Happy 99th Birthday Ray Harryhausen – Here Are His Ten Best Films
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, Sam Moffitt, and Tom Stockman
Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, whose dazzling and innovative visual effects work on fantasy adventure films such as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD passed away in 2013 at age 92. In 1933, the then-13-year-old Ray Harryhausen saw KING KONG at a Hollywood theater and was inspired – not only by Kong, who was clearly not just a man in a gorilla suit, but also by the dinosaurs. He came out of the theatre “stunned and haunted. They looked absolutely lifelike … I wanted to know how it was done.” It was done by using stop-motion animation: jointed models filmed one frame at a time to simulate movement. Harryhausen was to become the prime exponent of the technique and its combination with live action. The influence of Harryhausen on film luminaries like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron is immeasurable and his work continues to inspire animators and VFX artists around the world.
Today would have been Ray Harryhausen’s 99th birthday and here are, according to We Are Movie Geeks, his ten best movies.
10. EARTH VS FLYING SAUCERS
Usually considered a lesser film in the Harryhausen resume due to an absence of animated monsters or mythological creatures, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is a wonderful science fiction, action thriller, shot through with the paranoia of the Fifties in America when flying saucers were almost constantly in the news and the Cold War with the Soviets was at its hottest. Hugh Marlow and his wife get buzzed by a saucer on their way to a military installation right at the beginning and then the movie never lets up. The saucers were animated in a whirling motion by Harryhausen and have a death ray that deploys from the underside of the ships. Much havoc and carnage ensue when the saucers attack anything and everything, most especially a vicious assault on the capital in Washington DC with several landmark buildings reduced to rubble. EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the template, the granddaddy film to Independence Day and the Transformers series, The Avengers, Battleship, and virtually every apocalyptic film coming out this summer, where-in the days of man on Earth appear to be numbered. The only films of it’s era that share this view of worldwide mayhem would be War of the Worlds and the first of the Japanese kaiju eiga, Godzilla and Rodan. But EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is particularly gleeful in knocking down the symbols of American Government. So famous is this sequence many films coming after paid homage to it. In Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! the Martian saucers start to knock over the Washington Monument, then think better of it and set it back upright! Independence Day’s most famous shot is of the White House exploding. Rightly or wrongly this was one of the movies that started the tradition of wholesale destruction on a staggering scale. If there ‘s a drawback to EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, and Harryhausen himself admitted this, the saucers are not very interesting to animate. However the action and the overall tone of paranoia and impending doom make this one of the scariest of Harryhausen’s features. Another drawback, (maybe) is leading man Hugh Marlowe. Marlowe made a career of NOT playing the leading man, usually he was somebody’s side kick, aide, research assistant or all around flunky. Richard Carlson or Rex Reason may have been a better choice. However Marlowe is actually fine and fits in well with the Government, Military and Science stereotype characters on display here. For instance, Morris Ankrum, good, solid, dependable Morris Ankrum is here, as he should be, in the Army Officer uniform that he must have had in his personal wardrobe, he played so many high ranking officers in these films. With Morris Ankrum in charge of the military you know everything will turn out right! Had I been a dog face GI in those days I would have followed General Ankrum straight to the gates of hell, cocked, locked and ready to rock!
9. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS
Released in 1953 and loosely based on The Fog Horn, a short story by Ray Bradbury, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms beat Godzilla by one year to usher in the giant-monster-awakened-by-nuclear-bomb-testing sub-genre. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is an endearingly uncomplicated but visually exciting monster movie, the first of the 50s science fiction pictures to feature a giant, city-attacking prehistoric creature. It introduced plot elements that would be repeated in many subsequent films, but more importantly, it showcased, for the first time, Ray Harryhausen as a major solo special effects talent. Unable to afford the complex miniatures and glass paintings used in KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen developed his own method of putting animated models into realistic settings, a system he used throughout his career (This process was eventually named Dynamation for the marketing campaign for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and subsequent films). The result is the Rhedosaurus, an implausible but charismatic dinosaur that invites us along for a destructive New York outing culminating in an exciting climax at Coney Island. Ray Harryhausen’s outstanding stop-motion animation of the beast is effective, giving the creature a certain endearing lizard-like charm that’s impossible to resist. Capably directed by Eugene Lurie (who later helmed the similar THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), aided by Jack Russell’s crisp black and white photography, a moody score, and earnest performances from a solid cast (Paul Christian as an eager young scientist, Paula Raymond as his pretty love interest, Kenneth Tobey as a no-nonsense colonel, and Lee Van Cleef as an expert marksman who helps save the day), THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is an immensely entertaining monster romp worthy of its classic status.
