Thursday, 13 May 2010

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Equal parts beloved and belittled by film fans since it was released, Clash of the Titans served as a Viking funeral for the arts of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen and also, in its way, for old-style sword-and-sandal action. The cast includes Harry Hamlin leaping about in revealing robes, a leading lady who can’t act, and a parade of superannuated British acting greats swanning about earning a pay cheque for a few days’ shooting in playing Olympian gods, on a project that tries as best as it can to look as glitzy as possible for the Star Wars era in spite of a much lower budget. Many reviews of the recent remake of Desmond Davis’s original pointed out, often with a level of dismissal, the model film’s lacks. But Clash of the Titans has an integrity to it that demands respect, as well as an authentic sense of mythic flavour, that belies its tackier asides, and although some of the technical achievements and budgetary limits were ropy even for 1981, it’s all staged with a sense of epic vigour.

Davis, mostly a TV director, had handled a few good movies in the past, including the very fine 1965 Sarah Miles vehicle I Was Happy Here. An arch professional with a capacity to conjure strong atmosphere with the most minimal effects (see his marvellous subsequent adaptation of The Sign of Four), Davis successfully evokes the primordial landscape the material encompasses, a world where the depths of the sea, the expanse of the sky, and the edges of the earth still bristle with wondrous, often malevolent perversities. There isn’t enough money in Hollywood these days to buy the awareness of an appropriate fantastic texture Davis, Harryhausen, the crew bring to the film, with visions of a cloud-secreted city of the gods on Mount Olympus, the evocations of the River Styx and its skeletal navigator Charon, the ruins of the Isle of the Dead and the shadowy temple that is the home of the Medusa. The thunderous surf and billowing wind and dust of the film’s very opening, as the loathsome Acrisius (Donald Houston) has his daughter Danaë (Vida Taylor) and her infant son Perseus locked in a coffin and hurled into the sea to punish her for her having a son to Zeus (Laurence Olivier), conveys a perfect sense of primal drama.

Primal drama isn’t always on hand, especially when Perseus grows up with Hamlin’s disco-ready do and Burgess Meredith turns up to overact artfully as Ammon, the actor and playwright who takes Perseus in. It’s hard to imagine a film aimed in large part at kids these days that includes, as this film does, such innocently hippie-ish pictures of Danae breastfeeding Perseus and later walking starkers along the beach (and also, later, some soft-core body-double nudity), and that’s a part of the film’s charmingly simple, physically immediate sense of myth-history. The beauty of film-making like Clash of the Titans, at least for me, is its complete opposition to the hyper-stylised effects of something like 300, where everything is churned in a great vat into CGI butter, and even the bulging bodies of the actors look painted on in post-production.

The city of Argos, Acrisius’s kingdom, is laid waste by the titan Kraken (called Cetus in the original myths, replaced here by the Scandinavian beastie, probably because it sounds cooler), kept as a pet by Poseidon (Jack Gwillim), and Acrisius dies as he’s crushed by the hand of Zeus himself. Zeus then steers Perseus and Danaë to the isle of Seriphos, where Perseus grows into manhood living an idyllic life but hoping to eventually fulfill his mother's wish that he can one day claim the kingdom of Argos. But he finishes up in distant Phoenicia when he’s removed from Seriphos, with spiteful playfulness, by Thetis (Maggie Smith). Thetis has a quarrel with Zeus, for Zeus, bearishly proud of his own son and quite egotistically solicitous of the fruit of his own cosmic loins and the women he loved, has cursed Thetis’s own mortal son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) with a twisted, monstrous visage after using his own great advantages for destructive and heretical ends.

Calibos, exiled to the distant marshes, retaliates by cursing the city of Joppa, capital of Phoenicia and his former home, and specifically his former fiancé, the princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), daughter of Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips) who now becomes the object of a grotesque lottery where suitors have to try and answer a riddle and risk being burnt alive, as Perseus discovers when he visits the city. Now that he’s adrift on fate’s whims, Zeus has his goddesses provide him with weapons, including a helmet that makes him invisible. He uses that to infiltrate Andromeda’s remote bedchamber, and there sees the colossal vulture that ferries Andromeda’s disembodied spirit to Calibos. Perseus soon captures the winged horse Pegasus to follow the vulture, and, after overhearing Calibos’s new riddle for the suitors, he battles the deformed anti-hero and cuts off his hand. He presents that severed limb with its distinctive ring, the object that is the subject of the riddle, to the astonished citizens of Joppa, thereby winning Andromeda’s hand. But Thetis, answering Calibos’s pleas for intervention and offended by Cassiopeia’s vain pronouncements, demands Andromeda as a sacrifice to her honour, to be consumed by the Kraken unless Perseus can think of way to destroy that fearsome titan.

