Of Men and Gods, and the Monsters Thereof: a review of Jason and the Argonauts

Written by author, Ruth Merriam

Ray Harryhausen. Let it roll around in your mouth like a fine wine.

Ray Harryhausen.

What movie monster fan doesn’t know this name? Of the many films in which his work appears, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is his self-professed favourite. And how could it not be? Harryhausen’s stop-motion model animation brought mythological creatures and the gods of ancient Greece to life in a way never before seen, and never since surpassed.

The storyline is a familiar one. It’s the tale of a Greek hero on a quest for both his birthright and a treasured item bestowed by a god upon some far-distant kingdom. It’s a story about the capricious nature of gods, the vanity and greed of men, the monsters that we invite into our lives by our own actions, and fate.

Our hero, Jason, is the son of the late King Aristo of Thessaly. Aristo was murdered by Palais, whose victory was prophesied while his downfall at the hand of a child of Aristo was also foretold. Palais believed his destiny was ordered by none other than Zeus himself. After killing Aristo, Palais happens upon his daughters, who are in a temple of Hera. Even though he is told by a shadowed figure that the elder girl has prayed to Hera and been heard, he kills her anyway. What Palais doesn’t know is that his future overthrow at the hands of a child of Aristo is to be by a man, not a woman, and so his killing of the girl and profaning Hera’s temple was in vain.

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He also doesn’t know that Hera has disguised herself as the shadow figure and has seen him defile her temple. Palais blames Zeus for forcing his hand, but the shadow figure tells him that such things are men’s doings.

Hera is pretty angry about what’s happened, and so she defies Zeus and tells him that she intends to help Jason regain his kingdom. Mind you, Jason is but a boy…but time passes quickly on Mount Olympus. Zeus agrees to let Hera give Jason five boons in exchange for the defiling of her temple. The game is on.

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Twenty years later, Hera arranges a chance encounter between the now-adult Jason and King Palais, who has spent the intervening years searching for his future assassin. Jason saves the King from drowning but doesn’t realize it’s Palais and tells him of his plan to rid “his” land from this tyrant. His plan is simple enough: build a sailing ship, find and bring home a mythic Golden Fleece that restores health and brings prosperity and peace to the land in which it rests, inspire his countrymen, and kill Palais. Palais acts the part of the concerned and supportive elder and counsels Jason to pursue the fleece, meanwhile telling his own son, Acastus, to accompany Jason on the quest and to get the fleece for himself.

Jason wanders into a temple ruin, where he encounters the god Hermes who has been disguised as Palais’ seer. Jason professes his disbelief in the gods when the seer suggests that Jason enlist their help, so Hermes decides that a little proof is in order and brings Jason to Mount Olympus.

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When Zeus suggests in a bored tone that he already knows what Jason would have the gods do, he’s taken aback to find that Jason would rather do things for himself. Hera tells Jason of his five boons and gets things rolling by letting him know that the Golden Fleece does exist, and can be found in Colchis, a land found on the other side of the world. Hera and Zeus are playing a game with him, as the gods do with all mortals, and these are the rules for this particular round.

Once returned to Thessaly, Jason goes about getting a ship and crew. He organizes games of skill with the winners promised a spot on the voyage, thus insuring that the best of the best will accompany him. Among the winners are Hercules, and Pileas’ son, Acastus. Argo, the finest shipbuilder in the land, crafts a magnificent sailing vessel for him and is somehow inspired to put the maidenhead not on the front of the ship, but at the back looking forward. The maidenhead bears a startling resemblance to Hera. The ship is dubbed the Argos and the voyage begins.

Ah, but the gods are cruel. Five days out to sea the Argonauts are broiling under the sun, running out of water, and there’s not even a breeze to ripple a sail. In desperation, Jason asks Hera (which, of course, looks like a crazy man talking to a ship’s maidenhead) for help. She tells him that winds will bring the Argos to the Isle of Bronze but that the men must not take anything but provisions from the island and that they should beware of Talos.

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Hercules, apparently, never met a temptation he didn’t give in to. When he and a companion come upon giant bronze statues that legend says Hephaestus (son of Zeus and Hera) moulded of the gods, they can’t help themselves from looting the vault under the statue of Talos. Talos comes to life with a creaking and groaning of metal on metal and attempts to kill the Argonauts while protecting his island and its contents.

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Men are crushed and killed, and those that escape to the Argos are soon thwarted in their attempt to row away from the island. Talos lifts the Argos like a toy ship while the sailors fall into the sea.

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While floating amongst the wreckage of the ship, Jason appeals to Hera once more and she tells him how he might overcome Talos and how to find out how to get to the Golden Fleece. The remaining Argonauts wash up on the beach, Talos is defeated, the Argos is rebuilt, and the ship sets sail to find Phineas, a blind seer who will tell them the way to Colchis.

Phineas, we learn, has defied Zeus by refusing to use his god-given gift of prophesy. In return, Zeus has doomed Phineas to a life trapped within a ruined temple, his every attempt at escape thwarted by Harpies who attack from above and eat the food left for him by the locals.

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Jason tells Phineas why they’ve sought him out, but Phineas demands a bargain be struck before he’ll tell them the way to Colchis. The Argonauts must rid Phineas of the ever-present attacking Harpies. They devise a trap in the temple.

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Once the Harpies are safely behind bars, Phineas tells Jason that the way to Colchis lies between the Clashing Rocks. As they part company, Phineas gives Jason an amulet of Triton in thanks for his help.