8. ONE MILLIONS YEARS B.C.
Long before Spielberg made dinosaurs popular with the Jurassic series, a prehistoric creature craze hit this country in the 1960’s. Fueled both by 1950’s monster movies and new archeological discoveries, dino’s began popping up everywhere—in toys, television, and the movies. For their 100th film project, Hammer Studios in 1967 acquired the rights to remake the old 1940 Hal Roach programmer ONE MILLION B.C. This tale of the Shell people and the Rock tribe attempting to survive deadly volcanoes, dinosaurs, and each other was entertaining and visually exciting, if not historically accurate (dino’s and humans missed each other by at least several million years). Harryhausen created a large variety of creatures for this remake, which is often chided for including sequences of live animals, such as a giant iguana, at the expense of animation; however, this was actually Harryhausen’s idea in an attempt to add variety (and a lower budget) to the effects sequences. Things start slowly with the iguana and a few glimpses of a brontosaurus, then there’s a rampaging turtle! But Harryhausen makes up for these with three awesome scenes: an attack by an allosaurus, a battle between a triceratops and a ceratosaurus, and the climactic attack/fight involving a pteranodon and a pterodactyl. The movie was a huge success and spawned two sequels along with countless copycats. Harryhausen often remarked that he wasn’t sure what was the bigger attraction, the dinosaurs or Raquel Welch in her fur bikini. A relatively unknown starlet with only one (as yet unreleased) major studio credit at the time, Welch actually dominates much of the film with her beguiling looks and intelligent manner. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. not only launched her career on a sex symbol trajectory that would last for decades, but also created one of the most iconic images in film history—the strong, beautiful, prehistoric goddess defiantly ready to face any challenge.
7. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a sort of sequel to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo is a major character, still living on the Nautilus, although it cannot go out to sea anymore. A group of Union soldiers making an escape from a Confederate prison during the American Civil War in a balloon find themselves way off course and stranded on an island where all sorts of, well, “mysterious” things are going on. For starters all the animals and even the insects are giant size and someone keeps helping them survive on the island by giving them everything they need. Anyone who knows the films of Ray Harryhausen will know who the benefactor is and why the animals are giant size so it won’t be a major spoiler to reveal that Captain Nemo, that sea going genius, is behind it all. All of Harryhausen’s films were ensemble projects for the actors, there is no major star in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, or any of his other films for that matter. Harryhausen and his incredible stop motion effects were the real star. In Mysterious Island we get a terrific group of players in the escaped Union Army prisoners, Michael Craig, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill as a Union war correspondent and Dan Jackson, and a Johnny Reb comes along for the ride as he has experience with the observation balloon, played by English actor Percey Herbert, and once the crew are established on the island a couple of female ship wreck survivors bring a hint of romance to the project in the character of Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan. Greenwood had a wonderful husky voice which was used to great effect in Barbarella supplying the voice for Anita Pallenberg’s character.MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was way ahead of the curve in one aspect of the casting. Dan Jackson’s character is black, with no issues raised about that what so ever. His character is also in the Union Army and even Percy Herbert’s Confederate makes no mention of race. Jackson portrays him as just as intelligent, resourceful and capable as the other men on the Island.The real acting standout is Herbert Lom’s take on Captain Nemo. There is a sadness, a world weary air about Nemo that is heart breaking. You get the notion that this Nemo, even if the Nautilus were sea worthy would not bother taking her out again.But the real star, as always is Harryhausen’s stop motion effects and he has a lot fun in animating familiar creatures’ instead of mythological or science fictional monsters. A giant crab, bird, cephalopod and bees inhabit the island. All are the result of Nemo’s experiments. The crab and bird provide food for the castaways and the cephalopod attacks during a terrific underwater sequence using diving gear similar to Disney’s film, giant shells to hold oxygen for instance.There is also evidence the island has been visited by pirates and will be again shortly. And of course there is an active volcano which can go off at any minute.MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a wonderful boys own adventure type of story with great set piece action scenes, set design, location filming, acting, a terrific score by the one and only Bernard Herrmann and best of all the stop motion artistry of Ray Harryhausen.
