s confidence just impractical naiveté; at the same time, Bedford’s violence had inspired the Lunar’s decision, so in a sense he himself created the situation that seems to validate his initial violence. Like Earth us. the Flying Saucers, this film presents an alien race that is both victimized by and dangerous to humanity, but here the combination feels less like confusion than sincere ambivalence.
Despite an opportunity to escape, Cavor chooses to stay behind when Bedford and Kate leave in the sphere. We then return to the present, as the modern astronauts discover the deserted and crumbling lunar city. What happened? “Poor Cavor,” mutters old Bedford, “he did have such a terrible cold.”The implication that germs from Earth destroyed the Selenites is a letdown for several reasons: It is a blatant steal from Wells’s The War of the Worlds, Cavor had clearly not had a terrible cold (he coughs slightly
once), and Edward Judd’s delivery of the line evokes no particular feeling, so that the event is neither a tragedy nor a sick joke.
Like Gulliver’s Travels, Wells’s novel contained little opportunity for animation, so Harryhausen spent most of his time creating the outer space sequences and the Selenites’ world. In general, he dislikes science fiction because it seems “terribly cold and you’re always dealing with gadgets.” The bland, semi documentary realism of the Moon landing in Fiat Men in the Moon both illustrates his point and reveals his lack of interest in the genre. Thanks to the turn-of-the-century setting, however, Harryhausen can relate to the main story as a fantasy, with the Moon serving as the equivalent of some remote, unexplored island.
Because Charles Schneer insisted on filming in Panavision—an anamorphic widescreen process—Harryhausen couldn’t use his standard method of front- or rear screen projection to combine elements into a single shot. Instead, he filmed miniature settings and used a traveling matte to add the live actors. By this means, he created vast caverns and a gigantic staircase, a massive horizontal world punctuated by the vertical lines of towering crystalline forms. In designing the Selenites, Harryhausen followed Wells’s description of them as upright, humanoid ants. Although opposing the use of
people in suits, he avoided “an eternity in animating the creatures en mass”68 by placing children in costumes for long shots and fights. He did animate the taller, “intellectual” Selenites who interact as individuals with the humans. The two approaches do not blend smoothly, but the animated figures, at least, have a strikingly alien quality.
Aside from Bedford’s fight scenes, the film’s action highlight involves a massive Moon creature with an elongated, caterpillar-like body appropriate to the rectangular shape of the screen. The book’s characters merely watch some “Mooncalves” grazing, but Harryhausen has one of his monsters chase Bedford and Cavor around a cavern, until the Selenites kill it and cut it up for food.The sequence doesn’t feel out of place, but it is less a necessary part of the story than a token gesture for Harryhausen’s fans.
Consistently interesting and at times spectacular, Fiat Men in the Moon is sustained by the acting of Lionel Jeffries as Cavor, who keeps the film’s energy level high, while somehow finding a human center in his wildly flamboyant performance. The addition of Kate and a sense of humor inevitably led to a muting of Wells’s stress on the flaws in Bedford and Cavor, and in what they represent, but the shift in tone also bears the imprint of Harryhausen’s personality: The film’s acknowledgment of those flaws is tempered with understanding, even sympathy, for both men.
After Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon failed to perform well at the box office, Schneer and Harryhausen must have begun to question their choice of subject matter. Meanwhile, England’s Hammer Films decided to remake One Million B.C. (1940) and purchased the rights from its producer-director, Hal Roach. Electing to use animated dinosaurs and not the magnified lizards of the first version, the studio hired Harryhausen to provide the special effects. One Million Years B.C. (1966) thus became his first effort without Charles Schneer in a decade. Although, he said, “the Hammer executives and I worked pretty closely together”69 and he had previously collaborated with director Don Chaffey and photographer Wilkie Cooper, it is safe to say that Harryhausen had less than his usual degree of control in this project. The film was not “built around” his sequences, and the publicity stressed not special effects but the poster-girl sexuality of its star, Raquel Welch.
The intelligently conceived plot depicts, in almost allegorical fashion, a stage of humanity’s evolution. First, we meet the dark and brutish Rock people, whose relationships are based on physical power. During a fight with his father, the chief, Tumak (John Richardson), falls from a cliff. Wandering alone in unfamiliar territory, he is befriended by the blonde and moderately more refined Shell people, through whom he discovers tools (a spear), art (a necklace and cave paintings), sensitivity (tears), ideals (mercy shown to a helpless opponent), rituals of respect (burial), and innocent amusement (swimming). This process permits the logical integration of a romance, as Tumak develops an affection for Loana (Raquel Welch), a voluptuous Shell. (The slightly longer British version of the film includes several shots that establish the burial and cave paintings more fully than the American print does.) In turn, the Shell people
learn physical prowess and courage from Tumak: When an allosaurus invades the village, he confronts and defeats it after everyone else takes cover. Throughout, the characters use only—to us—unintelligible words and grunts, and director Chaffey generally meets the challenge of making events and relationships clear visually.
Location filming on the volcanic Canary Islands created a believably bleak, inhospitable prehistoric world, but one that is probably too barren to justify the presence of large animals. Science, of course, insists that humans never coexisted with dinosaurs, but viewers generally accept such artistic license for the chance to see the confrontations that result. More disturbing is the fact that, although most of the creatures were based on museum restorations, the first two seen in the film are not even dinosaurs,
just an enlarged lizard and spider. “I have never favored” this approach, says Harryhausen, but he adds that “we felt it might add to the realism if the first creature we saw was a living specimen.” It didn’t, and this unconvincing rationalization denies the merit of Harryhausen’s technique. He did, however, save animation time.
Harryhausen’s creature encounters and the climactic eruption of a volcano derive from previous films, but all are impressively executed and most improve on their sources. For example, the pterodactyl here and the roc in 77ie 7th Voyage of Sinbad both carry main characters to their nests. The roc, however, simply left Sinbad there to find his way back. In One Million Years B.C., Harryhausen reconceived the sequence
for greater impact and plot relevance: The pterodactyl carries Loana to its nest, where some hungry babies wait, and in midair it fights with a similar creature for possession of the shapely morsel. During the struggle, she falls to the surf below. After this, events do not simply go on as before. Tumak believes she has been devoured, and Loana brings the Shell people to help Tumak against his brother and rival.
Despite their evidencing the filmmakers’ technical skill, most of the action scenes inspire limited audience involvement because of the characters’ helplessness and relative passivity. Chance saves Loana from the pterodactyls, she and Tumak cower behind rocks as a triceratops struggles with a ceratosaurus, and Tumak barely escapes from the lumbering lizard. This, and the abrupt way the creatures enter their scenes, may create an accurate picture of humanity’s precarious vulnerability in an unpredictable, primitive world, but it does so at the expense of a viewers respect for the characters.
In this context, Tumak’s battle with the allosaurus stands out as an instance of humanity both in the grip of a larger force and in the process of taking independent, meaningful action. Tumak does not just rush out to face the menace. Shortly before, he had helped a child gather fruit by lifting her into a tree, so now, when the allosaurus approaches the girl, he reveals a new protectiveness by coming to her aid. Then, as he pokes and prods at the towering threat, the Shell men are emboldened to help him. Finally, the encounter turns into a one-on-one struggle, a classic scene of action and courage that builds to a stunningly theatrical moment (and a technical tour de force) as Tumak falls on his back and impales the charging beast on the pole he is holding. It hovers, balanced above him, for a second or two, then topples over as Tumak scurries out of the way.
