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Retro Review 1981: Clash of the Titans

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, June 23, 2011

Clash of the Titans (Original Release Date: 12 June 1981)

The original Clash of the Titans has gotten some attention thanks to last year's remake.  I guess that's cool, but I don't know how capable it is of making new fans.  I can see people new to it liking it for what they feel to be kitsch.  Looking at it as an adult, I can also imagine its original audience seeing it as kitsch.  Harryhausen's old-school approach to stop-motion looks creaky in comparison to the "go motion" developed by Phil Tippett for Empire Strikes Back, so it might have been a tough sell even then. 

Clash of the Titans (Original Release Date: 12 June 1981)

The original Clash of the Titans has gotten some attention thanks to last year's remake.  I guess that's cool, but I don't know how capable it is of making new fans.  I can see people new to it liking it for what they feel to be kitsch.  Looking at it as an adult, I can also imagine its original audience seeing it as kitsch.  Harryhausen's old-school approach to stop-motion looks creaky in comparison to the "go motion" developed by Phil Tippett for Empire Strikes Back, so it might have been a tough sell even then. 

It looks a little creaky in comparison to the best of earlier Harryhausen, too, so that doesn't help matters.  The Rotoscoping is more apparent than it is in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.  Shading mismatches, matte lines, and stop-motion models that look all that much like their live-action counterparts stand out more in Clash than they do in a lot of Harryhausen's earlier work.  I remember thinking as a child that the actor who played Calibos and the stop-motion model for Calibos were different characters.

I could see Clash of the Titans playing like a nostalgia piece for people who grew up with stop-motion.  Laurence Rosenthal's score, sounding much of the time like Korngold channeled by Goldsmith, adds to this.  The whole package has the feel of a last hurrah to it, and it turned out to be just that for Harryhausen.  Effects driven movies would come to rely less and less on stop motion, and sword-and-sandal epics were a year away from looking less like they always had and more like Conan the Barbarian. 

Even with the effects looking as ragged as they do, the movie doesn't trip over them.  “Take ‘em or leave ‘em,” Clash of the Titans says, “I got a story to tell.”  And it does.  It makes the interesting choice of contriving a new one and mixing in bits of the old ones.  Perseus is the hero, and the Graeae and Medusa figure into his story as they always do.  Bellerophon's conquest of Pegasus becomes Perseus's conquest of Pegasus, however, and Charon and others are borrowed for good measure.   It all works fairly well, and probably doesn't confuse or upset anyone who isn't a classicist.  

In this mythological mashup, Perseus has flourished in the Idyll knowing enough about his mother's exile from Argos to have empty thoughts about maybe returning there some day to restore her honor and take his place at the throne, or something.  They oversell this Idyll to the point where you figure it would take an act of the gods to get him to Argos.  Luckily for Perseus, the Gods destroy the shit out of Argos.  Unluckily, perhaps, another act of the gods lands him in Joppa.  He puts on a brave face when he wakes up there and is eager to go a-questing. 

There's a bucket load of plot I've already glossed, but it all explains itself clearly enough.  Here's the shortest version I can manage of what follows from his Joppa relocation: Perseus puts some god-given gifts (I mean this literally) to questionable use by playing Peeping Tom in Andromeda's bedroom, finds out the answer to a question no one was supposed to be able to guess,  and wins the right to marry Andromeda.  Almost immediately after this, Andromeda's mother says her daughter's beauty rivals that of Thetis.  Thetis doesn't care much for this, and responds by saying she will destroy Joppa unless Andromeda is offered as a sacrifice to the Kraken.  (The Kraken, if you're wondering, was borrowed from Scandinavian mythology.)  Perseus spends the rest of the movie leveling up to defeat the Kraken.

