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CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

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"Find and fulfill your destiny…."
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cot.jpg (14105 bytes)Director: Desmond Davis

Starring: Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, San Phillips, Claire Bloom, Neil McCarthy, Jack Gwyllim, Tim Piggott-Smith, Susan Fleetwood, Ursula Andress, Donald Houston, Vida Taylor

Screenplay: Beverley Cross

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Synopsis: Acrisius, King of Argos (Donald Houston) has his daughter, Danae (Vida Taylor), and her illegitimate baby, Perseus, sealed in a wooden vessel and cast into the sea. This action enrages Zeus (Laurence Olivier), who orders Poseidon (Jack Gwyllim) to release the Kraken. The goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) informs the other gods that Zeus is the father of Danae’s child. The monstrous Kraken causes tidal waves that destroy the kingdom of Argos. At the same time, Zeus has Danae and her baby conveyed safely to Seraphos, a desert island, where Perseus (Harry Hamlin) grows to manhood. As Zeus gloats over his fine son, Thetis begs mercy for her own child, Calibos (Neil McCarthy), whom Zeus has inflicted with hideous deformity in punishment for his crimes, which include killing all of Zeus’s flying horses but Pegasus. Calibos’s fate has seen his proposed marriage to the Princess Andromeda of Joppa (Judi Bowker) called off. Zeus rejects Thetis’s pleas. In revenge, Thetis takes Perseus from his island and casts him into Phoenicia. Perseus awakes to find himself in an amphitheatre, where he meets Ammon (Burgess Meredith), a poet and playwright. Worried about Perseus’s fate, Zeus orders the goddesses Athena (Susan Fleetwood), Aphrodite (Ursula Andress) and Hera (Claire Bloom) to provide him with a helmet, a sword and a shield, respectively. When Perseus finds these magical gifts, Zeus appears to him in the shield, telling him he must find and fulfill his destiny. Perseus travels to the city of Joppa, where to his horror he sees a man being burnt at the stake. A soldier, Thallo (Tim Piggott-Smith), explains that a curse has been placed on the city since the betrothal of Calibos and Andromeda was broken off. Any man may aspire to the hand of Andromeda. To gain it, he must answer a riddle; if he fails, he dies. That night, Perseus uses his helmet, which confers invisibility, to enter the palace and find Andromeda’s bedroom. As he gazes at the sleeping princess, Perseus is immediately smitten by her beauty. At that moment, a giant vulture carrying a golden cage lands on the balcony. As Perseus watches in amazement, Andromeda’s spirit leaves her body and enters the cage. The vulture flies away with it. Perseus recounts this adventure to Ammon, who tells him there is only one way he could follow the vulture. The two men hide by a pond where Pegasus, the winged stallion, comes to drink. Perseus ropes the horse, mounting and eventually taming it. The next time the vulture carries away Andromeda’s spirit, Perseus follows to the evil, swamp-ridden lands of Calibos. There, invisible, he sees the monster begging for Andromeda’s love. When she rejects him, Calibos forces her to learn a new riddle for her next suitor. As Andromeda’s spirit is sent away, Calibos suddenly sees Perseus’s footprints. He follows them, attacking Perseus, who loses his helmet in the swamp. The two struggle desperately until, drawing his sword, Perseus strikes…. In Joppa, Queen Cassiopeia (San Phillips) calls for suitors for Andromeda. Perseus strides forward. Andromeda is startled, telling Perseus that she knows him from her dreams. She begs him not to risk his life, but when he insists, repeats the riddle that Calibos taught her. Perseus correctly deduces that the object referred to is the jewelled ring that Calibos wears – and casts down the monster’s severed hand, which bears that ring. The people of Joppa celebrate, and Cassiopeia betroths Andromeda to Perseus. However, as she does so, Cassiopeia speaks slightingly of the goddess, Thetis. Enraged, Thetis invokes a second curse upon Joppa, insisting that in thirty days Andromeda must go as a virgin sacrifice to the Kraken, or Joppa will be destroyed like Argos before it….

