I had originally planned to use that picture in my series Posters Without Films, but this movie warrants more attention.
Jason and the Argonauts is one of those films that I saw at just the right time in my life, and like Tom Hanks, I am a fan forever. Despite its flaws, I must add, although it actually doesn’t have that many. it is far and away the best film of its genre ever made, and that includes all the other Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventures.
But the first thing I think of when I remember the film is Jason himself. Jason was played by Todd Armstrong, and apparently for a lot of people he is one of the problems with the film. I like him a lot. But it’s complicated, because the voice you hear in the movie is not Armstrong’s; his part was dubbed by British actor Tim Turner so obviously the movie’s creators were not happy with something. According to this article both Armstrong and Nancy Kovack, who played Medea, were dubbed because their American accents clashed with the rest of the cast’s British accents. I’ve never managed to see any of his other films so I don’t know what his abilities were, although Nancy Kovack made some disparaging comments about him in an online interview I read a few years ago. And John Landis makes some offhand remarks in the Harryhausen Chronicles that I think must be directed at Armstrong; they are not flattering. I don’t care. I like the character of Jason in the film and I think Armstrong makes a great Jason; he’s not a Steve Reeves muscleman (and I like Steve Reeves); he comes across as a much more intelligent character than any of the Hercules we’ve seen, including the one in Jason and the Argonauts. According to the article mentioned above Armstrong committed suicide after contracting AIDS. He shot himself at the age of 55, which leaves me with some truly mixed emotions when I watch the film.
That’s not the only conflicting element I feel about this great movie. For one thing, the character of Jason is the hero of the film but let’s face it; the guy is a thief! His plan is to sail to the far-off land of Colchis and steal the golden fleece which has brought prosperity to them, bring it back to Greece and return his troubled contry to its former glory with its help. That this theft will destroy Aetes’ country seems not to matter to anyone, although it is mentioned in the dialog. Well, hey – they’re only Colcheans, right? Of course, as a 13 year-old, such considerations never entered my mind.
That is my only complaint about the script, which is much better than those that Harryhausen’s films usually had, and so is the direction by Don Chaffee. Because of the unique way Harryhausen’s films were made, he was often the de facto director much of the time and his emphasis was never on character development. In fact, he seems not to have cared at all about it but in Jason the characters, while cartoony (look at the genre, after all), are much more interesting than those in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or any of its sequels, none of which are as good as the original. I think this is because of Chaffee’s direction, but whatever the reason, Jason works on the non-FX level better than Harryhausen’s other films. As a side note, the French soundtrack on the DVD of this film is well done, and it communicates the original’s emotions nicely and manages to keep much of the same feel, something that does not happen as often as I’d like.
And then there are the creatures. This is Harryhausen’s finest film. There, I said it. He made a lot of fascinating movies but none of them have such animated brilliance as Jason and nobody will ever convince me differently. Talos, the Hydra, the Harpies, the skeletons, pretty much everything is tremendous except Triton – no animation there, and the overweight, slow-motion, fake-bearded Triton just doesn’t work.
I also want to give a special mention to actor Gary Raymond, who plays King Pelias’ son Acastus. Raymond must have felt a little strange in this, playing second string to American newbie Armstrong, because Raymond was an excellent stage and film actor. His performance in Playboy Of The Western World is dynamite and that film is well worth searching out; chock full of Irish language but never sounding like Darby O’Gill, it was a stage play first but the movie version is very good. I photographed a live production of the play years ago and compared it to the movie and I was impressed by how well the movie pulled it off.
But Gary Raymond is not the only good actor in Jason; the entire crew is made up of typically excellent British actors, people who are almost always far better than their American equivalents. The Americans can make good films technically, but the English can usually act them into the ground and in Jason you get the best of both worlds, literally. And who wouldn’t want to watch Honor Blackman as Hera? She’s usually remembered for James Bond films like Goldfinger, but she’s very good in Jason, as is Niall MacGuinness, who plays her godly husband Zeus. The list goes on and on – wonderful British talent all over the place.
Why, the movie influenced me so much I named one of my dogs Jason, resulting in lots of jokes about golden fleas.
Finally, you simply can’t talk about this movie without mentioning Bernard Herrmann’s epic soundtrack music. Herrmann was able to produce snippets that are instantly recognizable as his compositions and Jason is full of them, just full of them. The main theme is perfect for the film but it is in scenes such as Jason’s interaction with Hermes that Herrmann wins his place in filmscore history for me; there’s just nobody who can write those gorgeous chordal moves like he did, and that includes any living composer. Herrmann’s career itself is epic if you search him out on the IMDB, and it’s well worth taking a look. From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, with Jason and the Argonauts in between; wow.
This film is sui generis; there’s nothing else in its league.