Jason And The Argonauts (1963 UK/USA)

ancient greeceI’m sure it takes some artistic license in retelling the myth, most notably how it’s rushed conclusion neglects to finish the whole story. But it manages to convey such strong suspension of disbelief I find myself not minding. A very-colourful idea-level-fantasy from the 1960s. This was a stop-motion animation project, and an unusually strong production at that.

The subject is a mythical Argive hero of ancient Greece. Historians have theorized his voyage actually took him to South America, the Black Sea or other destinations; an epic poem was written about him. Here Colchis is not located, except “at the end of the world”. The storyline takes this disenfranchised rightful young king on a voyage aboard the ship Argo. He recruits the greatest athletes of Greece to be his rowers and companions, then sails off to the Land of Colchis to bring back The Golden Fleece and win a kingdom.

What he does not know is the man who sent him after the great prize is destined to be replaced on his throne by Jason, and so is looking for ways to get rid of him and kill him. Even sending his son along to carry out this goal. The casting is curious. Todd Armstrong looks manly, but was dubbed because of an intrusive US accent. Nigel Green excels as Hercules. Nancy Kovack and Douglas Wilmer are very good as Medea and the evil king.

As the gods of Olympus  the co-director Ray Harryhausen cast – Niall Nacginis as Zeus, athletic Honor Blackman as Hera, and effective Michael Gwynn as Hermes. The film is stolen by Laurence Naismith as Argus, the ship’s designer who goes along to participate in many adventures. And there are monsters: a talking figurehead of Hera, bronze god Talos, Poseidon who heroically parts the clashing rocks, the harpies, a seven-headed hydra that guards the Fleece, and especially the army of skeletons sown from the dragon’s teeth of Cadmus by King Aeetes of Colchis, with whom Jason and his men wage a fascinating battle of swords.

Jason and the Argonauts Skeleton Battle

The story is slender but it holds up well as a fun-level adventure for all ages. The musical main theme by Bernard Herrman is magnificent and memorable. The costumes and sets are surprisingly authentic. But the finest delight is the ideas in the script by Beverly Cross and Jan Read; the most-quoted line is spoken by Zeus when he tells an eager Jason that the gods love those best who call on them for help the least. Don Chaffey directed with Harryhausen very energetically. This important line stands as the opposite in meaning to the philosophy that did not help an expensive sequel made by Harryhausen years later, “Clash of the Titans”.

Some scenes in this narrative are very memorable such as the clashing rocks, the court of Colchis, the attack on a city by the evil king, the contests (all too brief) to choose the champions as crew for the ship and the Olympus segment where Jason, standing onto a god’s hand, is introduced to the gods and is granted only three pieces of help from Hera. During his quest we also have the escape of the Argo in the fog from Aeetes’ fleet, and the aforementioned battle with the skeletons. It is curious that US filmmakers have never made a single fictional film about the ancient Greek or republican Roman past that is their ethnical heritage. Could it be the individualism of men in the classic Age that Hollywood tsars could not grasp?  This is not quite a great film; but it is vivid and in all areas – entertaining.

jason

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