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The evolution of Jason and the Argonauts began in the late 1950s, after the initial success of 20 Million Miles to Earth. Harryhausen and his producer, Charles Schneer, decided to get away from doing “monster-on-the-loose” stories and try something more ambitious. Their first opportunity came with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the first of Harryhausen’s color films. (“You just couldn’t do a Sinbad movie in black-and-white,” he said recently.) The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was the first “Sinbad” movie that actually showed the fantastic elements of the Sinbad tales. (Ironically, Alexander Korda’s 1940 The Thief of Baghdad, which Harryhausen acknowledges as a major source of inspiration, had loads of special effects but only mentions Sinbad parenthetically.) It was a phenomenal success, appealing to children and their parents. Adaptations of Jonathan Swift’s The Three Worlds of Gulliver and Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island followed soon after and proved equally popular.
Creating a film based on classical Greek legends was one of Harryhausen’s long cherished goals. With the exception of the 1954 Italian-made Ulysses, starring Kirk Douglas, nobody had ever adapted this material, which offered not only a vast canvas on which to unfold a story but fertile ground for Harryhausen’s imagination and animation skills. Jason and the Golden Fleece, as it was then called, led something of a charmed life, surviving an onslaught of cheap Italian “sword-and-scandal” movies at the beginning of the 1960s and the skeptics who didn’t think that the public was prepared to accept on screen the heroes, monsters, and deities of Greek legend.
The final script by screenwriter Jan Read and author/librettist Beverley Cross proved them wrong, and was itself a major triumph in the field of fantasy filmmaking—a straightforward version that also found room for moments of Shavian conceit (especially Niall MacGinnis’ scenes as a sly and whimsical Zeus) and instances of pure poetry (check out Michael Gwynn’s dialogue as Hermes). Director Don Chaffey maneuvered his actors effortlessly between these elements and the surrounding action sequences. The cast, the largest and best of any Harryhausen film, included Americans Todd Armstrong as Jason and Nancy Kovack as Medea and some of the finest available British stage and screen talent (including MacGinnis, Gwynn, Honor Blackman, Nigel Green, Laurence Naismith, Jack Gwillim, and Patrick Troughton). They all carried themselves with dignity and gentle good humor.
At the center of the film and its appeal, however, was Ray Harryhausen and his special effects. Ever since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1951, Harryhausen had made a career out of bringing to life creatures spawned in the deepest recesses of the ancient imagination, and the farthest reaches of natural history. Jason marked a major expansion of both the reach and grasp of his work, featuring at least five major sequences, any one of which could have been the high point of a career: Talos, the bronze giant, and his destruction; Phineas and the harpies (a sequence that owes a debt to an unrealized Harryhausen project called “The Elementals,” clips of which are included in the supplement to this disc); Triton and the Clashing Rocks, a scene doubly notable because it didn’t involve Harryhausen’s trademark stop-motion animation; the battle with the skeletons; and Jason’s battle with the Hydra.
Principal photography was completed in late 1961 and early 1962, in Greece, Italy and at Shepperton Studios in England. Harryhausen spent almost two years in post-production completing the special effects (animating the skeleton battle alone took four and a half months). Bernard Herrmann’s music—a radiant, declamatory heroic score—completed the picture, and Jason and the Argonauts was ready for release in June of 1963.
Alas, time was not kind to Jason and the Argonauts, and on subsequent reissues, the film’s color and brightness suffered, which, in turn, marred the impact of the special effects. The Criterion Collection laserdisc edition of Jason and the Argonauts features a new digital video transfer from the finest film source available, in its proper aspect ratio, and a digitally mastered soundtrack.