Clash of the Titans (1981) – Directed by Desmond Davis – Starring Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Judi Bowker, Ursula Andress, and Bubo.
I have a fondness for CLASH OF THE TITANS that far exceeds its actual merits as a film.
CLASH is an okay movie, but as a kid I loved the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion films and CLASH was every bit as great as the Sinbad movies. When I watch CLASH now I can admire it as a kids’ film, but it moves far too slowly for me to keep me engrossed and my hand kept wanting to reach for the remote control to fast forward through the 18 minutes Harry Hamlin spends flying on Pegasus for the first time.
CLASH is a spectacle movie, of course, and it’s perfectly understandable that it wants to show off the spectacle, but I found myself extremely impatient waiting to get from one Harryhausen sequence to the next, with only Burgess Meredith really able to hold my interest in between. The bits with the Olympians are semi-interesting, but really only because you go, “Oh, look, Professor McGonagall and Ursula Andress and is that really Laurence Olivier?”
As a kid, it was incredibly cool to see that Zeus (Olivier) treated mortals the way I treated my Star Wars figures. There’s still something powerful about that imagery, of our life being nothing more than pawns of the gods, and appealing about the control the gods have over us. They can move us around wherever they like, as when they move Perseus (Hamlin) from Seriphos to Joppa. They can bestow gifts upon us, such as when Zeus orders the other gods to show Perseus with gifts that will help him in his mortal pursuits. But at the end, it’s still more about what we do with the opportunities they present to us; it’s a bit of a cheat, of course, when your daddy is the King of the Gods because you can lose your super fancy, makes-you-invisible helmet and then get a mechanical owl as a make-up.
Of course, the creation of Bubo speaks wonderfully to Zeus’ absentee-parenting style. He says to one of the goddesses, “Give Perseus your owl.” And she’s like, “No.” And he’s like, “Yes. I am Zeus and my word is law.” So she storms off and has Hephaestus make Perseus a mechanical owl and Zeus never says anything. Know why? Because the dude has too many kids. We’re lucky he even remembers Perseus’ name.
I can’t be bothered to remember the names of the gods that aren’t Zeus, Thetis, or Poseidon, because they’re all interchangeable late middle-aged white people in robes. Ursula Andress doesn’t do a lot on screen as Aphrodite, but apparently her and Hamlin were involved off-screen during the filming of this movie. Method acting?
CLASH is really a film about nepotism – Zeus protects Perseus because he’s his kid and Thetis (Maggie Smith) protects Calibos because he’s hers. The plot truly exists to get us to the Harryhausen bits but it’s serviceable enough. Perseus wants to marry Andromeda because she’s hot. Andromeda used to be engaged to Calibos, who was handsome but is now a satyr because he made Zeus angry by killing all his flying horses but one, Pegasus. Now Andromeda wants to marry Perseus because he’s hot. (She says she never loved Calibos because he was mean, and Judi Bowker is just the right kind of cute that Perseus completely buys it.) Thetis gets all this going by magically transports Perseus to Joppa, where he meets Burgess Meredith. To save Andromeda from both Calibos’ curse and then the Kraken, Perseus kills a bunch of stop motion creatures.
The human parts of this movie are rather dull. Harry Hamlin has absolutely no personality at this stage in his career (unless we count his hair), and Burgess Meredith can only do so much as his adviser. Judi Bowker is rather good as Andromeda, but for all of the power the film gives to women, it still keeps Andromeda very much in cages throughout the picture.
There’s far too much stillness in this movie. Perseus and Andromeda do a lot of looking at each other, gently caressing the other’s face like this is The Age of Innocence or some crap. There’s endless flying scenes and horse riding scenes and maybe audiences in 1981 were like, “Oh my god! Shots of clouds! This is AMAZING!” but I’m a little jaded watching it 30 years in the future.
The Harryhausen work is, once again, top notch, including:
1. The Giant Vulture that transports Andromeda to and from Calibos’ swamp lair. It’s slow but visually cool. Calibos is treated as both a guy in make-up and then there are scenes where he’s rendered in stop-motion so we can see his tail. The swamp scenes are effective as much for the cool sets as anything Harryhausen is responsible for.
2. Bubo, the mechanical owl. Slow and silly but pretty awesome, too.
3. Dioskilos, the two-headed dog. There’s a really nice fight scene between Perseus and his allies and the dog before they enter Medusa’s temple.
4. Medusa. Slow and slithering, Medusa is the highlight of the film with her glowing eyes and wavering snakes. Harryhausen and director Desmond Davis work well together here, but it’s a long, long sequence with a lot of sneaking around and looking. Davis keeps his camera far too still for my liking, but perhaps that’s a requirement of doing stop-motion work in 1981.
5. The Kraken. Impressive only because he looks cool, the Kraken doesn’t really do a whole lot.
It’s #s 4 and 5 that provide the biggest visual thrill, but the Medusa section takes way, way, way too long and the Kraken’s appearance at the end is undercut by his appearance at the beginning. As a kid this was all pretty eye-popping, but while I can still appreciate how cool the Medusa sequence is, the rest of the bits just feel old and tired. If I could be seven again, I’d watch this movie 100 times, but I can’t and I won’t.
And just as a heads-up, here’s my review of the remake.
CLASH OF THE TITANS Review Index
CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981): End of the Line for Ray Harryhausen
CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010): No titans Were Harmed in the Making of This Film
WRATH OF THE TITANS (2012): Being Half Human Makes You Stronger Than a God