The gods are portrayed as back-biting imps with short fuses and egos in constant need of stroking--meaning they're represented more or less as they are in literature.  Harry Hamlin's Perseus is blank-faced and free of charisma, which makes him a perfect match for Judi Bowker's Andromeda.  He also straddles the line between competent adventurer and borderline moron.  He's a fairly clean canvas of the Ryan O'Neal stripe, and does no real harm or good to the movie.  His performance is in line with most of the rest of the cast.  The only standout actors are the ones with a little age on them: Burgess Meredith,  Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith.  They each chew a scene or two, but all stop short of hamming.

It manages to feel like a big movie, which was a big part of its appeal to me as a child.  The stop-motion creatures all have character, and the establishment of Calibos as the snarling flipside to Perseus's doofus hero works well for the movie's first half.  There's some depth to it.  Calibos is Thetis's son, Perseus is Zeus's.  Calibos is vile, Perseus is exemplary.  Calibos is punished with disfigurement by the gods, Perseus is given every advantage.  They both want the same woman, but she only wants Perseus.  The diametric opposition of the two is set up so well that you're primed for a weighty and satisfying resolution.  Their conflict turns out to be something of a side story, though, and Perseus's quest to find a way to kill the Kraken remains the major focus.  It plays out in many ways like Beowulf's confrontation with Grendel (down to the severed appendage) -- to the point that I wonder if it's not another example of the writers consciously plundering epic literature.  

It's strange reviewing a movie I know almost everyone has seen.  My guess is that many people simply consider it to be part of the fabric of our entertainment culture.  It came out the same day as Raiders of the Lost Ark and History of the World: Part I, so it's not like I could go with an obscure alternative for the week.    If I had been then the person I am today, I imagine I would have felt compelled to watch all three.  They all share a kinship in their looking backward. 

It was hard for me to choose between Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  They probably hold equal footing in my early development of a love for movies.  Raiders is infinitely more watchable to me as an adult, and it's freer from dull patches (a lot of the second half of Clash of the Titans involves following our heroes as they walk and ride from one place to another), but Clash holds the distinction of being the first movie to scare me.  (I tell that story here.)   It's not so bad to be scared by a movie.  I miss it.  It takes a real level of investment in a movie (for me) to reach the point where a real scare is possible.  It takes more to be invested in anything at this age than I'm often willing to give.  This is where our unspoken contracts with nostalgia come in handy.  We made the investment a long time ago.  We don't have to try to live off the interest, but it's nice to have it to fall back on.

The Final Word: Recommended?  If you've never seen it, you should.  It's an inventive jumbling of mythologies, it's Harryhausen's last big production, and it has the warm feel of a past time and place lacking in a lot of the movies of its era.

Availability: You can get this on DVD for five to ten bucks at most Wal-Marts.   It may be the most available film from its year.

Standout Scenes: The scene where Perseus tosses Calibos's severed hand before the feet of the Joppans is a nice shocker.  The Medusa sequence is Harryhausen at his best. 

Hey!  I Know That Guy!: I've already mentioned Meredith, Olivier, and Smith.  You'll recognize Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress, too.  There are all sorts of movies you might remember Jack Gwillim from.  For decades, if a British production needed someone to wear sandals or a military uniform, he was on call.  For modern audiences, he's probably most recognizable for his brief but memorable cameo as Monster Squad’s Van Helsing.

Nostalgia Score: 9 / 10

Review Score: 69 / 100

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 7 years 17 weeks ago

I went to the place in Germany where the Medusa models are kept.  I  got a t-shirt with her face on it.  It was almost iron-on quality, so it crumbled to shit after a few years.  Still, though, it was cool.  I wore that shirt once a week for a year.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 7 years 17 weeks ago

And your thoughts on the remake?

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Quasar
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Posted: 7 years 17 weeks ago

You'll have to wait 29 years for that review.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 7 years 17 weeks ago

Thursty told me it was loud and dull and silly, and that it felt like a movie being bounced back and forth by a bunch of people with different ideas about what was supposed to be interesting.

Quasar
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Posted: 7 years 17 weeks ago

RELEASE THE KRAKEN!

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline