Indicator continue to get me all misty eyed in revisiting the films of Ray Harryhausen I was so fond of as a child. The latest set, The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume 2: 1961-1964, provided an old favourite and a couple I hadn't actually seen, so I was keen to dig into it. The three films are Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon. My thoughts on them all are below:
Director: Cy Endfield
Screenplay: John Prebble, Daniel Ullman, Crane Wilbur
Based on a Novel by: Jules Verne
Starring: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom, Beth Rogan, Percy Herbert
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Loosely based on a Jules Verne novel of the same name, Mysterious Island is set during the American Civil War and sees a group of captured Union soldiers escape on a hot air balloon during a terrible storm, with a Union war correspondent Gideon Spillet (Gary Merrill) and a Confederate guard named Pencroft (Percy Herbert) as added luggage. The strong winds and rain throw the balloon off course though and the men find themselves drifting over the Pacific Ocean into uncharted waters. The balloon gets damaged after a few days and they come crashing down near the titular island.
Whilst they settle on the island and work to build a raft to try to travel home, they come across some enormous creatures as well as some odd coincidences which lead them to believe they're not entirely alone on the island. Some time after two ladies drift ashore to join the group, the mystery inhabitant is revealed to be none other than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea's Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), who tries to help them find the means to get home before the island's volcano erupts!
I'd bought this on DVD a while ago, but hadn't got around to watching it, so reviewing this set was a good excuse to do so and I'm glad I finally did as I thoroughly enjoyed Mysterious Island. It's got a wonderfully old fashioned sense of adventure that fits the source material and, although it's maybe not as action packed as the Sinbad films, the film races along through offering regular new discoveries and mysteries to solve. The rag tag group of characters are enjoyable to watch too and most don't take their situation too seriously, other than the strict taskmaster Captain Harding (Michael Craig).
If I were to pick flaws in the film I'd say that the characters, as enjoyable as they are to watch, develop very little during the course of the film and there's little character drama between them. There's a minor arc for young Herbert Brown (Michael Callan) who begins the film a coward, but faces up to one of the creatures later on when the young woman he fancies is in danger. There's friction between the Union soldiers and Pencroft originally too, but this dissipates rather quickly.
This lack of development or depth isn't a big problem though. You don't watch films like this to enrich the mind, you watch them to see what trouble the characters get into and how they're going to get out of it. Being a Ray Harryhausen film, you're mainly there to see the creatures though. The designs of the giant inhabitants of the island aren't as interesting as in some of Ray's other films, as they're just huge versions of animals we know in the real world. However, his skill at animating them and bringing real life to their movements is as evident as ever. The giant chicken is one most people seem to remember from the film and that scene is indeed a lot of fun and masterfully handled. What I felt made the film stand out from a few of Ray's weaker films though is that the scenes without any creatures were still very good. The opening twenty minutes in particular, when the soldiers make their dramatic escape and get into trouble in the balloon, is very exciting and rockets by, aided by Bernard Herrmann's incredible score. There are some effects by Ray in play here, but no monsters, so it's largely director Cy Endfield who's responsible for making the film more than just an excuse for some stop motion monster smack-downs.
So it's an exciting old fashioned adventure that's light on depth, but high on thrills. It doesn't break any new ground, but is a lot of fun and solidly made, so is up there with Ray's best.
Jason and the Argonauts
Director: Don Chaffey
Screenplay: Jan Read, Beverley Cross
Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall MacGinnis
Running Time: 104 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Jason and the Argonauts takes Greek myths and legends and turns them into a rip-roaring adventure movie in the classic Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer mould. Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) is told a prophecy that he will win the throne with the help of Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), but it will be soon taken away from him by the child of the rightful King Aristo. Pelias orders Aristo's children to be killed, but his young son Jason is whisked away just in time and the evil king is warned that he will be killed by a man with one sandal. Flash forward twenty-odd years and Pelias is saved from drowning by a grown up Jason (now played by Todd Armstrong), who loses his sandal in the water. Pelias notices this and realises who Jason is before he does likewise. Concealing his identity as Jason announces his plans to take his rightful place on the throne, Pelias sends Jason off on a long and perilous journey across the world to claim the legendary Golden Fleece before heading off to kill the phoney king. He does just that, gathering an elite team and setting sail on the Argo towards the fleece. Pelias assumes Jason will be killed along the way, but the brave young man has the power of the Gods behind him in the shape of Hera (Honor Blackman), who became his protector after Jason's sister is killed in her temple.
This was the one title in the set I'd seen previously and I, like many, have long regarded Jason and the Argonauts as my favourite Ray Harryhausen film. It had been a while since I'd seen it though and I must admit I came out of it ever so slightly disappointed. Perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind, but the film didn't quite live up to my nostalgic pedestal I'd put it on. I think for one it felt a little slower paced than some of the other Harryhausen films I'd seen recently. It takes itself more seriously than most of its predecessors, not helped by a rather uncharismatic lead, and there's quite a wait before we're treated to the first creature.
However, when that first stop motion scene arrives, the famous Talos sequence, the film truly shines. Some of Ray's finest work is on show here, which is clearly why it's held in such high regard, despite any other issues people may have with the film. Once again, each creature is infused with its own distinctive personality through its movement. They really feel like they're giving a performance rather than the mindless fireworks of less effective special effects sequences. The designs are great here too, particularly the 7-headed Hydra that appears towards the end and Bernard Herrmann's score once again raises everything up a level.
It's the skeleton army fight in the film's finale that everyone remembers most fondly though, and rightfully so. The work that must have gone into the elaborate sequence is beyond belief, particularly given that Ray worked alone for the most part on his special effects. The attack is genuinely quite frightening and exciting too, with some elaborate choreography under the circumstances.