Comments: In both style and content, Clash Of The Titans is a film that seems to signal the end of an era. What worth this picture has lies not in its cinematic merits, which are moderate, but in the fact that it carries the last special effects work (at least to date) of the great Ray Harryhausen. When compared to the breakthrough effects films that were released more or less contemporaneously, such as An American Werewolf In London, The Howling or The Thing, Clash of the Titans seems quaint and old-fashioned, almost anachronistic. Nevertheless, time has been kind this film. As today we drown in a surfeit of overdone and largely unconvincing computer-generated images, there’s something clean and appealing about Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects. At the same time, it has to be said that this is nowhere near the best of the Harryhausen-Schneer productions. The problem is not so much the effects themselves, although they certainly vary in quality, but in the fact that they are not well integrated into the film as a whole. The bluescreen work in Clash Of The Titans is, on the whole, very poor; consequently, the interactions between the effects and the humans, or the effects and their environments, are never convincing, making the necessary suspension of disbelief very difficult indeed. As for the individual effects, the worst is probably an unfortunately jerky Pegasus. The divinely deformed Calibos is realised through a combination of stop-motion in long shot and an actor in makeup in close-up. The effect is jarring, but necessary given the part played by this character. At the other end of the spectrum, the Kraken and the gorgon Medusa are two of Harryhausen’s most memorable creations. The former resembles the Creature From The Black Lagoon’s bigger, angrier brother, with a dash of the Venusian Ymir thrown in for good measure; while in a masterstroke, the latter is depicted as not just snake-haired, but snake-bodied - a combination of rattlesnake and sidewinder, I do believe. (She also has scale-covered breasts. Harryhausen’s original intention was to have his gorgon human from the waist up, but censorship put paid to that idea.) The single best effect, however, is the swarm of giant scorpions that Perseus and his team must battle towards the end of the film (it helps, of course, that these arachnids are naturally articulated), which would be entirely believable if only the back projection work were better. The other "effect" in Clash Of The Titans that I feel obliged, however reluctantly, to mention is the ghastly metal owl, Bubo. This abhorrent creation sends a shiver down my spine, not merely because it was so obviously included to provoke a chorus of "Awww, isn’t it cute?" from the four-year-olds in the audience, but because it was further intended to provoke a second chorus of "I WANT ONE! I WANT ONE!" Yes, indeed. Clash Of The Titans may well be, in the negative sense, one of the most historically important of all genre films, since Bubo The Owl would seem to be the first instance of a character being written into a film purely as a marketing device. Watching this nauseatingly cutesy critter, one can feel the Ewoks waiting in the wings; and even worse, gaze past them down an increasingly horrifying lineage that leads all the way to [*shudder*] Jar Jar Binks…. DAMN YOU GEORGE LUCAS!!!!

Sorry, what was I talking about? Oh, yeah…. Inevitably, the structure of Clash Of The Titans is extremely episodic, with each of Perseus’s adventures kicked off by someone saying, "But that’s impossible! Except…." and then each "Except…." leading to another "But that’s impossible!" Still, even granting that the script plays fast and loose with Greek mythology, there is a logic to each part of the story that lifts the film above most of its brethren. Perseus’s history is sketched in at the beginning with admirable brevity, and he is off on his adventures in the least amount of time. These start in the city of Joppa, where he is captivated by the story of the Princess Andromeda. Using Athena’s gift of the helmet of invisibility, Perseus penetrates (if you’ll pardon the expression) Andromeda’s bedroom, where in keeping with the fairy-tale feel of the film, he takes one look at the sleeping princess and falls irrevocably in love with her. Perseus is then a witness of one of the film’s more entertaining effects sequences, when a giant vulture carrying a golden cage drops out of the sky to carry off Andromeda’s spirit. This, unfortunately, segues into one of the poorer sequences (the first "Impossible! Except…." scene), in which Perseus captures and tames Pegasus (who, like Calibos, is part effect, part real). Able by riding the winged horse to follow the vulture, Perseus is an invisible witness to the meeting of Andromeda and Calibos. Now, I have to say that I take exception to the handling of Calibos in this story. As regular readers would know, I’m always a sucker for an underdog, and I found myself feeling intensely sorry for this "monster", especially with regard to his relationship with Andromeda. It would have been perfectly legitimate if the betrothal of the two had been broken off because of Calibos’s various crimes and misdemeanors, but the script makes it quite clear that Andromeda’s objection to her former fianc is that he’s now ugly. This may well be in keeping with the rules of fantasy (not to mention the "real world"….) that dictate that pretty people can only get together with other pretty people, but it doesn’t exactly paint Andromeda in a positive light. (And besides, as Marge Simpson rightly says, when a woman loves a man, it doesn’t matter that a crocodile bit off his face.) Calibos decks Andromeda in jewels and tells her he loves her. Andromeda tells Calibos that she hates him, then asks him to lift the curse he placed on her. (Just call her "Miss Tact".) Calibos refuses, implanting in her memory a riddle intended to dispose of the next man foolhardy enough to aspire to her hand. As Andromeda’s spirit is carried away, Calibos realises that an invisible someone has been spying on them. He follows and attacks Perseus, and in the struggle Perseus loses his helmet. His sword is still to hand, however, and – offscreen – he strikes at Calibos….

Back in Joppa, Queen Cassiopeia calls for the next aspirant to Andromeda’s hand to come forward. Naturally, it is Perseus who responds. Andromeda gasps in delight, having fallen in love with him in her dreams (a solid basis for a relationship if ever I’ve heard one). Fearing for Perseus’s life, Andromeda begs him not to try to answer the riddle, but armed with his unfair advantage, Perseus persists and, of course, succeeds. The people of Joppa cheer (I must say, other than the threat of not ultimately having an heir to the throne, the so-called "curse" seems rather ineffectual) and Cassiopeia betroths Andromeda to Perseus. We then discover where Andromeda got her lack of tact from, as Cassiopeia proclaims her daughter to be even more beautiful than "the goddess Thetis herself!" – and this while standing in Thetis’s own temple! For Thetis, already enraged by the cumulative treatment of her son by Zeus, Andromeda and Perseus, this is the final straw. She manifests herself and calls down another curse upon Joppa, telling the people that in thirty days the Kraken will be let loose upon their city, unless Andromeda goes to the creature as a sacrifice – a virgin sacrifice, she adds, casting a jaundiced eye upon Perseus. Perseus decides that he will have to find some way of killing the Kraken. "Impossible!" exclaims Ammon. "Except…." This interjection sends Perseus on a journey to find the Stygian Witches, who are all-seeing, all-knowing. Or so we hear. We don’t actually know, since no-one who has sought these, ah, ladies in the past has ever returned. Seems they have a taste for human flesh…. Of course, Perseus isn’t about to let a little thing like that stop him. However, his intended journey is made much more difficult (and importantly, time-consuming) when Calibos steals Pegasus. Thus, Perseus, Andromeda, Ammon and the soldier, Thallo, are forced to set out on ordinary horseback. Worried about his son, Zeus tells the goddess Athena to send him another gift to replace the lost helmet (ever noticed how the "heroes" of these things never have to get along just on their own abilities?), ordering her to send her companion, the real owl, Bubo, to him. Athena refuses, sending in the bird’s place its horrid metal replica. The robotic Bubo leads the party directly to the lair of the Stygian witches, who are busy brewing up a nice stew consisting of their last visitor. (This sequence is the most amusing part of Clash Of The Titans, not least because the witches [Flora Robson, Freda Jackson and Anna Manahan, all unrecognisable] talk exactly like Tim the Enchanter in Monty Python And The Holy Grail.) These all-seeing witches are in fact almost completely blind, seeing through one shared crystal eye. Perseus gets hold of this device, and forces the witches to tell him how to kill the Kraken. "Impossible!" they exclaim. "Except…." Perseus is told that to defeat the Kraken he will need to obtain the head of Medusa, the gorgon – a near impossible task. "One look from her eyes can turn any living creature into stone!" cackle the witches. "Her blood is a deadly venom!" (And she’s got nasty big teeth! Sorry….)

