Last week, we heard the news that Ray Harryhausen had died. In tribute to the stop-motion master, Mostly Film’s writers select their favourite moments from his illustrious career, and talk about what made his work so special. Did we miss your favorite? The comment box awaits you…
Jason and the Argonauts: Hydra’s teeth
For a long time my password was hydrasteeth. For everything. If it was 1998 and you wanted to get into my hotmail or my Guardian Unlimited account (bastards! Still bitter) then that word was all you needed. It isn’t any more, by the way, my wife works in IT security and was genuinely horrified when she realised that I used the same thing for Facebook as for my online banking, so she made me change them all. Now I can’t ever remember my passwords for anything, so I leave myself logged in to everything, despite using shared computers. Much more secure.
Cultured, film-literate readers like you will have immediately got the reference, of course. The hydra’s teeth in question were the ones sowed in the rich soil of Colchis by King Aeëtes in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. They sprouted, as you will recall, into hideous animated skeletons which, armed with swords and grins, fought relentlessly with the Argonauts, carving their way through lesser characters and into my memory forever. They were, and forgive my use of the demotic Anglo-Saxon, absolutely fucking brilliant. For me they were unquestionably Harryhausen’s finest hour. The slightly choppy movements that characterise his stop-motion animations are a perfect fit with the creatures. They wouldn’t move exactly like men, after all, as men have skin and flesh to soften their motions and make them fluid. Robbed of this mitigating sheath, the skeletons’ robotic slashing and hacking became a nightmarish thing to behold. Except nightmares are terrifying, and Harryhausen’s monsters were never really that scary, or they were never only scary, they were always a bit comical as well. This isn’t because they were crap, because they weren’t (like I said, absolutely fucking brilliant) but because there was always an infectious sense of joy surrounding his creations. He clearly loved making them, the enthusiasm displayed in all of the interviews with him is infectious, and that pleasure leaked into whatever he produced. The three minute battle between Argonauts and skeletons reputedly took Harryhausen four and a half months to complete. As endless tedious documentaries about Wallace and bloody Gromit have shown us, this must have been an enormously painstaking process. The results are nothing short of magnificent. I’ve said I thought it was his best work, and Harryhausen himself agreed. Enjoy.
The Valley of Gwangi
By Matthew Turner
If you love Ray Harryhausen and you’ve never seen The Valley of Gwangi (1969), you owe it to yourself to watch it immediately. It is, in many ways, his unsung masterpiece and features some of his best work – it was also, unsurprisingly, a huge influence on Jurassic Park. If the words “cowboys versus dinosaurs” aren’t enough for you, you should also know that it features a TINY HORSE, or an Eohippus if you want to get technical about it. The key sequence, however, occurs about an hour into the film, when a group of cowboys decide to rope an Allosaurus they encounter in the Forbidden Valley, a creature known as Gwangi.
The scene actually features a cowboy throwing a lasso around Gwangi’s neck IN THE SAME FRAME, instead of the expected cut from a cowboy throwing a rope to a shot of the rope landing around the dinosaur. Eventually three more cowboys (and the female lead – none of your sexism for Harryhausen) join in the lassoing and there are ropes flying around all over the place, as the creature bites some of them off, gets roped again, gets pulled to the ground, gets up again and so on. There are all sorts of other nice touches too, such as Gwangi knocking over a horse with his tail. The matching up of the model and the live action is utterly seamless, even when you know how the scene was done (Harryhausen reveals that on one of the DVD extras, so I won’t spoil it here), but suffice it to say there was a lot of painstaking work involved in linking up the animated ropes and the real ropes. Gloriously, the sequence ends with the cowboys dropping the ropes because another dinosaur (a Styracosaurus) starts attacking them, whereupon Gwangi fights the Styracosaurus in the foreground with the cowboys still on horseback all charging around in the background. Wonderful.
Clash of the Titans: Bubo
It’s not cool to like Bubo. He’s the Snarf of Clash of the Titans, which is hardly a cool movie to start with. When your lead actor is Harry ‘The Hamster’ Hamlin*, you’re already reaching for street cred. When you give Harry a cute robot sidekick, you’re asking for trouble.
But let’s put this in context. 1981 was a different time. Star Wars, with its cute robot sidekicks, was the biggest show in town and the vacuum between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was suffocating. There were only three channels on telly, and most of those only showed Morecambe and Wise. The internet was just seven nerds and NORAD going ‘bleep bloop’ at each other. In short, we’d watch any old shit and love it just for existing, and Bubo was a hit with easily-pleased kids pining for the wacky irreverence of R2-D2.
I was that easily-pleased kid, and at the time I loved his goofy antics. Although come on, he’s still a marvel of the cinematic age. He’s a mechanical facsimile of Athena’s owl, created in metal by Hephaestus! Moreover, he’s brought to life with some considerable personality (though not by Harryhausen himself, interestingly; another animator worked on Bubo) and remains a memorable character, if not for the right reasons. No-one likes the comic relief robot, and he’s become a whipping boy for those who consider the stop-motion era a bit cheesy (he’s a literally throwaway gag in the characterless CGI remake of Titans) but he deserves better. He’s loyal, he’s indefatigable, he’s brave – he even has a go at the Kraken, the plucky little bastard – and he looks a million dollars. I mean, check that picture at the top.
