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40 Years Later: Clash of the Titans

2 July 21 words: Aaron Roe

Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s swansong still delivers excitement and awe four decades later…

Director: Desmond Davis
Starring: Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Judi Bowker
Running time: 118 minutes

In Clash of the Titans, King Acrisius wages a suicidal war with the gods when he casts his daughter Danae and her son into the sea with nothing but the chest which encases them. It turns out the father of the child Perseus, happens to be Zeus, the chief deity himself. Naturally, he doesn’t react well to the King's act of jealousy and makes a particularly wrathful decision to end the lives of thousands, calling upon the Kraken to destroy the city of Argos. Zeus makes sure that mother and baby are safely washed up onto a desert island; time melts away in seconds and thus begins the journey of our protagonist Perseus on the cusp of manhood. 

It’s easy for us to get lost in a haze of Greek mythology – the film itself takes its liberties with the source material when it can. But it’s a hero’s journey we are all relatively familiar with; a series of quests and an assortment of slain beasts all in the name of a Princess, with a little nudge from the gods here and there.

Although the film boasts acting royalty with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, the star of the show is obviously special-effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. For his final film, he pulls out all of the stops and embellishes his models with so much vital spontaneity. Calibos’ is more than just a monstrous silhouette; his animation emits the shame and tragedy we expect from the character. The serpentine menace of Medusa at times is genuinely unsettling and that glare has singed itself into memory from childhood. Harryhausen's parting gift to cinema is as immaculate as the rest of his body of work, capturing the spirit of a bygone era.

The combination of Harryhausen's work and Laurence Rosenthal’s score give it a whimsical grandeur and help Clash of The Titans stand out as a calcified cult classic

Of course, the constant barrage of effects requires our belief to be suspended indefinitely, which might be a big ask for members of a contemporary audience. But even when the special effects make us smirk just a little too much, the effects are propped up by some fine performances that bring a bit of mortality into the proceedings. Olivier was ill when making the film, leaving his theatrics somewhat muted and lethargic. Heavy lies the crown of the chief deity; Zeus makes this clear with his haggard peevishness, much to the chagrin of Maggie Smith’s Thetis. She manages to convey this simmering rage whenever Zeus gives out one of his excessively ruthless punishments, especially when it involves her son Calibos. The Titans are effectively humanised and therefore not infallible. 

Harry Hemlin proves to be the weakest link as Perseus certainly looked the part, but his delivery is often as mechanical as the film’s steampunk owl, just without any of the charisma. Even Judi Bowker’s Princess Andromeda can’t bring him to life; the chemistry between the two just seems a  bit too wooden. Nonetheless, his heroic disposition keeps the machine working well enough to get to what we all really want: more Harryhausen. 

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Clash of the Titans belonged to the same cinematic zeitgeist as films such as Raiders of the Lost Arc. Critics recognised Clash of the Titans as a ‘camp’ nostalgia trip and a love letter to films such as Jason and The Argonauts, another Harryhausen masterclass. Admittedly, Desmond Davie’s directional hand doesn’t have the same dexterity as say a Speilberg or even a Ridley Scott. But the combination of Harryhausen's work and Laurence Rosenthal’s score give it a whimsical grandeur and help Clash of the Titans stand out as a calcified cult classic, just waiting to be discovered on a lazy, Sunday afternoon. 

Did you know? The film had a budget of $16 million, costing more than every other Schneer-Harryhausen collaboration combined. However, the duo’s plans for subsequent films were halted by the rise of computer animation. Harryhausen said: “CGI is a wonderful tool that continues to fascinate me, but I know, deep down, it would never have suited me.”

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