ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen, Volume 2: 1961-1964 (Indicator)
It’s another limited edition trio of Ray Harryhausen/Charles H. Schneer classics courtesy of the Indicator label.
Mysterious Island (1961)
This adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is set during the time of the American Civil War. A trio of Yankee soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape from a Confederate prison camp during a violent storm and commandeer a hot air balloon. They are accompanied by a war correspondent named Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) and a Confederate soldier named Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert) whom they keep as a hostage as he knows how to operate the balloon.
The storm eventually carries them to a seemingly deserted island in the Pacific where they discover that that wildlife is unusually large. This has its advantages as there’s always plenty for them to eat. The downside, however, is that some of them are quite dangerous in their larger forms. During the course of the film, they are also joined by a couple of shipwrecked women: Lady Mary Fairchild (played by Joan Greenwood) and her pretty niece Elena (Beth Rogan). However, things become increasingly fantastical and perilous as they encounter more dangerous creatures, pirates, an erupting volcano and the mysterious Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom).
Mysterious Island isn’t quite top-drawer Ray Harryhausen but it’s still decent, colourful science-fantasy fun. The opening escape sequence - fast-paced and atmospherically drenched in buckets of rain and that deep blue “day-for-night” hue so typical of films of this era - is fantastically exciting. There’s also a good deal of excitement and suspense during the last half-hour. As per usual for a Harryhausen/Schneer film, the production values are excellent - including some imaginative sets, picturesque Spanish locations and a rousing Bernard Herrmann score.
What about the rest of the film? Well… it’s ok. It’s a standard “island survival” scenario that tends to plod through the usual tropes. Thankfully those occasional appearances by Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations are on hand to liven up the proceedings. The giant crab (which ends up being boiled in a hot spring and subsequently enjoyed for dinner) and the giant bees (one of which seals two of our protagonists in an equally massive honeycomb) are particularly impressive. However, the giant bird (a prehistoric phorusrhacos - not a chicken as many people assume it is) is a bit too unrealistic-looking to really work, while the massive squid near the end isn’t given as much screen time as it really deserves.
The cast is serviceable. Michael Craig is solid as the group leader. Herbert Lom’s Captain Nemo may be overshadowed by the James Mason incarnation (from the 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but he still brings enough suave authority to the role. The other actors, however, are no more or less than OK. The film’s gender stereotypes seem rather dated nowadays (the two women are submissive and dependent on the protection of the men) but that’s fairly par for the course for a film from the period.
All in all Mysterious Island is solid, if rather old-fashioned, family-friendly entertainment.
Watch a trailer:
Runtime: 101 mins
Dir: Cy Endfield
Script: John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur, from a novel by Jules Verne
Starring: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom, Beth Rogan, Percy Herbert, Dan Jackson
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
This Greek mythological adventure starts as King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) learns that Jason, one of the rightful heirs to the throne which he has usurped, is prophesied to rise up and claim it once he grows up. He attempts to have him done away with but arrives too late to do so as he has been handed into the protection of the Goddess Hera (Honor Blackman). She throws a bone at him by telling him to watch out for “the man with one sandal”. However, she also warns him not to kill him, as this will result in him being destroyed.
A number of years later Hera suddenly reappears in front of Pelias and scares the horse which he is riding - causing it to run him straight into a nearby lake. A young man (played by Todd Armstrong) jumps in to rescue him from drowning. When he drags Pelias out of the water the latter notices that he has lost one of his sandals: could this be Jason? The scheming king pretends to be someone other than Pelias, thus managing to get the young man to confirm that he is indeed Jason and does indeed plan to take back the throne. Jason also plans to retrieve a legendary Golden Fleece from an island at the edge of the world in order to restore peace prosperity to his kingdom.
Since Pelias is wary of Hera’s warning not to kill Jason he encourages him to set sail on his quest. However, he assigns his own son, Acastus (Gary Raymond) to join him on the voyage and do away with him once he reaches his destination. Jason assembles a team of the finest warriors in all of Greece and sets sail - with Hera accompanying him in the form of an elaborately carved prow. He’ll need all the help he can get on a journey fraught with danger and incredible creatures.
Tom Hanks once described Jason and the Argonauts as “the greatest film ever made”. Is he right? Well… in terms of acting and all-around filmmaking it’s definitely not. The film’s setup is overly convoluted with too much in the way of godly machinations (we see scenes of them watching and intervening in the proceedings from Mount Olympus - a device which would be reused in the later Harryhausen/Schneer production Clash of the Titans). Don Chaffey’s direction is strictly workmanlike. Continuity errors abound. Todd Armstrong is on the wooden side as Jason (although, to be fair, he was dubbed by Tim Turner in post-production as his American accent was deemed to be out of place).
