Directed by Desmond Davis. Written by Beverley Cross. Produced by Ray Harryhausen, Charles H. Schneer. Music by Laurence Rosenethal. Photographed by Ted Moore. Edited by Timothy Gee. Production designed by Frank White. Starring Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith, Neil McCarthy.
I still remember that book. It had an orange cover that screamed “Ancient Myths and Legends,” and it had orange pages, too, because it sat on a shelf in a room that got a lot of direct sunlight. Somehow that added to its flavor. And boy, what a flavor! Swashbuckling heroes, cruel and horrific monsters, riddles and challenges, exotic locations…there was even some sweet would-be romance, which an eleven-year-old wouldn’t much appreciate at the time, but it was in tolerable doses. I think a lot of kids like me had a book like that that occupied a large place in their youth, and with good reason: on days when it was too hot to go out and you had run out of comic books, a story ripped from the pages of Greco-Roman myth was the next best thing.
I thought about that book a lot while revisiting Clash of the Titans, which is—I’ll be honest—not a great movie. But it’s a fun movie. It has energy and brio, even though it centers on one of the dullest leads ever for a mega-budget adventure picture. That would be Harry Hamlin, whose main job is to look stoic, oiled, muscular and impassioned, and also cut off the limbs and heads of vicious monsters. But the gods darn it, he’s so boring. We practically forget about him when we take periodic breaks from the human side and visit Mt. Olympus, where Zeus (Laurence Oliver…yes, Laurence Olivier) devises new ways to interfere with the world of men.
The object of Perseus’ affection is the darling Andromenda (Judi Bowker), a delightful creature who seems…well, a little dim, and she can’t really work up too much interest in anything, even her own impending ritual sacrifice to the vicious sea beast, the kracken (also known as The Kracken, or THE KRACKEN). Oh, sure, she says she’s a little concerned about it. She’s just not very expressive. If Andromeda were to ever marry Perseus (shh…no spoiling), they’d be Ancient Greece’s dullest couple. But that’s okay, because we don’t want deep human insight from a movie like this. We want monsters and gods and swordplay. It’s the leads’ job to keep the plot on track and not distract from the good stuff. At that, they do their job.
As for the good stuff, oh, what fun stuff! If lots of kids had a mythology book near their night-table in their childhood, then the plot of Clash of the Titans feels like what happens when that same kid tries to summarize what he just read. It piles on and on and on, and eventually you either shake your head at the unnecessary complications, or smile at the audacity and register the very low-key level of self-parody that the whole enterprise is played at. Okay! So, there’s this kingdom called Argos. And the king, Acrisius, hears this prophecy that says he’ll die if his daughter, Danae, has a son. So he decides he’ll imprison her and preserve her virginity forever, which will totally work! Right. But one night, Zeus sneaks in (in several meanings of the phrase) and gives Danae a daughter. Or as the screenplay says: “Zeus visited her. Visited her…and loved her!” They make it sound so nice.
So Acrisius sentences Danae and the kid to death. Zeus, enraged, destroys Argos, which seems a little mean since Zeus could have prevented the whole thing. Or maybe he couldn’t have. Prophecies are tricky. The boy escapes and grows up to be Perseus, he of the rugged good looks and naturally curly hair. Then he becomes a pawn in a tug-of-war between Zeus and Thetis (Maggie Smith), goddess of the sea and mother of the arrogant Calibos (Neil McCarthy), who is smited by Zeus, transformed into a growling satyr, and banished to a swamp, although he does end up with a cool lair and some henchmen, so it’s not all bad. Perseus, meanwhile, tries to woo Andromeda, princess of Joppa, who was betrothed to Calibos, but that ended shortly after the whole satyr-thing happened. Perseus steals into Andromeda’s bedchamber and figures out the riddle he must solve to win her hand, which is implanted by Calibos and manipulated by Thetis, who is Team Calibos, remember.
Let’s take a little break. Breathe. Alright.
Did I forget about the Pegasus? I think I did. Perseus has to tame a Pegasus, which is a winged horse, and I hate having to explain that, but I feel like I must. Come on, you know Pegasus. Everybody knows Pegasus. Right? Besides the Pegasus, the main man of Team Perseus is Ammon (Burgess Meredith), who is a playwright and poet and knows a lot about everything and everyone, which is helpful, because Perseus is kind of a slow study, and this plot is not going to explain itself, folks. So protective is Ammon to his role of exposition handler that when Stygian Witches bring up the subject of Medusa (“she can turn men to stone!”) we immediately get another scene with Ammon just so he can say the same thing in his great Burgess Meredith voice.
Why would they need to go to Medusa anyway? Well, after Perseus defeats Calibos by cutting off his hand, everything looks hunky-dory between Perseus and Andromeda. Until Cassiopeia, the mother, has to go blabbing about how her daughter is prettier than any goddess, which angers Thetis. Thanks, mom. In thirty days Andromeda will be sacrificed to the Kraken. It takes a god thirty days to plot the murder of poor Andromeda? What, does she have to fill out paperwork? No matter. Only one thing can kill a Kraken: Medusa’s head (because she can turn men to stone!) and so Perseus and a merry band of adventurers go off to find Medusa, who lives on The Island of the Dead, across the river Styx. So it’s a bit of a commute. Andromeda comes along, too, because she studied at the Princess Leia school of heroine skills, although her talents are mostly limited to horseback riding. She does plenty of it, though.
