Jason and the Argonauts (1963): Movie Review

Guest blogger Rick 29 writes about the 1963 mythological saga Jason and the Argonauts:

In his delightful Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Ray Harryhausen wrote: “Of the 15 fantasy features I have been connected with, Jason and the Argonauts pleases me the most.” And as a long-time Harryhausen fan, I confess that it’s my favorite among his incredibly imaginative works (with 1958′s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad a close second).

Based on the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, the film opens with Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) about to launch an attack on Aristo, the king of Thessaly. On the eve of the battle, an oracle warns Pelias: “It is also foretold that although you will win the throne of Aristo, you will–when Zeus ordains–lose it to one of Aristo’s children.” That night, Pelias decides to take the lives of Aristo’s children to prevent the prophecy. However, the baby Jason is taken to safety and Aristo’s daughter Briseis seeks the protection of the goddess Hera. Despite the risk of incurring Hera’s wrath, Pelias kills Briseis. A shadowy figure in the temple tells Pelias that a one-sandaled man will prove his undoing.

Twenty years later, while searching the countryside for Jason, Pelias falls in a river and nearly drowns. He is rescued by a young man, who emerges from the water with only one sandal. Pelias realizes immediately that Jason (Todd Armstrong) has arrived to reclaim his father’s throne. However, Jason has never seen Pelias and doesn’t know that he has saved–and now befriended–the man that murdered his family. Fearing Hera’s wrath, Pelias knows he cannot kill Jason outright, so he suggests that the young man rally the downtrodden people of Thessaly with an inspiring act of heroism: retrieving the Golden Fleece from the edge of world.

Jason stages a competition to select the bravest, strongest (e.g., Hercules), and smartest men (e.g., Hylas) for his crew. Unfortunately, Pelias’ son (Gene Raymond) joins the ranks, too, and his goal is to ensure Jason never returns. With five wishes from Hera to assist him, Jason sets sail aboard his ship the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.

What I have just described is essentially a 45-minute build-up to an incredible hour of thrills and chills courtesy of Harryhausen’s amazing stop-motion special effects. Jason and the Argonauts encounter the metallic god Talos, the pesky winged Harpies, Triton and the Clashing Rocks, the seven-headed hydra, and the “hydra’s teeth”, which sprout into an army of mean-looking skeleton warriors. Every fan has his or her favorite creature and, while the Harpies and the Hydra always amaze me, I’ve got to go with the skeleton warriors. Even with today’s digital special effects, I cannot imagine the climactic skeleton fight looking any better.
Jason and the Argonauts was filmed in a small coastal village south of Naples. The production took two years to complete, with most of the time devoted to Harryhausen’s special effects. In his Scrapbook, Harryhausen describes the skeleton sequence: “There were seven skeletons fighting three men, with each skeleton having seven appendages to move in each frame of film, this meant an unprecedented 35 animated movements had to be synchronized with three live actors’ movements; so one can readily see why it took four and a half months to record the sequence for the screen.”
Harryhausen notes that one of the most difficult effects to achieve was the herky-jerky movement of the giant metallic Talos. The irony is that Harryhausen spent his career trying to make his creatures move in a smooth, lifelike manner.

Aside from Harryhausen’s impressive contributions, Jason and the Argonauts remains an entertaining adventure yarn. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, director Don Chaffey maintains a lively pace. Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Harryhausen on three other films, provides a rousing score.

As for the cast, Todd Armstrong makes a solid hero, though he’s not as charismatic as Kerwin Matthews from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Niall MacGinnis (from Curse of the Demon) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) are fun as Zeus and Hera. The best performance, though, comes from Nigel Green, who makes a brief but memorable appearance as a very different Hercules. In contrast to Steve Reeves’ portrait, Green’s Hercules is a middle-aged man well aware of his celebrity, whose greed and guilt limit his involvement in Jason’s quest.

Jason and the Argonauts is not “the greatest film ever made,” as Tom Hanks said when awarding Ray Harryhausen a Special Oscar in 1992. But it may be the best fantasy action film and Harryhausen’s marvelous creatures are a wonder to behold time and time again. In my opinion, it was the pinnacle of Harryhausen’s incredible career. There were still good films to come, such as 1974′s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but nothing worthy of comparison to Jason and the Argonauts.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • Blair kramer

    Who are WE to argue with Tom Hanks?  If Hanks says “Jason And The Argonauts” is the best motion picture ever made,  Well…  Hey….  I’ll go along with that!  After all,  it’s an entirely subjective evaluation,  isn’t it?!   

  • Movie Fan

    I loved both Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad! The special effects were incredible. 

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  • Kham

    Jason is among my very favourite movies of my childhood. while i may not watch it all that often nowadays, i did make a point of getting a copy on dvd for old times’ sake. this is what special effects are all about…. physical effects that required craftsmanship, patience, and originality. a very exciting film to watch, and every time i watch it, i feel like a kid again. 

  • Ken Roche

    Effects,  Settings,  Music,  Photography,  Direction,  Actors ~ loved Lawrence Naismith (The amazing Mr Blunden etc, etc…) as the Shipbuilder.  All these componants, coupled with a tad more mature approach to the script, certainly make “Jason” the best Harryhausen of all time for me.

    “7th Voyage”, for much the same reasons as above, comes close, but the script lets it down slightly.

    A good script (believable dialogue) some solid acting, great Sound Effects and stylized Art Direction, all help lift “The best From 20,000 Fathoms” into a more sophisticated class. Screened this one on film, on a BIG screen resently, still effective today. The Lighthouse, and Coney Isl sequences among others,are standouts. The finale still makes me shiver. Many Thanks to the “Two Rays”  for all their Gems! 
    Thanks for Top Blogg Rick 29.

  • Allen Hefner

    That’s a good post, Rick. I was 13 years old when it came out, so I saw it at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA. At that time, it was the best picture ever made!

  • Omar Soliman

    I take exception that Jason might not be the best movie ever made. It is a very subjective thing in my opinion. There are few films that are so successful in what they attempt to achieve. I challenge anyone to match the list of shining achievements accomplished in such a polished and outstanding way in this film. The different tones created for this film range from wild excitement of on-screen fantasy come to life to the brooding shakespearian emotional drama of earth-changing decisions. Performances that reach out and effect you on a very personal level. World changing events being played out by extraordinary individuals. You get to know these heroes. We follow individual men in different parts of this adventure. I would have followed these guys in just about any direction on any adventure that they would have wanted to go. And the score, as was mentioned, by Bernard Hermann is beyond brilliant and accompanies the actions on screen perhaps better than any other film (save maybe Wizard of Oz). Few films are so good in so many different areas. What other film can all of these claims? What other film holds your attention and involves your emotions as successfully?? Can you name another?  

  • Ganderson

    I’m with Hanks; I’ll take ‘Jason’ over ‘Citizen Kane’ any day of the week and twice on Thursdays.  I still remember the heart-stopping thrill (at the age of 9) when Talos first turns his head, accompanied by a spine-tingling metallic “creeeeak”.  The fight with the Harpies is also a wonderfully engaging masterpiece of cinematic action scenes.  But, all that said, the skeleton fight is maybe one of the top five scenes in all movie history, the timing is flawless and it is accompanied by that creepy sound track of xylophone music.  Harryhausen, maestro of the magics!