A brontosaurus, glimpsed in passing early on, was originally to have attacked the Rock people just before the volcanic eruption. The sequence was dropped and the script rewritten during live-action filming because, according to Harryhausen, “there were more than enough animated creatures throughout the rest of the film and to keep it in would add another two to three months to the already excessive animation schedule.” Translated, this means that the film was over budget and something had to
go. To replace it, Chaffey filmed the Shell people invading the Rock tribe’s cave, the motivation of which is not fully clear. The event also places an emphasis on aggressiveness that does not fit the supposedly peaceful Shells.
During the eruption and earthquake that follow, people fall into crevasses and are crushed by boulders or buried under debris. Sensing that this cataclysm, despite its impressive spectacle, is too arbitrary and impersonal, the filmmakers blend this large-scale action with the themes and conflicts that had already evolved by including a final confrontation between Tumak and his brutal brother. Thus, Tumak kills the
embodiment of his old existence during the eruption, and the two events climax simultaneously to mark the end of a way of life. Afterward, Tumak, Loana, and the other survivors emerge and move tentatively off into their future.
Working for Hammer Films on One Million Years B. C. allowed Harryhausen to step aside from major career decisions, but only temporarily. A new project had to be developed. One day, he happened upon a copy of the 1941-42 screenplay for Willis O’Brien’s unproduced Gwangi, which he and Schneer agreed “still had great production values for an action film.”72 When Columbia Pictures deemed their budget too
large,Warner Bros, stepped in to back the production. The result is an homage to Harryhausen’s mentor and a technical triumph in its own right, but Harryhausen, by turning to a twenty-five-year-old project, was also marking time instead of advancing.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969) retains O’Brien’s basic plot, in which Wild West show cowboys follow a tiny prehistoric horse to an isolated canyon where they encounter prehistoric creatures and capture Gwangi, an allosaurus. The showmen place their creature on exhibit, but it breaks loose, endangers the town, and is destroyed. This outline obviously owes much to King Kong, and also reveals elements—cowboys roping
the beast from horseback and the tiny horse responding to a music box tune—which O’Brien had transferred from the discarded Gwangi to Mighty Joe Young.
Harryhausen wisely set this tale at the turn of the century, to avoid the “problems in disposing of Gwangi with present-day weapons.” In the process, he replaced O’Brien’s climax (a truck herds Gwangi off a cliff) with a more atmospheric and emotional one, which has the monster consumed by fire in the town’s cathedral. Harryhausen also substituted a “Forbidden Valley” in Mexico for the Grand Canyon and has Gwangi battle an elephant once he escapes, as the Ymir did in 20 Million Miles to Earth. “I had wanted to animate just the fight and use a real animal in the remaining scenes,” says Harryhausen, but the only elephant available was too small, so he also animated shots of the animal performing tricks in the show.
To flesh out the characters, Harryhausen also turned to 20 Million Miles to Earth. Again we have a male lead’s antagonistic romance with an independent woman (T.J., who owns the Wild West show), a business-minded native boy (Lope), and a scientist who is one of the boy’s “clients” (Professor Bromley).This time, though, the romantic antagonism is more serious, for Tuck (James Franciscus) had earlier walked out on the now-bitter T.J. (Gila Golan). Harryhausen himself had married during the production of Jason and the Argonauts, and intriguingly the next two films over which he exerted script control stress a male’s reluctance to commit to a woman. In First Men in the Moon, Bedford had never explained himself, but here Tuck reveals that after living “on my own so long” and having to “pitch [and] hustle my way into whatever I am now” in the entertainment business, he couldn’t face settling down.
Surprisingly, Tuck becomes quite unpleasant in his selfish manipulation of others. Edward Judd had minimized Bedford’s negative side, but James Franciscus lacks the skill or charisma to make Tuck comprehensible and sympathetic. That Tuck takes an instant liking to Lope when the boy mentions that his father is dead suggests that he sees himself in the young hustler, but his reaction—and his selfless rescue of the boy from a bull—is too abruptly inserted to fit with the rest of the characterization.
Even more surprisingly, the other male characters reveal similar negative qualities. Champ (Richard Carlson), a friend of T.J.’s father, hates Tuck for deserting T.J., but the force of his feeling suggests that he really suffers from jealousy. Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), who works for T. J., also reveals jealousy and has an angry, petulant manner, while the professor (Laurence Naismith) starts lusting after scientific fame and a knighthood. Even Lope (Curtis Arden) goes too far, selling drinks of water in the wilderness. The script might have included these qualities to give the characters substance, but because the actors never get past the obvious surface, they form an irritating, unlikable group. Only T.J. elicits empathy when she refuses to sell the show’s star, her “Wonder Horse,” because that would put her companions out of jobs. The others, however, don’t seem worth her concern.
It appears that somewhere along the line the script intended to have physical action embody psychological situations that the characters do not verbalize, as happens when Tuck rescues Lope from the bull. Similarly, just when Tuck agrees to settle down with T.J., a man (Prof. Bromley) is caught in a trap that Tuck himself set. Often, though, the event fails to accomplish what seems to have been its original purpose. Tuck first appears during T.J.’s act, as she is about to leap on horseback from a tower into a pool of water below. When she sees Tuck she hesitates for long seconds, then “takes the plunge,” an action which would reflect her response to his return—uncertain about again becoming involved, she decides to take a chance—except that the event occurs at the wrong time, for she immediately rejects Tuck and doesn’t reenter a relationship until later.
In somewhat the same way, the script seems designed to resolve the conflicts among the men during the Forbidden Valley sequence. When a fight nearly breaks out in their camp, T.J. interrupts, asking, “Where do you think you are, civilization? We have all got to stick together.” Ironically, in this forgotten, primitive world the men will at last work as members of a team. No single rope can hold the allosaurus, so there is no single hero. Whenever one man drops his rope or falls from his horse another rides in to take his place, and when one is endangered by a creature, another risks his own life by luring the animal away. Instead of providing excitement for its own sake, this action sequence reveals the characters’ flaws giving way to skill, courage, and interdependence. Once back in “civilization,” though, only Tuck has been improved by the experience; in fact, the professor is now overtly unpleasant and T.J. has herself become ambitious, now that she “owns” Gwangi.
When Gwangi escapes and stalks T. J. and Lope, the film again almost succeeds at using action to reflect and create psychological change, as the ordeal or ceremony in the cathedral reestablishes the relationship between Tuck and T. J. At the end, they stand with Lope, looking like a newly minted family. Unfortunately, a few shots had explicitly shown T. J. and Tuck reunited before this climax, so the endings potential power is defused, as if the filmmakers had not trusted their ability to convey the situation indirectly.
Although someone tried to create a film that uses its action meaningfully, the finished product does not follow through on that intention. It is not clear whose idea it was, or what went wrong, but Harryhausen himself had sometimes revealed an instinctive, not fully developed tendency to use action in this way. At any rate, Harryhausen responded to this film’s approach, because his remaining features continue the
attempt, with varying degrees of success.
