Clash of the Titans (1981)
Dir. by Desmond Davis
Starring Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith and Burgess Meredith
A retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus: the son of Zeus, the infant Perseus and his mother are cast into the sea by his grandfather, the king of Argos, whose kingdom is destroyed by Zeus in retribution. Surviving on an island, the now-adult Perseus is transported to the mainland by the goddess Thetis, where he becomes involved in a back-and-forth power struggle between her and his father. He falls for and rescues the princess Andromeda, but due to Thetis’s rage must embark on a quest to retrieve the head of Medusa before the princess is to be sacrificed to the Kraken.
Even before I saw any of Ray Harryhausen’s movies, I was really into Greek myths as a kid. In third grade, I bought a big book of world myths from a library book sale, and read it cover to cover. I’m not sure if I saw Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts first, but I loved both of them growing up. We had both on VHS, but Jason was on the back half of an SP tape with another movie, so Clash of the Titans was easier one for repeat viewings. I actually brought the tape in to class in eighth grade for us to watch in English class when we did a mythology unit. I’ve only seen it once in the last decade, though, back when the remake came out in 2010.
If you’d asked me when this movie was made, if I hadn’t known any better I would have guessed late 1960s or early 1970s. It really doesn’t feel like a movie that came out four years post-Star Wars, and the same day as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Titans has much more in common with the Biblical epics of the 50s/60s, or the live-action Disney adventure films of the era, than the fast-paced, visceral thrills of Indiana Jones.
More than the special effects (which we’ll get to in a moment), it’s actually the acting and direction which make this seem like so much of an old-fashioned film. The movie is very methodically paced, with long sequences without much action or dialogue. The acting is also very stilted and theatrical (which is no wonder, given that Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Maggie Smith play Zeus and Thetis).
Harry Hamlin in particular is spectacularly uninteresting as Perseus, and his love interest isn’t any better. She literally spends the first half of her screen time in a hypnotized haze, and most of the rest of her role is spend as the prototypical damsel-in-distress, chained to a rock awaiting the Kraken. At least Burgess Meredith, as Perseus’s ally and advisor Ammon, is clearly having fun with the role, hamming it up as a Greek poet and playwright who gives every utterance an over-the-top exuberance, as if he were playing for an audience at all times.
The movie does have one thing going for it, however, that justifies the cost of admission, and that is Ray Harryhausen. Yes, yes, the stop-motion special effects looked super dated and cheesy, even when the movie first premiered. The stop-motion work that Phil Tippett was doing for ILM at the time, such as the AT-AT walkers from Empire Strikes Back, represented a significant step beyond what Harryhausen was producing with his traditional animation techniques, which dated all the way back to Willis O’Brien and King Kong.
Even Harryhausen himself claimed that his work on Titans was far from his best. However, they do mesh really well with the old-fashioned storytelling on display throughout the film. And there’s one sequence in particular that blows everything else in the movie out of the water, and perhaps represents the single most impressive display of stop-motion ever committed to film.
I’m talking, of course, about Medusa. Three quarters of the way through the film, Perseus and the handful of redshirts that have survived with him so far have finally reached the temple where Medusa resides. He has to retrieve her head in order to save Andromeda, but making eye contact with her will turn any mortal into stone. What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse game in a dimly-lit, statue-filled interior, as Medusa picks off his men one by one with a combo of arrows and petrification, until only Perseus is left. It’s by far the best sequence in the movie, and is even more impressive for the appearance of Medusa herself. In the actual myths, and in most previous depictions of Medusa, she is a regular human, sometimes with wings, with snakes for hair. Here, the snakes-for-hair is retained, but Harryhausen goes further, turning her into a half-snake, with a serpentine tail instead of legs. It’s a look that would influence many a fantasy writer and video game designer, and has arguably become “the” appearance for Medusa in popular culture in the last few decades.
It was also a sequence that was fiendishly difficult to animate. In addition to the challenge of animating serpentine movement and all of those independently-moving snakes on her head, Harryhausen had the added challenge of doing so on a set that was dimly lit by flickering torches. He actually managed to realistically portray firelight on Medusa’s body, changing with every second as she moves in and around the columns and statues. I have absolutely no idea how he managed to pull it off, and I’m in awe of the talent that he displayed during this sequence.
Most of the movie is a very mixed bag. It’s a slow movie that seems to pad out its running time, with mediocre acting by anyone without a Sir or Dame in front of their name. But it also has one of the best old-school effects sequences of all time, and is definitely worth watching for that alone. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of special effects, or in Greek myths, though it might be one that’s okay to half-watch while playing a video game or something, and pay attention when it gets to the good parts.
-The 2010 remake, despite taking full advantage of thirty years advancement in special effects, is…not good. Like, at all. It was quickly converted to 3-D on short notice due to the popularity of Avatar, and the result was a very muddy, difficult to watch theatrical experience. It seems to exist mainly to create a meme of Liam Neeson bellowing “Release the Kraken!”