Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

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First of all, let me say that I truly, sincerely enjoy Jason and the Argonauts. I always have. It’s one of the most memorable sword-and-sandal epics ever made. Of course, even as a kid I could see the film’s visual shortcomings, including some of the most hilariously dated special effects of all time. That being said, I have a lot of respect for the film’s visual effects artist, Ray Harryhausen. While his hard work may not have passed the test of time, he deserves recognition for making this movie look as good as it does. It was a significant achievement for the early sixties…. and done. There. I think that’s enough. Now I can make fun of the movie without feeling guilty, right?

This film was made in a different era, in the days when a movie’s entire credit sequence was placed at the front of the picture. Over the years I suppose people have lost patience for that sort of thing, with opening credits no longer acknowledging who the First AD was or who did the On-Set Catering. It’s really not bad to sit through them though, thanks to the fun and catchy fanfare; a tune that’s still stuck in my head as I write this. Watching the list of names scroll by is no different than reading the program before a play begins.

Screenshot 2016-06-23 17.33.35No one else on the planet will ever have a name as cool as ‘Red Law.’

Right out of the gate, the movie starts by beating you with exposition and backstory. I’ll admit I’m not super well-versed in ancient Greek mythology, but I’ll try to sum up the premise anyway. Jason and the Argonauts tells the story of two Gods, the married couple Zeus and Hera, who kill time playing some perverted game of chess with human lives. They send their messenger Hermes down to the mortal world to share a prophecy with a man, Pelias. It is foretold that Pelias will overthrow the king of Thessaly and take the crown for himself. But some day, a one-sandaled man will defeat Pelias, taking his place as king. So Pelias kills the current king and spends the next twenty years wary and watchful for the day when he meets the man with one sandal, prophesied to be his undoing.

That day comes when our titular Jason, ironically, saves Pelias from drowning – losing a sandal in doing so. As the former king’s son, Jason is the rightful heir to the throne of Thessaly, looking to avenge his father and reclaim his kingdom. Now, being a thick-skulled moron, Jason lays out his entire plan to kill King Pelias…. to King Pelias. He doesn’t realise who he’s speaking to, I guess. Geeze Jason, with stupidity like that, maybe you’re not quite qualified for the crown. Probably best to leave the king-ing to someone else, buddy.

4Awkward cutaways to Hermes and Acastus scream: ‘Can you believe how freaking stupid this guy is‘?

Someone like…. well, King Pelias, actually. This guy actually proves himself to be cunning and somewhat clever, if cowardly. Not only is he wise enough to conceal his identity from Jason, Pelias eliminates him as a threat by sending Jason away on a distracting journey: to sail to the other side of the world to find a sheep carcass in a tree. Yup.

You see, Pelias has heard of a tree with a dead sheep in it’s branches, located somewhere across the sea. A golden fleece with the power to heal, bring peace, and rid the land of plague and famine. Right. So Pelias convinces Jason that he can’t kill the king without the magic rotten wool-corpse, encouraging him to build a ship, find a crew, and set sail. And of course, being a dumb-ass who’ll believe anything, Jason agrees. As an insurance policy, Pelias talks his son Acastus into joining the crew of the ship with orders to steal it for himself and the kingdom of Thessaly.

While Jason may be willing to accept everything he’s told about some dead ram, he has a hard time believing in the Gods. Sure, a magic sheep may be possible, but not creationism. He sees no benefit to requesting the God’s help on his trip.  As he proclaims this, Hermes reveals himself to Jason. He takes him up to Mount Olympus where he meets Hera, who explains that she and Zeus have a little bet going on whether or not Jason can pull off his journey. Instead of being angry that the Gods play games with human lives, Jason is humbled and accepts Hera’s help on his upcoming journey.

ezgif-2007721588
Looks like Hermes paid a visit to Mario’s mushroom kingdom.

And it’s a good thing too, because Jason needs all the help he can get. He returns to Earth and builds a boat, the Argo, then recruits his crew using a ‘hastily-edited-tryouts’ montage. Even Hercules climbs aboard, though in this incarnation he’s much more sweaty, flabby and bearded than the Disney version would have you believe.

And so, ill-prepared as ever, the Argonauts finally set sail. Except they didn’t bring nearly enough supplies, and they aren’t even sure where they’re travelling to. That’s right, other than the name of the nation ‘Colchis’ and the vague instructions  ‘the other side of the earth,’ the Gods haven’t actually told Jason which direction he needs to travel. And yet, he has left anyway. Why would anyone trust this guy?

Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before they’re out of supplies and they’re forced to stop for food and water on an island Hera has revealed to them. The Goddess gives harsh warning, however, to take only nourishment and nothing more. Despite Hera’s strict boundaries, Hercules takes a giant sewing needle off the island and angers the land’s protector, Talos. The bronze statue of the Titan awakens and destroys their ship, and Jason calls upon Hera’s assistance to learn of the great statue’s weakness….

ezgif-2347528148A drainage hole in his ankle that releases his life-essence: steamy maple syrup.