Once again, the Argos sets sail. They approach the Clashing Rocks, which seem peaceful enough…until they see another ship approaching from the other side. The rocks move and rumble, huge boulders fall into the narrow passage, and the ship is sunk. The Argos has been wildly rocked in the waves and they’ve also lost a sailor – no one is eager to attempt passage through the strait. A survivor of the other ship is spied on the waves and is brought aboard. It’s a woman from Colchis, Medea, who explains that she and the crew were there to throw flowers upon the waters to appease the gods. The gods, apparently, weren’t impressed.

Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus, Zeus and Hera consider the board before them. Hera makes her move.

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Jason insists that they go through the strait despite the moving and falling rocks and while his crew panics, he angrily hurls the amulet of Triton into the waters. The waters churn and boil, and up from the depths rises Triton in accord with Hera’s placement of him on the board.

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The mighty god of the sea braces himself against the opposing cliff faces, and with all the speed they can muster, the Argonauts row under Triton’s arm and through the Clashing Rocks.

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Once safely past this hazard, the ship quickly reaches Colchis. Acastus picks a fight with Jason and winds up overboard. One of the sailors jumps in after him to finish the fight and it’s assumed that Acastus has been killed. Medea and Jason go onshore, Medea to her duties as a priestess of Hecate, and Jason to survey the land and to make a plan for how to steal the fleece from King Aeëtes. At the temple of Hecate, Jason learns that Medea is the chief priestess and meets the king, who tells him to bring his men to the palace for a welcoming feast.

King Aeëtes is no fool, however, and he exposes Jason and his Argonauts to the gathered crowd as thieves, pirates, and liars. He then introduces Acastus, who has swum ashore and told the king of Jason’s plan. The Argonauts are imprisoned.

Medea, realizing that she must either betray her goddess and her country, or betray her own heart, decides to free Jason and his men and lead them to the Golden Fleece. Shortly after their escape, King Aeëtes learns that they’ve gone and sets off after them with soldiers.

Some of the Argonauts have returned to the ship and bring it around the island to where the fleece is kept. They hear soldiers coming so several of them hasten ashore to warn Jason. Meanwhile, Jason and Medea reach the fleece only to find that Acastus has already gotten there. This is when Jason learns that the fleece has a guardian – a seven-headed Hydra with a rattler’s tale.

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Acastus is in its grasp, but it drops him as soon as it catches sight of Jason. The fleece hangs on the bough of a tree, glinting with magic, but Jason must battle the Hydra.

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Jason hacks off its tail, battles fiercely, and eventually is able to plunge his sword into the Hydra’s heart. Medea and he go to Acastus, who is dead, while some of the Argonauts retrieve the fleece from the tree. As they flee toward the boat, King Aeëtes comes into the clearing and sees that his talisman is gone and that the Hydra is dead. He calls down Hecate’s fire upon the lifeless body of the Hydra, and once burned down, instructs his soldiers to gather the Hydra’s teeth.

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Jason, Medea, and a handful of the Argonauts have run to a ruin on a cliff top overlooking the sea. King Aeëtes catch up to them and while Jason has Medea brought to the ship, leaving himself and three companions behind, the king calls to Hecate to bring forth “the children of the Hydra’s teeth; the children of the night.” He tells his soldiers, “Against the children of the Hydra’s teeth, there is no protection.”

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Lightning crashes in the sky as Aeëtes scatters the teeth. In moments, the ground beneath where each tooth has fallen begins to move as up rise the children of the Hydra.

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This . . . THIS is the pinnacle of Harryhausen’s genius! Building on a technique he’d used in an earlier film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, now we see an army of undead soldiers where before there was one. Aeëtes orders them to kill and the battle is on.

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Surely you recognize these creatures? How many times has this imagery been used in loving tribute to Ray Harryhausen? Do you see the Terminator, stripped of flesh? Or the outright borrowing (with appropriate gushing by animation supervisor Hal Hickel) from the film The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl?

Fear these creatures.

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They’re relentless.

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Having killed the three companions, they focus on Jason.

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Jason jumps from the cliff, mostly unharmed, and swims to the Argos where Medea, the Golden Fleece, and the remaining Argonauts are waiting for him. They set sail for Thessaly while Zeus and Hera watch from Mount Olympus.

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Hera shows by her expression that she’s jealous of Medea, but Zeus, who has already informed her that he’s not done with Jason quite yet, tells her, “For the moment, let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze, and each other. The girl is pretty and I was always sentimental.” Hera is satisfied with the outcome of the game.

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But what of these monsters, dredged up from the depths of time and the human psyche? What of these gods, who admit that they may not be immortal after all, but rather may fade in time? To the gods of Mount Olympus, humanity is no more than so many playthings and the span of a human life is merely the blink of an eye. Why then do the gods torment men so, and why do humans defy the ones making up the rules of the game? Are the gods the real monsters, or is man’s free will the monstrous thing? To defy the gods is to invite the intervention of monsters…and yet, free will and choice are always variables in the gods’ games. And, perhaps, man uses the gods as convenient scapegoats for his own monstrous acts.

One can’t always tell who it is, exactly, that’s projecting the flickering images on the screen.

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2 Comments

Filed under Film, Monster Awareness Month, Review

2 responses to “Of Men and Gods, and the Monsters Thereof: a review of Jason and the Argonauts

  1. Pingback: Undead Backbrain » Blog Archive » Ultraman on Monster Awareness Month

  2. The consensus seems to be that this is Harryhausen’s best film, but I’m not totally on board with that. The story around the effects sequences drags, and the characters are hard to care about. Mysterious Island and the first two Sinbad movies are more fun and charming, from my perspective.

    Still a good show, but not as high on my list as it is for others.

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