“The gods are best served by those who need their help the least.” -- Zeus
I always find it a curious choice when the lead actor is the most boring part of a film. There are benefits to this choice, of course. If you want the audience to pay attention to what’s going on around the lead more than you want them paying attention to the lead, then casting a flavorless center inside a golden sponge cake is the way to go.
The best vanilla center that springs immediately to mind is Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, who manages to completely not get in the way of either the dinosaurs, Jeff Goldblum, or Laura Dern’s butt shots, and yet still manages to be completely engaging and enjoyable in his own right, pulling off the rare feat of upstaging a couple of precocious children.
Todd Armstrong does not fare so well in Jason and the Argonauts. He is -- well, there are two problems with Armstrong. The first is his fault and the second isn’t. We can lay the blame at his feet for being completely uninteresting and non-engaging and in any way fun, but it’s not really his fault that the character of Jason is completely daft.
Jason, to be blunt, is an idiot. He’s the kind of hapless idiot that stumbles into quests he has no hope of finishing, except in times like this, where the gods conspire to see him succeed. Jason and the Argonauts is really a bedtime parable about the importance of saying your prayers so the magical people in the sky give you what you want, no matter how unqualified, unable, or unworthy you are to earn it for yourself.
It’s fitting, then, that Jason seeks the golden fleece, since you get fleece from sheep.
Look, I’ll get to the Ray Harryhausen bits in a minute, but the dumbness of Jason is really impressive. As the movie opens, Pelias captures the throne of Thessaly by attack. Prophecy has decreed that he will one day lose the city to a child of the King, so he goes all child killer (though they only show him offing the oldest child, who looks like a young woman and not a baby). Jason escapes in the arms of a soldier.
Skip ahead twenty years and he’s come back. By a twist of Hera, he saves Pelias from drowning. Pelias recognizes who he is and takes him back to his camp, where Jason openly announces in a camp full of armed strangers that his intention is to kill the King and reclaim his throne.
Sounds like a dumb move, right? Especially since he never asks the guy he saves, "Hey, you got a name, buddy'” But it’s not as dumb as it sounds because Jason is dressed in full armor with an army of his own men at his back.
What I meant was, Jason is dressed in a leather one-piece with no armor, no weapons, and no army.
He is completely alone, in a strange land, surrounded by strangers, and he’s all, “I’m going to kill Pelias” to a guy who’s obviously important and thus might be enjoying his time in the current ruler’s kingdom.
Brains on this one.
Pelias convinces Jason to fulfill his plan to go after the Golden Fleece because it’s on the other side of the world, and Pelias figures, “out of sight, out of mind,” since if he kills Jason, he dies, too.
Jason is emotionally torn in that way people in movies are before going on a quest we all paid money to see them take, so Pelias’ prophet reveals himself to be Hermes and takes Jason to Olympus, where he’s small enough to fit in the palm of anyone’s hands, and Jason gets in him a bit of religion.
He is certainly not all, “I’m gonna build you temples and worship you and devote my life to building statues in your honor” because that would be too obvious. Instead, we get the line from Zeus I put up at the top of this review: “The gods are best served by those who need their help the least.” This proves to be only partially true, since Jason can’t stop asking or getting help from the gods but I suppose Zeus was inspired by Jason’s spunk.
Jason holds his own Olympics to get the finest men to go with him, which of course raises another immediate question. If he’s got the best of the best athletes/warriors to go on a quest, why not, you know, take all of these men and go kill Pelias right now' Save yourself the trouble. Heck, when they finally make it to Colchis (the location of the fleece on the other side of the world), one of his men even says something like, “Jason, why are we not attacking? You’ve got the finest fighting men behind you.”
Hercules shows up to compete and this is one of the all-time best Hercs you’re ever going to see.
This is the "Most Interesting Person in the World / Dos Equis" Hercules. Older but still robust and with the body of an adventurer more than a bodybuilder, he even looks far more like a younger Dos Equis Guy than Lou Ferrigno. Played by Nigel Green, this Herc is a seeker of thrills and an incredible horndog, willing to defy the edict of the gods that they are to take nothing from an island pit stop except food and water if he finds a willing lass to bed, but also one that knows when he has learned a lesson.
Herc befriends Hylas, a weaker but smarter adventurer, and Hylas ends up becoming “lost” (meaning, dead) because of Herc’s decision to steal treasure from the Isle of Bronze, so Herc refuses to continue on Jason’s quest while he searches for Hylas.
Psst, Herc, he’s lying under the fallen, broken statue of Talos.
Talos. Time for Harryhausen.
There are four big Harryhausen scenes in this movie: with Talos, with some blue-skinned harpies, with a Hydra, and with a skeleton brigade. They are all phenomenal, and it’s not hard to see why this film is so beloved by Harryhausen devotees.
Talos is a giant statue of, well, Talos, one of the Titans that Hephaestus cast. There’s a treasure trove inside the statue’s base that Herc steals from, bringing the statue to life. The big bronze statue moves slowly but ends up destroying the Argos (Jason’s ship) in its best sequence. Jason defeats Talos, but only because Hera tells him how to do it.
The next Harryhausen sequence is with a couple of blue harpies, who Zeus has set to torment the blind ex-seer Phineas, played by a not-yet-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton. There’s very little of Troughton’s Who in Phineas, except for a bit of defiant gumption when he delivers some of the film’s best lines.
It seems the harpies come after him every day when he tries to eat, and he wearily snaps to the heavens: “Zeus, I was a sinner. I’ve never tried to deny it, but I didn’t sin every day. Why then, do you punish me every day?”
The harpies move with more speed than Talos, but they don’t work as well. Jason and his men capture the beasts for Phineas in exchange for being told how to get to Colchis, but it’s more a set piece about filming around the action (the men concoct an elaborate net trap) than watching the harpies be all bad ass.
Up third is the Hydra, which Jason battles at the spot where the Golden Fleece is found. This sequence moves quicker and succeeds in Jason’s one real triumph of the film as he slays the multi-headed dragon-thing, but at the same time you’re marveling at Harryhausen’s work, you’re reminded that Jason is about the worst swordsman you’ve ever seen. He simply flings his sword around like a kid playing in the backyard.
The fourth scene is one of the most memorable of Harryhausen’s career, a four minute sequence in which Jason and two Argonauts battle seven skeletal warriors that have risen from the dead. Unlike the earlier scenes, the skeletons move fast. They move so fast that it had to be an intentional choice to slowly build the speed of each monster as the film progressed. Jason is still flailing his sword around but the skeletons hit it every time to make him look a little better. It’s a fantastic scene that still holds up remarkably well.
Jason and the Argonauts is totally worth a rent for the Harryhausen stop-motion sequences, Hercules, and Troughton, but the pacing is totally off in this film. The action scenes take too long, especially the dreadful scene in which a god rises out of the water (another scene Jason couldn’t get through without help) to hold back the Clashing Rocks, a set of cliffs that rain down rocks on passing ships.
Most troubling is the film’s overall message: that any idiot can sail to the edge of the world, get the most beautiful foreign priestess (Nancy Kovack, who looks like Shania Twain) to betray her country for him, win the Golden Fleece, and win back your throne so long as someone powerful wants you to have these things. Except the film never shows him going back to Thessaly. He runs away from the skeletons by jumping off a cliff (when he doesn’t get help, his best move is to run away), gets the girl, and then Zeus makes a promise about a sequel which we don’t get.
That’s OK. Harryhausen makes more movies and you’d rather see more with him than more with Jason and Shania Twain, wouldn’t you?