Ray Harryhausen: Special Edition Collection,
Blu –Ray Box set. Via Vision 2023.
Unsealing this box set of eight Ray Harryhausen films I was reminded of the early 90’s when I met Ray Harryhausen at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, London. He was delivering an illustrated talk on his work. Apart from myself, and a friend, the cinema was full of young animators who’d come to hear the master of stop-motion animation. It was an inspiring evening. During the break Ray opened up a suitcase and took out some models. He noticed me looking admiringly at a sword-armed skeleton warrior that had fought so fiercely in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) “It’s quite small isn’t it? You can pick it up if you want too.” said a modest Ray who looked pleased by my interest. I nervously held the warrior in my hand, almost wishing that Ray could simply breathe on the skeleton so as to animate it, without having my palm cut by its weapon.
Watching again The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1957) I’d forgotten that this was when the gruesome skeleton made its first appearance. It’s a terrific moment in a fantasy film bursting with some of Harryhausen’s most memorable creations – especially a rust coloured cyclops. Accompanying the skeleton’s duel is the danse macabre music of Bernard Herrmann: all high trumpets, xylophone and castanets. Herrmann also worked on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island. Arguably Harryhausen and Herrmann are the true auteurs on this box set and not really the directors, with the exception of horror film director Gordon Hessler on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Don Chaffey on Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
There’s also a later Sinbad film, Sinbad and The Eye of the Tiger (1977) and although this contains some marvellous effects (Fighting ghouls in a tent, enormous wasps and the duel between a smiloden and a troglodyte) the overall tone is annoyingly tongue in cheek. And its villainess Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) isn’t on the same level as the evil magician splendidly played by Torin Thatcher (Seventh) or Tom Baker (Golden) who positively revels in his sorcery. Yet outstanding Sinbad film or not, the actors always took second place to the monsters. It’s Ray’s extraordinary ability to make his monsters live that matters. Their screen presences are stop–motion nuanced to an intense degree of fascination, horror and finally even compassion (when they’re destroyed).
Ray’s unique imaginative insight into his beautifully made models is a great validation for the artistry of stop motion: one artist’s sole painstaking control over his creation – all those hours, in solitude, crafting the finally realised results. No team of producers, animation technicians or a committee deciding what’s best, just Ray plundering his knowledge of art, mythology, history and his own unconscious to produce a poetic magic, that is with the exception of the first screen King Kong, Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bette and some early Japanese Godzilla films, unsurpassable in mid twentieth century monster-fantasy film.
Mysterious Island (1961) has some highly variable scripting and acting but what of those amazing giant crabs, huge bees and enormous hen!? The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) was a lost opportunity. They only scripted and shot two adventures and dropped the darkest Gulliver tale, his confrontation with the Yahoos and the Houyhnhms. We can only imagine how Harryhausen would have realised them! Still Ray worked well on the miniaturisation in Lilliput and Brogdingnag, employing clever and effective camera angles.
Both It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1957) are very much products of Hollywood SF when fears of invading communists were projected on to forms of sea monster and UFOs. Yet even when the characters limp and the story falters, their model work has you gripped to the screen.
The great jewel in the crown of this Via Vision set still remains Ray’s masterwork, Jason and the Argonauts. He’d Bernard Herrmann, a good director and a strong cast of veteran English actors, including Honour Blackman. Triton saving the Argonauts, The Argonauts fighting Talos, Jason tackling the guardian of the Golden Fleece and the skeleton army attack: all remain such unforgettable moments.
The films come with generous extras and are well defined prints with clear soundtracks. It was a Christmas treat to watch them. A lovely set for children, adults and a CGI monster, or two, looking enviously on.