Some people say 'Casablanca' or 'Citizen Kane'. I say 'Jason and the Argonauts' is the greatest film ever made.
- Tom Hanks, 64th Academy Awards Ceremony.
Jason and the Argonauts is a classic, well-regarded film adaptation of the classical legend, famed for the breath-taking stop-motion animation by leading filmmaker Ray Harryhausen.
The Ancient Greek kingdom of Thessaly has had the throne usurped by Pelias, King Aristo's brother, after Pelias heard a prophecy that he would rule until the throne would be claimed by one of Aristo's children. He slays Aristo's two daughters inside Hera's temple where they had fled for sanctuary. For this desecration, Hera swears to aid Aristo's sole surviving heir, Jason, and warns Pelias that he will be defeated by a one-sandaled man. She also foretells that if he kills Jason, he himself will die.
For twenty years, Thessaly suffers Pelias' misrule, until Jason is old enough to return. On his journey, Jason aids his uncle when he falls into a river, losing a sandal in the process. Pelias, seeing Jason wearing one-sandal, realises who is and knows that he cannot kill Jason or have him killed. Wishing to be rid for good of the threat that Jason represents, he encourages Jason to embark on a quest, sending his son, Prince Acastos, to accompany him.
After rejecting the assistance of the gods, Jason holds Games, the winners of each event earning the right to join him on his ship, named the Argo after Argos (also called Argus), its creator, on his epic voyage to the edge of the world. He names his athletic shipmates 'Argonauts'. Jason and the Argonauts set sail for the fabled land of Colchis on the other side of the world, where the Golden Fleece, a gift from the gods, grants prosperity and healing. Only this Fleece can restore the kingdom of Thessaly's fortune and prove that Jason is the true heir to the throne.
Will Jason survive the voyage across the known world? Which mighty mythical heroes form his crew? How will the gods react to his defiance of them? What terrifying creatures will he encounter on his quest?
The Argo's Cast – or is it Crew?
|Gods||Zeus, King of the gods||Niall MacGinnis|
|Hera, Queen of the gods||Honor Blackman|
|Hermes, Herald of the gods||Michael Gwynn|
|Triton, a sea god||Bill Gungeon|
|Mortals||Prince Jason, True Heir of the kingdom of Thessaly||Body: Todd Armstrong|
Voice: Tim Turner
|Medea, High Priestess of Goddess Hecate||Body: Nancy Kovack|
Voice: Eva Haddon
|Phineas, Blind Seer cursed by the gods||Patrick Troughton|
|Argos, a shipbuilder||Laurence Naismith|
|King Pelias, Usurper of the kingdom of Thessaly||Douglas Wilmer|
|Acastus, Prince of Thessaly, son of Pelias||Gary Raymond|
|King Aeëtes of Colchis||Jack Gwillim|
|Hylas, an Argonaut and friend of Hercules||John Cairney|
|Briseis, Princess of Thessaly, sister of Jason||Davina Taylor|
As Morningside Productions, the small independent film company that made Jason and the Argonauts, could not afford to hire established film stars on its tight budget, they instead relied on new talent and lesser known actors. For Jason, Columbia Pictures, the major film studio that agreed to finance the film, provided one of their contract players, Todd Armstrong; this was his only leading role. As he had a strong American accent, his voice was later dubbed to sound more British and classical1. The only other American in the cast was Nancy Covack, who also was dubbed.
Honor Blackman was well-known as Cathy Gale in the television series The Avengers and later gained international fame as Pussy Galore in James Bond film Goldfinger. Nigel Green was cast as Hercules, also known as Heracles in Greek myths. They deliberately cast an older actor in that role to differentiate the film from the Italian 'Sword-and-Sandal' films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which featured young musclemen body builders. Green also appeared in British war films, most notably Zulu where he played Colour-Sergeant Bourne.
Laurence Naismith was a well-known actor, playing roles such as Captain Smith in A Night to Remember. He was also known for being Merlin in Camelot and later played Sir Donald Munger, the man who assigned Bond to investigate diamond smuggling in the film Diamonds are Forever. He is also known as Mr Fezziwig in Scrooge, and would later work again with Harryhausen in The Valley of Gwangi. Douglas Wilmer would later play the Vizier in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Jack Gwillim would be Poseidon in Clash of the Titans.
Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann, most famous for his soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock's films, was the composer. This was the last of four Harryhausen films for which he would write the score2. Almost certainly the most influential man behind the film was Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animator who brought the creatures seen in the film to life.