Despite this fascinating but frustrating incompleteness, Gwangi offers two sequences that stand among Harryhausen’s best: the events in the Forbidden Valley and the cathedral finale. In the former, the animation is superlative and its combination with the live action almost always convincing, as when a pterodactyl plucks Lope off his galloping horse. Even more impressive is the roping scene, which closely follows O’Brien’s original storyboards. To give the horsemen something to rope, Harryhausen used a jeep with a long pole attached. Later, while animating the sequence, he positioned the allosaurus model in front of the back-projected jeep and blended the real ropes with those on the animated creature, creating the illusion of actual contact. From Gwangi’s first appearance, through the roping and Gwangi’s fight with a styracosaurus, until a landslide knocks the creature unconscious, this entire section is
excellent, fast-paced adventure.
Gwangi is a much larger model than the allosaurus used in One Million Years B.C., because he “had to be able to snarl, bleed, blink, and do many more things in front of the cameras.” The only thing he lacks is a sympathetic personality, and yet Harryhausen keeps Gwangi from becoming an outright villain. We view his actions as self-defense and animal aggressiveness, not cruelty or maliciousness. We even spo
radically root for him, without exactly rooting against the humans. The film’s climax carries this double-edged tone still further. Of course, Gwangi must be prevented from razing the town and killing its citizens, but he is also a creature forced from his native habitat and confused by his new surroundings. We can worry about the characters while still sympathizing with this lost animal, whose fate we assume to be
Tuck risks his life distracting Gwangi from the trapped woman and child. Then, positioned on a balcony, he encounters the allosaurus at eye level and the struggle becomes a one-to-one confrontation. When Tuck grabs a spear from the cathedral wall and prods the creature with it, Gwangi’s teeth clamp down on the point, initiating a brief tug-of-war between man and monster. This direct manifestation of conflict
is so apt that the viewer almost forgets to admire the precision with which Harryhausen has created a physical link between the actor and the model.
When Gwangi relaxes his grip, Tuck falls backward against the organ and a chord reverberates, startling and distracting the animal. Tuck seizes this moment to hurl the spear, which drives deeply into the side of Gwangi s head. While the creature painfully attempts to knock the spear loose, the humans run for the door, the organ’s howl blending with the screams of the wounded animal. At the door, Tuck flings a brazier toward the creature. Trying to avoid the flames, Gwangi knocks over another brazier and the fire spreads, trapping him like the Frankenstein Monster in James Whale’s 1931 film.
Outside, the hero, heroine, and boy stand with the townspeople. There is no cheering, no rejoicing. Silent and solemn, they watch the cathedral go up in flames and imagine the agonized terror within. It is a moment of glorious tragedy and Harryhausen, in an uncharacteristically grim mood, refuses to let the viewer off the emotional hook, repeatedly cutting to inside the church as Gwangi falls onto his back, is
engulfed by flames, and writhes helplessly under the collapsing roof. The scene is not brutal, but it is painful to watch. For the first and only time, Harryhausen achieves the liberating effects of fear and pity, and he does so without the benefit of a humanoid creature. Then Harryhausen, reluctant to leave his audience too distressed, follows “The End” with each actor’s name superimposed over a shot of his character; Gwangi is the last figure shown, which lets the viewer carry away an image of him alive and
The Valley of Gwangi did not reach much of an audience. Released during a change in management at Warners, it was “dumped on the market” with very limited public ity, explains Harryhausen.76 He also blames the changes in film content that dominated the late 1960s. His resistance to “the permissive film”77 and “the rise of the antihero” developed into a wider concern about the self-indulgent state of American society in general. Harryhausen’s comments have validity, but another factor may also be involved. Owing to the mixed emotions of the climax and the rather unpleasant human characters. The Valley of Gwangi leaves the viewer uncomfortable. In a way, Harryhausen had created his own antiheroes, and the public did not want them.
Now in considerable need of a hit, Harryhausen and Schneer retreated to their biggest success, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Harryhausen came up with two premises for a sequel: the gathering of three interlocking pieces of a medallion and the rescue of a human who has been changed into a baboon. “I was trying to incorporate the two ideas, but they wouldn’t fit. … So I shelved the idea of the monkey and used it later.” To the medallion device and the inevitable magician-villain, Harryhausen added elements discarded from previous films (a Fountain of Destiny, which like Jason’s Pool of Hecate endows invulnerability, and a tribe of Green Men who derive from a green-skinned character in the script for Mysterious Island). He also included a Greek oracle, an Indian goddess, Babylonian carvings, and a Stonehenge-like structure. From this melange of details, he and writer Brian Clemens fashioned one of
Harryhausen’s most personal plots.
Jason had sought to bring peace and healing to a corrupted country, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) contains a similar situation, with Sinbad (John Phillip Law) helping a Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) whose land “is being choked alive” by the evil magician Koura (Tom Baker). If Koura gains complete power, “freedom and happiness would be lost to Marabia forever.” (As in Jason and the Argonauts, the country’s condition is stated, but not illustrated.) Sinbad has chanced upon one piece of a medallion and the Vizier has another; discovering that the pieces form a nautical chart, Sinbad sets sail with the Vizier to the mysterious island of Lemuria. Koura—who knows that placing the medallion in the Fountain of Destiny will bring its owner youth, invisibility, and “a crown of untold riches”—follows Sinbad’s ship. Using a tiny, flying homunculus as a spy (a variation on the “foo lights” in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), Koura learns Sinbad’s plan and the pursuit becomes a race.
Because Sinbad just stumbles into this conflict, Harryhausen tries to create a substitute for personal involvement by stressing the concept of destiny. After the medallion piece drops from the sky to his ship, Sinbad has a vision of a woman with an eye tattooed on one palm; in a dream she returns, and the dream leads into a sudden storm, which throws the ship off course, then abruptly ceases. Arriving at Marabia, Sinbad concludes, “We’ve been brought here by some mysterious force.” The Vizier voices
the same thought: “Only Destiny could have brought you here.” Returning to his ship, Sinbad is lured into a shop and its owner asks him to take his lazy son, Haroun, as a crewman. Sinbad resists until he sees a slave, Margiana (Caroline Munro), who has an eye tattooed on her palm. Convinced that she is part of some plan, he takes both her and Haroun with him. Much later, because of the tattoo, the Green Men try to sacrifice Margiana to a giant one-eyed centaur that lives near the Fountain of Destiny.
Thus, Sinbad’s involvement is justified because it was preordained. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, explains Harryhausen, “was based on the Middle Eastern point of view of Destiny: that everything is the will of Allah. You’re not your own free-will agent; there’s some sort of pattern. The whole of life is plotted out ahead of time.” Golden Voyage does establish such a pattern, but because the force that determined it (whether gods or god-surrogates) is not introduced, the function of destiny is both more obvious and less well integrated than in Jason.
This time, destiny is the sole cause of events—a substitute for character motivation—not an explanation involving interaction between control and independent human action. At the same time, the film also includes references to exactly that kind of interaction, which Sinbad sums up in the aphorism, “Trust in Allah—but tie up your camel.” Trapped in the Temple of the Oracle, Sinbad declares that “a man’s Destiny lies in his own hands” and figures out a way to escape. Even the Oracle states that as good and evil struggle, it is the “deeds of weak and mortal men that may tip the scales one way or the other.” In Golden Voyage, the emphasis on destiny does not mesh smoothly with the possibility of human choice.