6. CLASH OF THE TITANS
CLASH OF THE TITANS, the 1981 account of the old mythological stories you were forced to read in junior high, featured Ray Harryhausen’s last great set piece: Perseus’ encounter with the snake-haired Medusa in a fire-lit cave. Stylized with great mood lighting, beautifully blocked and directed by Ray, the sequence is a beauty of spine-tingling, slithering menace. Seeing giant scorpions rise from the blood of Medusa’s head is visceral icing on the cake. CLASH OF THE TITANS was Ray Harryhuasen’s final film and likely the only one a generation of his fans saw in theaters when it was new. CLASH OF THE TITANS has everything previously denied Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer: A-list stars (Lawrence Olivier as Zeus, Maggie Smith as Thetis) and a budget enabling them to shoot in four major locations across Europe. The story is a bit wooden and oversimplified, but it is still the standard “hero’s journey”. Harry Hamlin as Perseus is not the heroic type – he does a fair enough job of striking poses, but he’s given some rather stuffy dialog to deliver but under the direction of Desmond Davis CLASH OF THE TITANS is the final showcase of Harryhausen’s skills in cinematic spectacle, and one of the best fantasy films of the 1980’s.
5. THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
After almost decade of animating dinosaurs for films such as ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, Ray Harryhausen returned to the realm of myth and legend for this 1973 follow-up to his 1958 fantasy classic. Ray had a top-notch cast re-acting to his movie magic. John Phillip Law (the blind winged alien/angel in BARBARELLA and the lead in DANGER: DIABOLIK) sporting a goatee and an ever-present turban brought an exotic Middle-Eastern air to the famous sailor (as opposed to the all-American Kerwin Matthews previously). Also very exotic, and sultry, was Hammer scream queen and future Bond girl (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME) Caroline Munro as Margiana, whose harem outfits must have strained that G-rating. But what’s a hero without a great villain? Former Rasputin (NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA) and future TV hero “Dr. Who” Tom Baker was the evil sorcerer Koura whose spells provided Harryhausen with some of his most memorable creations. There’s the homunculus, a foot-long winged gargoyle-like spy for the wizard. The towering wooden masthead of Sinbad’s ship is brought to life in order to steal a map (her lumbering steps are reminiscent of the titanic Talos in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS). To impress the green-skinned island natives, he brings a statue of the six-armed Kali to life who performs a spirited dance. Later sharp swords spring from all six hands and she engages Sinbad and his men in a deadly duel to the death (interesting that the two statues brought to life are female!). For the big finale’ Harryhausen gave us a twist on his great giant cyclops from the 58′ film with a massive cyclops/centaur. Instead of battling with a dragon, this monster took on a huge gryphon (a lion/hawk) in a true clash of the titans! The film was a modest hit inspiring a theatrical re-issue of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and was adapted into a Marvel Comics mini-series. But in those pre-STAR WARS days there was little merchandising. Can you imagine the action figures and model kits that kids would snap up on the way home from the theatre? Perhaps the film’s success laid the groundwork for the fantasy epics that would fill the multiplexes in just a few years. But this gem had them all beat! This flick was presented in the wondrous miracle of “Dynarama”!
