(MGM) Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Jack Gwillim, Burgess Meredith, Susan Fleetwood, Sian Phillips, Tim Piggott-Smith, Flora Robson, Neil McCarthy, Donald Houston. Directed by Desmond Davis
Among sci-fi and fantasy film geeks the name Ray Harryhausen is spoken in a reverent whisper. He was the stop-motion special effects guru responsible for such films as Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He worked with the great director George Pal on Mighty Joe Young and brought to life the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The last film he worked on as an active special effects producer was this one.
Zeus (Olivier) is plenty peeved at King Acrisius (Houston) who is attempting to drown his daughter Danae and her infant son Perseus. It has been foretold that Acrisius would die if Danae would give birth to a son. In addition, she had the child out of wedlock, a big no-no in ancient society. However, unbeknownst to Acrisius Zeus himself is the father and as we all know it’s generally a bad idea to piss off a Greek God. Zeus orders Poseidon to unleash the Kraken, a Titan with a very nasty temper held captive by the Gods to be used to do their dirty work. The Kraken levels the King’s city and Zeus himself punches Acrisius’ ticket to the underworld, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that he was trying to avoid. Karma is a mean mo-fo and you just can’t get away from it.
Zeus arranges for mother and son to wash up on gentler shores, but things aren’t going to go much better for the two there. Hera (Bloom), the wife of Zeus, is pretty hacked off that her husband’s been stepping out on her and, now wanting to suffer the wrath of her husband, decides to take things out on Danae and her son.
Some years later infant Perseus is now strapping young man Perseus (Hamlin). In order to make a name for himself he must return home to Joppa whose Queen Cassiopeia (Phillips) has pledged her comely daughter Andromeda (Bowker) to Calibos (McCarthy), the son of the goddess Thetis (Smith). Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed by the gods to become a hideous misshapen grotesque. In order to secure his prize, he sends a prehistoric bird to fetch Andromeda’s soul in a gilded cage. To win Andromeda, Perseus must combat Calibos and solve a riddle posed by Cassiopeia herself or risk immediate execution. Love was sure tough back in the day.
In order to follow the bird to combat Calibos, he needs a flying horse. The only one for the job is Pegasus, and Pegasus is being kept by the loathsome Medusa, a snake-headed monster whose gaze can turn a man to stone. Perseus lops off the head of the monster and uses Pegasus to fly to the lair of Calibos, whom he defeats in combat. Calibos, humiliated, pleads with the gods for justice; the angry Thetis warns Cassiopeia that the Kraken will be released on Joppa unless she sacrifices her daughter. Can Perseus, who has by now fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Andromeda, save the day?
Even in 1981, this was an old-fashioned movie. Many of Harryhausen’s aficionados consider this an inferior work, despite that he had the largest budget he ever worked with and the movie would be the biggest hit of his career. Still, it’s a throwback to the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, relatively bloodless but entertaining. There is none of the gore that movies of the ‘80s were already awash in which may have worked against it. Despite the movie’s success, fanboys groused that the movie was too mild and boring.
Personally, I found such accusations immature and baseless. The movie is entertaining from start to finish, full of the kind of magic that first drew me to the movies to begin with. It has an absolutely dazzling cast, and some of them are having a grand old time. Olivier, in one of his last roles, still manages to command attention as Zeus; while his breathing is clearly labored (he suffered from pleurisy and a variety of respiratory ailments) he remains stentorian, a lion amongst lesser predators.
Hamlin, pre-“L.A. Law” is sufficiently callow and handsome. He makes a fine classical hero, and is matched very nicely to Bowker who sadly didn’t have the career afterwards that Hamlin did. The remainder of the veteran cast, from Meredith as a shabby poet to Andress a Aphrodite, elevate the proceedings above a typical “B” movie.
Still, the attraction back then was the fantastical creatures Harryhausen brought to life. Even in 1981, stop-motion animation was a bit of a dinosaur, as optical effects had taken over much as computer graphics have now. By today’s standards the effects are dated and a bit clumsy, but the care that went into them is easily apparent.
The recent Blu-Ray edition of the movie seems little more than a means of promotion for the remake. While the film has been cleaned up digitally somewhat, the effects shots remain grainy. Also, as Da Queen put it, there is a distinct smell of cheese throughout, particularly in the mechanical owl Bubo, who while Harryhausen claimed was conceived in the early 70s, still seems to be a sort of R2D2 by proxy.
The old master is still alive and will turn 90 this June 29. While the success of Clash of the Titans led to several offers, those films would never come to fruition; shortly after the release of Clash Harryhausen announced his retirement. He appears from time to time doing vocal work on animated features, or in retrospectives of his own work. Is Clash of the Titans his best work? I think it has some of his best work in it (the battle with Medusa for example) but it probably isn’t the best movie he ever made. Still in all, it’s the kind of movie they really don’t make any more, even back when it was made. It has a sweetness and charm to it that is all but lost to Hollywood, and was made by someone with the heart of a child. It is a reminder of an era and a storytelling style that is more or less extinct, but thanks to the magic of DVD and Blu-Ray we can still revel in it anytime we pop the disc into our player.
WHY RENT THIS: Clash has a place in cinematic history. It has the kind of fresh-faced energy that modern CGI films lack. The cast is amazing, considering the budget.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The look of the film is grainy even after the digital clean-up it received. There is a cheese factor that at times overwhelms the strength of the performances. Bubo the Mechanical Owl is clearly meant to appeal to the R2D2-obsessed kids on the block.
FAMILY VALUES: Very clean by modern standards; the monsters are for the most part not terribly scary compared to the computer-generated nasties of current cinema.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kraken is not a beast from Greek mythology but rather from Scandinavia.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 2002 interview with Harryhausen that comes from the original DVD release but surprisingly (considering the hugely hyped remake coming out shortly) little more.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (2010)