A much more interesting aspect of the film involves Koura, a magician who works with a finite pool of power. Because Koura grows older and weaker with every use of his magic, the very process of seeking the medallion increases his need for the youth it promises, making Koura a more complete character than most of those in Harryhausen’s films, a man who sacrifices—at least, temporarily—and takes risks for his
goal. Also significant is the fact that nearly all of this film’s creatures are literal extensions of Koura s eyes, ears, and hands. He creates them or brings them to life, and they do his bidding, just as an animator controls his models.
Fifteen years and seven films earlier, Sokurah reflected Harryhausen’s confidence in his own power to infuse the inanimate with life; in Golden Voyage, Koura reveals the mood of Harryhausen in his fifties. The exertion of willpower, the strain and struggle of intense concentration, now leave the magician drained. “You will die if you go on this way,” cautions a concerned aide, to which Koura replies, “To summon the demons of darkness there is a price and each time I call upon them, it consumes part of me.”This is then visualized when Koura uses his own blood to bring a homunculus to life. The shooting script describes the effect of this process with sympathetic understanding: It causes “extreme physical distress,” leaving Koura both “exhausted” and “frustrated by his own weakness.” By the time he reaches the Fountain of Destiny, Koura is reduced to crawling. Finally, he places one part of the medallion in the water and declares with triumph, “The energy of youth is mine again!” Koura is a remarkably revealing surrogate for Harryhausen, who reportedly had considered retiring after the failure of Gwangi.81
The Golden Voyage also touches on the issue of age through Haroun, an Arabian “hippie” who reflects Harryhausen s impatience with contemporary permissiveness. Haroun is broadly ridiculed in the guise of comic relief, but, more meaningfully, he takes his youth for granted, misuses his energy, and disdains any age slightly greater than his own. When told he might be at sea for three years, he whines, “I’ll be an old man before then! I’ll be ancient!” Haroun’s laziness also irritates the hard-working Harryhausen, who converts him (not very gradually) into a reliable and courageous crewman. This evolution recalls that of Herbert in Mysterious Island, except that Haroun’s flaws are not as sympathetically presented.
Most of the creatures animated by Koura lack an independent ability to feel pain or think, and although the ship’s figurehead and the statue of Kali look human, the wood and metal of which they are made inhibit characterization. They are also nearly invulnerable, which reduces the chance for exciting batches. The figurehead performs its simple task—bringing Sinbad’s chart to Koura—without meeting much resistance, and in the duel with the six-armed Kali, the sailors merely defend themselves until it is pushed from a parapet and shatters (revealing the medallions third part within). In contrast, the tiny homunculi, which resemble Ymirs with wings, offer personality as well as spectacle. When one eavesdrops on the Vizier’s conversation with Sinbad, its flexible body reacts to what it sees and hears. Lurking by a window, it leans forward attentively, then pulls back at a particularly important comment.
Only in the film’s climax does Harryhausen turn to his more traditional creatures. The cyclopean centaur and griffin are both amalgams of different animals: The centaur combines the head, arms, and chest of a man with a horse’s body, and the griffin blends a lions body with the head, beak, and wings of an eagle. Each must have been difficult to design and animate so that the parts appear harmonious. The centaur, in particular, could easily have looked off-balance, but Harryhausen meets the challenge with deceptive ease.
Thematically and in terms of plot, the final battle between Good (the griffin) and Evil (the centaur) is more confusing than powerful. Challenged by Sinbad, Koura summons the centaur to fight in his stead, but his control of it is questionable because he had not previously known it existed. Even more awkwardly, the griffin’s origin is never explained. In the script, its abrupt entrance and link with Good were quickly justified when Margiana prays, “In Allah’s name—save him [Sinbad]. … in the name of goodness and hue.” Although footage of this was shot, Harryhausen explains noncommittally, it “failed to work out” and couldn’t be used.
When the griffin appears to be winning, Koura slashes its leg with his sword, tip ping the scales enough for Evil to triumph. Then Sinbad tips the scales in the other direction by leaping onto the centaur’s back and, with repeated stabs, killing the beast. Finally, the conflict reverts to a human level, but Koura has an advantage. Having thrown the medallion’s second part in the fountain, he grows progressively more
invisible as he and Sinbad duel. Then, when totally invisible, he foolishly steps into the fountain’s geyser; the water reveals his form, and Sinbad stabs him. Although depicted in a satisfactory fashion, this duel cannot help but be anticlimactic, coming as it does after the giant creatures’ struggle.
Could the two fights have occurred in the reverse order? “We thought about that,” admits Schneer,”and structurally we really couldn’t change it because the dramatics of the piece require that the conclusion be a final confrontation between Koura and Sinbad.” The problem, of course, lay in the way the script had been developed. Having conceived the special-effects scenes before writing the story, Harryhausen was so committed to those scenes that he couldn’t imagine an alternative.
Although Tom Baker had played Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), his performance as Koura lacks stature and intensity. Still, by capturing the character’s sunder, more vulnerable side, Baker does serve as this film’s backbone. Sinbad cannot be as interesting a figure as Koura, but he could have been more than the cardboard character provided by John Phillip Law. The script describes Sinbad as irrepressible, filled with “exhilaration” and a “devil-may-care optimism,” but the best Law offers is a shallow confidence. As Margiana, Caroline Munro has an exotic beauty that makes her a pleasing adornment, but only her eye tattoo contributes to the plot. Director Gordon Hessler—despite overuse of a hand-held camera—does a workman-like job of staging the action, but overall the film has a slow, even ponderous, pace.
Nevertheless, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad captures the pulse of mythological adventure and dispenses several unforgettable events, including the rapidly edited duel with Kali, the crack and splinter of wood as the figurehead pulls loose from the ship’s prow, and everything involving the homunculi. It is also, thanks to the conception of Koura, one of Harryhausen’s most complex and subtly confessional films.
Columbia’s publicity department backed the film to the hilt, and, despite its oppressive mood, it was a financial success. Encouraged, the studio re-released The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to good results. Naturally, Columbia agreed to back a new Sinbad adventure, so Harryhausen elaborated on his idea about the baboon, and Beverley Cross turned the result into a screenplay. But despite new settings, creatures, and other details, the basic plot of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) resembles that of The Golden Voyage. Again a magician—this time a woman, Zenobia—schemes to seize power from a good ruler and Sinbad must counter her spells. Ultimately, he sails to Hyperborea, a green land near the North Pole, seeking the power contained in its Shrine of the Four Elements. Zenobia, like Koura, sails after Sinbad and uses her magic to spy on him, hoping to learn his destination.
This time, though, Harryhausen replaces the previous film’s emphasis on destiny and the emotionless search for the medallion with a character-based situation inspired by Vie 1th Voyage. In that story, Sokurah had altered the Princess’s form to get his way, and Sinbad brings her to Colossa to return her to normal; in Eye of the Tiger, Zenobia prevents the coronation of Prince Kassim by changing him into a baboon, and Sinbad takes him to Hyperborea to change him back to human form. Such characters as
Cavor (in First Men) and Bromley (in Givangi) probably inspired Melanthius, an elderly scientist-alchemist who is ahead of his time professionally, sloppy in his housekeeping, often garrulous, sometimes grumpy, always charming, and eccentric in a very English way.
Despite its debts to other films, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger stands solidly on its own, for Harryhausen had recognized the problems of The Golden Voyage and solved them here. This film also contains only one brief, but revealing, mention of age: Melanthius asserts that he is too old to join the expedition, but then develops a commitment to the task that belies his claim. In much the same way, the fast-paced Eye of the Tiger reveals in Harryhausen a revived energy and fresh enthusiasm.
In one key change, Harryhausen limits the number of creatures the magician controls. This leaves room in the plot for other kinds of animated beings, two of which remain involved throughout most of the film: the baboon, who accompanies and interacts with the humans, and the Minaton, a bronze figure created by Zenobia to do her heavy work. (The human-bodied and bull-headed Minaton is based on the actual
Talos of Greek myth.) In Hyperborea, Harryhausen introduces a giant prehistoric human, a Troglodyte, which is also integrated into the action.
Moreover, Harryhausen makes two of his animated characters totally sympathetic, a step he had never taken before. The fact that the baboon is really Prince Kassim justifies giving it human qualities, and Harryhausen’s subtle animation develops a personality that rivals that of Mighty JoeYoung (without Joe’s comic eye-rolling). In one of the film’s highlights, the skeptical Melanthius hands “Kassim” a mirror, but the animal does not attack his own reflection, as a true baboon supposedly would. Instead, his simian countenance reveals completely human emotion as he gazes at the form in which he is trapped. Finally, he turns away and weeps silently. Melanthius, of course, is convinced. It is a moving scene for both the characters and the viewers, one that finally offers Harryhausen the opportunity to “act” through his model. He is also able to vary his animated characterization, because the longer Kassim remains in baboon form, the more his humanity disappears.
When the Troglodyte first enters, everyone (including the audience) assumes him to be a menace, so the film provides a neat twist when he converses with the baboon and helps Sinbad find the Shrine of the Four Elements. Although Trog doesn’t have as much personality as the baboon, he is human enough and has sufficient screen time to develop sympathy.
The film’s final battle pits Trog against a giant saber-toothed tiger. Trog has already participated in the action, so his involvement here is natural and the viewer immediately roots for him. The tiger had not been previously introduced, but because Zenobia projects herself into its ice-encrusted body, it is less a new creature than Zenobia in a new form.The fight—with many long, medium, and close shots of the action—is one of Harryhausen’s most fully developed and violent confrontations. After Trog is killed, Sinbad himself faces the tiger, which (in an effective reprise of the allosaurus scene in One Million Years B.C.) leaps toward Sinbad, who impales it on the Minaton’s pike and pivots its body over his head. This sequence resolves the structural awkwardness in the climax of Golden Voyage by combining the animal fight with the human fight by the simple but ingenious method of having one of the animals actually be the magician. The new version works perfectly.
The careful structure of Eye of the Tiger stands out as another virtue. Especially effective is the way it apportions expository information while continuing to advance the plot. The first scene depicts Prince Kassim’s coronation, which involves the audience through close-ups that reveal the various characters’ relationships. As the crown is lowered toward Kassim’s head, Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) casts a spell and smoke obscures the Prince. Exactly what has happened remains unknown, whetting the
Sometime after, when Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) arrives at the city, a local merchant lures him to his tent. After dialogue informs us about Sinbad’s friendship with the Prince and his sister, Farah, the merchant attempts to poison Sinbad and his men. This provokes a fight, during which Zenobia enters and conjures three ghouls—flesh covered skeletons with large, insect-like eyes—which attack Sinbad. Harryhausen had
regretted that the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts “did not take place at night. Its effect would have been doubled,” so in Eye of the Tiger he proves his point by having the duel with the ghouls move out of the tent and into the darkness. The action ends when Sinbad cuts the ropes holding a pile of logs, which tumble on top of the ghouls. Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) then appears, and Sinbad escapes with her to his ship.
The couple’s conversation onboard the ship provides the first extended exposition, and by now the viewer is sufficiently curious to listen with interest. However, we learn only that something serious happened to Kassim and that unless he is crowned “in seven moons” he will lose his right to be Caliph. The romance between Sinbad and the Princess is established here, too. A year before, Sinbad—like Tuck in Gwangi—
had left her because he was unwilling to give up his independence. Now that he has changed his mind and returned, the wedding must be delayed until an obstacle has been overcome (as happened to Sinbad in The 1th Voyage).
The next morning, Sinbad prepares to seek help from Melanthius, on the island of Casgar, and Zenobia makes her official entrance; she is Farah’s stepmother, a sorceress plotting to put her own son, Raffi, on the throne. When sailors bring a covered cage onboard ship, they stumble, revealing a large baboon inside. Quickly, he is taken below. The viewer can now deduce what happened to Kassim, but it still has not been stated outright. Later, as the baboon plays chess with Farah in Sinbad’s cabin, a sailor glances in and panics. Only now does Sinbad explain, to the sailor and to us, that the baboon is Kassim. Soon Sinbad reaches Casgar, where Melanthius (Patrick Troughton) tells about Hyperborea, which initiates the journey’s second stage.
Aside from Zenobia’s Minaton, which is more workman than menace, the film has presented no animated danger since the ghouls, but the efficient script has kept viewers intrigued by starting Sinbad on his journey and setting up Zenobia’s pursuit, while still parcelling out information. Interest continues as a new plot element develops. Although Sinbad’s romance with Farah is taken for granted, the film finds time to let Melanthius’s daughter, Dione (Taryn Power), develop an affection for the baboon.
On the way to Hyperborea, Zenobia spies on Sinbad by changing herself into a gull, flying to his ship, and entering the cabin as herself in miniature form. After she is captured and placed in a bottle, Melanthius questions her and reveals what she wants to know in the process. Finding her vial of magic fluid, he makes another mistake by testing the liquid on a hornet, which increases in size and attacks. Sinbad enters and fends off the hornet, as Zenobia escapes from the jar, drinks the fluid, changes back to a gull,
and flies off. This engrossing scene works because of the strong personalities of Melanthius and Zenobia, uncertainty about how it will develop, and imaginative direction that includes distorted shots through the jar’s glass. Although Melanthius’s actions don’t support his reputation for intelligence, at least the script has him apologize for his misjudgments. In another good decision, Zenobia is not all-powerful. She cries in agony during the first transformation and, lacking enough fluid for a complete return to human form, spends the rest of the film limping with one webbed foot.
The masts of Sinbad’s ship prevent it from using the tunnel entrance to Hyper borea, so the expedition takes a land route, but Zenobia’s Minaton-powered vessel can pass through the tunnel, so she arrives first at the pyramid. To create an opening she has the Minaton remove a huge stone block, which crushes the Minaton, leading to the script’s sole lapse in logic: Zenobia dismisses the loss of the Minaton, saying that he has done his job, evidently forgetting that she would have to get home again somehow. From here on, the story moves quickly to its climax, and Kassim is finally crowned Caliph while the end credits roll.
The film’s human characters are well conceived and, for the most part, well acted. Noteworthy is the presence of three strong, intelligent women. Margaret Whiting makes Zenobia both believable and larger than life in her ironic and angry determination; the actress even redubbed her dialogue to add an exotic accent. Farah and Dione transcend the attractive adornment category, for both have a personal connection with Kassim and the actresses effectively convey distress, sympathy, or irritation as required.
Patrick Troughton’s Melanthius successfully embodies the garrulous eccentricity that had eluded Laurence Naismith as Professor Bromley in Gwangi. Only Patrick Wayne fails to measure up. It looks the part of Sinbad.but is diminished by a flat and strained delivery of dialogue. Director Sam Wanamaker, better known as an actor, probably helped elicit these mostly convincing performances, and his use of camera movement and close shots provides the visual vitality missing from Golden Voyage.
