Director: Don Chaffey
Cast: Todd Armstrong, Honor Blackman, Gary Raymond, Nancy Kovack, Nigel Green, John Cairney, Niall MacGinnis
Plot: Hoping to unite a kingdom ruled by a murderous King, Jason (Armstrong), aided by vengeful goddess, Hera (Blackman), sets off on a quest to find a magical golden fleece.
I adored Greek mythology as a child. In many ways, I still respect the rich material that can still be mined for story-telling in its archives, even if the more recent attempts at adapting great Greek tales have not precisely worked out. The heroes were brave men, throwing their own safety to the wind in order to complete great quests, the Gods were not all-powerful, but arrogant rulers who meant well, but often made mistakes, miles from the infallible imagery in more Christian tales, but most of all, I loved the monsters. Powerful behemoths with the power to take on armies. Who wasn’t hypnotised by the savagery of the Hydra in Walt Disney’s Hercules or left in awe at Medusa’s power in Clash of the Titans? The monsters were probably one of the main appeals of the movies based on Greek mythology, especially Jason and the Argonauts, which could be considered the greatest of all the Greek mythology movies.
To add to the idea that the monsters are the unique selling point here, it does seem that the entire story is put on fast forward to cut to the more iconic scenes. Without so much of an origin story, the villainous Pelias desecrates Goddess Hera’s temple to kill three children, misreading a prophecy that foresaw a man named Jason stealing his future throne from him. Angered by his insolence, Hera protects the child, Jason, and vows to protect him, enabling him with his desire to avenge his murdered mother and sisters. The cut in time jars slightly, but in true Jason and the Argonauts style, we are soon too wrapped up in the next part of the story to feel the awkwardness of the frantic jump in time. Now Jason is an adult, fuelled by the tale of a Golden Fleece, a magical item found on the other side of the world, that is so revered it would help Jason unite the Greeks against Pelias. Jason assembles a fleet of powerful warriors to help him get to this Fleece and save the kingdom from Pelias. And as soon as that fleet is assembled, the main supporting cast fleshed out enough to justify us spending time with them in the story, we are off on what could be described as cinema’s greatest road trip movie. The rest of the film is essentially travelling from set-piece to set-piece, each new scene almost a brand new chapter, where the crew are faced with a problem that usually involves some mythical obstacle. Rock-faces that close in on passing ships, bat-like Harpies that swoop down and torment those who have displeased the Gods… This episodic style of story-telling suits a movie of this era, as its ability to constantly be moving onto the next part of the film helps avoid some of the necessary flaws of an outdated movie. The acting isn’t truly up to much cop, the fights are only thrilling for a short space of time, before the campness sinks in and, in all honesty, we don’t care about the characters enough to spend much time between action sequences. However, this allows Ray Harryhausen to become star of the show, the man who is behind the stop motion animated monsters. Some of this finest work is to be found in Jason and the Argonauts. For those that are fascinated by the practical effects of old, there is some breath-taking stuff to be found here. It is surprising just how shocking it still is when Talos, the giant bronzed statue that comes to life when the Argonauts anger the Gods, is on his first appearance. A still, intimidating statue who slowly turns his head to face his victims for the first time. That whole sequence can be traced as the first moment the audience realises that this movie is actually going to be something quite special.
Perhaps Jason and the Argonauts greatest triumph is how well it masks its flaws. It takes a long while to realise how terrible the fight choreography actually is. As with all movies of this era, there was a textbook style of approaching the action, as well as other eras of the film. The director, and other directors of the time, simply didn’t know any better. However, Don Chaffey has a few tricks up his sleeve to stop his aimless swinging from being too large an issue. For one, when you have a great metal man filling the cinema screen, who is paying attention to the tiny extras swinging their swords around anyway? Another clever beat is the score, giving is such a swell of dramatic tension that we don’t actually notice the fight scenes and their drawbacks until surprisingly late. This is most important for the finale, which, perhaps losing out to Talos, could be the greatest scene of the film. As Jason finally gets his hands on the fleece, he finds resistance with the angry locals, who appeal to their dark demigods to send seven skeletal warriors after Jason and his men. The skeletons are Harryhausen’s finest work here, terrifying even this many years after their first appearance. Despite looking fragile, they come across as unkillable machines, relentless in their mission to murder. It is the movement that really sets them apart from other movie monsters, as they slowly march to their victims, before bursting into a terrifyingly speedy dash on the final stretch. The direction is key here, making sure that the pesky fight choreography doesn’t get in the way of some horrifying swordsplay. It definitely sends the film out on a bang. What does kill the whole affair is the rapid closing after that scene. With the fleece in hand, the film closes before Jason ever returns to Pelias and the kingdom he vowed to rescue. If it was brought out in more modern times, this move would have been called deliberate sequel fishing. Whatever the reasoning for the sudden end, there was never any sequel and this is, sadly, a movie that feels like half a story. Still, with a giant metal warrior, killer skeletons and a terrifying Hydra, it was probably the better half.
Final Verdict: No modern film has quite ever captured the fantasy elements of this good, old-fashioned Greek mythology action. A shame as it is a genre still with so much potential.