The Making Of
In mid-1960, when Harryhausen was finishing his adaptation of Mysterious Island, he started considering ideas for his next film. As his most successful film to date had been The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, he was keen to make another mythical, fantastic adventure. His earliest idea was for a film to be titled Sinbad in the Age of Muses; Sinbad would be one of the characters to accompany Jason on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. This initial idea not only included Sinbad but also a griffin, Medusa and Cerberus the two-headed dog3, as well as the walking skeletons and harpies who made it into the final film.
Assisted by producer Charles Schneer, Harryhausen narrowed the story down, evolving it into a faithful telling of the Greek myth of Jason. In December 1960, Columbia Pictures agreed to provide a modest budget with which to finance the film, which would be called Jason and the Golden Fleece. A script was written by Jan Read and developed by Beverley Cross. Initially much of the film was to be made in the area around Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia, however their contacts in the country tried to artificially inflate the budget, which the cheap production could not afford. Filming was relocated to Italy. Italy had a thriving film industry and the area of Palinuro was considered perfect for exterior filming, with interior filming taking place at Rome's Palentino Studios. The water special-effects work was done in Shepperton Studios in London.
When the Gods interact with Men, they are seen as much larger than mortals. Harryhausen's experience with his earlier film The Three Worlds of Gulliver came in handy here, as Gulliver had interacted with giants as well as little people. Former boxer Bill Gungeon who plays the sea god Triton was cast because he had unusually long arms and was an experienced swimmer (though not in actuality half-fish), able to stay submerged for long periods. He was told that the secret to looking majestic and regal was to stick out his lower lip.
For the scene in which Hercules and Hylas compete to see who can throw the discus the furthest, the discuses seen are created by stop-motion animation.
The first scenes shot were those set onboard the Argo, the ship the Argonauts travel on. This ship was converted out of a fishing barge at a cost of $250,000, a large proportion of the budget. After filming had finished, the Argo was sold to Twentieth Century Fox, who used it in the Actium sea battle sequence in their epic film Cleopatra (1963). In his book An Animated Life, Harryhausen described a memorable occasion involving the ship,
On one occasion we were shooting a scene in which Jason's ship, the 'Argo', was to appear from around a rocky bluff. Everything was ready, the camera was rolling and we radioed the ship to start off. What should come around the bluff but the 'Golden Hinde'! …Charles [Schneer, the producer] was heard to shout 'Get that ship out of here! You're in the wrong century!' It transpired that another British film crew was shooting some second unit footage for the TV series 'Sir Francis Drake'4, and their vessel, with its more powerful engines, beat ours around the cove.
The Argo had a full-size figurehead of the goddess Hera located at the stern of the ship. Although the eyelids and eyes moved, to avoid looking like a ventriloquist's dummy, the mouth was deliberately unable to move.
Jason and the Argonauts was made on a very tight budget, $3 million according to Ray Harryhausen's An Animated Life book, although he later stated that the budget was actually $1 million on the film's Blu-Ray commentary. The film took two years to make and was released in summer 1963.
Many scenes included in development stages never made it to the filming stage in order to save money. Jason was originally to have been taken to Mount Olympus, home of the gods, by horse. A humble cart would have transformed into a magnificent chariot pulled by unicorns, with Jason taken through the great Gateway of the Gods. A proposed trip into Hades where Jason and Medea faced Cerberus, a two-headed dog, was also cut, although the idea was re-used in Haryhausen's later film, Clash of the Titans.
Another method used to save money was the inclusion of a small amount of stock footage. Many of the scenes at the start of the film, showing King Pelias attacking the kingdom of Thessaly and defeating the army of his brother Aristo, are stock footage taken from the 1956 film Helen of Troy, originally being scenes of the Greeks invading Troy and defeating the Trojans5.
The film's original working title was Jason and the Golden Fleece. Late in production it was discovered that another film about the Jason legend had been made and would be released in American and British cinemas just before the Harryhausen version. This rival, an Italian film by Riccardo Freda was originally known by the title The Golden Fleece. Columbia Pictures suggested various other titles for their film, including The Incredible Voyage of Captain Jason, Journey into the Unknown and even Set Sail For Danger! before the more appropriate Jason and the Argonauts was agreed upon. The rival film that prompted this name change had a name change of its own before release, becoming known as I Giganti della Tessaglia (The Giants of Thessaly) when released in early 1963.
Fourteen armatured stop-motion models were required for the film; six new skeletons (with one re-used from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), two Harpies, one Hydra, one Jason, one Acustus as well as three Talos armatures, one full-sized, one foot and one hand. These armatures were all made by Ray Harryhausen's father, Fred, with the outer layers of the models sculpted by Ray Harryhausen in his London home and workshop.
Traditionally described as creatures with women's faces, vulture wings and clawed hands and feet, Harryhausen instead designed them to appear more bat-like. Two Harpies appear, and are seen to steal Phineas' stick and belt. They are seen in the ruins of the largest temple at Paestum, which the Argonauts climb and drop nets on the Harpies from above.
In the legend, the golden fleece was guarded by a dragon, however as Harryhausen had animated a dragon for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and wanted a new challenge, a seven-headed Hydra was chosen. The Hydra had featured in the legend of Hercules. The Hydra's tail forks to become two separate tails, and the heads were designed to appear like a cross between a bird and dinosaur. The model itself, over three feet long, was one of the largest Harryhausen had ever animated. Each second of film involved 24 frames, and each frame would require Harryhausen to animate the seven heads, with their fourteen eyes, seven mouths and seven tongues, their seven necks, the two tails and the Hydra's body. Animated miniature figures of Jason and Acastus appear in the scene also, used when the Hydra's tails curl round the characters, crushing and lifting them off the ground. Keeping track of what movement each of these components was doing at all times proved a challenge even for Harryhausen.
I asked [Harryhausen] once, with the Hydra, with all those seven heads, I said, 'How did you keep track?' He said, 'I have no idea'
- John Landis, director of films such as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Coming to America.
The skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is joined by another six to create an army of seven skeletons, the Children of the Hydra's Teeth who emerge from the soil, resurrected from the seven heads of the slain Hydra. These seven skeletons, five armed with swords and shields, two with spears, fight three men, Jason and Argonauts Castor and Phalerus in the film's stunning climax. One of the skeletons would later appear as Martha Hyer's skeleton viewed through an alien x-ray machine in Harryhausen's next film, First Men In The Moon.
The skeleton sequence took 4 ½ months to animate, with only 13 frames animated per day in some of the more complex sequences in which all seven skeletons are seen at the same time.
In the original legend, Talos was an 8-foot tall bronze man found on the island of Crete, who killed sailors by heating himself in a fire until red hot, and then embracing them until they burnt to death. For Jason and the Argonauts he is about 100-feet tall and his appearance was inspired by the legendary Colossus of Rhodes. At first glance merely a gigantic statue, in truth Talos was created by Hephaestus, god of fire and metalwork, as a living Titan who guards the treasure of the gods. He is angered when Hercules steals a brooch pin to use as a javelin.
Unlike all his other animated creatures, Harryhausen deliberately made Talos move in a stiff, jerky fashion to emphasise his metallic nature. Although his face is devoid of all expression throughout, Harryhausen manages to convey emotion through subtle movement for Talos, especially when he is in his death throes.
But for Jason there are other adventures. I have not finished with Jason. Let us continue the game another day.
- Zeus, last line in Jason and the Argonauts
Jason and the Argonauts does not so much end as stop. Jason wishes to reclaim his throne from his uncle, and goes on a quest to get the golden fleece in order to gain the support he needs to reclaim the throne. As soon as he gets the fleece, he jumps off a cliff and swims back to the Argo and the film stops. The audience do not see whether he manages to get back to Greece from the edge of the world, nor whether or not he defeats his wicked uncle.
The return voyage could have made as eventful a film as the voyage out, filled with plenty of mythical creatures and other adventures from the myth of Jason. Yet as Jason and the Argonauts was initially commercially unsuccessful, plans for a sequel were shelved and never made it as far as the storyboard stage. Harryhausen also stated that he would have liked to have filmed the Labours of Hercules6. Whether Columbia Pictures, had they provided the money for this, would have allowed relatively unknown Nigel Green to reprise his role and star in such a film is uncertain. John Landis would later call Nigel Green 'the best Hercules in movies.'
Sword and Sandal
Jason and the Argonauts was made when Italian sword-and-sandal films were bombarding American cinemas. Although Jason has a sword and to fulfil a prophecy wears only one sandal, Jason and the Argonauts is not a sword-and-sandal film. The Italian sword-and-sandal7 films of the late 1950s and early 1960s followed the spectacular success of 1957's The Labors of Hercules, also known as Hercules. This led to many Italian films being hurriedly dubbed into English and having their plots changed to rename the hero Hercules, regardless of whether or not he was in the original film. Typical plots involved men with bulging muscles, women in fairly revealing clothing doing exotic dancing, and not a lot else. Even a film set on the moon, when dubbed into English, inexplicably became all about Hercules.
