Clash of the Titans (1981)
As a child I loved reading all the major Greek mythological stories. Hercules and Jason were great but, when it came down to it, the story of Perseus was always my favorite. It helped that I was also interested in astronomy, which is what led me to be interested in the myths in the first place. Unfortunately the Phoenix area has expanded, light pollution is worse, and I can no longer sit on a lawn chair and look up and see the brightest stars that make up Pegasus, Andromeda, Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Perseus was always tricky because, except for Algol, the eye of the head of Medusa, it was always a bit fainter, as was Cetus. Still, I loved looking up and remembering the tale.
Clash of the Titans came out at the time when I was still most interested in the stories. I knew nothing about Ray Harryhausen at the time. I remember the few toys Mattell made in connection with the movie in the stores and remember seeing the story books that were released along with it. I so much wanted to see the movie in the theaters but, like most things I wanted as a child, it never happened. Too many real-world problems that I've mentioned in previous reviews to worry about seeing a fantasy movie.
When I finally did get to see it I couldn't help but be disappointed. New characters and creatures, though cool, were added, and the Kraken was some giant fish monster rather than a whale or, since I knew full well what a kraken was at the time, a giant squid. The battle with Medusa was at should be, but other myths and stories got mixed in. It was something that confused me as a kid. When I got older certain things struck me as weird, such as Pegasus galloping across the sky. But, as one gets older and comes to appreciate certain things, the world changes and one learns to relax a bit.
Perseus (Harry Hamlin), one of the many sons of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), is placed in a coffin with his mother and set adrift. His father, the king of Argos, is punished for the deed, as is the entire city, while Perseus and his mother arrive safely on the island of Seriphos. He grows up there, but then one day Thetis (Maggie Smith), who is upset that her own son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) has been deformed as punishment by Zeus, transports Perseus to the city of Joppa.
Because of the curse put upon Calibos he haunts the town, forcing Andromeda (Judi Bowker) to make any suiter recite a riddle of which the penalty for being wrong is being burnt at the stake. Through using a helmet provided by Athena (Susan Fleetwood) that makes him invisible he overcomes the challenge. However, as he is set to marry Andromeda, her mother Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips) boasts that Andromeda is fairer than Thetis herself. For this Thetis demands that Andromeda be bound to a rock to be sacrificed to the Kraken in 30 days. Perseus, determined to marry Andromeda, sets off to find out how to defeat the monster.
Harryhausen's version, adapted as a screenplay by Beverley Cross, simplifies the story and leaves quite a lot of characters out while including elements that were not in the original tale. The Stygian Witches, for instance, were kind of in the original tale, but as relatives of the Gorgons. Here they are similar to the witches from Macbeth, as Calibos, who was not in the original legend, is similar to Caliban from The Tempest. The Kraken itself is from Norse mythology, but the creature seen in the movie is completely of Harryhausen's design, neither being a kraken nor the sea serpent (and later whale) from the original story. Another added character is Ammon, played by Burgess Meredith, as a sort of mentor and companion to Perseus. The most notorious addition was Bubo, a clockwork owl based on Athena's companion, that was an obvious attempt to copy R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies. Besides adding characters, it also omits some, including Andromeda's father Cepheus.
Despite the changes Clash of the Titans works. Laurence Olivier, who was quite ill at the time, makes a good Zeus, and Ursula Andress is a perfect pick for Aphrodite, even though she really doesn't have much to do except stand around. Harry Hamlin, as the star of the movie, is much more memorable than Todd Armstrong was in Jason and the Argonauts and, other than John Phillip Law, the most recognizable lead actor Harryhausen had in any of his films as the hero. Calibos makes for a good central villain, something that the tale needed to adapt into a movie, and both Harryhausen's stop motion and the makeup work done on Neil McCarthy is wonderful.
The only major problem with Clash of the Titans is the same one that arose with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Harryhausen's movies, and his methods, were beginning to show their age. There is nudity and more violence in this than the past, but it still looks like a European film that had a decent budget, and the way it is filmed by Desmond Davis makes it look like it is from two decades prior. One of the worst effects unfortunately comes at the beginning with the shadow of the seagull that flies to Olympus and reveals itself as Poseidon (Jack Gwillim), as the matte process looks almost unfinished. Although a sequel had been planned for this it never came about and both Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer came to recognize that, just like the Gods' discussion of becoming obsolete and forgotten, that perhaps the same was happening with them, and both subsequently retired.
Happily, just like the tales of old, Harryhausen and his methods were not forgotten, but celebrated more and more as time went on. They were not always perfect, but they influenced many effects artists and left us with fond memories of dashing heroes, half-dressed maidens in distress and fantastical creatures. While I didn't appreciate when I was younger, I certainly do now, and Clash of the Titans is definitely a fitting close to a wonderful career.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Neil McCarthy
Director: Desmond Davis