Clash of the Titans (1981), dir. Desmond Davis
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 29, 2010
Today in Leeds, our department will be hosting a colloquium on Clash of the Titans. Our event will focus on the 2010 remake, but part of the inspiration for it was the news that an archive collection of the work of Ray Harryhausen, who produced and did the model work for the 1981 film, has recently been pledged to the National Media Museum in nearby Bradford. So I decided to take this as a prompt to sit down and watch the 1981 film properly.
Although I’ve seen substantial chunks of it before during random channel-hopping escapades on Bank Holiday weekends, this was the first time that I had watched Clash of the Titans from start to finish. And while on one level obviously it is cheesy and nonsensical and burdened with some truly terrible dialogue, I found a lot to enjoy here as well. Clash comes very much from the same stable as Jason and the Argonauts, with both using not only Ray Harryhausen’s model-work but also a screen-play written by Beverley Cross. So it is no great surprise to find that the basic structure of the heroic adventure at the centre of each film is very similar, or that they share particular characteristic motifs such as the direct portrayal of the Olympian gods playing games with the lives of men.
The story for Clash of the Titans is based on the legends of Perseus, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, it has a pretty strained relationship with any of the known ancient versions of Perseus’ story. That’s perfectly OK with me, though, because of course the entire point of mythological stories is that they are fantastical. There is no such thing as an ‘accurate’ telling of an ancient myth – poets and playwrights changed them constantly to suit the needs and interests of their audiences, and there is no reason why modern script-writers and directors shouldn’t do exactly the same. Indeed, Clash of the Titans actively revels in those creative possibilities, treating Greek mythology as an infinitely-flexible fantasy otherworld in which anything and everything can happen.
The visual aesthetic makes this very clear. The conventional approach to Greek mythology is to try to set it in a context which looks at least vaguely in keeping with a Bronze Age Aegean setting: that is what Troy (2004) did, for example, though they missed the mark on some points. But the world of Clash of the Titans is an unashamedly multi-period, multi-cultural fantasy-world, drawing freely on whatever takes its fancy. Even within the broad cultural parameters of the Greek world, it roams wildly though time: Minoan paintings from Akrotiri decorate the royal palace at Joppa, while a Classical-period theatre lies on the outskirts of the city. But that is as nothing next to the Egyptian obelisk outside the witches’ lair, the Assyrian winged bulls in the town of Joppa, and a modified version of the Roman Ara Pacis relief in the temple of Thetis:
Meanwhile, the market scenes in Joppa featured a lot of generically oriental (part Turkish, part Indian) costumes and characters, and the ferry-man Charon was a straight-forwardly medieval cloaked skeleton Death. I found that the whole mish-mash suddenly cast a whole new light for me on one of my favourite ’90s fantasy TV shows, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, which operates in much the same sort of blurry, culturally-plural otherworld. Hercules rubbed shoulders with Greek heroes one week and Julius Caesar the next: to say nothing of Druids, Sultans and the infant Christ. And it isn’t just the aesthetic that the two have in common, either. The behaviour of the gods in Clash of the Titans is so similar to the ones found in Hercules that you only have to change the names for the portentous opening narration from the Hercules series to apply just as well to this movie:
“This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering. Only one man dared to challenge their power: Hercules. Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen. A strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful Queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be: HERCULES.”
In fact, there are quite a few signs that the producers of Clash of the Titans thought of it as an SF/Fantasy film much more than a Classical epic: the hey-day of which had already passed two decades earlier, anyway. The use of stop-motion animation obviously does recall one earlier epic – that is, Jason and the Argonauts. But it has a much more firmly-established pedigree in the SF/Fantasy genre, through films like King Kong, the Godzilla movies or most of Ray Harryhausen’s other films. The climactic scene in which the Kraken rises up out of the sea to devour the princess Andromeda even contains direct nods to King Kong: not only do we have the basic device of an enormous monster menacing an attractive young woman, but he also bats at Perseus flying around him on the back of Pegasus, just like the giant gorilla had batted at the aeroplanes buzzing around him on top of the Empire State Building. I am not the first person to notice the striking resemblance between Bubo, the mechanical owl who communicates in clicks and whirrs that only Perseus can understand, and R2-D2 from Star Wars, either – whether coincidental (as Harryhausen claimed) or otherwise.
It is also a distinctly meta-referential film. We see Zeus directing the affairs of mortals by placing clay figurines in a scale model of a theatre, like a director masterminding his scenes – or, in this case, like Ray Harryhausen placing his own models. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’-world equivalent of the same theatre, Perseus meets a poet-cum-playwright, Ammon, who has already written a poem about his miraculous escape from a watery death as a tiny baby – scenes which we as the audience have witnessed at the beginning of the film. It is Ammon, too, who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ for the rest of the film (itself a classic SF/Fantasy trope) by telling him about the beautiful princess Andromeda and her plight – thus providing in-story direction for the main character. And when Perseus has finally fought off all the monsters and got the girl, Ammon happily comments, “This would make a fine heroic poem, you know. Or perhaps a play.” Or, indeed, perhaps a film. It’s too long since I have watched Jason and the Argonauts for me to remember how prominent this sort of content was in that film – although I certainly do remember its famous scenes of the gods playing games on Mount Olympus which are then enacted for real on Earth. It’s interesting, though, and perhaps something which the film’s rather tongue-in-cheek fantastical character provides extra room to play around with.
A couple of other clever features which rather tickled my fancy included the use of real ancient sites, merged with set-dressing and long shots of scale models to create an appropriate setting for the action. I was especially impressed by the use of one of the temples from Paestum to serve as the home of Medusa on the Isle of the Dead. Here, the ruined state of the temple becomes not a flaw to be hidden with clever camera-work, but something that is positively apt for the isolated, crumbling lair of a terrifying monster. So for once we have ruins as ruins, rather than seeing them trying to masquerade as recently constructed, yet inexplicably poorly-maintained, contemporary buildings.
I also thought that the scene where the statue of Thetis in her temple at Joppa comes to life and begins speaking directly to the terrified crowds was a great way of conveying how people understood and interacted with cult statues in the ancient world – very much as avatars of the deities whom they represented, with the god or goddess inherently present within them. It reminded me, too, of a rather similar scene with a statue of Zeus in Disney’s Hercules (1997) – so that’s another version of the Hercules story which may very well be drawing on the legacy of Clash.
Then again, there were things to be disappointed about, too. I couldn’t help but notice that Perseus’ great quest essentially consists of him stomping about the place vanquishing women (the Stygian witches, Medusa), people with deformities or disabilities (Calibos, the Stygian witches) or animals (a budget Cerberus with only two heads, Medusa, the scorpions, the Kraken). And OK, so most of that is just imported directly from Greek mythology. Greek men do seem to have spent an awful lot of time inventing Others whom they could then loathe, fear and condemn – and if you try to rule that out of modern re-workings of their stories altogether, you end up with precious little left. But in the case of Calibos in particular, I felt that there was some distinctly unpleasant contemporary politics-of-otherness going on as well. Because his monstrosity is not represented not just via horns, a tail and a stooped posture, but also through dark skin and tight curly hair.
In other words, this particular monster is distinctly Afro-Caribbean-looking. So the heroic white man gets to be racist as well as misogynistic and ableist. Fun times! :-( Realistically, I don’t ask cheesy entertainment-fests like Clash of the Titans to actively challenge and tackle attitudes like that. But it would be nice at least if they could manage not to add gratuitous new negative stereotypes where they aren’t already inherent in the source material.