Harryhausen’s techniques weren’t so much out of date in 1981 – after all, Phil Tippet was at this time filling out the visuals of The Empire Strikes Back with his stop-motion beasties – as were the efforts to try and do a special effects blockbuster without a very large budget and the slickest attendant production values. The hand-made charm of Harryhausen’s earlier films usually compensated for some very rough edges in never being as expensive as they needed to be, a cheesiness which Clash of the Titans retained: effects are filled with sloppy matte lines, dubiously spliced in chunks of stock footage, and the usual problem of old-style stop-motion, the greater clarity and sharpness of detail often betrayed on the models compared to the footage they’re transposed into, is even more pronounced in the (then) modern film stock and shooting and lighting styles. On the other hand, the bristling detail of Harryhausen’s models and their superbly complex motions, like the fearsome interplay of the claws and tails of the giant scorpions, the scaly, part-serpentine Medusa and the Kraken itself, retain a tactile, surprisingly beautiful kind of menace, as well as the ever-so-carefully tweaked personality brought to such creations.

The least effective of Harryhausen’s creations is the anthropomorphic Calibos, but Calibos is still a remarkably interesting villain, chiefly because of the actor who plays him in head and torso shots, Neil McCarthy, who effectively presents the tortured quality of the character, his dashed but still boundless egotism infused with deep erotic frustration that manifests tellingly in the scene where he gives Andromeda the riddle. She, pleading with him to cease his vengeance, touches his gnarled face, and he closes his eyes in momentary, beatific relief from the physical and moral disaster he’s become. Smith’s Thetis is terrific, too, alternating a kind of sad outrage at Zeus’s fatherly prerogative over her motherly one when it comes to their two sons, delivering the demand for Andromeda’s sacrifice with the most don’t-fuck-with-me assurance imaginable (it’s hard to argue with the giant severed talking head of statue possessed by a goddess), with her cool, aware riposte to Calibos’s demand for justice: “Justice, or revenge?” As in the Greek myths themselves, emotion and moral order are distinct and quite often as confused to the gods themselves as to mere mortals.

Andromeda’s scenes with Calibos, and those proceeding them, with her spirit leaving behind her sleeping body, slowly taking on full form, and riding away in a cage into the great wilderness, possess a heady scent of sensuality, with the theme of the maiden’s soul held captive by dark, resurgent eroticism, the necessary counterpoint to the virginal ardency of Perseus. Perseus, like all good Greek heroes, then has to go on his quest and penetrate the equally well-realised heart of darkness and wipe out the shadow of twisted psychology, on the Isle of the Dead, and contend with the Medusa in the dark, fire-lit halls of some unknowably ancient, ruined abode, full of petrified heroes and scored by the whiz of the Gorgon’s deadly arrows. Even when she’s dead Medusa's blood proves poisonous and corrosive, capable of giving birth to the huge scorpions.

Like Harryhausen’s other stab at the Grecian mythos, 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans used location shooting, this time in Spain, Italy, and Malta, and that lends a specific visual mystique. Some of the film’s delight is in precisely its low-rent methods of imbuing proceedings with a sense of mystery and danger, with billowing dry ice fogs and the laser beams through smoke that play the part of the rays of light behind Zeus’s head on his throne. The most effective device is even simpler: Zeus’s array of figurines standing in for the mortals whose lives he controls, deployed in an amphitheatre of life and death, and especially the two acts of direct wrath he unleashes on them, crushing Acrisius’ model, the mortal man buckling in agony as an unknowable force of anger squeezes the life out of him; and the eerie moment when the punishment of Calibos is depicted through the shadow of his figurine contorting and transforming. It’s worth noting that the film’s screenplay, by Smith’s then-husband Beverley Cross, doesn’t dumb down the conceptualism of the Greek gods and their complex, often amoral games. They are actually allowed to debate their acts and consequences, contrasting Zeus’s curiously personal, emotional sense of right and wrong, condemning Acrisius for murder and ignoring his previous piety, and often more instinctively right in this way than Hera (Claire Bloom) and Thetis, with their appreciation for working to rule, ignoring as they do wrong acts by Acrisius and Calibos because they have played their parts as suppliant and son respectively. And yet Olivier’s Zeus still often seems like a capricious jerk, with Thetis's motherly ache for Calibos all too apparent. There’s a very complete feeling of mythological import in the conclusion as the constellations named after the protagonists alight in the sky: it’s a film that seems aware not only of the fun inherent in these tales but in their inherent importance to the western traditions.

