For the Honor of Zeus

Clash of the Titans (1981)

If you spend any time paying attention to special effects in film and television, eventually you will stumble across a name that came to define an era of effects: Ray Harryhausen. As an artist, Harryhausen was considered the absolute master of stop-motion special effects. In this modern era, stop-motion has all but disappeared, of course, supplanted by CGI as the go-to to make the impossible a reality. Back before computers could run the show, though, it took sculptors and modelers and a whole lot of painstaking work to create incredible special effects. No one did it better than Harryhausen.

Although Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 is probably his best remembered film at this point, in no small part due to the fact that school rooms will still regularly watch the adventure as it's pretty kid-friendly, 1981's Clash of the Titans sits high on his resume as well. This film is an absolute tour de force of special effects for the era, combining all of Harryhausen's best techniques to create a world of gods and monsters on the big screen. Sure, some of it looks hokey at this point, but there's no doubt that for the time the only productions that could match (or beat) Harryhausen's work here had the names of Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. and Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same..

Clash of the Titans is all about Perseus (Harry Hamlin), the half-human son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier). Cast into the sea at an early age by his human "father", Perseus was saved by his deity father and put on an idyllic island to spend his days. He grew up big and strong, without a care in the world, and that allowed him to take on the qualities of a truly great man: grace, kindness, nobility, along with strength and bravery. Thus when the time came for him to wander the world and find his own way, Perseus was able to handle all that the world could offer.

After receiving gifts from the gods -- a helmet of invisibility, a sword of incredible quality, a shield to defend his life -- Perseus set out for Joppa. There he heard the tale of Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), who had once been betrothed to Calibos (Neil McCarthy) right up until that man had angered the gods with his actions and was cursed into a monstrous form. Since then, Andromeda has been under Calibos's curse, doomed to never marry until a proper suitor could answer riddle put up by Calibos; all who failed to answer correctly were burned alive. Perseus, though, figures out where Calibos lived and, after a battle, gained the answer to the riddle, thus clearing the way to marry Andromeda. This, however, angered Calibos's mother, the goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith), who dooms Andromeda to die by the claws of the Kraken lest all of Joppa be destroyed. Perseus has to find a way to save Andromeda from this horrible fate so the two can have their happily ever after.

Credit to the film, Clash of the Titans hew pretty closely to the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Close enough that most history teachers in elementary and high school likely could have used this film as a primer on Greek myth in class. Sure, the film takes a few little liberties here or there, but considering the myths themselves changed and evolved over time, and had their own different versions depending on the story tellers, that's no big deal. The film crafts it into a light and fun adventure with plenty of thrilling moments to be had.

On the subject of showing this film in school, that is not something I'd ever seen growing up, and my assumption is because despite it's otherwise pretty tame content (very little blood or death), there are a couple of curious moments of nudity in the film that would need to be edited out for public school consumption. A "school edit" would do the trick as the moments are fleeting and don't impact the story at all. Had the original writer, Beverley Cross, had his way, Andromeda would have been naked for the whole climax of the film and that would have been much harder to edit around. The version we got, though, is so nearly there it's surprising the studio just didn't edit these moments out entirely.

What I most appreciated in the film were the special effects. Even now, with modern eyes seeing them and picking apart how they worked, the special effects do really stand up. Some of them are a little doofy looking, to be sure -- Medusa, as well sculpted as she is, does look like a claymation figure, while the Kraken has all the makings of a Toho kaiju monster. And yet, despite those flaws, it's impressive how even the cheesier looking special effects are stitched into the film. Live actors composited onto stop-motion, claymation filmed and then edited around live sequences. It's all done with silky smooth precision that puts even n some CGI creations to shame.

It helps, of course, that there's a tactile quality to the stop-motion special effects. They move with solidity, which makes sense considering that they were, in some sense, actually real. You don't get strange floating creations or odd physics with these creations like you would with CGI because each frame of these creations had to exist in t he real world. The presence of these creations on film sells the reality of this fantasy world more than any CGI could (which I'm sure we'll talk about in the 2010 remake, when we get around to it). The special effects are key to the film.

Not that the actors are bad, mind you. The script does give the actors plenty of meaty material to work with, from love and loss, action and horror, and the stars handle it all well. Harry Hamlin is great as Perseus, a noble man out to explore the world. He's in every scene, and he had to carry it all, from the mythology to the monsters and everything in between. He nails it, giving Perseus just the right heroic charm. Judi Bowker as Andromeda doesn't have to do as much, but she has to sell a girl who could fall in love after just a day of knowing our hero, and on that front she manages it. Plus she gets to be a scream queen opposite the Kraken, and I bet that was fun.

Naturally we also have to touch upon the gods. Laurence Olivier is the most famous performer of the set, taking on the role of Zeus, and he seemingly delighted in chewing all the scenery as the leader of the gods. Just having him in the role alone makes Zeus into a force, and that's before Olivier opened his mouth. Joining him (on what was reportedly an eight-day shoot for the godly performers) was the fantastic Maggie Smith, who got the second meatiest role of the gods. She gets to play angry and scorned, and Smith relished the performance, gobbling up all the scenery she could. It's great.

Really, there's very little to hate about this film. Sure, it does at times look a little dated, and at two hours long it maybe could have used just a little tightening of its pace. But when the monsters come on screen and the heroes are being heroic, all of that falls aside. Then it's just a fun romp of gods and monsters, heroes and legends, and Clash of the Titans truly hits its stride.