Eye of the Tiger contains some technical flaws—for example, Harryhausen filmed stand-ins on location in Petra and later matted in closer shots of the actors, with some inconsistency—but they rarely relate to the animation or its combination with live action. The film’s fantasy characters mark a kind of breakthrough for Harryhausen. Not since Mighty foe Young had he created animated, feeling companions for the humans, a challenge he meets with great skill. Although it may lack the personal implications of its predecessor, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger succeeds admirably as entertainment.
Ever since Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen had wanted to make another film based on Greek myth. He was especially intrigued by the confrontation between Perseus and Medusa, the gorgon with snakes instead of hair and a face that turns all who gaze on it to stone, but he couldn’t fit a plotline around this encounter. Beverley Cross, however, suggested a solution, so at the completion of Eye of the Tiger he worked with Harryhausen on a script for Clash of the Titans (1981). Columbia considered the project too expensive, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, seeking to reestablish itself as a production company, was looking for films. In fact, MGM wanted a big and important feature, so the studio encouraged Harryhausen to make Clash of the Titans elaborate and even hired such mainstream performers as Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Burgess Meredith. Finally, Harryhausen had a chance to become
In the myth, Perseus has already killed the gorgon when he discovers Princess Andromeda chained to a cliff as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Falling immediately in love, he destroys the monster and marries Andromeda. The film changes the order of events, so that Perseus meets Andromeda first, then obtains the gorgon’s head to use in rescuing her. Thus, as in The 7th Voyage and Eye of the Tiger, the union of hero and heroine is delayed until an obstacle can be overcome.
To provide Perseus with an ongoing antagonist, Cross created a totally new character, Calibos, who schemes against Andromeda and her country. The script also establishes the hero’s origins and adds an earlier challenge that Perseus must meet to win Andromeda. This results in two almost completely separate adventures, with the film’s entire first half becoming exposition that sets up the main situation. Although this awkward structure disrupts audience involvement, the added material helps make Titans a richly textured work.
Like Jason before it, Clash of the Titans dramatizes the gods’ control over humanity. Especially apt is the use of the theater as an image for that manipulation: The gods place terra-cotta figurines of the characters in a model amphitheater whenever they, as “authors,” influence the people’s lives. Taking this concept further, Cross sets part of the earthly action in a real amphitheater and includes a playwright as a major character. Like any good author, Ammon (Burgess Meredith) is always ready to move the plot along by giving Perseus (Harry Hamlin) some useful information or suggestion.
Desmond Davis had perhaps the ideal combination of talents to direct Clash of the Titans. His years as a camera operator gave him the necessary technical expertise, and he also had experience as a scriptwriter. His first films as a director—notably The Uncle (1964) and / Was Happy Here (1965; U.S.: Time Lost and Time Remembered)— emphasize small, sensitive moments conveyed in an understatedly cinematic style. In Clash of the Titans, Davis often captures a scene’s essence in a close-up detail, such as hands separating when Perseus parts from Andromeda (Judi Bowker) or the dust of a crushed figurine blowing from Zeus s palm.
Likewise, Davis’s editing lets us share the perspective of Perseus as he first encounters the sights of Joppa or glances at an executed man, then at Queen Cassiopeia, and finally at the tower that contains her daughter, Andromeda. In the opening scene, the filmmakers are not content to let the camera merely observe the setting’s impressive cliffs, waves, and mist. Instead, carefully chosen angles and close shots build the impact. Harryhausen, in his effects scenes, also uses film technique creatively and not just as a means of recording events: When Perseus and the gorgon stalk each other among a temple’s columns, the flickering firelight and extensive editing build considerable tension.
In The Golden Voyage, an evil force was causing a nation’s decline, a situation that reflected Harryhausen’s concern about America’s “permissive society.” That film, though, had only stated the country’s condition in dialogue, whereas Clash of the Titans makes its similar situation both thoroughly visual and more extreme. Harryhausen’s final film is permeated with cruelty and ruthlessness on the part of both the gods and humanity, and its physical world is often ugly and decaying. Only the innocence of Perseus and Andromeda, and a few scenes of peaceful beauty or calm, relieve this surprisingly grim tone.
In essence, the film reveals Harryhausen’s personal struggle to assert a positive outlook in the face of his growing disillusionment. Certainly Perseus resembles Harryhausen’s familiar hero fated for individual achievement: Zeus tells him to “Find and fulfill your Destiny”; after falling in love with Andromeda and realizing her danger, Perseus declares, “I have found my Destiny”; then, after defeating the gorgon, he
recalls Zeus’s original words. Yet this heroic theme does not fit naturally into the film. The references to Destiny were, in fact, added at the last minute. They do not exist in the shooting script, which instead has Perseus chased from the gorgon’s lair by her “poisonous” blood, which “spreads across the vast stone floor—lapping against the petrified dead, filling the ritual pool—slowly covering the abandoned fields.” Through these changes, Harryhausen seems to want to reclaim heroism from what had become a bleak and even cynical vision.
Before introducing the adult Perseus, the film thoroughly establishes the context. In a prologue, King Acrisius of Argos orders his daughter, Danae, and her newborn son, Perseus, placed in a coffin-like chest and has it thrown into the stormy sea. This, he claims, will punish her “sin” and restore his honor. At the same time, he believes, “Their blood is not on my hands,” because he did not actually kill them. Observing events from Olympus, Zeus (Laurence Olivier) angrily punishes Acrisius for his “cruel and ruthless crime” by releasing the Kraken, a sea monster, which creates a tidal wave that destroys Argos and drowns its citizens. Zeus also crushes the figurine of Acrisius, killing the King. This punishment is hardly less ruthless or vengeful than Acrisius’s original deed, nor is Zeus an objective judge, for he had caused Danae’s “sin” by fathering Perseus.
Zeus is, at least, a benevolent father who brings the castaways to a safe shore and watches over Perseus’s growth to manhood on an idyllic, isolated island. At this point, the goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) speaks to Zeus about her earthly son, Calibos, who is about to marry Princess Andromeda of Joppa. Calibos had been given a beautiful area to rule, but, complains Zeus, he “hunted and destroyed every living creature” and “trapped and killed my sacred herd of flying horses,” leaving only Pegasus. “His
crimes are unforgivable,” says Zeus, and he must be punished. Thetis pleads for mercy, but Zeus is adamant and alters Calibos’s appearance, making him “abhorrent to human sight” so that he must “live as an outcast in the swamps and marshes.”Thus are the weaknesses of humans dealt with on Olympus.
The resentful Thetis then arranges that no one else will ever marry Andromeda, and, just to make trouble, she lifts the sleeping Perseus from his peaceful island.”Time you saw something of the world, Perseus,” she says. “Time you came face to face with fear. Time to know the terrors of the dark and look on Death. Time your eyes were opened to grim reality!” Thetis’s giant hand places Perseus in an amphitheater in Joppa. When Zeus discovers this “deliberate and malicious act,” he forces three other
goddesses to provide his son with help: a sword, a helmet, and a shield.
The reality to which the bewildered Perseus awakens is, indeed, grim. Aside from Ammon, the place is deserted. Why has the theater been neglected, Perseus asks. “It’s a sign of the times,” replies Ammon. “This kingdom is under a curse and the city is in despair and everyone goes around muttering, ‘Call no man happy who is not dead!’ ” Conditions are so bad that he urges the youth to return to his island, but when Perseus discovers the three gifts, Zeus’s image appears in the shield and delivers his “fulfill your Destiny” line. Perseus then rushes off to Joppa, forgetting his sword.