Leaving Andromeda with Ammon, Perseus, Thallo and some of Thallo’s men set out for Medusa’s island, which lies at the edge of The Land Of The Dead. Calling Charon to carry them over the waters (Hey! They pay the ferryman before he gets them to the other side! [Oh, and speaking of the Pythons, Charon would seem to be the obvious model for "Mr Death, who’s come about the reaping"]), Perseus and co. must slay Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, before we move into the undisputed highlight of Clash Of The Titans, the battle with Medusa. In an eerie sequence, the men move cautiously through a stone forest of their unsuccessful predecessors, who "did but see her passing by"…. The Medusa’s appearance is unnervingly presaged by the sound of her tail rattling. We then learn that apart from her other "gifts", she is a deadly archer, as she nails one of Perseus’s men and sends him tumbling into, apparently, a pool of acid. More men are lost before, in the classic scene, Perseus uses the gorgon’s reflection to guide him and strikes her head from her body. (Given how discreet the rest of the film is, we get a surprisingly gross shot of Medusa’s headless body thrashing about here.) Perseus gains the head but loses his shield: it dissolves upon coming in contact with Medusa’s blood.

As they travel back towards Joppa, Perseus and his team must face one more challenge from Calibos. The head of Medusa is being carried in Perseus’s cloak, which is invulnerable to its destructive effects; and at night, it is strung up for safekeeping in a tree near the men’s camp. Calibos finds it there and stabs it, causing drops of blood to fall to the ground, where they form and grow into giant scorpions (shades of the Hydra’s teeth). Perseus and his men battle these vicious creatures, suffering some casualties before they triumph. (With better integration of its elements, this would have been a great scene.) Calibos chases away the men’s horses, then murders Thallo. Perseus kills Calibos with his sword (which he leaves in the corpse! I mean, really! People who can’t look after their divine gifts shouldn’t be allowed to have any!), and then with Bubo’s help, reclaims Pegasus. Meanwhile, the thirty days have elapsed, and Andromeda is allowing herself to be chained up on the rocky shores of Joppa. As Cassiopeia and her subjects watch in trepidation, the ocean begins to heave and the Kraken appears. All looks lost for Andromeda when Bubo suddenly appears, distracting the monster (who seems strangely uninterested in his virgin sacrifice) long enough for Perseus and Pegasus to appear on the horizon. The two swoop to the attack, but incredibly, get too close, and are swatted into the sea, Medusa’s head being lost in the process. Again Bubo must intervene (oh, for heaven’s sake! What kind of "hero" needs a freaking tin owl to save his ass!?), snatching up the head and delivering it back to Perseus. As the Kraken looms over Andromeda, Perseus holds up his grisly trophy, and one Titan defeats another: the Kraken first turns to stone, then crumbles away into the sea. Andromeda is freed and reunited with Perseus, while the Joppa-ites all cheer wildly. And up on Olympus, the gods start figuring out whose destiny they can screw with next.

Clash Of The Titans is a long film, but so crammed with incident that it rarely drags; and while it’s by no means great, it’s consistently entertaining. The film’s director, Desmond Davis, has genre credits that stretch all the way back to 1954’s An Inspector Calls; he was the camera operator on a good half dozen Hammer films during the sixties, and the cinematographer of Behemoth, The Sea Monster. One of the best things about Clash Of The Titans is its cast – not that anyone gives a great performance. There are just a lot of people in the film that it’s good to see onscreen again; although without meaning to be nasty, I have to exempt the film’s leads from that statement. As Perseus and Andromeda, baby-faced and bushy-haired Harry Hamlin and Barbie Doll-like Judi Bowker are what the humans (or demi-humans) in these kinds of films generally are: very very pretty, very very bland and very very boring. (Offscreen, of course, Perseus was getting it on with Aphrodite, aka Ursula Andress). Laurence Olivier, then in his depressing anything-for-a-buck phase, is appropriately cast as Zeus, and as you’d expect, hams it up relentlessly. One of the major pleasures of Clash Of The Titans is the preponderance in the cast of women who are "of a certain age". Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith and San Phillips demonstrate effectively that it entirely possible for female characters to be gorgeous, strong and interesting despite being played by actresses over the age of twenty-five. (In significant contrast, Ursula Andress isn’t allowed to open her mouth!) It’s also nice to see in the supporting cast interesting actors like Susan Fleetwood and Tim Piggott-Smith (for whom I’ve had a soft spot ever since The Masque Of Mandragora [hello, Robert Fisher! J ]). The film’s cinematography, production design and score combine in an attempt to give the production an epic feel; and if they don’t quite succeed, it’s still a gallant effort. Clash Of The Titans is certainly enjoyable, but perhaps as much for what it tries to be, and what it reminds us of, as for what it actually is.

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