Originally released 12 Jun 1981
Written by Beverley Cross
Directed by Desmond Davis
Starring Harry Hamlin, Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier, Judi Bowker, and Burgess Meredith
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Strong narrative elevates special effects-driven film.
Today, the 1981 film Clash of the Titans is known either as the last film to feature work by special effects master Ray Harryhausen or as the precursor to a dreadful 2010 remake. Discussions of the film almost entirely center on those two points. But the film is much more than that.
Viewing the film for its special effects would likely leave many viewers unsatisfied and mystified as to the film’s appeal to film buffs. Indeed, modern filmgoers will find the special effects kitschy and dated. The cult that has developed around Harryhausen would likely be inscrutable to viewers used to much smoother CGI-rendered effects. The combination of stop-motion, miniature, and composite-shot effects here look obvious and creaky, particularly on hi-def screens. (I first saw the film on a 19” TV in the 1980s, which disguised a lot of the flaws in the visuals.) The miniature and composite-shot effects style hadn’t evolved much since San Francisco 45 years earlier. Harryhausen’s innovation was the use of stop-motion. Here, he reaches the pinnacle of his craft, but the level of quality is not greatly improved from his work in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The creative success of Clash of the Titans develops from the balance it finds between story and spectacle. The remake sacrificed all sense of coherence, narrative, and character on the altar of special effects and flashy visuals, none of which remain memorable because they weren’t tethered to memorable story elements. But the original, with a screenplay by British playwright Beverley Cross, uses story as more than just a bridge between effects set-pieces. The film has a coherent plot with consistent characters with recognizable motives, qualities that are too often lacking in the adventure genre.
The story derives from Greek mythology, following the hero Perseus (Harry Hamlin), a son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), as he tries to save the beautiful princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) from being sacrificed to a sea monster. In order to do so, Perseus must overcome numerous trials, usually in the form of stop-motion creatures. The film easily could have ended up a paint-by-numbers version of the Hero’s Journey, which probably would have made a decent film. Cross’s screenplay, however, goes beyond the narrative archetype by providing strong supporting characters and themes.
Perseus, in fact, is probably the least interesting character of the lot. He’s noble, stalwart, brave, and handsome. Hamlin, whose prime asset to the film (the importance of which should not be underestimated) is looking great in a loincloth, manages to convey these qualities without making Perseus seem like an insufferable drip, but the character has little depth. More intriguing characters surround him.
The primary antagonist in the film is the Nereid Thetis (Maggie Smith—Cross’s real-life wife), who is given a place in the Olympian pantheon here. Zeus, unthinkingly, sets up a comparison between his son Perseus and Thetis’s son Calibos (a character who does not come from Greek myth but who bears numerous similarities to Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest). Zeus punishes Calibos (Neil McCarthy) with deformity while Perseus is given a charmed path in life. That Calibos is violent and sadistic doesn’t justify the punishment in Thetis’s eyes, so she determines to thwart Perseus on his quest.
Underlying the story is the conflict between fatherhood and motherhood, between patriarchy and matriarchy. At the beginning of the film, we see a father, Acrisius of Argos, lock his daughter, Danae, and her infant son, Perseus, into a chest and set them adrift in the sea as punishment for Danae’s pregnancy. Acrisius, as a father, is cruel and pitiless. In paternal rage, Zeus responds mercilessly by destroying Acrisius and all of Argos. Later, when Thetis asks for mercy for Calibos, Zeus remains unbending, and his authority among the gods is absolute. The other goddesses—Hera (Claire Bloom), Aphrodite (Ursula Andress—Hamlin’s real-life partner at the time), and Athena (Susan Fleetwood)—bristle against Zeus’s caprices and pronouncements but are powerless to oppose him on the whole. Athena manages a slight instance of rebellion when, instead of giving Perseus her beloved owl, Bubo, as Zeus has demanded, she gives Perseus a mechanical owl instead. (The mechanical Bubo, who communicates in beeps and squeaks only intelligible to Perseus, resembles greatly R2-D2 in style and personality. However, Harryhausen, while acknowledging the similarity, claimed that the design for Bubo predated the release of Star Wars.)
The narrative’s main conflict, however, undermines this presentation of Zeus as an absolute ruler. He cannot prevent Thetis from carrying out her revenge against Perseus and Andromeda; he can only give Perseus a few helpful gifts. Thetis has taken advantage of the opportunity presented to her by Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips), when the queen boasts that her daughter is more beautiful than Thetis, committing the great sin of hubris. Even Zeus cannot set aside a punishment for this offense. Instead, the mortal Perseus must find a way to stop Thetis’s retribution. Even the gods, it seems, are subject to the law.
Thetis demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to a sea monster or the monster will destroy Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), the seat of Cassiopeia’s power. The sea monster figures in the film’s most famous line—“Release the kraken.” The kraken, however, is a monster from Norse mythology, not Greek, and resembles an enormous squid. The Greek sources of the Perseus myth refer to the monster as Cetus, which is depicted as a giant serpentine fish in Greek art. The monster in the film, however, is more humanoid in shape, at least from the waist up, and looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In the original Greek myth, Andromeda is nothing more than a typical beautiful damsel in distress. The film, however, makes Andromeda a powerful presence, determined to help Perseus in his quest to save her—indeed demanding that she be allowed to accompany him—and carrying herself with defiant strength to her sacrifice. At one point, she reminds Perseus that she is the local royalty, and, thus, she is in charge of the quest. Bowker, who has few film credits beyond Clash of the Titans, is very good at presenting multiple facets of the character.
Also excellent in supporting roles are Burgess Meredith as Ammon, a playwright, whose main job is to give information and guidance to the young hero, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Perseus’s faithful companion, Thallo.
That the film is primarily known for Harryhausen’s creatures would not disappoint its creators. The credits give prominent listing to the stop-motion characters—Bubo, Charon, Dioskilos, Kraken, Medusa, Pegasus, Scorpions, and Vulture—suggesting that the filmmakers saw this film as primarily a showcase for special effects. Its great achievement, however, is being more than just that.