Producer / animator Ray Harryhausen and screenwriter Beverley Cross may have wanted to film the romance of Perseus and Andromeda for years, but one suspects the massive success of Superman (1978) had Harrryhausen thinking of a classic Greek superhero (a demi-god, no less) who similarly duels deadly monsters and malevolent humans in an effort to win the heart of an impossible love.
The timing was perfect to mount a more classical-styled superhero movie, and the Greek legend was adapted into a story of a quest for special ‘objects’ that in the end would save a city, free the heroine from being devoured by an undersea monster, and make the gods very happy again.
The backstory to Clash of the Titans is really about social insults: humans insulting the gods through vanity and cruelty; and chief god Zeus (Laurence Olivier) dealing with his love of women (gods and humans), and his favouritism towards son Perseus (Harry Hamlin).
Not heeding social taboos and following proper mores is what had an angry king place his unfaithful wife and her infant son Perseus out to sea in a coffin, where it floated by divine intervention to an island. The two outcasts eventually lived with a fisherman until one night Perseus found himself lying the in the middle of an amphitheatre in a foreign land.
Soon after he awakens, he discovers he’s been awarded magical weapons – a sword that cuts stone, a large shield, and a helmet of invisibility – and with the aid of an old poet (Burgess Meredith) the two begin their quest… which starts off being rather muddy in purpose.
Perseus may feel fine popping up in another land, but he’s not sure what to do with himself, so he wanders to the nearby city, all wide-wide-eyed and dreamy, and in spite of witnessing the cruel burning alive of Princess Andromeda’s latest unsuccessful suitor, he develops an interest in Adromeda, and uses his helmet of invisibility to hang around her bedroom.
One evening, he sees her spirit awaken, and wander into a cage, where she’s taken by a giant vulture (that no one in town can see or hear) to the boggy lair of her ex-fiance, Acrisius, a demi-god turned by Zeus into a cloven ugly-man for hunting creatures like the winged horses to virtual extinction.
When Perseus tames and makes the last winged steed – Pegasus – his own, he rides the horse to the bog, where he sees Acrisius taunt Adromeda with a riddle she must remember and present to her next suitor before any marriage can happen; should her hubbie-to-be provide the wrong answer, he gets turned into a charcoal briquette for the royal BBQ.
Matters are made worse when Andromeda’s mum claims Andromeda's 'the prettiest maiden of them all,' which causes goddess Thetis to curse the city and lay it to waste in 30 days unless the Princess is sacrificed to an underwater sea serpent branded the Kraken.
In order to straighten out this royal muck-up, Perseus begins a quest with the queen’s soldiers, and ventures to the lair of three blind witches who inform him that only the head of Medusa will solve the problem: it’ll turn the Kraken into stone, and the world will be safe again.
Acrisius, however, has snatched Perseus’ steed, so the trek must be made by foot and common horse, but the young demi-god has also been given another weapon – a mechanical owl named Bubo who functions as a kind of robotic R2D2, being silly and clumsy, but once in a while performing a noble deed. (Unintentional blunder: bubo is also the nomenclature for those nasty swollen lymph nodes that accopany the Black Plague, and STDs.)
With Medusa’s head (literally) in a bag and Acrisius finally defeated after a battle with giant scorpions, Perseus heads back to the city where he manages to turn the Kraken into stone, save his beloved, and live as a king, under the full blessing of dad Zeus.
Screenwriter Cross had already adapted the tale of Jason and the Argonauts for Harryhausen back in 1963, as well as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977, and the structure follows a similar balance of myth and newly fashioned material designed to show off animated creatures. Rolled into the mix is forbidden love, heroism, and a raucous score that infers a more European tone rather than anything classically Greek, but that’s fine, since the film mostly manages to work in spite of being a series of stop-motion effects sequences threaded together by protracted narrative scenes.
The production seemed to rely on the performances of big stars to overshadow some horrible dialogue flaws, as well as a few grossly underwritten roles that were also in line with Cross’ other scripts: non-major characters are merely functional figures of a disposable nature. The royal guards who accompany Perseus, for example, never remove their helmets; the squadron's leader was previously seen as a lowly gatekeeper early in the film; and Ursula Andress has a handful of lines before she’s reduced to a standing figure among the sparse and nearly all-female court of temperamental God-King Zeus. (On the other hand, Finola Hughes has a blink-fast-and-she's-gone role as a dancer. That level of casting brevity makes sense.)
The film’s special effects seemed rushed, the optical layers are dirty, and some of the rotoscoping effects – a seagull in the main credits, for example – are terrible. The matte backgrounds have poor registration, and the lighting design for some of the animation effects doesn’t always match the exterior live action footage with actors.
Hamlin looks the part of naïve Perseus, but he’s been given only snatches of dialogue, and his early scenes have him straining to look like a youth waiting for divine inspiration, when it’s likely the actor was wondering ‘Why am I staring at the sky in awe? What am I supposed to be thinking? Will someone please tell me why I’m here?’
Lord Oliver uses his theatrical background to goose Zeus into a cantankerous grumblyman, whereas Claire Bloom plays his wife Hera as an icy bitch; politely British, but an uninteresting, unsympathetic block of ice who seems bored with Zeus’ latest priapic mess.
Grand and grave flaws aside, Titans is a striking production, and there are some gorgeous locations that impart a sense of otherworldliness, particularly the coastal parts of Spain and Malta. Laurence Rosenthal’s score is elegant and majestic, but appropriately eerie during pivotal scenes like Perseus’ ferry ride across the River Styx, and the chilling battle against Medusa.
The Medusa sequence is the film’s most dramatically perfect element, and it’s the reward to audiences who managed to hang on through a lot of bland material for almost an hour. It’s the one sequence to which time and maximum creativity were allotted, and it remains a crown jewel in Harryhausen’s theatrical swan song as animator and producer.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray features a decent transfer, but even in old VHS dubs, Titans never really looked good. The quality of optical layers varies, the grain and dirt quotient wavers, and that soft focus and diffused lighting style redolent of the late seventies and early eighties (and used to extremes in 1981’s Excalibur) make it tough to show off the film in HD; it’s not a bad transfer, but the flaws are due to poor master elements that went into the final release prints.
This may be the best Titans will ever look, and it’s better to see the warts instead of having the whole film treated to intense digital scrubbing, as was done in Fox' recent and much-maligned BR release of Predator, where actors look like waxen dolls in polyester outfits.
WHV’s extras are surprisingly thin. The lone featurette is clearly fashioned from a lengthy Q&A where Harryhausen referenced his other works (all owned by Columbia); some titles were left in for contextual purposes, but seams and jumps in his replies are covered over by film clips from Titans. What’s peculiar is how no one else was consulted for the featurette or a possible commentary track, and one wonders if the Q&A was hastily assembled, or the concept was to present Harryhausen as the film’s auteur – a philosophy he clearly doesn’t share, since he credits many of his colleagues for the film’s writing and effects work.
It’s an adequate featurette, but a missed opportunity to preserve other memories of what was a major release in 1981, and Harryhausen’s last major work before retiring from the cinema. If there were any publicity materials – trailer, vintage featurettes – none have been included on this release, and in spite of myriad foreign language audio and subtitle tracks, there’s no isolated score – which would’ve been wonderful, given it’s one of the composer’s best works.
Beverly Cross’ adaptation proved sufficiently successful that it was remade in 2010 [M], with some notable modifications, and lacking some of the charm (and delightful backside nudity) of the original.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan