I’m not sure how old I was the first time I saw Columbia Pictures’ Jason and the Argonauts. I used to believe that I saw it in a movie theatre on the big screen for the first time as part of one of the series of kid-friendly matinees that I got to attend from the age of about 6 through 10… but after doing some research I discovered that the film wasn’t made available in theatres at that time. Because the film’s box office take from the first theatrical run in 1963 (just a few months before my third birthday) was underwhelming, it wasn’t re-released into the theatres until much later, after spending years as a staple in syndicated television, which is where it became a hit, prompting the studio to re-release it to a much more successful run in 1978.
This post runs a bit longer than usual, because I wrote much of it while re-watching the film for the first time in many years. And I watched it because after reading this review of a Ray Bradbury story that was clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen (the special effects genius) I just had to. If you don’t need the detailed commentary, you might want to scroll on down to my Conclusion.
Jason and the Argonauts is based on the Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason was the son of the king of Thessaly. His parents and at least one of his sisters was killed by the usurper Pelias. Pelias misunderstands the prophecies of his soothsayer, and tries to eliminate all of the heirs of the king of Thessaly. Just before he murders the eldest daughter of the king in the temple of Hera, a shadowy figure who he believes is a priestess (though she is actually the goddess Hera herself) tries to warn him away from this path. When he kills the king’s eldest daughter anyway, Hera tells him that one day a man with only one sandal will usurp him. She also warns him that if he kills Jason, the son of the king himself, that he will also be destroyed. Then she vanishes, along with the the third child, another daughter of the king.
Before I summarize the rest of the plot, there are a whole lot of subplots that were left dangling in this movie implying that there would be a sequel, and I’m just a little bit annoyed that no one has done anything with that.
Anyway, the story that follows is frequently intercut with scenes of Zeus and Hera (and a couple of other Olympian gods) discussing the happenings on Earth. In some of those scenes human history is portrayed as a board game between the gods. It is an interesting conceit that is used in a lot of other mythological-based movies in later years. I think this one happens to play out better than many of the others.
Back to Jason’s story. Twenty years after the bloody coup, King Pelias is riding his horse near a river, is thrown from said horse, and a passing stranger jumps into the water to save him. The stranger loses his shoe in the process of saving the man, and quickly identifies himself as the long lost son of the previous king on his way to take back his throne. Perlias realizes who Jason is before he introduces himself, because he has spent twenty years waiting for the man with only one sandal. Jason, on the other hand, never asks the name of the man he rescues. And never becomes the slightest bit suspicious that the man he rescues has a camp staffed with a lot of guards in royal armor and a rather large number of scantily clad entertainers. Nor does Jason, who is sworn to kill the man who killed his father and has been king of Thessaly for 20 years, recognize the only son of said king when he is introduced to him by name.
Despite all of this obliviousness, we are still rooting for Jason who wants to pursue another prophecy that Pelias ignored: that at the end of the world there is a tree, and hanging from the branches of that tree are the skull and skin of a golden ram with magickal powers that will ensure a long and successful rule to the man who captures it. Jason holds a contest, and several characters from Greek myth win a spot on his crew. Because the shipwright Argos builds his ship, he names it the Argo, and with a figurehead that looks like the goddess Hera, they set out looking for the Golden Fleece.
Hera is only allowed to help Jason five times, and Jason manages to burn through those five helps in less than half the movie. This gets into one of those infuriating questions, because part of the set up of Jason’s life from back when he is a baby is Zeus decrees that Jason will kill Pelias and take back his father’s kingdom. So why the heck does Zeus tell Hera she can only help Jason the five times?
I need to be honest here: those questions didn’t occur to me during the dozens and more times I watched this show on various local TV stations from the mid-60s through the 70s. The incredible battles with the giant bronze statue of Talos, the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the skeletal warriors all loomed much larger than any plot inconsistencies. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen owned this movie, and many of his special effects still stand up 56 years later.
One of the men who competes in Jason’s ad hoc Olympics and gets a berth in the crew is Pelias’ son, Acastus. Once again, it’s unclear why, when all the greatest athletes and warriors of Greece come to compete in the games, no one recognizes Acastus as King Pelias’ son and happen to mention that fact? Anyway, Jason now has a large crew of bronze-skinned manly men. About half are dressed in tunics with extremely short skirts, like Jason. The other half in loincloths that look kind of like baggie briefs.
The Argo sets sail, without a clear idea of where they are going, and their provisions run low. Hera directs Jason to the Isle of Bronze and warns them to take only food and water. Hercules and Hylas (who had become friends during the games when Hylas defeated Hercules at a discus challenge using a bit of cleverness) find a valley filled with giant bronze statues, in the base of which are hidden giant pieces of jewelry. Hercules decides to take a giant brooch pin because he thinks it will make a fine javelin, and the statue Talos comes to life and starts chasing them. The giant looms and menaces the entire Argo crew. When they try to flee, he intercepts the boat at the harbor mouth, shaking all of the men out of the boat and braking the ships mast and the figurehead of Hera.
Hera tells Jason to look to Talos’s ankle for his weakness. In the next fight, while the other Argonauts yell and scream and run around distracting the giant, Jason sees a stopcock in the ankle of the giant, runs forward and unscrews it. Even when I was a kid, I never understood why Talos simply stands there, staring down at the Argonauts and sort of swiping at them with his sword. Why didn’t he just start stomping on them like ants? Anyway, magical fluid pours out of Talos’ ankle, the bronze statue goes stiff and falls over, apparently dead. Also, clearly crushing Hylas.
But somehow the rest of the crew never saw that, so we are given to understand that during whatever length of time the subsequent shipbuilding montage takes place, Hercules wanders around yelling out Hylas’ name. Once the ship is repaired, Hercules refuses to leave without Hylas. The rest of the crew refuses to leave without Hercules, so Jason has to call on Hera again. She warns him that this is the last time she can help, but he insists, so she addresses the crew directly, explains that Hylas is dead and that Hercules now has another destiny to pursue, and that they must sail to another island and consult the blind prophet Phineus.
So off they go. We see Phineus (played by Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor) living a sad existence in a ruined temple. People from a nearby village bring him food every day, but harpies attack him each day, eating the food themselves and leaving him only scraps. This is how Jason and his crew find him. They are all, by the way, now dressed in matching white tunics (still with extremely short skirts) and matching armor. I have no idea where they were keeping this change of clothes, because the ship, as depicted, is barely big enough to hold the crew sitting at the oar seats. There aren’t any cabins below decks or anything. No wonder they ran out of supplies!
Anyway, Phineus explains that he misused his gift of prophecy and Zeus cursed him with the harpies. Phineus will only help Jason if he frees him of the harpies. So the crew arrange a trap, then build a cage for the harpies. Now that Phineus can eat in piece (and torment the harpies), he tells Jason that the fleece is on the Island of Colchis, which can only be reached by sailing between the clashing rocks (which destroy any ship that sails through). Phineus’ vision doesn’t tell them how they can survive, but he gives him an amulet that he says is the only other help he can provide.
They sail again, find the clashing rocks. They aren’t sure what to do, then see another boat sailing between the rocks, and then see boulders start falling down and destroy the ship. Jason insists the gods want them to sail through, so the Argonauts start rowing. The boulders start falling all around them. There are a lot of frightened reaction shots. Jason gets angry and throws Phineus’ amulet into the sea.
Up on Olympus, Zeus is smugly watching the ship in danger and says something to Hera about it being too bad that she can’t intervene any more. Hera moves a piece on their game board, a sort of merman figure that looks suspiciously like the amulet Jason just threw into the sea. Triton, son of Poseidon, rises up out of the sea and holds the rocks back. The Argo sails under one of Triton’s armpits, and all is well. I think we’re supposed to assume that Triton’s arrival doesn’t violate the rule that Hera could only intervene five times because Phineus’ amulet was involved. It’s not clear.
Anyway, they find the wreckage of the other boat, and clinging to the wreckage is a woman. And thus we meet the third female character out of the entire film who has lines of dialog! Medea tells Jason she was sailing from Colchis (though not why) and tells him that the King of Colchis is Aeëtes. When they make shore, Medea tells them which way to go to reach the city, then walks off in a different direction, telling them she must go a different way.
After Jason meets Aeëtes, the king invites him and the Argonauts to a feast, and we see Medea again and learn that she is the high priestess of Hecate. Midway through the feast, Aeëtes reveals that he knows Jason has come to steal the fleece, because Acastus has betrayed them. This is when Jason finally learns that Acastus is the son of Pelias. So the Argonauts are locked up and sentenced to die. Medea goes to the idol of Hecate, her goddess, and asks what to do. The statue doesn’t answer.
This is another place that as a kid I was trying to figure out why we don’t see Hecate. Why isn’t she up there with Zeus and Hera and Hermes and the other gods watching all of this?
Medea decides that she can’t betray her heart, so she drugs the guards, steals the keys to the jail cells, and lets Jason and his crew out. I have to pause here to say that as a kid I had no problem believing that Medea had fallen in love with Jason during the voyage. As an adult I have some questions, though. I mean, yes, Jason looks really hot in that mini skirt, but there was an entire crew of men, most of which are all equally hot and just as sexily going about their nautical duties in equally revealing tiny skirts.
Doesn’t matter. While Medea was arranging the jailbreak, Acastus has snuck out of the palace and gone to the sacred tree to steal the fleece himself. I guess he was planning to take the Argo and sail it all by his lonesome back home to dad? We never learn the details of his plan. Medea leads Jason and his crew to the tree, where they are confronted by the 7-headed hydra. And this is when we see that Acastus has already been killed by the hydra. Jason manages to stab the hyrda in the heart. They take the fleece and flee.
Aeëtes and a bunch of soldiers are closing in. One soldier shoots Medea with an arrow. Jason uses the fleece to heal her. And all of the enemy soldiers apparently just stand around waiting to see what the fleece does? It isn’t clear. Jason picks two of his crew to face Aeëtes and send Medea with the others to fetch the boat. I don’t know if Aeëtes never thought to seize the ship, or if we’re expected to assume that the Argonauts have to fight to get it back.
Anyway, Aeëtes had called on Hecate when he found the dead hydra and saw that the fleece was no longer there, and fire had come down from heaven and burned the hyrda. Aeëtes had his soldiers gather the teeth of the hydra. Now that he has confronted Jason, who is accompanied by only two of his crew, does Aeëtes have his larger group of soldiers attack? No, he monologues for a moment, then throws the teeth onto the ground. From the ground seven skeletal soldiers armed with swords and shields rise, and they attack.
This fight scene seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the movie. And it is fun. As far as it goes. Jason’s two companions get killed. So far as we know only one skeleton is taken out when its skull is chopped off. But the way Jason “defeats” the remaining six is to leap off a convenient cliff into the sea. He survives the dive, and the Argo is conveniently nearby. The skeletons jumped off the cliff chasing Jason, and apparently despite being magical skeletons, they don’t float.
Jason has reached the ship. He and Medea kiss, and we cut to Olympus where Zeus tells Hera to let them enjoy this victory while they can. There is a bit of philosophizing, then the end credits roll.
The film follows the myths rather more faithfully than one would expect from Hollywood. The section with Pheneus and the harpies comes straight from the original Greek saga. Traditionally the Golden Fleece was guarded by a dragon whose teeth would transform into skeletal warriors. Talos (who in the original isn’t encountered until after Jason has obtained the fleece and is sailing home) is killed by the removal of a plug in his ankle. The Greek Tragedy trope that the more you try to fight destiny or prophecy, the worse things go for you is illustrated in some of the character arcs. It could be argued that Medea’s inexplicable quick fall for Jason comes from the myths, too, since in the saga, Hera persuades Aphrodite to send Eros to make Medea fall for Jason, and much later when Medea finds Jason plotting to marry another woman, Jason reveals that he knew Medea was acting under the spell from Eros the whole time.
Even without knowing the myth, viewers saw many, many hints for a sequel in the script. I mean, it ends with Zeus literally saying that the rest of the adventure is yet to come.
It’s clear the studio was hoping this would be a hit and they could have some sequels. And clearly they would have had to bend the myths further to do so. In actual Greek myth Jason never becomes king. He and Medea try, but things don’t work out. Medea tricks Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, but Acastus becomes the King of Thessaly (because he doesn’t die on his voyage with Jason in the myths). Jason and Medea have a falling out that gets even bloodier than the murder of Pelias. Eventually Jason and his new allies do kill Acastus, but Jason’s son is the one who ends up king. And it’s all very messy.
Alas, the show, while not being a flop, exactly, didn’t do that well in theaters, as I mentioned above. But the film influenced other mythic films to follow. The much later film, Clash of the Titans depicted the gods of Olympus moving mortals, monsters, and other gods around a map of the world as chess pieces on a board precisely the same way this film did.
The film’s big cultural impact derives from being played so frequently on television during the 60s and 70s. Back in the day when most people had access to only three or four channels, it was possible for a movie like this to be put in heavy rotation and get seen by a large segment of the population. So there are a lot of people, maybe 40 years old and up, who have very fond nostalgic feelings for this film. While watching it this week I found it still a fun popcorn movie, though it requires a pretty big dose of credulity to overlook some plot details. To be fair, those inconsistencies aren’t worse than many other movies—particularly those made in that era. the fight scenes with the stop motion monsters are a bit cheesy—in many of the shots the harpies and the hydra look like they are made out of brightly colored modeling clay. The bronze giant and the skeletal warriors stand up a lot better.
I made more than a few comments above about the skimpy costumes the men wear throughout the film. And I have to confess that that part contributed to the film’s appeal to me, even if I didn’t realize why when I was very young. I do quite clearly remember thinking it interesting how many of the men were shown with hairy chests. In other movies and TV shows at the time, if men were shown shirtless, their chests were almost always completely hairless. It is worth pointing out that while Medea is often dressed in a flimsy diaphanous gown that doesn’t conceal much, most of the men in the movie are showing a whole lot more leg than any of the women ever do.
The film had a big impact on my conception of mythic stories and epic fantasy. Until I re-watched it this week, I didn’t realize how much of what Zeus and Hera had to say about the nature of the relationship between the gods and humans had soaked into my own feelings on those topics. Just as the way prophecy is treated in the story has continued to inform my own fantasy writing on the topic. And the fact that most guys my age at the time loved the film, it was one of the few bits of fantasy I could talk about at school without invoking the teasing and bullying. Thank goodness I never mentioned those hairy chests, though!
The film was released in a time before Best Dramatic Presentation had become a regular category of the Hugos. Also during an era when any work published in the 12-ish months prior to the actual WorldCon was eligible. And because of its release dates, it would have technically been eligible in either 1963 or 1964. It didn’t make the short list in ’63 (and the category was No Awarded that year). And the category wasn’t offered the next year. Given that the film didn’t become popular until later, that isn’t a surprise. Which is too bad, really. I think many would agree with me that the skeleton fight alone would have deserved all the awards.