Imagine that your dad has built up a huge business -- furniture or gun-running or something -- but that instead of you getting to become president when he dies, you're toddled off to Luxembourg while some scheming toadie takes over the company. That's pretty much Jason in a nutshell. His dad is king of Thessaly, except that too-smart-for-his-toga Pelias decides to do away with dad and toss baby Jason into the ocean. Nice plan, except that the big momma goddess Hera (you may remember her from a previous MonsterVision flick, Hercules & The Amazon Women) saves Jason from drowning. Once Jason grows up, Pelias decides to get him out of the way by sending Jason off on a undoubtedly fatal quest for the Golden Fleece (sheep's wool made of gold, something you don't find at Wal-Mart or even Tiffany's). Jason rounds up all his frat brothers -- Hercules included -- and heads off to fame, fortune or painful death. Their ship is called Argo, hence the sailors are Argonauts. Along the way are monsters, princesses, monsters, storms and monsters. (This isn't quite the way ancient Greeks told the story but hey, they're all dead now)
All the wonderful goings-on in Jason are the result of Ray Harryhausen's famous stop-motion animation techniques. (Stop-motion uses a small model of, say, a skeleton where one single film frame is photographed, then the model is moved very slightly and another frame is photographed. When the film is run through a projector, the skeleton will appear to move.) As a young lad, Harryhausen was inspired by stop-motion in the 1925 version of The Lost World and by the time of Jason had perfected his skills working on such films as Mysterious Island and Mighty Joe Young. No matter how much the animator's experience, stop-motion is very time-consuming. For instance, Harryhausen noticed how popular the skeleton fight had been in his earlier film 7th Voyage of Sinbad and decided a skeleton army would be even better. He was right, but it took four months of work for a scene that's only on-screen about three minutes. Perhaps that's one reason Jason is Harryhausen's personal favorite film.
While the animation and effects had to be done in a special studio, the cast and crew actually went to Italy for the filming, mostly around a small town called Palinuto. They ran into one cultural misunderstanding when actress Nancy Kovack (Medea) resorted to wearing a thick sweater at the chilly 6 am calls. Unfortunately the sweater, the only one Kovack had, was purple, which the locals considered the color of death. The filmmakers patched up relations so that filming could continue, soothing Italian nerves with a performance of a dance Kovack had learned in Rome a week before shooting started.(She would later marry conductor Zubin Mehta, leave the movie business and bring a losing embezzlement suit against a former Whitewater partner named Bill Clinton.) Todd Armstrong, who played Jason, had been doing real estate work when the wife of a Columbia executive spotted him. And of course James Bond fans will recognize Honor Blackman (Hera) from her notorious role in Goldfinger.
Speaking of gold, the film was originally to be called Jason and the Golden Fleece but an Italian movie with the title The Golden Fleece prompted the Americans to retitle theirs using "Argonauts." And to toss on an insult, the Italian film -- by cult director Riccardo Freda -- instead ended up with the title The Giants of Thessaly. (The Jason filmmakers seem not to have noticed the appearance two years earlier of the French film Tintin and the Golden Fleece. And a couple of decades later was a comic book Indiana Jones and the Golden Fleece. The fleece must be a little tarnished by now).
Topping all this excess of monstrous goodness is a score from Bernard Herrmann. L.A. native Herrmann was one of the greatest film composers and this is widely considered one of his best. That's really saying something for a career stretching from Citizen Kane up to Taxi Driver. But Herrmann's numerous scores for Hitchcock films may be his best known. Who can forget the brooding and screeching strings of Psycho or the haunting, bittersweet music for Vertigo?
But now we're really starting to wander from Jason and his fleece-hunting Argonauts. Classics are like that, you know: one thing leads to another leads to another. Check for yourself when MonsterVision unleashes Jason and the Argonauts. Later remade by Harryhausen as Clash Of The Titans:
Monstervision Review & Host Segments for Clash Of The Titans
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
June 25, 2000 at 3:15 am, Rating: TV-14-DLSV
Why did one of the skeletons run away from the battle?
He didn't have guts.
A blonde calls the fire department and says, "My house is on fire! Come quick!"
"Yes, ma'am!" replied the dispatcher. "How do we get there?"
"Oh, my!" she said. "Don't you still have those big red trucks?"
"Jason And The Argonauts" is available on video and on DVD
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