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!