However, in terms of pure escapist entertainment, Jason and the Argonauts is indeed one of the greatest films ever made. It demonstrates Harryhausen’s talent for crafting special effects at its most rivetingly spectacular. Once we get past that rather laboured first half hour the film concentrates on delivering what the Dynamation auteur does best.
The climactic battle between Jason and seven sword-wielding skeletons is the single finest thing he has ever done; an elaborate fight which does wonders matching human and stop-motion actors in frenzied combat. The confrontation with Talos is another classic sequence which superbly captures the sense of scale and heft of this gargantuan metal man as well as using it to wonderfully suspenseful effect. The sound effects add as much to its impact as the animation does; every lumbering move it makes is accompanied by a noisy metallic screech. The seven-headed hydra which Jason encounters, later on, is also a wonderfully elaborate and graceful creation.
Even the script is surprisingly well-crafted once the main setup is out of the way. All of the major characters have their own believable and sympathetic motivations. There’s also a dash of theological discussion about the role of Gods in the affairs of humans - just enough to give the film some meat without forgetting its remit to be unashamed fantasy fun.
Harryhausen himself considers Jason and the Argonauts to be his best movie - and who am I to argue? It’s an archetypal Bank Holiday favourite which holds up remarkably well even after all of these years.
Watch a trailer:
Runtime: 104 mins
Dir: Don Chaffey
Script: Jan Read, Beverley Cross
Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall MacGinnis, Douglas Wilmer, Honor Blackman, Patrick Troughton, Nigel Green
First Men in the Moon (1964)
This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel starts out in the then-present day (1960s) as a multinational space mission lands on the moon in the belief that they are the first time humankind has visited it. However, they discover a British flag lying on a nearby rock with an accompanying note dated from 1899. After some investigation, they trace the note to an old man named Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) who lives in an old people’s home.
The film flashes back to England of 1899 as Arnold - then a struggling playwright - attempts to resolve his debts by arranging to sell his idyllic home to a neighbouring scientist named Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). However, this is on the condition that Arnold can invest some of the proceeds in the Professor’s new invention - a coating that, when painted on objects, can cause them to defy gravity.
It turns out that the Professor has his own big plans for the substance: to use it to lift a metal capsule to the moon. Despite the objections of his girlfriend Kate (Martha Hyer), Arnold is keen to go along with him. In the event a contrivance of circumstance results in Kate, too, going along for the ride.
When they land on the moon they discover a civilisation of insect people named Selenites who live in tunnels beneath its surface. However, while the Professor wants to communicate and share his knowledge with them, Arnold is less trusting.
From a purely visual standpoint First Men in the Moon is arguably the most impressive of the Harryhausen/Schneer productions. The use of miniatures, matte paintings and sets during the outer space and moon sequences creates a fantastically imaginative setting. There’s a lot of charm, too, in the quaint provincial England locations seen during the film’s first half. Bear in mind that the production hasn’t been designed with a strict sense of realism in mind; this is a film which casts itself back to the less scientifically-enlightened times in which Wells lived. Don’t expect any consistency in the way in which gravity works. Never mind that they can make sounds in a vacuum and avoid decompression despite wearing diving suits with uncovered hands.
The customary stop-motion isn’t as extensively used as it is in some of their other films. Nonetheless, we do get a great perilous sequence involving a huge alien beast that resembles a giant green woodlouse. The Selenites themselves vary between stop-motion creations and child actors in rubber suits depending on the shot. Unfortunately, in the latter incarnations, they are rather too obviously rubbery to be believable. Despite this issue, however, there’s an undeniable sense of scale and wonder here.
Sadly the film itself is rather uneven. It’s a slow-paced affair which veers from zany comedy during the first half to action-adventure during the earlier encounters with the lunar lifeforms - before finally becoming the kind of cerebral science-fiction which writer Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass series) specialised in. Unfortunately, it’s not funny enough, exciting enough or sufficiently thought-through to really work on any of these levels. There is an interesting conflict which brews between the more thoughtful Professor Cavor and the more gung-ho Arnold later on in the film, but it’s never really resolved in a satisfactory manner.
First Men in the Moon has its moments but ultimately feels a bit “blah”. However, while it’s the weakest film in the set it’s still worth watching purely for the visuals.
Watch a trailer:
Runtime: 103 mins
Dir: Nathan Juran
Script: Nigel Kneale, Jan Read, from a novel by H.G. Wells
Starring: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Peter Finch
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Both the Mysterious Island and First Men in the Moon restorations are up to Indicator’s usual fantastic standards. The colours are the equivalent of a riot in a candy store and the musical score sounds fantastically rich.
The Jason and the Argonauts Blu Ray disc is actually the recent Premium Collection Blu Ray version disguised with the Indicator label. Unfortunately, the audio-visual quality of this version is the most variable. Some shots look great but others (typically the process and stock shots) look horribly grainy in a way that isn’t seen on the other two restorations. Sound is ok but some whispered dialogue later on is too quiet to be easily discernible without turning the volume right up.