Entering the city, Perseus absorbs the exotic sights of its crowded streets, which seem to be filled with sideshow performers, climaxed by the charred remains of a man burned at the stake. “These are complicated times,” says a soldier, who explains that the man, the latest suitor of Princess Andromeda, had failed to answer the required riddle and met the consequences. This, evidently, is part of Thetis’s revenge. The soldier points out the tower where Andromeda lives, “above this smoke and stench.”
Intrigued, Perseus sneaks into Andromeda’s chamber and there falls spellbound at the sight of her sleeping form. Then, he watches in confusion as a giant vulture brings a cage and carries away Andromeda’s spirit, which has emerged from her body. Determined to follow the vulture on its next visit, Perseus, at Ammon’s suggestion, ropes and tames the winged horse Pegasus, on which he pursues the vulture to the marshland home of Calibos. Part human and part satyr, this deformed creature still seeks Andromeda’s love. “Remember me how I was,” he pleads, and caresses her shoulder with his claw-like hand. Andromeda feels pity, but that is all. She pleads with Calibos to be merciful and cause no more human bonfires. Pathetic, but dangerous in his resentment, he refuses and makes up a new riddle (written out by an assistant, the Huntsman, using the bloody end of a birds leg).
After Andromeda leaves, Calibos and Perseus struggle in the swamp. Later, in Joppa, Cassiopeia asks if there is a new suitor for her daughter. Perseus enters and gives the riddle’s answer: the ring of Calibos, which he exhibits still on the creature’s severed hand. He had, however, pitied Calibos and spared his life, on the condition that he remove his “curse” from Joppa. “There will be no more bonfires, no more night
mares,” declares Perseus. “Light has conquered darkness.”The film appears set for an early happy ending, except that Calibos complicates matters by praying to Thetis. “In wounding me,” he argues, Perseus “has insulted you. Then, surely, he must be punished.” Thetis replies that with Zeus protecting Perseus, she can do nothing. “Then punish those Perseus loves: the Queen, Andromeda, the people of Joppa. … I demand justice!”Thetis sees through this, asking, “Justice—or revenge?” But she is, after all, on her son’s side.
At the wedding ceremony, Cassiopeia in her enthusiasm describes Andromeda as “more lovely than the Goddess Thetis herself.” This angers Thetis—or, rather, it lets her justify the punishment-revenge sought by Calibos. Cassiopeia asks for forgiveness, but Thetis refuses: In thirty days Andromeda must be sacrificed to the Kraken or the beast will destroy Joppa and its inhabitants. The mercy that Perseus granted Calibos has now brought even greater danger to Andromeda.
No one knows how to defeat the Kraken, but Ammon suggests asking the three blind Stygian Witches, who “have a craving for human flesh.” So Perseus sets out with some soldiers, and the assertive Andromeda accompanies them part of the way. Mean while, Zeus orders Athena to replace Perseus’s lost helmet with Bubo, her “allknowing, all-seeing” owl. Unwilling to part with Bubo, Athena has a mechanical
replica made, which is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-cute. From the air, this pseudo-Bubo points the way to the witches’ temple. There, in their filthy abode, the cackling hags stir the contents of a cauldron. At one point, a human hand rises to the surface and the fingers squirm, but a witch shoves it back below the surface. They have similar plans for Perseus, who is, one says, “not plump, but well made.” Bubo helps by grabbing the crystal orb that serves as their shared eye, which Perseus threatens to destroy unless they help him. When they suggest that Medusa’s head could destroy the Kraken, Perseus tosses the eye onto the rat-infested floor and, as the witches crawl about in search of it, leaves.
Ammon explains that Medusa had once been beautiful, but the god Poseidon seduced her in Aphrodite’s temple and, as punishment, the jealous goddess turned her into “an apparition so horrible” that she petrifies anyone who looks at her. Ferried across the River Styx by the skeletal Charon, Perseus and the soldiers reach Medusa’s temple, where Dioskilos, a two-headed guard dog, attacks. After defeating it, Perseus and the two surviving soldiers cautiously enter. One of Medusa’s arrows kills the first soldier and the other is turned to stone, but Perseus swings his sword from behind a column and beheads her.
Dramatically, the film should move directly from the death of the gorgon to the rescue of Andromeda, but Calibos has not yet been dealt with, so Harryhausen includes three more events, which crowd the climax and interrupt its momentum. While Perseus sleeps, Calibos pierces the gorgon’s head and her blood flows to the ground, turning into scorpions which grow to giant size. Upon defeating these foes, Perseus is attacked by Calibos. This time, he kills the vengeful mutation. Exhausted, Perseus has Bubo fetch Pegasus from the lair of Calibos, which it does after driving out the Huntsman and giant vulture. Finally, on the coast, Andromeda is chained to a rock, and, as the tentacled Kraken approaches, Perseus flies to the rescue. When he reveals the gorgon’s head, the Kraken freezes, then shatters. Perseus and Andromeda marry, and Zeus grants them a happy future.
Life in Clash of the Titans consists of vengeful punishments and little mercy. The world it depicts is cruel and ugly—though not as repulsive as the one Beverley Cross describes in the script. There, we discover the “cracked and filthy” floor of the amphitheater; in Calibos’s lair, a “greenish, sluggish vapour” rises “from the seething, bubbling marsh sludge”; the witches’ temple is “streaked with soot and grease” and littered with “yellow, rotting bones”; the soldier shot by Medusa turns into “a smoking, shapeless blotch”; the scorpions are preceded by “a writhing, squirming pool of blood-bloated maggots, swollen worms and all forms of venomous insect”; and Bubo’s talons “leave the face of the Huntsman a raw bloody pulp.” Even though the film tempers Cross’s descriptions, this remains the most unpleasant of all the worlds
created by Harryhausen.
In the script, Zeus offers the bleak view that time is “a human tragedy” because “poor earthly man is in the grip of Age from the instant he is born. And in the end, he passes to the deep land of the dead and is forgotten.” Although this statement was omitted from the film, at times Ammon expresses the older Harryhausen s impatience with youth and current artistic creation. After Perseus rushes off to Joppa, Ammon says to himself, “Impetuous. Foolish. The young—why do they never listen? When will they ever learn?” Ammon calls himself an optimist—”the last optimist,” in a line dropped from the film—because he believes “in the ability of man to overcome most obstacles.” As such, he writes comedies. “I was partial to tragedy in my youth,” he reveals, “before experience taught me that life is quite tragic enough without my having to write about it.” (Harryhausen has often voiced similar opinions, such as: “For me the cinema is essentially for entertainment, not for sending depressing messages.”85)
But a person who describes life as “tragic” is surely not an optimist. Instead, Ammon is so disillusioned that he turns away from life and, through art, creates alter natives to reality. This has also been Harryhausen’s admitted aim, yet the Harryhausen of this film differs from Ammon because—like Perseus—he has emerged from the security of his private island to face (and create) the “grim reality” of the world at large. And in doing so, he has granted the mercy of understanding to his chief villains.
Both Calibos and Medusa are themselves victims of the gods’ anger, enduring excessive and endless punishment for past weaknesses. Perhaps the film’s true villains are the gods, who combine a human kind of ruthlessness with an Olympian power over humanity.
