The rehash of the TITANS

2010-04-10 00:00

COMPLETE with hallmark buzz-cut, Sam Worthington, fresh from the biggest blockbuster of all time, Avatar, arrives on screen next week in what is being hailed as the biggest movie of 2010, Clash of the Titans. This 3D reboot of the 1981 film of the same name is based on the legend of the Greek hero, Perseus, who killed the gorgon Medusa and later married the princess Andromeda after rescuing her from a sea monster.

The earlier version (just released on Blu-Ray) marked the twilight of the god of stop­motion animation, Ray Harryhausen (now 90), who secured his niche in film history for his stop-frame animation technique — dubbed Dynamation — in a string of films featuring dinosaurs and mythical heroes such as Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Harryhausen would produce and do the visual effects while journeymen directors — Don Chaffey and Gordon Hessler — worked with the live actors: largely forgotten leading men such as Todd Armstrong and John ­Phillip Law and dimly remembered curvaceous beauties such as Nancy Kovack and Caroline Munro, with Raquel Welch of One Million Years BC being the exception.

Harryhausen’s films tended to be released in thrills-and-spills double-bills timed for the school holidays. Jason and the Argonauts was spliced with Siege of the Saxons, now probably best remembered for the telephone lines strung across the battlefield at the film’s climax. Even this then 13-year-old knew it was dire, but suffered sitting through it a second time to watch Jason again. Harryhausen’s special effects entertained a generation and fired the imagination of another: Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame works exclusively using stop-motion while Tim (Alice in Wonderland) Burton has made two stop-motion features, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Both acknowledged their debt to Harryhausen. Director Peter Jackson described The Lord of the Rings as “my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie’”.

Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s bid for the cultural high ground. To direct, he hired Desmond Davis, one of the British New Wave directors of the sixties, respected for I Was Happy Here and Girl with Green Eyes. For a cast he marshalled a string of theatrical heavyweights, including Laurence Olivier (as Zeus), Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith and Flora Robson, although more in character with the earlier films, Ursula Andress was inducted to Olympus as Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Perseus was played by future LA Law star ­Harry Hamlin, while Andromeda was played by Judi Bowker, now about as forgotten as Nancy Kovack.

The 1981 release was also something of an event, but it soon turned out to be a damp squib. The Harryhausen era of special effects had become ­pass é. Films such as Stars Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had changed everything. Clash of the Titans, released in the same year as Raiders of the Lost Ark, was positively quaint. Apart from an impressive opening sequence (sans any special effects) the action was slow, an air of stifling high seriousness had replaced the fun of the earlier films and the various mythical creatures looked moth-eaten, especially the winged horse Pegasus. Any attempt to dub it a classic, as some are with the appearance of the remake, are just plain deluded.

But if Clash of the Titans was a misjudgment on Harryhausen’s part, it shouldn’t blind us to his importance in the history of film. He entrenched special-effects techniques as part of the cinematic vocabulary. Without him there would be no Avatar and no new Clash of the Titans. And while on the subject of film history, it’s worth noting that the 1981 version was shot by the first South African to win an Oscar, Ted Moore, who won it for his work on A Man for All Seasons. Moore also shot most of the early Bond films from Dr No to The Man with the Golden Gun. And like Charlize Theron, the second South African to win an Oscar, he was born in Benoni.

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