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Not Harryhausen's best by a long shot, but an enjoyable fantasy adventure
on 18 December 2010
At the time regarded as a disappointment but now something of a minor classic whose reputation seems to have grown massively in the wake of its recent very loose remake, the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans is far from the best of the Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventures. A lavish retelling of the Perseus and Andromeda myth with an ill-assorted all-star cast who mostly give the impression of slumming it - Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress, Flora Robson and a pre-L.A. Law Harry Hamlin - it drew unfavourable comparisons with Jason and the Argonauts on its original release and was overshadowed by the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark that Summer, but now its reputation seems safely assured in the memories of those who saw it often enough in their childhood to ensure its profitability.
Part of the appeal of Harryhausen's films, and the reason the special effects man is regarded as their auteur rather than their generally forgotten directors or his undervalued producer Charles H. Schneer, is their hand-crafted nature. The effects were never photo-realistic, but they created their own sense of magic even if the creatures were always in much sharper focus than the grainy live-action background shots. Despite having the biggest budget of any of his pictures - a then massive $15m that allowed Harryhausen to have assistants for the only time in his career - it has some of the weakest special effects in any Harryhausen film. The stop motion animation is still excellent, particularly Steve Archer's work on the flying horse Perseus, but the integration and compositing is often very poor, giving thick blue outlines to many of the `mythologicals' or setting them against especially grainy live action footage. As a film it's not at all bad, but as a swansong for one of the greatest special effects men of them all it does leave something to be desired.
It has that post-Star Wars problem of the obligatory robot sidekick, in this case a whirring mechanical owl that looks and sounds like something Oliver Postgate created for The Clangers, and despite having a fine cinematographer in Bond movie regular Ted Moore, the film has that flat, diffused and somewhat pallid look so many late-70s and early-80s films suffer from. While never as lethargic as Sam Wanamaker's pallid direction on Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Desmond Davis' direction is for the most part perfunctory and uninspired, only springing to life in the atmospheric scene in Medusa's lair or the grand finale, but it does have a strong script (despite screenwriter Beverley Cross' wife Maggie Smith's comments dismissing it as a bit of rubbish) and the design of the film is often pleasingly inspired by both the Fairbanks and Korda versions of The Thief of Bagdad - the shots of Perseus riding Pegasus across the skyline of Joppa could come right off the poster of the silent version. It's a look that may have made it a little anachronistic on first release but now gives it an old world movie charm that makes it look a lot less dated than many of its contemporaries. And at its best it does recapture a sense of wonder that makes it repaying a return visit: it's not one of the all-time great fantasies despite the material, but it is an enjoyable one.
The DVD release has an acceptable but unspectacular transfer that the poor BluRay release completely fails to improve on, with only an interview with Harryhausen as extra.