Posted by medusamorlock on June 29, 2008
Reflecting back on my childhood cinematic influences, it’s clear that one man’s work stands out above all others. I fell in love with the magic of Ray Harryhausen while young, and I continue to adore his amazing creations that captured the imaginations of so many of who grew up as avid media-consuming baby boomers. Harryhausen celebrates his 88th birthday today, June 29th, and each time his movies are viewed anywhere on the planet, he gains new fans. His appeal is timeless and all of us who thrill to his fantastic visions owe him much for providing us so many hours of unequaled excitement.
Of course, we all have our favorite Harryhausen creations. Over the many years, I can attest to watching Mysterious Island I can’t even begin to imagine how many times. Hundreds, certainly. It used to run on our local Million Dollar Movie franchise when I was a kid, and I never missed it; that meant, I think, five times during the week and at least twice on the weekend. Since then, I try to never miss it when it’s on TV; sure I had it recorded long ago, and now on DVD, but there’s still something wonderful and respectful about watching it when it’s actually scheduled — sort of a show of support, you might say. Other than the fact that I think Michael Craig is simply dashing as Capt. Harding, there are a whole gaggle of incredible creatures in Mysterious Island. I’m especially fond of the tremendous giant crab which ends up steamed for the castaways’ dinner, and the prehistoric chicken that engages Michael Callan in the poultry-version of a bucking bronco ride.
In terms of realistic and frighteningly stark science fiction imagery, Harryhausen’s aggressive UFOs in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers get my vote. The brilliant sound effects add to the terror when these whirling silver objects pick their targets and start their attack; Harryhausen’s completely authentic destruction of various Washington D.C. monuments are convincing testament to the aliens’ nasty intentions. The black-and-white photography makes Earth vs. the Flying Saucers almost seem like a documentary, and that makes it doubly scary.
Any Ray Harryhausen fan loves all his Sinbad movies. I’m partial to the original starring the late, great Kerwin Mathews, but they’re all grand adventures. I also love Clash of the Titans, from whence came my lovely Medusa portrait! Both It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth have terrific monsters too, but I’d have to say that my absolute favorite Harryhausen character is Talos from Jason and the Argonauts. From the first moment we see him, kneeling atop and protecting his treasure, we know he is something special. When Hercules insists on violating the warning and breaking into Talos’ cache, and we hear that first metallic grinding sound…well, we all know what’s coming, even if Hercules is a little slow on the uptake.
The moment when Herc looks up to Talos and that magnificent bronze giant slowly turns his head to stare him down — oooh, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Completely scary, totally monstrous, and yet we have enormous understanding of Talos. He was just doing his job, keeping watch, and Hercules was the intruder. Perhaps that’s part of why Talos is so memorable, and why though of course he’s a big scary monster chasing after the Argonauts, and we don’t want to see them squished (necessarily…), we do have empathy for him. He’s certainly not swift of foot — he can’t even bend his knees much, not once he gets down off his perch, it seems — and when we see an over-the-shoulder shot of Talos looking impotently on as the Argo sails away from him, you have to get inside Talos’ head for a minute and feel his pain as the plunderers escape justice. Until, that is, Talos hotfoots it over to the isthmus — well, it’s an isthmus with a waterway through it (…so I guess I shouldn’t call it an isthmus, but how many times do you get the chance to use isthmus in a sentence? Just don’t make me say it) — and positions himself over it, making like the Colossus of Rhodes and giving the Argonauts a nifty upskirt view of his huge metallic jockstrap as they sail between his legs.
After Talos picks up the boat and shakes it all about, Jason and his men make it back to shore, but not before Jason has asked the figurehead of Hera for advice on how to beat Talos. Talos does have an Achilles heel, it turns out. As the rest of the sailors distract the giant, Jason runs over and uses his spear to pry open a huge plug in the back of Talos’ foot. Talos senses the attack, he knows what’s coming, but is powerless to stop Jason as he finally breaks the seal and the molten bronze that courses through Talos, keeping him alive, begins to drain out of him. This is where Talos truly becomes memorable. He’s not just a monster getting his just reward; he’s a brave warrior, fatally wounded in battle, clutching desperately at his throat as he chokes and realizes he is dying. Just a moment later it is over; Talos’s metallic lifesblood is gone and he crumbles and falls, but not before squashing one of the Argonauts, Hercules’ little buddy. So Hercules does pay for his folly, after all. It’s just a magnificent sequence, my favorite probably in any Harryhausen movie.
Another great bit from Jason and the Argonauts is when Poseidon comes up out of the sea to allow the Argo to pass safetly through the treacherous clashing rocks. Poseidon is stunning, an enormous, dripping, crown-wearing merman with a huge fishtail, and once again the Argonauts get an upclose and personal view of a mythological being, only this time they come within sniffing distance of Poseidon’s giant armpit. Both this and the Talos crotch shot were the source of endless merriment over the years, and they still make me laugh, so there. I really love the shot as the Argo leaves Poseidon behind, and he’s got this kind of pained expression on his face, like it was a real hassle coming up to the surface to help these guys, and then you see his huge tail and realize just what a mysterious place it is under the sea where he rules, as he slowly disappears beneath the waves again.
As I write this, I realize I need to watch these movies again, and soon. They truly never fail to delight and inspire me and so many others, and we wish Ray Harryhausen, the masterful genius responsible for their entrancing effects, a truly Happy Birthday!
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