Monday, May 13, 2013

Ray Harryhausen: Magic, Monsters & Mythology Part 3


"Dedication... knowledge... skill... humility. Few people are able to master any ONE of these in a lifetime. One man has mastered them all. Dedication from early childhood days to become an accomplished animator. Knowledge stored from years of experimenting, failures and successes. Skill in mastering animation a step at a time. And after triumphant achievement as the tops in the field of animation to remain a fine, unaffected gentleman. They add up to one man... my friend of 40 years, Ray Harryhausen."--Photographer Walt Daugherty in relation to Ray's 55th birthday, FM issue #118 page 4

In mid 1965, Mr. Harryhausen began work on ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.; a film that would quickly become a motion picture of great notoriety -- and arguably, not necessarily because of its dinosaurs. Prehistoric beasts were why Ray garnered interest in the fantasy genre, so this was an opportunity not to be wasted. Despite never relishing the idea of remaking anyone's movie (much less one of his own), Ray felt there were intriguing possibilities to bringing this tale of prehistory to life via the Dynamation process. Also, Michael Carreras felt this would be a great idea for taking his company into a different direction.

Charles Schneer was not a part of this picture, so his Morningside Productions loaned Harryhausen's services to Hammer. An air of familiarity would still be present, though, as Don Chaffey, the director of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) was at the helm of this story of cavemen and dinosaurs. The animation alone took eight months to complete. This lengthy amount of time devoted to the visual effects agitated the Hammer staff, but considering Harryhausen's clout at the time, they let him be; confident of the fact the end result would surpass expectations.

Just like the original movie from 1940 -- and much to Ray's later regret -- Hammer's version featured some real-life animals enlarged to appear gigantic. These were an iguana and a spider. Aside from being cost saving measures, it was Ray's idea, and at the time, he thought it might accentuate the audiences response for when the animated dinosaurs made their appearance. There were to have been other appearances by living beasts such as an elephant dressed up as a Wooly Mammoth and a few giant scorpions. Consequently, these additions were discarded.

A Brontosaurus attack was supposed to have ended the picture, but Hammer producer Michael Carreras felt the film had enough dinosaur sequences already, so the unfinished finale of Tumak forcing the beast onto a rock bridge that collapses sending it into a lava stream was rendered extinct. Ditto for a scene showcasing a rampaging prehistoric rhinoceros. This was Hammer's 100th production and it made a great deal of money (the company tried to quickly capitalize on its success the following year to no avail with PREHISTORIC WOMEN). It was also the first big hit Harryhausen had been a part of in some time. It led to two additional sequels -- the equally spectacular WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) and the dino-less CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971); the latter of which had Don Chaffey at the helm again.


According to Harryhausen, the virtually unknown Welch was extremely professional behind the scenes, and in giving her all to her role. But in later years, she has shown nothing but contempt for the picture. Some of her comments invoke the notion she never wanted to do the movie in the first place. What's perplexing is that while she dislikes having been in the dinosaur movie, she shows more favor towards having been in the awful MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970) -- a bad movie if there ever was one. ONE MILLION B.C. is arguably the single film she'll be forever identified with -- and not because of her acting ability, but her sex appeal in that fur bikini. This tale of sex, cavemen and dinosaurs has led to much debate as to where its success derives -- the many stop-motion animated creatures, or the living special effect of Raquel Welch. Whichever was truly the case, the film remains influential for both its sex appeal and its dinosaurs.

With ONE MILLION B.C. (1966) being a dinosaurian box office success, Hammer wanted Harryhausen for a sequel. He declined as he was already involved in bringing a story to life that originally began under the aegis of his mentor, Willis O'Brien. Dinosaurs were once more the subject, but for this go round, instead of the dawn of time, the setting was the turn of the century.


The attempted capture of Gwangi by lasso slinging cowboys is undoubtedly the most complex stop-motion sequence found 1969s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. The way it was accomplished, and the fact that the finished scene is a seamless blend of live action and Harryhausen's patented brand of painstaking attention to detail is a testament to the man's brilliance. This approximately 4 minute scene took five months to bring alive. The cowboys originally roped a big pole attached to a jeep. A resisting, and gnashing Gwangi was added later with wires assimilating ropes extended from his neck to match with the lassos used in the live-action footage. The two blended together to make one amazing showcase of Harryhausen's skills.

With O'Brien's long stagnant 'Gwangi' script re-structured, and working under the title of 'The Valley Where Time Stood Still', this new ambitious project was designed with backing from Ray and Schneer's old stomping ground at Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, the studio decided to pass on the picture. Thankfully, O'Brien's unrealized script would evolve into a streamlined tale of cowboys vs. dinosaurs at Warner Brothers.