Although a tremendous success in Britain, where it was one of 1963's top-grossing films, no doubt helped by the predominantly British cast, in America Jason and the Argonauts was initially a disappointing failure. By this time, American audiences stayed away from all films that seemed to fall into the sword-and-sandal category. That Jason and the Argonauts was released soon after The Giants of Thessaly meant it was lost among the crowd and quickly disappeared.
The idea of making a sequel or other films based on Greek myths was dropped, and would not be considered again by Harryhausen until 1981's Clash of the Titans. Despite the initial box office failure, Jason and the Argonauts later became a cult classic.
Comparison with Original Legend
Jason and the Argonauts is a fairly close retelling of the Jason legend. No events in the film are without some foundation in the original myth, although there are some minor differences. Like most stories of Greek Mythology there are different classical versions of the tale, and the film does miss out many details. Some of the places that the Argonauts visit on their voyage also do not make the film, however they might have appeared in the sequel that was never made.
Many small details do not appear in the film, such as that Pelias is Jason's uncle. Why there is a golden fleece in Colchis is never revealed. Jason's childhood, often described as being raised by Chiron, a Centaur, is instead changed to his being raised by a soldier loyal to his father. Medea being the daughter of King Aeëtes is also not mentioned, nor is her brother, Prince Apsyrtus. In some versions of the legend, Hylas is not Hercules' friend but instead his servant and/or lover.
In the myth, Hylas is not squashed by Talos, but captured by nymphs. Talos himself was originally only eight feet tall and lived on the island of Crete, not the newly-invented island of Bronze, and was encountered on the return voyage. Various other islands are visited on their quest, including the island of Lemnos, populated only by women who had killed their husbands. The original myth has different versions of how the Argo managed to sail through the Clashing Rocks or Symplegades, most of which involve first sending a dove to fly through.
Another key difference is that in the film, Jason and his crew steal the Golden Fleece, while in the myth they earn it, having successfully completed three seemingly impossible tasks, including defeating the army of corpses sowed from a dragon's teeth that was the inspiration for the skeleton fight sequence.
The return voyage often involves the Argo tracing the same course that Odysseus would later take, encountering Sirens and, in some versions, the sorceress Circe.
When I was 12 years old I remember rushing home. I couldn't wait to see Jason and the Argonauts for the first time. And I was just so gobsmacked.
- Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit.
Director Don Chaffey went on to have a successful career. He later used his experience when directing films such as One Million Years BC, which combined live action with stop-motion dinosaurs, and even Disney's Pete's Dragon, which composited actors into the same scenes as a cel-animated dragon.
I managed to see Ray's films on TV, or at the cinema. 'Jason and the Argonauts' was the first… my teenage years were being fuelled by a desire to do exactly what Ray Harryhausen was doing… I was driven by a dream that one day, if I was good enough, I might become Ray's apprentice… I still wanted more than anything to make a movie just like the films that inspired me throughout my life. I wanted to make my 'Jason' or my 'Sinbad'… before settling on the idea of adapting 'The Lord of the Rings' instead. 'The Lord of the Rings' is my 'Ray Harryhausen' movie.
- Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, King Kong etc.
The skeleton fight in particular has had a lasting impact. It has inspired scenes in which humans fight skeletons which can be seen in films such as 1992's Army of Darkness directed by Sam Raimi, 1999's The Mummy written and directed by Stephen Sommers and 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Similarly, television series Atlantis (2013) features a scene in which Jason, Hercules and Pythagoras battle three skeletons. These all contain sequences in which the skeletons perform the same actions and movements first seen in Jason and the Argonauts.
The skeleton fight in 'Jason [and the Argonauts]'… The images of those skeletons leaped off the screen and drilled straight into my DNA. I'm sure there's a direct link between those demonic skeletons and the chrome death figure in 'The Terminator''
- James Cameron, self-proclaimed king of the world and director of such films as Aliens, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic and Avatar.
The 2000 television mini-series Jason and the Argonauts was inspired not only by the original myth, but also by the earlier film. In the mini-series the god Poseidon is portrayed as a giant rock man, resembling a cross between Harryhausen's Talos and Triton. It also recreates many shots seen in Harryhausen's Talos sequence.
It was for films such as Jason and the Argonauts that Ray Harryhausen was awarded the Gordon E Sawyer Award Oscar at the 64th Academy Awards ceremony.