If you detect a bit of mockery in my previous paragraphs, understand that it’s not out of derision, but out of love. I adore stuff like this, with monsters and horses and battles and flying and mythical lands…we won’t even get into the logistics of how big Greece is that it can withhold all this mythology within its borders. Or why, if Zeus is so powerful, he lets Thetis play her silly games. Or what Medusa eats on days when men from Joppa don’t bother to clumsily enter her evil lair.
Let’s instead relish the way the movie pauses for cherry-picked bits of mythology, like the presence of Aphrodite (Ursuala Andress) and Athena (Susan Fleetwood). And the way it recognizes poor Poseidon, who is often treated as a powerful God indeed, but here is just a glorified jailer for the Kraken. And the movie gives more time for Calibos, who you’d think would be incapacitated due to being one-handed, but he overcomes his handicap, which is kind of inspiring, really. There’s even a big fight with Medusa’s pet two-headed dog, whose presence is dictated by the irrefutable logic that if you’re Medusa, and you have hair made out of snakes and a frightening complexion that can turn people into stone, it will not do at all to have a normal pet dog. Yes, yes. Great stuff.
The film isn’t 100% faithful to the myths and legends, understand. There’s tiny changes to the addresses and traits of some, especially the gods, who seem slightly petty but not nearly as debaucherous as their text counterparts are capable of being. Zeus even has a bit of a twinkle in his eye and pride in his voice for Perseus, his bastard son, although my hazy memory of the classic mythology might suggest that Perseus is not unique in that department, if you know what I’m saying. Still, Olivier is Olivier, and he makes it all work, even when he’s saying lines of dialogue like (paraphrasing here): “I command you to give Perseus a new gift. Give him Bubo, the Owl!”
Oh, right. Bubo. Bubo is a mechanical owl who is basically a clockpunk creature, with a brass exterior and insides made of gears. I don’t remember him from the mythology. He tweets and whistles and acts cute in a manner that is absolutely not in any way like R2-D2. No, don’t even think it. Nor is his golden skin or body language at all reminiscent of C-3PO. Clash of the Titans, it should be pointed out, was released in 1981, when we were enjoying a wave of sci-fi and fantasy films prompted by the success of Star Wars. Well, so what? Clash of the Titans as a movie may be a bit of a cash-in, but the original stories were there first. And what does it matter if the original Grecian poets had no time for mechanical owls? What is mythology if not storytelling that can survive multiple interpretations? Towards the end, Ammon notes that this whole adventure would make a great poem, and then he says to Bubo: “Don’t worry, I won’t forget about you.” Liar!
The movie lives and breathes in its set pieces, since the love story, as I said before, is pretty much like a scoop of vanilla during your first time at Baskin Robbins. We get sprawling cities and temples of the gods. Earthquakes. Floods! Creepy swamps! The lair of the Stygian Witches, who are more than a little Shakespearean, or is it the other way around? And the big boss fight with Medusa, as Perseus peers around corners and pillars, uses reflections, and overall relies on every trick in the book of “How to Cut Off Medusa’s Head,” which thankfully is the one book Perseus seems to have read. Oh, yes, and Andromeda is chained to a rock so that Perseus can rescue her and fight the Kracken. End of action, end of movie. Plain and simple. It does this in under two hours, which is nice, because most movies today do it with half the plot in twice the running time.
Some of the special effects…do not hold up. I’m thinking of Poseidon and his underground keep for the Kraken, which are depicted in frames so obviously composited they might as well have stuck Colorforms on a painting. But other scenes (Medusa, the hideous Kracken, much of the Pegasus material), hold up nicely, thank you very much, and no wonder: they were created by stop-motion extraordinaire Ray Harryhausen, who was to special effects what Mozart was to music: he did his trailblazing work brilliantly, and made it look deceptively easy. I wouldn’t put Clash of the Titans in the same league as some of the classic Harryhausen productions like Jason and the Argonauts or some of the better Sinbad pictures from the 60’s, but it gets the job done. Much like the cinematography and other technical credits of Clash of the Titans: nothing special, but fine. No muss, no fuss.
So you made it this far and you’re thinking this was a very strange review. Will I like this movie, or I will hate it, you may be wondering. I dunno. I liked it. But then, I live for this kind of stuff. Even when it’s bad, you see, it’s pretty good. Clash of the Titans is pretty good, but does that mean it’s bad? What was the question again? Here’s a quick test: did you have a book full of this stuff that you devoured as a kid? If so, I think you’ll like it. Or at least enjoy it, which is not the same thing but is also not a worse thing. Oh, and don’t sweat the small stuff. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t have the exact same book. Orange cover, blue cover, no cover. Whatever. Inside, deep down, all of them were the same book. That’s what made it so special.
Note: There was a 2010 remake. It’s not bad. But it’s angrier and less romantic. And the special effects, though more elaborate and pervasive, I would argue…are NOT better. Just more polished. Yes, for some of us, that is not the same thing.