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) was blessed with many things -- a fine script; likable leading performances; a robust musical score; an antagonist with a massive amount of personality and the most stop-motion screen time afforded Harryhausen's career up to that point (Ray toiled nearly an entire year on the effects). The finale inside the church is among the best such conclusions in any fantasy film. Not only is it an exciting finish, but it provides a correlation between good and evil -- Gwangi is a devil of sorts, and the beast meets its end inside an immense cathedral. It's also yet another spectacular finish for one of Ray's fascinatingly pitiable creations. There's even a shot of a boy shedding tears for the creatures death moments before the ending title card.

Sadly, this endearing blend of fantasy and western failed to capture the public's imagination. A lack of faith and publicity by the studio (which was then under new management) was a contributing factor as well. Still, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI has outlasted its poor theatrical showing to be one of the stop-motion specialists finest achievements. 

After losing interest in bringing CONAN to life on the big screen, the aborting of Hammer's WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN, and a reluctance to remake KING KONG (also for Hammer), the next effort by Harryhausen and Schneer was a reunion of sorts -- and a return to financially assured territory.


The duel with Sinbad and his men versus the six-armed Kali is another fine piece of cinematic excellence duly placed in the canon of special effects spectacles. Again Harryhausen experiments with past breakthroughs -- first it was the skeleton duel in 7TH VOYAGE; then the battle with seven skeletons in ARGONAUTS. Here, it's but a single enemy, but one with multiple appendages. The sequence proved to be almost as difficult to pull off as the one from ARGONAUTS. To give the illusion swords were growing from Kali's hands, cardboard swords were trimmed one frame at a time till they were totally gone, then photographed in reverse. To choreograph the duel, three stuntmen were strapped together to simulate Kali for the sword fight. It's an unusual set piece even for a Sinbad movie. This films multi-cultural devices are part of its appeal.

The second tale of Sinbad from Schneer and Ray ('Sinbad's 8th Voyage' as it was initially devised) began its slow gestation as early as 1964 via some of Harryhausen's striking artwork. By 1971, what was then known as 'Sinbad in India' was steadily becoming a reality prior to shooting. Harryhausen already had a number of visually stunning sequences in mind. These included two that were eventually dropped from the picture -- the 'Valley of the Vipers' that featured scores of giant and regular sized serpents and an opening scene that shows us what happens to the Vizier as opposed to only hearing about it from him later. Both scenes were eliminated after being deemed too frightening.

After shooting in India proved to be a possibly risky affair, the safer, more assured climbs of Spain were decided upon. By the time GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) saw release, it had been 16 years between it and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958). Both films have diametrically opposing tones and atmosphere, as well as color palettes. However, if some of the locations look familiar to you, that's because some of them were used in the first Sinbad adventure.

When all was said and done, the movie was completed for just under a million dollars. The results paid off handsomely as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD was a critical and financial success worldwide. It was my first exposure to the Sinbad movies having caught it on television one Saturday afternoon. For me, this second film truly captured the essence of the Arabian Nights tales in a way the other two pictures didn't do. 

Harryhausen's creatures all had an earthy, organic look and feel to them that lent the fantasy an element of reality. The accents authenticated the settings and John Phillip Law was perfect as Sinbad, at least in my eyes. Tom Baker (who will be best remembered for his incarnation of DR. WHO) was venomous as the evil sorcerer Koura. The score by Miklos Rozsa is superb and captures the romanticism and adventure the films script offers.

This pictures success would guarantee another Sinbad film, but it would be a production that was more of a step backward than forward for the series.


In anticipation of 1974s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD -- as well as being part of an animation course at New York's New School University -- Leonard Maltin oversaw a screening of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) among other Harryhausen related cinema. It was just one instance of filmdom's most celebrated stop-motion animator garnering attention and respect for his cinematic accomplishments.


The saber-toothed tiger that Zenobia inhabits during the finale battling the troglodyte and Sinbad is virtually a repeat of the Centaur/Gryphon/Sinbad battle from GOLDEN. However, the ferocious feline is a unique creation with its muscular physiology and those intimidating chompers. The duel with the trog is of further interest in that the humanoid, horn-headed man-beast utilizes some wrestling style maneuvers in his arsenal that set themselves apart from the typical clobbering and biting Harryhausen's monsters partake in.

Work on what started out as 'Sinbad in Hyperborea' and 'Sinbad Beyond the North Wind' began almost immediately after GOLDEN VOYAGE wrapped. Some of the plot points dropped from the previous movie made their way into this one. 

In 1975 it was announced SINBAD AT THE WORLD'S END was soon to go before the cameras. Ideas written in early treatments and drafts were varied and potentially spectacular if they'd not been excised. These included a giant elephant encased in ice; the construction of the Minoton by Zenobia's zombie-like creatures; the troglodyte battling both a giant snake and also the iron Minoton monster; a dwarf assistant to Zenobia; and the 'Valley of Vipers' sequence that never made it into GOLDEN VOYAGE. As it turned out, it never made it into this last Sinbad movie, either. An attack on Sinbad's vessel by a giant worm monster let loose by Zenobia's ghouls (the first stop-motion creatures we see) was likewise cast overboard.

Contrary to the DVD liner notes, Harryhausen states in his book, 'The Art of Animation' that John Phillip Law was not considered (neither by him, Schneer or the studio) to reprise his role as Sinbad. He seemingly was pleased with Law's work as he also remarks he's unsure as to WHY they didn't contemplate bringing him back. Apparently they wanted a new actor each time to avoid feeling like a sequel. Still, it's a shame the Law didn't return as Patrick Wayne fails to suitably make the role his own; which is a shame as he made a far greater impression as Major Ben McBride in AIP's lost world adventure, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977).

Actors considered for the role of Sinbad this third go round included Robert Conrad, Terence Hill, Franco Nero, Jan Michael Vincent and Michael Douglas. Considering some of the choices, Wayne wasn't such a bad choice after all. Nonetheless, the film was largely missing the Arabian flavor the second picture captured so well. If Michael Douglas as Sinbad isn't enough to make your jaw drop, try Bette Davis as the witch Zenobia. Her asking fee was too high for Columbia. Margaret Whiting got the role and her performance is one of the films few bright spots.

After three years in the making and a $3.5 million budget, SINBAD & THE EYE OF THE TIGER was unleashed on North American theater screens in May of 1977. While it, too was a financial success, it didn't equal the take of the previous movie. At nearly two hours, the movie could've used some trimming. The rousing Roy Budd score is a highlight adding some punch to the picture. Considering how popular JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS turned out to be upon it's re-release in 1978 (it was not a hit when first released in 1963), both Harryhausen and Schneer thought a return to Greek mythology was in order.


Hands down the most terrifyingly suspenseful scene ever to appear in a fantasy movie is the Medusa sequence from CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). Everything from the editing, to the lighting, to the music, and especially Harryhausen's exemplar animation makes this truly scary segment a highlight of cinema regardless of genre. The intensity and violence this scene exudes was one of the reasons the PG-13 rating was implemented just a few years later. The 2010 remake shamefully re-creates this sequence as a fast-paced action scene dotted with ill-conceived comical touches. When folks think of CLASH, Medusa is often what springs to mind first, as well as being the most talked about among fans.

After Columbia and others passed on it, PERSEUS & THE GORGON'S HEAD (which Harryhausen had been tinkering with since the late 1950s) finally found a home at MGM who heaped far more money on it than either Ray or Schneer had imagined. With $16 million at their disposal, the budget alone was bigger than all of the duos past pictures put together. The film became a reality in early 1978 with principal photography starting the following year.

For the first time in his professional career, Ray Harryhausen had to hire assistants to aid him in the stop-motion animation. Having always preferred, and enjoyed working alone, the exhausting breadth of effects required for this massive production meant it was virtually impossible he'd be able to complete it all without any help. Both Jim Danforth and Steve Archer were brought on board to aid in the daunting task of bringing to life some of the best examples of stop-motion animation ever conceived.

The lead up to, and including the Medusa sequence had some alterations made for violence and practicality. The encounter with the two headed guardian Dioskilos was far more gory and ended differently than in the finished product. Originally, Perseus severs one of the devil dogs heads, although losing one of its heads does not stop the canine beast. Apparently, this footage was actually shot, but discarded. The decapitation of Medusa was also different. Originally, Perseus was to have thrown his shield (which had serrated edges) Flying Guillotine style removing the Gorgon's head from her body.

After 18 months preparation, 16 months of working on the animation, and Ray injuring his hand, this fantasy spectacle was nearing completion and its eventual release in the Summer of 1981. I got to see the result in the theater. I was six at the time, and I loved ever waking minute of the movie. Even those sappy moments with love and romance and stuff didn't cause my mind to wander one iota. CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) was about as close to perfect as you could get for fantasy films. It was also a suitable endeavor for Ray Harryhausen to bid farewell to moviemaking. Some of the scathing reviews and notices about the alleged "outdated special effects" contributed to the man's sadness and displeasure with the fate of fantasy filmmaking. It also caused him to contemplate his career, and re-assess his place as a visual effects creator. Little did he know just how much his passion had infused others to make their own dreams a reality in the fantasy realm. 

