Clash of the Titans
(SPOILERS) A Harryhausen step too far? Dynamation deflation? At the time, being a devotee of Jason and the Argonauts and lured by the cash-in mini/movie-adaption ads from Smiths Crisps – I was a DC Thompson comics reader; they appeared, it seems, in Warlord, although it could as easily have been Buddy or Victor – I was as eager to see this as any right-minded kid was the next Star Wars. And Ray had evidently considered the zeitgeist (hence Bubo). But not enough. I know many swear by Clash of the Titans, but too much of it is stale or ineffectual – regardless of the occasional splash of tastefully titillating nudity – and the additional budgetary extravagance fails to manifest in a visually enticing manner. Too often it looks plain cheap (awful to say so), and stuck in the production mode of two decades earlier.
Clash of the Titans should have been so much more. I mean, the ready-made quest narrative is far easier to work with than rustling up a new Sinbad (it’s a wonder Harryhausen never did Hercules; it isn’t even listed in his lost projects. It seems he’d opted out of a Perseus adaptation in the ’60s because of his perceived association between “Percy” and “sissy”). Some of the animation hits the target – Medusa, filmed in making-life-difficult-for-yourself fashion against a flickering fire; the scorpions; Pegasus, - but the integration often leaves much to be desired. Perhaps because you can feel the schematic gaps here more than in other movies.
Or because director Desmond Davis wasn’t up to par. Ray has Ted Moore back as cinematographer, who worked on both previous Dynamations, but he’s missing something this time (Moore also lensed for seven Bonds and won an Oscar for A Man for All Seasons). A significant portion of Clash of the Titans looks no more proficient than a BBC production (much of Davis career was in TV). There are interiors boasting very obvious set-based studio exteriors, and makeup that doesn’t seem to be feeling it.
Calibos, as performed by Neil McCarthy in closeups, is very good, probably because he’s matching the model (cart coming after the horse, as the character was originally devised as mute so Ray didn’t have to animate speech) That doesn’t really help with the sense, for all that Harryhausen was proud of the integration, of actor and stunt double in the cutting between animated Calibos and his live-action counterpart. Pegasus fares better, but there’s a cumulative sense of very obvious elements failing to cohere that distracts from the action.
So when it comes to the prize exhibit, the showdown with the Kraken – which looks like the best thing ever on the poster, and is a testament to how you need to sell goods that aren’t up to par, especially in the weary age of unremarkable photoshop campaigns – the results are entirely underwhelming. Ray suggested “The end Kraken sequence would have been far less impressive without his music” referring to Laurence Rosenthal’s “wonderful” score. It really isn’t, though (wonderful), often sounding like’s Rosenthal’s treating the proceedings as a kids’ show (like Davis, he’s best known for TV work). This is where Harryhausen being the biggest star rather bites him in the behind. It’s like Bond was with its directors for a long while, where craftsmanship was subordinate to reliability.
And the Kraken is awful, the worst of terrifying rubber monsters. “Release the Kraken!” amounts to poor Jack Gwillim (Poseidon; he was King Aeëtes in Jason of the Argonauts) pretending he’s underwater and so looking slightly constipated while green-screened onto a large grate. Elsewhere, the Stygian Witches aren’t even Dynamation, with some make-do blind makeup (that BBC comparison). To underline this, Tim Pigott-Smith appears, with a perm, as a brave soldier. Harryhausen said of employing Davis: “We did not want a modern approach to the story, but it had to be converted to the screen with the right balance of reality and fantasy”. The problem is, Clash of the Titans often looks plain antiquated, whereby the joins are not only obvious, but also getting in the way of enjoyment.
Ironically, while the cast have been beefed up compared to previous Dynamations, the characterisation suffers. Caliban needs to be compelling, but we have to be told he is (others show sympathy for his plight). Screenwriter Beverly Cross gets down the essential hypocrisy of Mount Olympus, with Zeus’ partial displays of morality, and Sir Larry is a sound choice for Zeus, and Maggie Smith even better as Thetis. Unfortunately, the spread of subplots helps to murder the pace rather than up the ante. At the financing stage, Columbia pulled out and MGM came in, with more money as a sweetener, hence the likes of Ursula Andress (there’s a particularly artless introduction to the goddesses, courtesy of Zeus, including Claire Bloom, Pat Roach and Susan Fleetwood).
Bubo works, pretty much, although Athena’s real owl is way more awesome. Bubo’s in the vein of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole as far as cutesy R2-D2 knockoffs go, so Ray was a little disingenuous when it came to his old-school protestations. There’s much contradiction in his statements, though, stating Clash of the Titans cost $16m, more than all his projects to that date, yet ending up with something far less proficient by comparison. And not wanting Arnie, because he was too beefy, but happy with the charisma vacuums of Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker.
I’ll always admire what Harryhausen was attempting, but he needed to apply skills across the board that were equal to the attention to detail he brought to bear in the animation department. One only needs look at movies in the fantasy genre during this period, and the leaps and bounds in prosthetics, cinematography and integration (the previous year’s The Empire Strikes Back used stop motion, also evidently so, but did it with much more care). Had, say, Ridley Scott in Legend mode approached this project in collaborative mode, both might have come out with a winner.
There are elements that appeal, of course. The design of Calibos, and his shadow transformation on the chessboard, is superbly evocative. The astral abduction of Andromeda (so why does she need a vulture with a cage?) The dying scorpio’s leg trembler, surely an inspiration on ED-209. Thetis’ talking head. But then there are the gaps in coherence. Zeus demands weapons for Perseus (why not just send him home?) “Ask your riddle” is a bit of nonsense, since the answer isn’t clever and is very literal.
The irony of such complaints is that Clash of the Titans was a big hit, grossing $70m worldwide and just missing the US Top 10 for the year (in the fantasy genre, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II and Time Bandits beat it). If studios were doubtful of the sustainability of stop motion in the face of CGI, box office suggested it was still viable. The truth is, though, Ray would have needed to be more adaptable to continue. He was an old pro, a one-man band (who reluctantly brought in several collaborators on Clash of the Titans) and not suited to such broader thinking and planning.
He said of his retirement – he was 61 on completion of the movie – “the technology wasn’t the problem. It had become harder and harder for me during those last few pictures to sustain my enthusiasm”. I suspect, had the adulation he hoped for from all that toil been more widely forthcoming, he wouldn’t have felt the same way. He prospectively had The Aeneid-inspired Force of the Trojans lined up, but considered it fell apart because appetites “turned to more violent subjects with sex and muscles”. Which sounds like Greek myth to me, but your definitions may vary.
Indeed, the disappointment is that, when it came to redoing Perseus in 2010, the myth was treated in the least effective or resonant manner, its success based entirely on post-conversion to 3D in the wake of Avatar. That grim-and-gritty approach followed the path of the ill-advised de-magicking of myth found in the early ’00s (King Arthur, Troy). Clash is beloved of many who grew up in the ’80s, in much the same way as Krull or The Dark Crystal, but its deficiencies as a piece of storytelling and filmmaking can’t be ignored.