Jason and the Argonauts (Blu-ray Review)12 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Stars Todd Armstrong, Honor Blackman, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond.
The 1963 epic Jason and the Argonauts came fourth in the cycle of supernatural historical adventures produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures, baby boomer favorites that were put the map by the stop-motion animation genius of inarguable auteur Ray Harryhausen. Maybe this is why (though American critics were never going to give these movies serious attention, anyway) this follow-up to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island was originally regarded as mild comedown even beyond some of the official drubs it received.
This seems impossible to believe now, what with its rousing battle with a metal Talos, who may have the greatest Achilles heel since Achilles; the scene of a giant bearded Triton holding water-submerged mountains apart so that Jason (Todd Armstrong) can navigate his ship through them; and, of course, the climactic duel with sword-brandishing skeletons — which, if you had to come up with one scene with which to describe Harryhausen’s work to your friends, just might be the one. All to music by Bernard Herrmann, who attacked his projects for Schneer and Harryhausen with the same vigor and respect he brought to his work for Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese (how’s that for spanning the cinematic ages?).
Jason is off to find the Golden Fleece on the rather insincere suggestion of Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), whose chicanery in terms of Jason’s family goes back a long way. But though strapping enough in a general way, Jason isn’t presented as one of those muscle-bound heroes from the ubiquitous Hercules-and-his-ilk epics from the late 1950s and early ’60s — which so glutted the market that local TV stations across the country programmed weekly beefcake presentations, often on Saturday afternoons. For that matter, this movie’s own Hercules (Nigel Green) is no ball of biceps, either — just a normal in-shape guy who looks as if he goes to the gym 2-3 times a week.
An extra treat here is seeing Honor Blackman as Hera — a character played by Claire Bloom in Harryhausen’s 1981 Clash of the Titans and by Nina Young in the recent Clash remake — a role directly positioned in Blackman’s career between Catherine Gale on TV’s “The Avengers” and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.
The new result is kind of a litmus test for how much or little Blu-ray can do for a movie shot on a limited budget — which, in this case, even necessitated producer Schneer taking over a bit role during the Talos skirmish when the intended actor failed to show. Like way too many even well-liked Columbia releases of the period — The Guns of Navarone comes immediately to mind — Jason was shot in dribbly, fade-prone Eastman Color, which even newly struck prints can only make tolerable up to a point.
Generally, the colors on the darker Jason Blu-ray aren’t as bright as those on my old and generally brighter DVD copy, though I noticed certain reds on the Blu-ray that carried the day. Overall, the grainier Blu-ray is sharper, though there’s visual inconsistency in both versions — which is something I remember from theatrical prints from my days as a film programmer years ago. But laboring in the film’s more technologically primitive era, I would not have wanted to be the person charged with maintaining visual consistency when stop-action miniatures were interacting with live actors in the same frame. (And in color. With an inferior color process.) The Blu-ray will do, though it can’t exactly temper my lust to see Technicolor hall-of-famers Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, both of which are out next week.
The Jason Blu-ray offers a pair of commentaries, one of which is with Harryhausen (who just turned 90 two weeks ago) and film historian Tony Dalton, who’s a good and knowledgeable questioner about tricky material but not one who’s above being politely corrected by the master when Dalton assumes something that’s not entirely correct. The other discussion features visual effects artist Randall William Cook (The Lord of the Rings) and his “boss” Peter Jackson. You get the sense, which has to be true, that Jackson grew up feasting on Harryhausen’s work, and this commentary is more technical in nature. Both commentaries note that the blood or whatever red life-force gunk it is coming out of the Talos’s heel was actually moving cellophane. Amazing. And it has a charm CGI will never match.
Harryhausen, who notes that he was always the director of the scenes directly involving his effects work, says he was criticized by some at the time for having the Talos move in herky-jerky fashion (which I myself always thought was cool). As he points out, the darned thing was supposed to be made of metal — and probably not recently oiled — so what kind of movements did the critics expect?