Even though no follow up materialized despite its success, the film was influential, and a favorite of audiences who relived it all over again on television. At one time, CLASH OF THE TITANS was the second most requested movie on the Turner Broadcasting Network. The spirit of the film was also apparent in former Famous Monsters correspondent turned filmmaker Luigi Cozzi's two goofy HERCULES films; the second even went so far as to flimsily re-create the Medusa sequence. 

"[The concept of metal made beings] goes back to Greek mythology. Talos was a robot in a sense. Of course, in the Arabian Nights tales you find many robots. It was not a 20th Century concept at all. Bubo was a device used to make a story point. I think it worked out quite nicely."--Ray Harryhausen, Famous Monsters #182 April 1982 pp37-38

I think I should mention the inclusion of the mechanical owl, Bubo, since this gift by the Gods became the source of frequent negative scrutiny. Many felt it was out of place in the film, but Harryhausen repeatedly defended the addition to the cast of creatures. Others found it silly and too kid friendly. The owl prop also made an appearance in the soulless 2010 remake as an in-joke. It should be said that for those artists like Harryhausen who devoted months of their time to create movie magic, a certain attachment to the whimsy and innocence of childhood was an important factor in bringing those creations to life. Even though other fantasy films were to follow, CLASH OF THE TITANS was truly the end of an era.


SINBAD GOES TO MARS and SINBAD AND THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD were among the projects in various planning stages after CLASH OF THE TITANS release. However, the CLASH production had been so grueling, Schneer considered that their next collaboration should have fewer stop-motion effects and possibly even a lower budget. Other projects Ray was offered, or attached to post CLASH included a Michael Winner purchased property entitled PEOPLE OF THE MIST and a version of THE PRINCESS BRIDE from producer Milton Subotsky that later became a reality in 1987 under the direction of Rob Reiner.

When the Sinbad adventure failed to materialize, as did the aborted, and hugely ambitious FORCE OF THE TROJANS movie (see insert photo), CLASH OF THE TITANS proved to be the final big screen alliance between Schneer and Harryhausen. It would also prove to be the last movie either man would contribute to in their respective fields. By this time, modern audiences had seemingly lost interest in fantasy style heroes; which meant little faith in big studios backing such pictures. Fantasy films continued to be made, but they were fewer and far between and seldom did big business. Looking back, Harryhausen had an incredible body of work to be proud of, and an increasingly growing legion of followers who were influenced by him and his cinematic legacy.

For years, the Motion Picture Academy (and even the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror) notoriously ignored the films of Ray Harryhausen for awards consideration. But in 1992, the revered visual effects master finally received long overdue notice. This Honorary Oscar was presented to him by his childhood friend, Ray Bradbury. Tom Hanks, the Master of Ceremonies, had some kind remarks for the humble award winner as well. To quote an oft used phrase in many a SciFi movie trailer, this award was "years in the making"

It's also worth noting that the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror gave him the Life Career Award in 1982. Post 1992, Harryhausen began accruing more recognition both on and off screen for his efforts. Now he could finally reap the benefits of his labors and know that his work was appreciated on a greater scale than he likely ever realized up to that time. Thankfully, he was able to take those accolades with him when he left this world a week ago.

On May 7th, 2013 master animator-filmmaker Ray Harryhausen passed away in London at Hammersmith Hospital. Having been there for a week prior to his passing, no cause of death has been released as of this writing, but it was said he went peacefully. His entire library of collectibles was donated to Bradford's National Media Museum in the United Kingdom in 2010.

While the widespread use of stop-motion animation may have died out, the memories of the artisans who gave life to their imaginations lives on in the minds of many who grew up on these films; and especially those that featured the visual magic and majesty of Ray Harryhausen. As a fan, much of my childhood and the memories of those years involved many of Ray's creations. Seeing all those monster and fantasy movies on television (and a few in theaters), fueled my imagination to be creative in my own hobbies. In some small way, had it not been for those carefree and innocent days of being held in astonishment at the Ymir, the cyclops, Kali, Gwangi, Medusa and the mighty Kraken, I might have turned out a completely different person. For that, I thank Mr. Harryhausen for those times, and those memories his work has given me.

Ray Harryhausen had an imagination as expansive and enigmatic as any of the snarling creatures he -- with his bare hands -- meticulously gave life to give us -- the viewers, the fans, the dreamers -- magical entertainment that no keyboard, or computer graphic can ever reproduce.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN (June 29th, 1920 -- May 7th, 2013)
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