Alas, forty minutes into the runtime, it appears the journey is over for our heroes. With the titular ship destroyed and the Argonauts stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere, all appears to be lost. There’s simply no way they can get the golden fleece now. But wait! Never fear, concerned viewer, never fear! Fortunately Jason and his Argonauts foresaw the need to rebuild the ship from scratch, and evidently brought the tools along with them to repair it! Maybe they don’t trust Jason after all, if they were counting on the Argonaut’s destruction. They even brought lots of extra paint to give it a fresh coat!

Screenshot 2016-06-23 17.38.07
They may not have room for food or water, but you’ve gotta have paint, dammit!

So with no sense of direction and what I can only assume is a pretty pissed off crew, Jason finally does something sensible and asks the Goddess Hera where the hell the golden fleece is. This should have been the first thing he asked her, before he even left Greece! Hera warns him that this is the last time she can help him on this journey.  Then she doesn’t even tell him how to get there, directing him instead to the blind King Phineas, who can show him the way. Damn, she’s cruel. Just tell the guy where the freaking rotting sheep flesh is!

Every minor character in Greek Mythology has their own backstory and legend, kind of like how every background extra in Star Wars has a Wikipedia entry longer than this review. Someone with a minor role in one story will be the hero of another. I suspect this is where Disney got the idea to weave and entangle the storytelling in all those Avenger movies. So when we meet King Phineas, he’s already had his fair share of adventures. He’s been punished for his sins against the Gods, blinded and attacked daily by creatures called Harpies. They eat all his food and leave only scraps.

ezgif.com-crop (13)I thought the gargoyles were good guys?

Following Hera’s instructions, Jason finds Phineas and requests directions to Colchis. Of course, nothing is free in ancient Greece, so Phineas refuses to answer until Jason and his crew take care of his herpes harpies problem. Defying the Gods and their punishment of Phineas, Jason agrees to help. And just like their encounter with Triton, the events that follow are entirely superfluous to the actual plot. Jason has his crew use nets to trap the harpies and builds a cage to keep them locked up. Now every day, Phineas feeds the harpies his leftovers, instead of the other way around. As a reward, Phineas gives Jason a necklace, claiming they will need protection of the Gods. And to satisfy their agreement, at long last, he tells Jason how to get to Colchis: Through the clashing rocks.

Through. The. Clashing. Rocks. Finally, we have an answer! For Pete’s sake Hera, why couldn’t you have just told Jason that!? Did you want to win your bet with Zeus or not? All Hera had to do was say those four words and it could have saved us all a lot of time. It would have been in Hera’s best interest to give Jason direct answers instead of sending him on random side quests in this RPG of a movie. The logic of the God’s is perplexing to say the least.

At sea once more, the crew finally nears their destination. Just the clashing rocks stand between them and the fleece. Well, not exactly. The clashing rocks, a shipwrecked dancer, an angry king, a dungeon, a hydra, and some skeletons still stand in the way, but they don’t know that yet.  So what exactly are the clashing rocks? Well, it’s a narrow channel (in the ocean?) that consumes all ships that attempt to pass through in an avalanche of stones. To exemplify the danger, Jason bears witness to another ship heading towards them, pummelled and destroyed, sunk by the rocks. As his ship approaches, he instinctively throws the necklace Phineas gave them into the water, and the sea God Triton rises from the ocean depths to hold the rocks apart while they pass.

4I hope Triton wore deodorant. And that Argus brought extra diapers.

I should mention that I’ve always found it odd that Argus, builder of the Argonaut, appears to be second in command on the journey. He gives orders and advises Jason all along the way. This guy is just a carpenter who constructed the ship, who gave him the authority and power he has? This is a warship full of Greek’s most powerful athletes and warriors. Why is the bob the builder in charge?

Now as Jason and his team leave the falling rocks behind, the Argo passes by the shipwreck they’d witnessed earlier. Jason realizes someone is stranded among the wreckage, and dives into the water to rescue them. This stranded survivor turns out to be Medea; Jason’s love interest and, with the exception of Hera and some background dancers, the only other woman in this movie. When they learn Medea is the high-priestess of Colchis, Jason and his crew rejoice. They must be getting close if they’ve started to run into the locals.

Hey, wait a minute, that name sounds kind of familiar. Medea. Huh. Where have I heard it before?

Medea_shipwreck copyI guess Tyler Perry’s Madea character can time travel. 

Finally nearing the foreign shores, Jason begins to consider how best to take the fleece from Colchis. Hang on. If the fleece guarantees peace and prosperity to the nation who holds it, that nation  should be incapable of being threatened, entirely, right? The fleece should be untouchable because it’s basically a peacekeeping force field. Isn’t that some kind of paradox? Anyway, Jason the jackass has come all this way and only now starts working on a plan to actually take the thing. He decides to enter the village alone in hopes of negotiating for the fleece peacefully, much to the chagrin of his crew. They were looking forward to killing some folk to take it.