That is craftsmanship. And not, actually, the work of an Ancient Greek god – the work of a man.
*Not a real hamster.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
By Dene Kernohan
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Columbia Pictures 1956, dir. Fred F. Sears) is not one of Harryhausen’s most honoured achievements, but his work is as accomplished as ever and its influence on science fiction in film is undeniable. Starring Hugh Marlowe as scientist Dr. Russell Marvin and Joan Taylor as his new wife Carol, the story is a familiar one: extraterrestrials in highly-armoured flying saucers are intent on occupying the planet.
Uniquely, no wonderful creatures for Harryhausen to bring to life in this one (for budgetary reasons, the aliens are men in suits) – instead, he animated the flying saucers themselves and some spectacular scenes of destruction for the climax. He sought advice on design from infamous ufologist George Adamski, who claimed to have had contact with aliens and taken rides in spacecraft!
Unimpressed by previous invasion films where the saucers merely floated across the sky, Harryhausen’s have a fast revolving outer shell to convey some kind of anti-gravity power source. He even included plenty of pitch and roll to indicate intelligent life in control.
The film truly comes to life in the glorious final battle in Washington, D.C., where saucers variously land on the White House lawn, topple the WashingtonMonument and finally, defeated by Dr. Marvin’s anti-magnetic weapon, crash into Union Station and the CapitolBuilding.
Thanks to the work of Ray Harryhausen, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is perhaps the most iconic of all the 50s invasion movies and has been referenced by filmmakers innumerable times over the years – in Mars Attacks!, Independence Day (both 1996) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) amongst many others.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad: The Ship’s Figurehead
BY EMMA STREET
The scene starts with Haroun, the film’s stoner joke-butt, wandering up to the prow of Sinbad’s ship, pilfered booze in hand. He leans against the ship’s figurehead – a particularly stern-looking siren – and gives it a playful chuck under the chin.
Unbeknownst to Haroun, there is wickedness afoot. Koura (Tom Baker), a magician whose ‘evil’ dial has been set to ‘totally’, is at this moment casting a spell to bring the figurehead to life.
The figure begins shaking its head from side to side and pulls itself free of the front of the ship. Haroun resists the obvious cliché and doesn’t look first at the supernatural creature and then at his drink and then throw the drink overboard – although he would have been fully justified in doing so. Instead, he runs down the boat shouting “It’s alive!”
The enchanted figurehead is a wonderful example of the sort of creature that only Harryhausen and his team could create. Most filmmakers in need of a ships figurehead magically brought to life would adopt the easiest approach – dressing an actress up like a siren and making her stand motionless at the prow until required to move. Like Saucy Nancy in Worzel Gummidge.
The effect would be totally different from what you have here. Once you have a human in the role the character immediately becomes one of us. We viewers relate to people who look like us. Even if they’re made of wood and have been imbued with the gift of life less than a minute before.
Harryhausen’s figurehead doesn’t look human. Its proportions are slightly wrong in the same way that Michelangelo’s David’s would be if an evil sorcerer brought it to life. Its back is just a wall of splintering wood. It moves unnaturally as though its limbs and head are working independently of one another. It looks like what it is – something that was never intended to move about. A piece of scenery acting almost but not really human. It doesn’t rampage and seems only vaguely aware of the scrabbling meat creatures firing arrows in its direction. There is no anger evident as the creature resists the crew’s attempts to kill it.
Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures can look a bit plasticine-y. His work was a huge inspiration to stop-motion animators who came after him and there is something Morph-like about the figurehead. If you can imagine being stuck in a confined space with an evil 14 foot tall Morph prepared to swat you dead in an instant. Not that you need to imagine that. Harryhausen imagined far more terrifying and wonderful things and then allowed us all to share them with him.
Emma Street follows a different celebrity fitness workout DVD each week and then mocks it.
Clash of the Titans: Medusa
By Gareth Negus
Clash of the Titans is far from my favourite Harryhausen, and is certainly not the one I’ve watched most often. But it has a special place in my heart for being the only one of his films I saw at the cinema, and for one sequence which is among his finest: the Medusa.
Though Caulorlime is broadly correct when he says, earlier in this post, that Harryhausen’s creations were rarely scary, Medusa is the exception. The great man himself preferred to use the term ‘creatures’ when talking about his work rather than ‘monsters’; again, Medusa is the exception. She is truly monstrous.
Heralded by a sinister rattle, Medusa slides into view to be revealed as half woman, half snake – a version of the character unlike any I had seen before (but, you know, I was nine. I’d probably only seen Medusa in the Ladybird Book of Greek Myths, or something). Though you could argue she was only defending herself against intruders who were planning to chop her head off, everything about her – from her looks, her expressions, her patient one-by-one killing of the heroes – radiates pure malevolence. The fact that the whole sequence is one of Harryhausen’s more suspenseful helps, but Medusa is one of his finest monsters.