Ray Harryhausen is a living legend. As a new documentary celebrates his career, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw talks to the man who brought Jason and the Argonauts to life.
There are few more beloved movie people than stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen and, arguably, none more deserving of that deeply felt approbation.
The man whose creations routinely destroyed great American cities in the 1950s or bestrode the ancient world like gods or colossi is the ultimate monster kid – an eternal child forever seeking to put his fantastical dreams on film.
Of course Harryhausen, now a venerable 92, is the genius behind Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, Mysterious Island and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t direct the pictures. What does matter is that he made the magic that has given them lasting classic status.
It was Harryhausen who built and animated the UFOs that destroyed Washington in Earth vs the Flying Saucers in 1956. He laid waste to New York in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He introduced dinosaurs to the Wild West in The Valley of Gwangi. And, of course, he put on film one of the iconic combat sequences ever: Greek warriors sword-fighting with screaming skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts.
Harryhausen’s amazing career is being celebrated in the new documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. And in Yorkshire film buffs can call in to the National Media Museum, in Bradford, which houses his archive.
And what an archive. Over the last 10 years Harryhausen and his writing partner Tony Dalton have produced five books on his work. Harryhausen never threw anything away and his garage was packed with sketches, props and models. The books document it; the National Media Museum collected it.
Harryhausen’s introduction to the movies has passed into cinema lore. In 1933, aged 13, he saw the original King Kong and, by his own admission, was “awe-struck”. It inspired him to investigate stop-motion techniques and to begin making his own dioramas based on the dinosaur park at Los Angeles’s La Brea Tar Pits.
“I’ve never been the same since I saw that film,” he says today. “It changed my whole life so it shows how potent films are.”
Early projects were assisted by his father who helped build armatures for his son’s models. By 1945, after war service, Harryhausen was working as an assistant for Willis O’Brien, the man who had steered King Kong to the screen a dozen years earlier, on his new gorilla picture Mighty Joe Young.
“It was the thrill of my life to be able to work with the people who’d made King Kong,” recalls Harryhausen. “There were not many people interested in three-dimensional animation at that time so I was rather unique because it was an offbeat subject. It was a dream come true that I was able to work on a picture – another gorilla picture of all things although it wasn’t the same type of story as King Kong. I was the gorilla for most of the picture. By animating the model I had to put myself into it.”
And therein lies Harryhausen’s gift. Alongside eternal patience – making stop-motion sequences takes weeks; the four-minute skeleton sequence in Jason and the Argonauts famously took him four-and-a-half months to complete – he brought childlike wonderment to the job. It’s part of what has made his reputation.
Harryhausen has never taken credit for others’ work, but he is acutely aware of his own contribution to the films that bear his name. Jason and the Argonauts was directed by Don Chaffey. The cast included familiar faces like Nigel Green (as Hercules), Niall MacGinnis (as Zeus) and Honor Blackman (as Hera). Todd Armstrong was Jason.
But it is for the skeletons, the harpies, the giant Talos and the hydra that the film is remembered today.
“I worked on the script in the early stages of the outline of Jason. We had several writers on it. Then I read the original stories and I made about eight sketches. Those drawings were incorporated into the script – the writer would write these situations in. So I work on the script as well; I’m not just handed a script and told ‘Put this on the screen’.”
Harryhausen was also smart enough to self-censor anything he thought was too lurid for children’s tastes. Both Talos and the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts were toned down.
“Talos was in the original concept only he was some sort of robot about 7ft high,” he remembers. “He used to stand in the fire and when the sailors came ashore he would hug them, red-hot, and burn them alive. Well you could hardly put them on the screen so I had to change it.”
Talos was altered to resemble the mighty Colossus of Rhodes, a being brought to life by the gods.
As for the skeletons, the rotting corpses originally envisaged when the evil king Aeetes scatters the hydra’s teeth were “not very pleasant – all the skin, gangrene setting in and all this sort of thing. Today it may go over but when we made the picture it would be considered bad taste so we made nice clean-cut skeletons.”
And that sums up Ray Harryhausen – a modest, self-effacing man who has made his life in fantasy.
“I think there’s a mystical thing – I can only use the word mystical – that happens in stop-motion that makes a fantasy film seem like a dream. Fantasy is something like a dream world – an illusion rather than an actuality. When you’re dreaming at night it’s not quite real.
“Stop-motion gives that fantasy subject matter something that the computer can’t give. If you try to make it too real you defeat the whole point of fantasy.”
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is on staggered release.
Unique movie collection
The RayHarryhausen Collection arrived at the National Media Museum in Bradford two years ago.
It represents a unique film archive, containing drawings, paintings and storyboards from some of his best known films, together with his animation models and the original moulds used to make them.
Pieces include the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans. The Collection also includes rare work by the pioneer special effects designer Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the creator of King Kong, with whom Harryhausen worked early in his career and who was a major influence.