5 Acastus reveals his treachery at this point, and challenges Jason to a duel. Jason fights him off with a mop.

Discreetly, Jason disembarks from his ship and infiltrates the Calchis temple, where he watches a group of dancers performing for their Goddess Hecate, a weird three-headed dog statue thing. The King Aeëtes, ruler of the land, welcomes Jason and encourages him to invite his crew to dine with him. But as Ackbar would say, it’s a trap. Acastus, it turns out, had arrived before them and warned Aeëtes of Jason’s intentions to steal the fleece. Apparently Acastus not only survived being thrown overboard by Jason, but he also managed to swim to shore and arrive faster than the Argo did. Jason and his men are captured and imprisoned.

For some reason though, King Aeëtes never questions how Acastus knew of Jason’s intentions. He never asks Acastus how he managed to travel so far from Greece. It should be obvious that Acastus was an Argonaut too; how else could he know so much? Did the king even consider that Acastus might want the fleece for himself? No, of course not. I guess maybe he was distracted by something.

Medea_DANCE copyI wonder what.

With Jason trapped in the dungeon, Medea fears for him and struggles to remain loyal to her country. Since she has known the guy for about one day, she can pretty accurately surmise that she is in love with him. And you just can’t stop love. So she drugs the guards and steals the keys to the prison, rescuing Jason. Together they free the Argonauts, sending the crew to prepare the ship for a hasty escape, while Medea leads Jason to the fleece.

Medea_betray copyI know, I know. It’s the last one, I promise.

They arrive at the clearing that holds the fleece, and sure enough, it’s exactly as gross as you’d expect. A shimmering golden dead sheep suspended from the branch of a large tree. As Jason approaches to grab the mighty macguffin, the fleece’s protector reveals itself: a devastating claymation Hydra. Having just killed Acastus for his attempt at the fleece, the creature is out for blood. Luckily, Jason manages to take it out by just…. sort of…. swinging his sword around, relentlessly.

ezgif.com-crop (14)The blind man with a cane had better aim than this guy. 

By the time Jason defeats the Hydra and leaves the clearing with the fleece,  King Aeëtes has finally caught on to what Jason’s up to and begins chasing them down. He finds the fallen Hydra and collects the creature’s teeth. You see, everyone knows when you throw a dead hydra’s teeth on the ground, it makes human’s skeletons rise up from the earth. The bones of the hydra’s former victims, I presume. Aeëtes catches up to Jason and releases the skeletons in his final effort to get the fleece back. I don’t blame him though; he’s not a villain. He’s just trying to protect what is rightfully his.

ezgif.com-crop (15) Why stand around? They could have run to the ship and back three times by the time the skeletons are ready to attack.

What follows must be one of the most hilarious stop-motion action sequences in motion picture history. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before I have a lot of respect for these effects and how impressive they are for their time. It’s scenes like this that truly make Jason and the Argonauts memorable. It’s an ambitious, entertaining (if hokey) battle sequence that’s way ahead of it’s time. I’ll say this much, I’ve seen worse CGI in more recent movies.

Now when the battle begins, it’s odd that we see seven skeletons rise from the ground. By my count though, Jason and his men eventually kill eleven skelletons by the end of the battle. Where did the extra four come from? And how exactly do you kill a skeleton, anyway?

ezgif.com-crop (16)
Like this, I guess.

In the end, Jason escapes from the skeleton army and swims back to his ship with golden fleece. Medea is waiting for him, and the two celebrate with a kiss as they make their way home. A happy ending for our dim-witted hero, right? Maybe so, but if you think about it, Jason is kind of a dick. Jason travelled all the way from Greece just to steal from a peaceful people who really didn’t do anything to deserve it. Why are we supposed to be cheering for him? When we first meet him, he’s a homicidal maniac out to kill the king. Then he changes his plan and travels to a new world, only to steal what is most sacred to them? What a freaking jerk! Why does he get a happy ending?

6Because my name’s in the movie’s title, that’s why.

That being said, I do stand by my initial statement that Jason and Argonauts is certainly not a bad movie. It’s an exciting adventure with goofy effects that has become a cult classic. It’s a fun way to look at the story-telling techniques of the past – both the 1960s and the myths from ancient Greece. The stories and mythology are simple, and to-the-point, while still containing a lot of detail and depth beneath the surface. Hell, it has to be since Greeks practically invented storytelling, narratives with beginnings, middles and end-

Hey, wait a minute! Where’s the ending?  Remember Pelias? Uh…. isn’t he the antagonist of the film? You know, the guy who murdered Jason’s father – the guy Jason was hell-bent on avenging? That’s what this movie is supposed to be about, right? That’s what the first half hour of relentless set-up had me believe. Sure we get to see lots of adventure on the high seas, and exotic creatures from around the world, but what happens with Pelias? If the entire reason Jason left isn’t resolved, then there’s no conclusion to the damn plot! Instead of an ending, we fade out as Jason makes out with Medea, having completely forgotten about his original thirst for power. Maybe it’s his character arc. Or maybe all he really needed was to just get laid. Or maybe it’s lazy screenwriting. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he doesn’t go back. He doesn’t deserve to be king. Jason’s a dick.


 

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