Jason And The Argonauts (1963), or OH NO! SKELETONS!

3 12 2009

Ah, the rip-roaring adventure of a 60s sword-and-sandal flick! The fit, bronzed men! The supple, vibrant women! The fondly remembered cheesy special effects! This was a time when men were men and broads were broads! When only the lead actor was shouldered with the burden of having to work out! When the budget was blown on parties and drugs rather than the actual finished product! And when the mythical backdrops weren’t constructed with zeroes and ones, but clay and iron and sweat and toil! Jason and the Argonauts was from a time unfamiliar to many people today, and it wasn’t exactly the best time to make fantasy pictures, with the lack of budget that went into special effects back then, but it’s a good feature with only a few problems here and there that will be remembered primarily as stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen’s special effects masterpiece, although that’s hardly a bad thing…

It starts with a throne in dispute in ancient times. The ruler of Thessaly, King Aristo, has been murdered by scheming conniver Pelias. He is unchallenged in his role, but there is a prophecy that arises saying one of Aristo’s children wearing only one sandal will rise up and end Pelias’s reign. In a fit of paranoia, he kills a daughter of Aristo who had gained the blessing and protection of Hera. This crass murder makes him an enemy of Hera. Years pass, and Aristo’s remaining son Jason has become a man. Serendipitously, he makes a chance encounter with Pelias one day and saves his life, losing a sandal by doing so. Pelias, although at first grateful, sees who this man is, and comes up with a plan to rid himself of the son of Aristo. He encourages him to go on a dangerous quest to rally the people of Thessaly by obtaining the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason obliges, not thinking that Pelias only wants him dead, and sets off to gain the artifact. A group of able men from all over Greece coincide to join Jason, and he picks the ablest of men to go with him on his journey, including Hercules and the son of Pelias, who has been secretly ordered to sabotage the voyage. They dub themselves the Argonauts, after the boat they ride in, the Argos, and they set off to find the Fleece at the risk of great peril. They encounter a number of challenges along the way, including giant walking statues, harpies, reanimated skeletons, perilously low supplies, and meddling gods and goddesses who seem intent on interfering in the ways of men.

Director Don Chaffey set out to make a B-movie for a double feature, but ended up making something grade-A along the way. This was a blast! Why can’t there be more quest movies out there? It’s so simple; just make a movie where a group of people have some sort of goal they’re accomplishing throughout the entire movie and keep us enthralled while they encounter obstacles on the way to said goal. That’s it. Just take us from exotic locale to exotic locale in search of the Platinum Arm Brace or the Obsidian Turtleneck or the Einsteinium Body Wash or whatever. Just make it exciting. Action movies forgot how to be fun along the way to the future, and now they’re boring mottled brown and gun-metal gray super-serious extravaganzas of nothing. Jason and the Argonauts has a definite point, but it’s the snags they hit along the way that are important, and they make for a more rounded, interesting adventure that helps bring the characters closer together as friends instead of just fellow adventurers, which is what you instinctively want in a quest flick.

The acting is tepid. I won’t lie. It’s really kind of stoic and stilted in that heroic 60s trend of machismo. Todd Armstrong is the titular Jason, the picture of 60s manliness and heroism. Unfortunately, he’s rather bland. He’s like instant potatoes without gravy; it’s like I’m watching him read from a majestic and ancient cue card. There are moments when he’s animated, when he springs into action, like the legendary skeleton sequence after battling the Hydra, and those are fun, but other than that he’s about as human as the skeletons themselves. Nancy Kovak plays the love interest Medea, priestess of Hecate. She has that wan strength to her that many 60s female co-stars had; she is fiery and willful when she talks, but they never really allow her to actually do anything. That’s man’s work! The director might as well be saying, “And while you’re at it Nancy, until your part comes up, why don’t you grab me and the crew some god-damn dinner! I’m starving over here!” I like her character, but as an actress, she is good, but not great here.

The real star is Harryhausen, the man behind many of the famous creature effects of the 50s and 60s. This is what he observes to be his masterstroke, and I can believe it. Every creature is just amazing. The giant statue of Talos, the skeletons, the Hydra, the Harpies, all the fantastic stuff that exists in the ancient mythological world is created by Harryhausen. These creatures are beautiful, painstaking creations, that, while not exactly realistic, are artistic expressions of wonder and fantasy that Harryhausen concocted to drive the imagination of the viewer. And it really, really works; my mind was in overdrive, thinking of how cool it would be to live in a time of adventure. My favorite effect? Triton, son of Poseidon, rising from the sea, holding the rock slide long enough for the Argos to pass through on a particularly hairy trip to the Clashing Rocks.

Jason and the Argonauts has character, something you don’t see often enough in modern adventure. It’s amazing what it can accomplish, unlike the matter-of-fact attitude today’s features seems to enjoy. And while the acting is a bit on the poor side, and the budget for anything besides Harryhausen looks a bit uneven (they have loads of extras, but the props look like shit), it’s still an engaging action-adventure that’s fun for the whole family. Watch this one with friends and family; you’ll gleam a lot out of the detailed special effects with more people around to point them out. I give Jason and the Argonauts 7 1/2 Obsidian Turtlenecks out of 10. Hooray!

Tomorrow’s review is a surprise! I’ll make it wonderful! I hope! Until then!