4. 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH
This classic monster movie was a notable milestone for Harryhausen in many ways—it was his last black & white feature film, his last real “monster on the loose” story, and the first movie based on his own idea. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH(1957)begins spectacularly, as a rocket ship crash lands just off the coast of Sicily. However, this spacecraft– a U.S. manned flight to Venus–has returned with a little something extra: a dinosaur-like alien creature that continues to grow larger and larger. As the story progresses, we are treated to a suspenseful search through a barn, an attack and capture by helicopters, and one of the classic animation battles of all time, a fight between the creature and a huge bull elephant filmed against the scenic backdrop of Rome. Based on Harryhausen’s own story treatment titled THE CYCLOPS, the monster in EARTH was originally based on a giant creature in Scandinavian mythology named the “Ymir,” and, though it’s never called by that name in the film, is still popularly known as the Ymir today. Harryhausen also drew on his lifelong inspiration, KING KONG, for many of the story elements. Like Kong, the Ymir is an alien in a strange land, misunderstood and persecuted. Also similar is the ending, with a wounded Ymir hanging from a great monument of human culture before falling to it’s fate. Harryhausen also engendered even more sympathy for the Ymir by sculpting the face with an almost lovable, walrus-like quality. Experienced fantasy director Nathan Juran, familiar to 50’s and 60’s fans for not only genre TV shows like LAND OF THE GIANTS and LOST IN SPACE, but for also directing the ultimate cult classic ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, worked so well with Harryhausen that they did two more films together. For the leads, William Hopper (CONQUEST OF SPACE, DEADLY MANTIS) provides a familiar, solid presence as the astronaut tracking the creature, and Joan Taylor (also seen in Harryhausen’s EARTH VS. FLYING SAUCERS) plays the requisite love interest with just the right amount of moxie. But it is the eerie, plaintive howls of the Ymir struggling to understand this strange world it has awakened in that stay with the viewer long after the movie is over.
3. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Ray Harryhausen burst into feature films with this delightful kiddie matinée staple from 1949 that’s co-produced by John Ford! Listed in the opening credits as First Technician, Ray was working alongside his idol Willis O’Brien, the effects wiz that brought KING KONG to life on-screen back in 1933. Appropriately this film concerns a massive ape, maybe only a third of the size of mighty Kong. A sweet little girl living with her father deep in the jungle makes a trade with two local tribesman for an adorable baby gorilla. Twelve years later a Flo Ziegfeld/ Billy Rose-type master showman, lovable con-artist Max O’Hara, played by Robert Armstrong (yes, Kong’s original captor Carl Denham!) decides to travel to Africa and pick up animals to decorate his new jungle-themed nightclub, the Golden Safari, in Hollywood. A rodeo cowboy named Gregg played by future Oscar winner Ben Johnson (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) comes along. The first big effects shot is when O’Hara’s cowboys attempt to lasso and capture the very-much all-grown up gorilla now named Joe by the grown-up very nicely Jill played by future Howard Hughes paramour Terry Moore! The cowboys versus creature sequence would be revisited by Ray in 20 years for THE VALLEY OF GWANGI with a T-Rex replacing the ape. O”Hara signs her up and soon everybody’s back in LA for the grand opening including future “Beverly Hillbillies” icon Irene Ryan as a daffy barfly. The effects sequences dazzle as Jill plays the haunting “Beautiful Dreamer” at a piano on a podium hoisted aloft by Joe. Then there’s a very funny scene with Jill coaching Joe in a tug-of-war with ten famous strongmen that ends with boxing champ Primo Carnera planting a few on Joe’s chin to no effect! Unfortunately things worsen when Jill and Joe are forced to perform a humiliating “organ grinder” skit with the audience tossing oversize coins at poor Joe’s noggin. Later that night a trio of drunken louts, including one played by Nestor Pavia (Captain Lucas from the first two “Creature from the Black Lagoon” films), taunt Joe in his basement cell. When Joe retaliates, he’s sentenced to death by the courts. But O’Hara’s got a few tricks up his sleeve! It looks like a clean escape until Joe, Jill, and Gregg encounter a orphanege engulfed in flames! Only a miracle can save the little ones trapped on the top floor: a miracle named Joe! The 1998 remake starring Charlize Theron (she’s really from Africa!) has some fun moments including a cameo from Harryhasen and Ms. Moore along with fine work from Rick Baker, but it doesn’t match the wit and charm of the original! fun-filled fantasy! That is one great ape!
2. THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
In many ways the ultimate combination of stop motion animation, adventure, and overall production quality, 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is still one of Harryhausen’s most popular works. It was also a turning point for Harryhausen, establishing the framework for not only his other Sinbad films, but all animated adventure films in general—the brave hero and his (mostly expendable) crew battling scary and exotic creatures in a series of awe-inspiring set pieces, with a beautiful love interest and a villainous sorcerer to help propel the plot. (This formula worked so well, in fact, that VOYAGE director Nathan Juran made essentially the same film a few years later with much of the same cast in JACK THE GIANT KILLER, though the animation was supplied by Jim Danforth and not Harryhausen.) Also with VOYAGE, Harryhausen got the involvement of a major studio—Columbia Pictures—but he would have to film in color for the first time. Harryhausen had shied away from color because of the difficulties in matching effects shots with live action; however, his fears were groundless as he gave us a giant Cyclops, a giant roc, and another of his trademark battles between creatures (this time a dragon and a Cyclops), plus one of the greatest animation scenes ever filmed, Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton. Though he added more skeletons to a similar sequence in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS some years later, for sheer intensity and bravado, the original fight in VOYAGE cannot be topped. Though only four minutes long, the sequence took three months to choreograph and film, with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score eerily evoking Sinbad’s skeletal adversary with xylophone and timpani. Finally, in order to differentiate his films from cartoon animation, Harryhausen and Schneer came up with a marketing term that would soon become synonymous with exciting adventure movies, “Dynamation.” Though that phrase was used for the first time in this movie’s ads, another term is more overused today that would truly describe 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD—a true classic.
1. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
When Tom Hanks awarded Ray Harryhausen a special Oscar in 1992, he remarked, “Some people say CASABLANCA or CITIZEN KANE. I say JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest film ever made.” JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is usually cited as the high-water mark of Ray Harryhausen’s career and there is so much to justify that call. The climactic skeleton battle is the most celebrated sequence, but for sheer awe, there’s nothing like the encounter with the 200-foot-tall bronze colossus Talos. After landing on the island of Bronze, the goddess Hera, in masthead form, instructs Jason (played by St. Louis native Todd Armstrong) to have his men collect food and water and nothing else. Naturally, when Hercules and Hylas take one souvenir from a giant trove of gold treasures, they wake the colossal bronze statue who’s been perched on his pedestal for thousands of years guarding it. From the dramatic moment it slowly turns to look down at Hercules to Jason’s discovery of its literal Achilles’ heel, the battle with the titan Talos is one of Harryhausen’s finest moments. His facial expression barely changes but his cold blank stare is chilling and he walks with a rusty, arthritic gait that highlights Harryhausen’s amazing ability to instill in all his animated creations a sense of personality that is lacking in much of today’s computer-generated sludge. Clearly inspired by the legendary ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, Talos truly feels like one of the Seven Wonders of the World come to life. Of all of Ray Harryhausen’s movies, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is closest to his personal interests. He found mythological fantasies more exciting than science fiction monsters, and wanted very much to tell the story of the Golden Fleece in classic terms. Unfortunately Columbia’s publicity machine couldn’t distinguish Jason in the movie marketplace from the plethora of Italian Hercules-inspired fantasy product in 1963, and the film failed initially to find an audience. One of those rare films with real appeal for viewers of all ages,JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is a thrilling adventure ride that rarely slackens its pace. It rewards repeat viewing and those fearsome skeletons will thrill you again and again.