Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Jason and the Argonauts

I love Jason and the Argonauts but my son nearly spoiled it for me.

When I was a kid, it knocked spots off all the competition. The Sinbad films were good and we’d troop along to the cinema to see white British actors, browned up to play middle eastern sailors. With their minotaurs, troglodytes and sabre-toothed tigers, there was plenty to be amazed by, but it wasn’t Jason and the Argonauts. Clash of the Titans came along a bit later as well. It was alright, but the trainer out of Rocky 3 as a Greek scholar and playwright was a bit hard to swallow and it wasn’t Jason and the Argonauts.

The person connecting these films was, of course, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was the stop-frame animation specialist who was personally responsible for making my childhood a little bit more colourful. Jason and the Argonauts was his crowning achievement. Made in 1963 for a million dollars, it was a complete mishmash of a variety of Greek myths and it worked brilliantly. By the time I first saw it, in 1978, it had bathed in fifteen years of adoration by British kids.

It was the one film capable of stopping everyone in their tracks. As soon as there was word on the grapevine that Jason and the Argonauts was going to be on telly, the countdown would begin. A good hour before it started, the streets would clear of children. Tellys, unused to being switched on on a Sunday afternoon, would be powered up so that we could all jockey for the best seating position around them. Fifty pence pieces would be stacked in preparation so that there was no chance of it conking out mid film.

When the action began, it was non-stop. I can still remember being staggered when Talos the giant first comes to life. That metallic shriek as he turns to gaze on Hercules and Hylas is sealed forever in my memory. The trapping of the Harpies, the slaying of the Hydra and the final, terrifying swordfight against the skeletons that spring from the Hydra’s teeth were simply astonishing. I’d never seen anything like it and the pleasure it gave me ensured that it had a place in my heart from that moment on.

My kids are always asking me about my childhood, particularly my eldest boys, who are 12 and 10. In the same way that I liked (now and again) to hear about my dad’s five mile walk to the shop in 1940s Ireland, they wanted to know about the things that I did, that are now part of the past. They listened, open-mouthed as I told them about climbing trees, disappearing for entire summer holidays and scrapping with the kids from the next street.

I also used to tell them about Jason and the Argonauts. Not so much about the plot, more about what it was like to look forward to a film for a week, the anticipation killing you as the days ticked down and the frantic joy of the conversations in the street after, with everyone trying to say what their favourite bit was, at the same time.

So the ground was laid for this rite of passage. I didn’t buy a dvd of the film, but waited for it to appear, as it always does, just when you’re not expecting it. The kids were bored, it was a Sunday afternoon but it was too rainy to take them to the park. I flicked around and there it was. It had just started, so I got the lads sat down and welcomed them to a bit of my past.

And it was downhill from there.

To begin with, they were with it, but then they started noticing things. These kids are used to perfection in their animation. They’ve seen Avatar and Toy Story 3. They’ve played computer games that make you feel that you’re actually there. They, unlike me and you, have never had to overlook discrepancies and slight continuity faults in the films they love. Processing power has made them flawless. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but because I was with them, I started to watch Jason and the Argonauts with an eye that I normally reserve for Corrie (see my earlier blog!!)

The dodgy acting, a cast consisting of Nigels, Douglas’, Jacks and Garys playing Greek heroes and the obvious use of double screening to pair up the monsters with the actors, started to make my lads chuckle a bit.

Chester (12) administered the coup de grace. In one of the most famous scenes, Talos bestrides the bay, to stop the Argo from escaping.

Minutes later, Jason defeats him, by attacking his Achilles heel (mishmash, as I said). Chester casually pointed to the screen and said.

“I thought he was bigger than that.”
He was right, but I’d never noticed. Judge for yourself from the two pictures. One minute he’s as big as a block of flats, the next, it’s a maisonette at best.

I was a bit crestfallen, but subsequently took heart from the fact, that the film had worked such a magic trick on my childhood, that I unconsciously ignored my natural tendency to spot faults or inaccuracies.

I made them watch it to the end and was rewarded by the fact that they were clearly disturbed by the skeletons. Nearly 50 years on, the combination of those rictus grins, jerky movements and an ominous musical score was enough to unsettle the boys to the point where Casey (10) didn’t want to watch it.

Well done Ray, you’ve still got it.


  1. You were rivetted by Harryhausen; I was rivetted by your post! I remember seeing this with my own boys in the 1990s: they adored it. And now they are of course all into 'shabbiness' and 'analogue retro'. Give me stop-motion Harryhausen over perfect digital sfx any day.

  2. Thanks Picturetalk. The imperfections of classic stop-motion lent it a humanity and vulnerability that is missing from the more clinical approach of CGI. I still watch it from time to time and the skeletons continue to scare me!!!!