The film clearly tries to end on an optimistic note, but cannot quite achieve it. Even as Zeus grants a happy future to Perseus and Andromeda, Hera asks, “What if one day there were other heroes like him? What if courage and imagination were to become everyday mortal qualities?” Zeus replies, “We would no longer be needed. But, for the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity down there
on Earth to last forever!” Courageous and imaginative individuals will always be in short supply, and they, like Harryhausen himself, are bound to feel besieged by the corruption around them.
For most of its length, Clash of the Titans—following Eye of the Tiger’s lead—integrates its animated figures with the ongoing plot; they are not monsters that enter only to be confronted and defeated. Often, as when Bubo snatches the witches’ eye or the vulture carries Andromeda to Calibos, the animated action is an accepted part of the film’s world. Harryhausen initially intended that Calibos, like the baboon in Eye of the Tiger, would be totally animated, but the final script gave the character dialogue, so Harryhausen used an effectively made-up actor (Neil McCarthy) for the close shots and a smoothly animated model for more distant views. Together, the two form the ultimate synthetic figure. Medusa and the Kraken may have only one major scene each, but their existence has been established earlier, so their presence hovers over the preceding action.
Only the two-headed dog and the scorpions are traditional walk-on creatures, and the fights against them reveal the familiar lack of activity. In both cases, Harryhausen tries to enliven the scenes by leaving Perseus for a rime without a sword. The mechanical Bubo represents a special case: Resemblances to R2D2 of Star Wars aside, his broadly comic spinning head, twirling eyes, and pratfalls continually disrupt the film’s otherwise subtle mood. Such misjudgments, however, are minor compared with the evocatively developed atmosphere in scenes that have nothing to do with action adventure. For example, Perseus first sees Pegasus in a setting of pastoral beauty that fits the horse’s shining purity, and the crossing of the River Styx possesses an almost Germanic misty mysticism.
Although Clash of the Titans reveals a high level of personal accomplishment, in one respect the film must have disappointed Harryhausen.To finish on schedule, he for the first time hired others to work on the animation. The choice of assignments is not surprising. Harryhausen, with little interest in comic characters, relinquished Bubo to Steven Archer; years before he had dropped a flying horse sequence from Jason, and now he let Jim Danforth animate the shots of Pegasus in the air. Danforth also worked on the Dioskilos sequence. Harryhausen had planned to have Perseus cut off one of the dog’s heads, but decided that would be too gruesome. Danforth, though, liked the basic idea, “so I had Perseus appear to cut a nerve or something. Since the background hadn’t been shot with that in mind, there was really no timing in Peseus’s action to allow for that, but I managed to squeeze in just enough frames so that you can see one of the heads go limp and drop, and then the other head keeps on snapping and barking.”86
MGM’s promotional campaign for Clash of the Titans positioned the film as an event, scheduled a display of Harryhausen’s drawings and models at New York’s Museum of Modem Art, and sent Harryhausen himself on a tour of universities and museums. This film, asserts Schneer, “was our biggest financial success ever.”87 But that was not enough. In the words of actor Burgess Meredith, Harryhausen “had great hopes for Clash of the Titans to be accepted as a work of merit.” The critics, however, saw it differently. Most settled for the usual condescension, but Variety’s review was calculatedly cruel, calling the film “an unbearable bore” with “flat, outdated special effects.”
“Ray was hurt by [the film’s] critical reception,” says Meredith. In a line dropped from the movie, Ammon (no doubt speaking for Harryhausen) mutters, “I never did like critics,” but this time Harryhausen couldn’t take refuge in his usual reverse-condescension toward what he considers overly intellectual critics. The reaction was too strong (at least in a few quarters), and perhaps he had invested too much of himself in
this work or was too tired to fight back.
Despite the negative critical response to Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen did start to plan new films. Some writing was done for Sinbad Goes to Mars and Sinbad and the 7 Wonders of the World, and Beverley Cross completed a script based on Virgil’s Aeneid. Harryhausen also prepared drawings for People of the Mist, a script brought to him by director Michael Winner. But, as Clash of the Titatis revealed, Harryhausen’s method of working had become impractical; it took too much time, and therefore cost too much. He had always enjoyed solitary labor. It made him comfortable and it allowed him to “put my mark on the work,” resulting in “a personal attachment to my films. Now that that is no longer possible, I have lost interest in continuing. I don’t want to just be part of a committee, with other people also putting their identification on the end result.”
Simultaneously, the length of time he would have to spend on a new project began to intimidate Harryhausen. In 1981, he admitted that “I find it more and more difficult to keep up my enthusiasm and strength throughout a whole year of work.” As he entered his sixties, he decided that the process was too all-consuming. “I never got to see my family,” he explains. “It’s not the right way to live, particularly when you’re over a certain age. … I don’t feel I can confine myself to a dark room for a year any
The industry itself was also draining his energy. “When you make a movie today, you face defiance from every direction. I marvel that anybody can actually finish a film, and get it released, because of all the obstacles.” Audiences, too, presented a problem: They are “bombarded with entertainment everywhere. They take it for granted. … I don’t know if the audience even cares any more about having a story.” Filmmaking was no longer fun, and, he concluded, “There s no point in knocking my
head against the wall.”
The vacation that Harryhausen planned after finishing Clash of the Titaiis grew progressively longer. Tributes and festival appearances kept him busy, and he satisfied the urge for solitary creation by sculpting bronze versions of his creatures. Finally, in 1987 at the age of sixty-seven, he announced his official retirement. Did Harryhausen finally concede defeat in his personal struggle to achieve a goal despite obstacles? In a narrow perspective, yes, but not in a larger sense. Looking back, “I had a vision in my mind and I wanted to do it more than anything else in the world.”95 He did it—he obtained his goal by creating a career and an extensive body of work—and so he could retire from the conflict gracefully, with his dignity and stature intact.
That body of work stands as an evolving thing, offering a process of discovery for viewers, just as it must have been that for Harryhausen. In it, we can see him starting out as an entertainer, aiming for nothing more (or less) than stirring the feelings of an audience. Then, as he explored the ideas of Swift, Verne, Wells, and the Greek myths, he gradually defined his own view of existence. Finally, he found himself expressing that view as it applied to life around him, but did so indirectly, in the language he spoke fluently, in the context of fantasy. Inevitably, Harryhausen’s most personal films contain inconsistencies and uncertainties of tone or thought, for he worked on a level that mixed conscious intent with unconscious compulsion. Consequently, the results are perhaps all the more rewarding.
It is appropriate that Harryhausen should ultimately follow the advice implicit in his final film: Like Perseus, he left his isolated workshop-island and entered the world. That there will be no more Harryhausen films means a loss for the viewing public, of course, but also a private gain for the man himself. And viewers can always turn to the existing films for consolation, immersing themselves once more in impossible worlds, accepting the flow of miraculous images as wonders to be savored, while exploring with the Master Magician some of the implications of those images. They can also consider the total achievement of the person behind the films, who serves as a prime example of, in Ray Bradbury’s words, “the creative powers of single individuals in the world.”96 Through the films, we can continue to encounter Ray Harryhausen, the self-made cinematic conjurer, the modern Pygmalion who used technology to breathe life into improbable Galateas.
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- John Landis on why Ray Harryhausen’s effects are still so special (guardian.co.uk)