Monday, 19 May 2014

Mythology in Motion

A true titan of legend passed away last year:
the ingenious Ray Harryhausen

 When I began this blog last year, one of the first images I posted was a still from Jason and the Argonauts, along with promises to look at some of effects master Ray Harryhausen’s enduring creations.

His influence on film and the childhoods and subsequent careers of so many simply can’t be underestimated, and the fact that he also passed away last year makes it doubly remiss of me to take so long to write about him.

Most of us will never forget our first Harryhausen film, whether it’s the Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad strutting endearingly around on his hooves as if he’s balancing precariously in high heels; or the plethora of prehistoric fauna menacing Raquel Welch in Hammer’s One Million Years BC.

 As I’ve written before about Harryhausen’s greatest influence: King Kong, what set his films apart was promises of gigantic beasts from myth and legend in the film posters were always fulfilled in spades, and not just glimpsed in the final reel.  There seemed no limit to the wonders Harryhausen could conjure and put up on the screen, living, breathing visions from dreams and nightmares, interacting with actors so completely that it really did seem like magic.

 My earliest memory of a Ray Harryhausen/producer Charles Schneer film would be the same as most people’s – the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts is embedded in our collective consciousness like a race memory, seemingly regardless of whether everyone has actually seen the film or not. Imbuing these relentless, fleshless warriors with so much character is an achievement bettered by none, but hommaged by many.  Even Harryhausen himself referenced the scene in his final Sinbad film.
I have very vague childhood memories of castaway’s corralling the giant prehistoric bird in Mysterious Island (often mistakingly assumed to be a ‘giant chicken’) but my first, cinematic experience was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1976.  I still recall the TV trailer, reeling off the wonders on show like a carnival huckster: “Come face-to-face with the prehistoric Trog, see Sinbad battle the sabre tooth tiger, guardian of the secret shrine...”

I went with a pen-friend visiting for the summer holidays, and was young enough to uncomplainingly have my younger sister tag along too.  It was Christmas Eve, and we were already excited by the prospect of the following day and hyped-up on the bag of ‘candy cane off-cuts’ from a confectionary factory which we’d been given to crunch our way through.
Oblivious to the fact that this was the least-regarded of three Sinbad epics, or the leading man was less-animated than Harryhausen’s marvellous menagerie and that this kind of film was approaching its twilight years, we loved it and excitedly chattered about every scene with a monster in it all the way home.  We were also oblivious to the fact that a film called Star Wars lay just around the corner, ready to sound the death knell for the classic, if cheerfully unsophisticated, Saturday afternoon entertainment we’d just lapped up.

Ten year old me completely failed to recognise second Doctor Patrick Troughton
in Eye of the Tiger, but looking at his make-up, perhaps it’s not too surprising…

Harryhausen and Schneer were to rally with their biggest film ever, the star-studded Clash of the Titans in 1981 (I am never going to mention the wretched remake and sequel here), but it was also to be the swansong of the Master of Dynamation (as Harryhausen called his effects process). Public taste and studio systems had turned towards huge teams of effects technicians and the burgeoning power of computers.

Ursula Andress, Laurence Olivier, wonder whatever became of Maggie Smith?

Harryhausen might be gone, but his influence and lovingly-preserved films remain.  
I recently watched The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for the first time, now coming to one of his films with considerable foreknowledge and expectation. Perhaps it is age which means I now watch as much for the human players as the monsters and adventure.

Boasting the best Sinbad in the form of ‘loveable rascal’ John Phillip Law, Golden Voyage also features the best villain in Tom Baker’s ‘audition piece’ for Doctor Who: evil magician Koura.  Like Raquel Welch in the previous decade, the allure and devastating physique of Caroline Munro: ‘the Queen of British Fantasy films; threatens to eclipse any stop-motion spectacle on screen.  

Rounding out a great cast; a very young Martin Shaw swashes his buckle as Sinbad’s first mate.
The set pieces are spectacular, featuring a classic example of Harryhausen’s skill in the many-armed sword-wielding Kali, and a thrilling showdown between the monstrous centaur and a fabulous gryphon.  Golden Voyage is held to be a highlight of Harryhausen’s career, and I can only agree: the extremely difficult and rare feat of featuring human characters every bit as captivating as the many legendary wonders on offer is achieved with aplomb.

Fortunately, his prolific output means that I still have several Harryhausen films to see, and I’m looking forward to revisiting a more innocent age when a single genius laboured millimetres at a time to bring myth and magic to the screen

Ray Harryhausen: 1920-2013

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