More awkward is the film’s wavering in tone, from the relatively adult and aware elements I’ve described to the kid-pandering employment of the mechanical owl Bubo – yeah, I’m not five years old anymore, and it’s not alone in offering robotic comic relief among many post-Star Wars fantasy and sci-fi efforts, but that doesn’t make it less hard to take - and the battle with the two-headed dog Dioskilis is rather disposable, especially in the dull-witted detail of having Perseus delayed from saving the moment by having his sword hugged by a python. Such small, flimsy flourishes drag on a film considerably, and a problem, often suggested by some of Harryhausen’s other works, seems that the amount of time and dedication required by the stop-motion entailed neglecting other details. One of the sadder side-effects of the CGI era is a kind of loss of patient wonder with the achievement of the animation, and one starts looking at such scenes instead with a more functional sensibility. A few of Davis’ visual touches still carry the lingering mark of too much TV work. On the other hand, a sequence like the destruction of Argos maintains a direct link with the history of similar scenes as far back as the silent versions of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur as columns and statues crumble and the wrath of the heavens consumes petty everyday lives, and the appearances of the Kraken are excellently handled, with Poseidon’s awed look as the great beast’s tail slides out its submerged abode before the beast appears in all its green, slobbery glory. Although glimpses of it at the outset robs its appearance in the conclusion of some impact, it does serve a purpose, in depicting just what a formidable force the Kraken is and how difficult it will be for Perseus to take it out.

Although he’s so easy to make fun of, Hamlin is actually quite good as Perseus: whilst he never seems more ancient than 1979, he’s really an appropriately wooden kind of gentle but determined hero, and he even manages, unlike so many American stars stuck in amongst Old Vic actors in these sorts of things, to put on a fittingly neutral accent. Bowker has the right look and manner for a heroine mostly defined by her bovine sacrifice status (with a few flashes of imperial prerogative to make her seem slightly more empowered), but otherwise she’s the weakest point in the cast. Olivier delivers a deft lesson in effective ham, especially in that he rarely sharpens his godlike rants to a fine point, except with occasional, meaningful snarls, like “His daughter!” when he decries Hera’s suggestion Acrisius deserves mercy in spite of treating some girl cruelly, or his casual, falsely winning request to Athena (Susan Fleetwood) that she give Perseus her own owl, the reason she has Bubo fashioned instead. Kudos, too, to Laurence Rosenthal’s sweeping score. It’s still a fun, sprightly, lush and graceful swansong for the Harryhausen brand, and the last remnant of the old-fashioned epic.


J.D. said...

"The beauty of film-making like Clash of the Titans, at least for me, is its complete opposition to the hyper-stylised effects of something like 300, where everything is churned in a great vat into CGI butter, and even the bulging bodies of the actors look painted on in post-production."

Exactly! And that's why I just can't excited about the remake. It takes everything that was good about the original and gives it an ugly CGI makeover. Nothing in all of the new film can possibly top the menace and creepiness of the Medusa confrontation in the original CLASH. I can distinctly remember seeing this when it first came out in theaters as a child and being genuinely scared by Medusa and fearing for Perseus' life. With the new film, I never get the feeling that Perseus is ever truly in danger or, at least, nothing he can't easily handle.

For all of its clunkiness and datedness, the original CLASH still holds up because it has a humanity to it. It has a hand-made feel by people who at least appeared to care about what they were doing while the new version feels slapped together as an afterthought and dumbed down. I'm glad that you pointed out how the script for the original treats the Greek gods with respect and complexity! Something that is sorely missing from the new one.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, JD.

I'll probably check out the remake when it comes to video but I'm in no hurry. There was room to improve on this film, especially if it had been made by someone who actually had a love and fascination for this mythology, but the remake looked like more opportunistic Photoshop film-making. Yes, I too was alway on the edge of my seat during the Medusa scene, and indeed it still holds up: the staging is as good as the effects there. I recall being surprised, and impressed, as a lad by Harryhausen's choice to make Medusa almost entirely serpentine and equip her with that nasty archery talent, which makes her more directly formidable than somebody you just stroll up to without looking directly at and chop up.

Something else I didn't comment on was the effective exposition Davis uses when Perseus is growing up: those shots of the boy with his stunt riding makes his later ability to tame Pegasus quite logical. It's through such simple, thorough touches as that that good narratives are built from.