Handmade Magic: Jason and the Argonauts


I never know what to say when people tell me that they think the visual effects in an old movie are “dated.” I guess I could go with the most obvious reply, but I don’t, because it’s beside the point: “Everything looks out-of-date if you wait long enough.” (Marvel movies from the aughts are already looking a bit old-fashioned, and they were the newest-latest when they came out.) 

No. I suppose I just don’t believe in things becoming dated—as in, no longer worth paying attention to, or losing yourself in, because they no longer seem modern, or because they don’t sync up with whatever the cultural norms are at this moment. Granted, in this regard it probably helps to do what I’ve always tried to do and adopt a historian’s attitude towards art. You know—just sort of reorient or reprogram your brain and decide to find things interesting for various reasons, rather than obsessively parsing them to figure out which aspects agree with your tastes or flatter your views on this or that issue, and then write them off as “dated” if not enough boxes were checked. Nothing about the 1963 “Jason and the Argonauts” flatters modern sensibilities. But it’s awesome because of that. Like all creative works, it became a Time Machine at certain point; then another few decades passed, and that type of framing started to seem completely irrelevant to its appeal. (Do people ever complain that “The Odyssey” is “dated”?” Maybe, but don’t tell me.) 

“Jason” represents the state of the art for a certain way of making fantasy films. Its commitment to a specific aesthetic (widescreen, Eastman Color, analog, with a poker-faced yet playful tone) is so all-consuming that it amounts to a show in itself. I’ve seen it several times in a theater, starting back when I was a kid watching it on 16mm in a classroom. I’ve seen it many more times at home, sometimes with kids of various ages. Everyone loves it. It belongs on a short list of movies that are almost guaranteed to please everyone in any given audience, no matter how old or young they are or what culture they were raised in. It’s the simplicity and directness of every element — the writing and direction, the performances, the photography and editing, and of course the stop-motion creature effects by Ray Harryhausen — that weaves a spell. This is a movie that knows what it is, and finds a way to invite you into appreciating what it is, without compromise or dumbing-down. 

Directed by Don Chaffee, a journeyman from England, and with a script by playwright Beverley Cross and sometime Fritz Lang collaborator Jan Read, “Jason” spends a surprising amount of time up front establishing why Jason is going after the fabled Golden Fleece: a usurper named Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) killed the king of Thesally, then was prophesied to be killed hismelf by a man with one sandal. The one-sandaled man is later revealed to be Jason, who saves Pelias from drowning in a river. The accident was staged by the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman), who swore revenge on Pelias after he pre-emptively killed one of the slain king’s daughters in a temple dedicated to Hera. 

By the way, the movie isn’t really interested in any of this in terms of its plot value. It does two arguably more important things, though:

(1) It sets up the main rule of the movie, handed down by Zeus himself: Hera can only help Jason in his journey five times, and only if requested by Jason. (Fans of Disney’s “Aladdin” might detect some similarities between Jason-Hera and Aladdin-The Genie.) This makes the movie fun for kids who like to keep track of how many times things happen. (Parental tip: explaining the “5 times only” rule to the child in advance is guaranteed to make them more invested in the movie.)

(2) It establishes the relationship between gods and mortals in ancient mythology. which (to wildly oversimplify) goes something like: “These are super-beings, but they have the tangled psychology of the mortals that they toy with, and you can never fully understand why they obsess over certain things; it’s just how they are, and they don’t quite understand themselves, either, even if they believe that they do.” Hera’s relationship with Jason is something other than romantic, platonic, parental, or any of the other descriptors that tend to get applied to relationships in these kinds of films. It’s something else. And how wonderful it is that the film never explains it. It just lets it be. (Hera’s statue, which has eyes that open and close, and which is placed on the stem facing inward to watch over the crew, is as mesmerizing as any of the stop-motion creatures in the movie.)

Jason is pure of heart, sometimes to a fault, and always does the smart and honorable thing where his crew and loved ones are concerned (though he’s not above tricking an enemy, and there’s nothing wrong with that). But he’s more talented than wise when he starts his journey. It’s fun to see Jason being tested and growing into a formidable leader. He started out by convincing a crew to set sail across the ocean for no pay (what a movie producer he would have made!) but failed to bring enough water to keep them from dying of thirst. (Hera to the rescue.) By the end, you believe him as a leader of men who deserves his station in life. 

And that’s where the movie ends, because it’s an old movie, and old movies knew where to end. They don’t give you seven more scenes of Argonauts traveling home and having a banquet and getting medals, and becoming dads, etc. It’s over when Jason has achieved peak Jason-ness, and he’s all out of help requests. 

The effects by Ray Harryhausen don’t need to be sold by me here, perhaps except to say that he has never been properly appreciated as (for lack of a better word) a performer, an idea that was first suggested to me by my friend and RogerEbert.com colleague David Moses. The hydra, the harpies, the bronze giant and the skeleton warriors all pop because they seem to have actual personalities and are imagined with an actor-showman’s instincts: think of how a “big” actor from earlier times like Bette Davis or Boris Karloff would’ve played these creatures if motion capture had existed. Telos the bronze guardian seems creaky not just because he’s made of metal but because (like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”) he’s been up on that pedestal for so long that when he finally gets a reason to climb down and mess with some humans, he’s rusty in every since. (When I stand up after a three hour flight, I walk like Telos.) The skeleton warriors aren’t just grinning because skulls naturally have that rictus smile: they seem happy to be released to do what they did when they were alive, which is fight. When they go after Jason and his men, there’s a bounce in their step.

I don’t know what to say to somebody who would claim that effects like this (which feel like they were thought up and actually made, by an actual person, with actual materials) are somehow less convincing or less magical than the CGI slop that pollutes so many modern fantasies (and that would have a legitimate chance to be Harryhausen-level great if the producers and studio heads didn’t keep changing their minds all through production and making the artists throw out what they’d already done and start over; but that’s another rant for another time). Harryhausen’s work is artisanal, in the manner of a rocking chair made in somebody’s shop, or a fabulous meal prepared in a small kitchen by one grandmother plus a niece acting as sous chef. You appreciate it in the way that you might appreciate the performance of a puppeteer like Frank Oz. Or an actor like Willem Dafoe, who could have played all of the monsters brilliantly.

This is one of the great movies, foolproof to screen for any audience. I recommend doing it at first opportunity. 

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