Highlights amongst the extras
Mysterious Island Audio Commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Film Historian Tony Dalton
This jovial and laid-back banter largely discusses the effects. The giant crab was based around a real (normal-sized) crab purchased live from Harrods and humanely killed by a lady from the London Natural History Museum. Although a couple of shots during feature three giant bees Ray could only afford to craft one. He used split screen effects to give the impression that multiple creatures were on screen simultaneously. They also discuss some intriguing-sounding concepts which weren’t featured in the final production - including a man-eating plant and a mechanical digger (created by Nemo) with six legs.
Jason and the Argonauts commentary with Peter Jackson and Randall William Cook
There’s an abundance of nerdish enthusiasm in this commentary between Jackson (who was inspired to make stop-motion Super 8 films thanks to Harryhausen’s work) and Cook (who created special effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
Plenty of trivia here: we learn that the original title was Jason and the Golden Fleece until the filmmakers found out that an Italian sword and sandal epic had already been released bearing that name. The original proposed idea was actually a team-up between Jason and Sinbad called Sinbad and the Age of Muses. It was originally going to be shot in Greece until Schneer found the country too bleak and the ruins in an unkempt condition. After an attempt to shoot the film in Yugoslavia fell through as the spendthrift producer disliked the level of corruption in the country it ended up being shot in Spain. The production was also apparently so heavily set back from rain that all of the food had run out bar cornflakes and spaghetti.
First Men in the Moon Audio Commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Randall William Cook
Another typically laid-back commentary with the great SFX artist himself plus protégé Randall William Cook. This was his first and last film in Cinemascope; Charles H. Schneer felt that it wasn’t worth the extra expense of shooting it in the format despite it being put to some fantastic use in certain matte shots. They point out an uncredited cameo by Peter Finch as a bailiff - a role which was originally going to be played by Willie Rushton. However, when the latter couldn’t make the shoot due to transportation difficulties Finch, who was shooting another film nearby, agreed to fill his boots. The X-ray version of Martha Hyer’s character was one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. The leader of the Selenites was voiced by Lionel Jeffries - thus meaning that during the scene where the human character he plays (Professor Cavor) communicates with the alien he is, in fact, talking to himself.
Islands of Mystery
An American 1960s black & white short incorporating clips from Mysterious Island, documentary footage of various real-life “mysterious islands” throughout the world and a typical (amusingly patronising) voiceover narration.
Ray Harryhausen interviewed by John Landis
An enjoyable vintage interview. Harryhausen shows us the skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad which was made from cotton in latex. Most of his other models used sponge over a metal armature which tended to deteriorate over time. The Triton sequence was filmed at 95 frames per second to slow down the film speed. However, this resulted in the camera overheating and blowing.
Terry Schubert on First Men in the Moon
Schubert’s recalls his first job working as an electrician and special effects assistant to Ray, who created all of the film’s effects in a 40 x 15 foot wide hut.
Original Men in the Moon
Various behind-the-scenes personnel recall working on First Men in the Moon. They discuss Charles H. Schneer’s obsessions with time and budgetary limitations - when the set decorators were 2 days behind schedule he got on the tannoy to exclaim “plaster faster, blast you!” Lionel Jeffries had stitching in lieu of a zip on his space suit, necessitating it being cut and redone every time he needed the bathroom. Cinematography Wilkie Cooper accidentally shattered his beloved Meerschaum Pipe, resulting in one member of staff shelling out a then-considerable £400 for a new one.
Tomorrow the Moon
A contemporary featurette from Columbia Studios looking at First Men in the Moon in parallel with the preparations for NASA’s own moon landing project. Rather short but still of interest as a time capsule.
There are plenty of other extras: two more commentaries (one apiece for Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts), documentaries, isolated scores, trailers, image galleries, an 80-page accompanying book and more.
Unfortunately I have to knock a star off for one reason: as I mentioned before the Jason and the Argonauts disc is actually the recent Premium Collection release re-labelled. We even get a slightly irritating videogame-style menu that bears no resemblance to Indicator’s usual elegant interface. If you don’t already own that version of the film then you’ll enjoy the inclusion regardless (it is, after all, arguably Harryhausen’s best film). However, you might still be a little disappointed by the fact that two of the included documentaries here (The Harryhausen Legacy and The Harryhausen Chronicles) have already been packaged with Indicator’s previous Sinbad Trilogy set.
It’s another fine Ray Harryhausen set courtesy of Indicator. However, the aforementioned fact that the Jason and the Argonauts disc is a copy of an existing release does irk a little.
Jason and the Argonauts
First Men in the Moon