So, although it didn't quite live up to my memory and slipped down my Harryhausen rankings a little, Jason and the Argonauts is still a rousing sword and sandals adventure. It also contains a couple of the greatest stop motion animated sequences of all time, so remains a joy to watch despite any flaws with the film as a whole.
First Men in the Moon
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, Jan Read
Based on a novel by: H.G. Wells
Starring: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Harryhausen and Schneer looked to another classic science fiction writer for First Men in the Moon, their follow up to Jason. The great H.G. Wells wrote the original novel and the film opens with what is thought to be the first Moon landing (in reality, man would reach the moon 5 years later). However, when the American and Russian team (wishful thinking on the writer's part) explore the surface, they find a British flag has already been placed there and a note declares that Katherine Callender claimed the Moon for Queen Victoria! Officials look up Katherine and find she is now dead, but her husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), is still alive. When they quiz him about the Moon, he tells them what happened back in 1899 and the film flashes back to show us.
Bedford and his fiancee Katherine (Martha Hyer) are in financial trouble and are looking to sell the cottage Bedford lives in (although we later find out he's only renting it!) However, they come across an eccentric neighbour, Prof. Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who claims to have created a paste that can make objects defy gravity. Bedford thinks he's hit the jackpot and talks Cavor into having him as a partner in his endeavours. Cavor has loftier aspirations than Bedford though, who wants to use the paste on shoes to make people jump further. The Professor has long been planning on using the substance to send a metal sphere to the moon. Bedford agrees to go on the maiden voyage with Cavor and Katherine accidentally ends up on board too. When they reach the moon however, they find a strange world underneath the surface, inhabited by unusual bug-like creatures called the Selenites. When friction develops between the two races, caused largely by confusion and Bedford's pig-headedly violent reaction to them, the trio's chances of getting back home grow slim.
This hugely enjoyable sci-fi yarn tops off the best of Indicator's Ray Harryhausen sets with style. There's very little of Ray's signature stop motion creature work here, other than a giant 'Moon cow' and the occasionally animated Selenite, but the film is a pleasure to watch from start to finish anyway. Harryhausen is still one of the reasons the film works so well, as he acted as associate producer and by all accounts had a huge amount of input into the finished product. The special effects he put together for the space travel sequences and underground caverns are wonderfully colourful and imaginative too.
I think what I liked most about the film though was its comic tone. It's probably the most outwardly comedic film of Ray's that I've seen, helped largely by Jeffries' winning turn as the bumbling Professor Cavor. The humour is very old fashioned of course, but given the period setting it's easy to accept and although it won't have you laughing uproariously, the film is consistently funny in a loveably light-hearted sort of way.
The second half does take itself a bit more seriously as the adventure really kicks in and the group's lives are put in danger. Here the added effects work help maintain the interest the jokes were driving previously though and the story's pacifistic message adds a little depth without getting too heavy handed or preachy.
Yes, the alien costumes are pretty ropey and some of the film feels very much of the 60s, but overall it's an underrated, charming, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure. Boasting a colourful and impressively well designed world, on top of a strong foundation of humour and solid pacing, it's possibly one of the best all around films Harryhausen and Schneer ever produced.
The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume 2: 1961-1964 is out now in the UK, released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their new Indicator label. The picture quality is superb on all titles. There are occasional soft looking shots (particularly in Jason), but these are likely down to the original effects process rather than any issue with the restoration. I listened to the 5.1 mixes of all three films and thought they were wonderful, particularly when it came to their rousing scores.
Powerhouse have also loaded the set with special features. These include:
- 4K restorations of Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon from the original camera negatives
- 2K restoration of Mysterious Island from the original camera negative
- Mono and 5.1 surround sound audio options
- Ray Harryhausen audio commentaries on all three films
- Additional Mysterious Island audio commentary with film historians Randall William Cook, C. Courtney Joyner and Steven C. Smith
- Additional Jason and the Argonauts audio commentary with filmmaker Peter Jackson and Randall William Cook
- New interview with SFX maestro Hal Hickel on Mysterious Island
- 'Jason and the Argonauts' Original Skeleton Fight Storyboards
- Ray Harryhausen on 'Mysterious Island'
- Hal Hickel on 'Mysterious Island' (2017): new interview with the special effects maestro
- Kim Newman on 'Mysterious Island' (2017): new appreciation by the author and genre-film expert
- Islands of Mystery: vintage featurette
- Randall William Cook Introduces 'First Men in the Moon'
- Tomorrow the Moon: vintage featurette
- New and exclusive interviews with crew members, including camera assistant Ray Andrew (Mysterious Island) and production manager Ted Wallis (First Men in the Moon)
- Mysterious Island comic-book
- Archival documentaries and interviews
- Super 8 versions of Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts
- Isolated scores: experience the music of Bernard Herrmann (Mysterious Island) and Laurie Johnson (First Men in the Moon)
- Original trailers, teasers, TV spots and promotional films
- John Landis trailer commentary for First Men in the Moon
- Image galleries: extensive promotional and on-set photography, poster art and archive materials
- Limited edition exclusive 80-page book with new essays by film experts Kim Newman and Tim Lucas, an in-depth oral history of all three films, and full film credits
- Limited Dual Format Edition Box Set of 6,000 numbered units
There's a huge amount of material for all titles and, like on previous sets, all the featurettes and commentaries are absolute must-watches for anyone even vaguely interested in Harryhausen's work. Some of the extras on the Jason disc have cropped up on the Sinbad set and seems to be directly taken from a previous Blu-Ray release, menu and all, but with it featuring two excellent commentaries on top of a couple of other unique features, the disc is still well worth exploring.
It's another fantastic package, topped off by one of Indicator's superb booklets, which is filled with essays, interviews, behind the scenes stills and concept art.