Originally posted on Lunch.com on August 1, 2011.
This list is dedicated to fellow sci-fi, fantasy, and classic special effects enthusiast Karen (QUEENBFLIX). I hope this will give her her Harryhausen nostalgia fix.
When I think back on the history of special effects in films, there are a select number of people who immediately spring to mind for their resourcefulness, their innovation, their creativity, and their audacity to go beyond the boundaries of what has been done before without knowing whether their efforts will end in success or failure. It requires a great deal of imagination and patience to create scenes of fantasy and spectacle that are realistic enough to enable viewers to suspend their disbelief while at the same time providing them with a uniquely heightened quality that reminds them of the wonders of the motion picture medium. Of the many great special effects artists that have risen in prominence, it’s hard to imagine anyone as celebrated and inspiring as Ray Harryhausen.
It’s rare for a person who works behind the camera to receive the same kind of acclaim and kudos of those who are thrust into the spotlight. Additionally, it’s not often that a special effects creator is even more revered than the directors, writers, and actors with whom he has collaborated. Yet Ray Harryhausen has achieved this kind of fame through his technical wizardry and his generosity in giving moviegoers what they crave: adventure.
With this list I hope to showcase Harryhausen’s extraordinary talent and his miraculous manipulation of models, puppets, and stop-motion animation to create vividly realized scenes of the fantastic.
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Ray got to meet his hero Willis O’Brien, the man responsible for the groundbreaking combination of stop-motion animation and live-action in the classic adventure films The Lost World and King Kong, and was given critical advice on how to create more realistic models. Ray took that advice to heart and years later he worked with O’Brien on another fantasy-adventure film starring a stop-motion animated gorilla, but it wasn’t King Kong this time, rather Mighty Joe Young. The film improved upon the animation seen sixteen years earlier in Kong and the use of animated models interacting with actors was even more impressive.
In one scene, not entirely dissimilar to a scene in Kong, Mighty Joe Young is taken to Hollywood and forced to be part of an act on stage, but things go awry and the giant gorilla displays both his power and his fierce dislike of being exploited by having a tug-of-war and battling a group of strongmen, including famous Italian boxer Primo Carnera.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Not only was it one of the first great monster movies of the 1950s, not only was it inspired by a short story by Ray Bradbury, not only was it the first film collaboration between producer Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen, it’s also got the best title of any disaster flick to exploit Cold War paranoia and atomic fears to make a classic movie.
As it turns out, an atomic bomb test in the Arctic causes an ancient dinosaur-like creature called Rhedosaurus to awaken from it’s frozen state of hibernation and terrorize the world. Originally the story by Bradbury was quite short and simply told of a dinosaur that was attracted to a lighthouse by the sound of a foghorn and after having attacked the lighthouse, the lighthouse collapsed on the dinosaur and killed it. Well, that wouldn’t do for a film version, so it was decided to have the dinosaur survive the battle with the lighthouse and go after an entire city of people instead. Why not? It worked for Godzilla in the Japanese film Gojira one year later.
Just about any scene of the Rhedosaurus wreaking havoc and destruction is classic. The lighthouse scene is indeed iconic and captures the seed of the idea of Bradbury’s short story and the attack on the city is simply stunning for its day.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
In It Came from Beneath the Sea, Ray Harryhausen continued to show his predilection for creating colossal monsters and having them devastate famous landmarks. This time he utilizes a giant octopus, though in reality it’s a hextopus since he only gave it six tentacles, which ravages the Golden Gate Bridge. The film’s story, like so many stories during the ’50s, was a cautionary tale about bomb testing and the dangers that nature could unleash upon humankind if technology was not kept in check. Between a love story, commentary about military conflict, and a good-old-fashioned disaster film plot, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
The aforementioned attack on the Golden Gate Bridge is probably the only real moment that is remembered from the film by casual moviegoers, but it is a doozy and an iconic scene of epic proportions.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
Ah, the 1950s and the fear of outsiders coming in to destroy American civilization… sounds like a good inspiration for an alien invasion film to me. What a great analogy for Cold War anxiety!
Aliens are attracted to a satellite system created by the Americans and the damn Americans fire on them out of fear for their lives and inadvertently start a war between humankind and the aliens in their flying saucers. Let the war on famous landmarks commence! Ray Harryhausen employed some interesting techniques in this low-budget favorite that manages to rival, if not surpass, the effects in films that cost twice as much at the time. The story, which bears resemblance to H.G. Wells‘ War of the Worlds and was the inspiration for Tim Burton‘s Mars Attacks!, is fairly dated in terms of acting, special effects, and storytelling, but it makes up for that in campy fun and nostalgia.
The aliens attacking Washington, D.C. was so shockingly unforgettable that not only was it mimicked and imitated and parodied in countless other films, but it helped to boost tourism to the Washington Monument during the ’50s. I wonder if Ray got any extra money out of that deal.
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
When it boils down to it, 20 Million Miles of Earth is basically King Kong with an alien instead of a gorilla and minus the jungle love story which has been replaced with an Italian love story. The film is about a space shuttle returning from Venus and crashing into the Mediterranean Sea. Inside it carries an unexpected visitor, an alien egg specimen which is found by a young boy who then sells the egg to a scientist, where the egg hatches and the Ymir, a Venusian reptile creature, is born into captivity. Later as the Ymir grows, he frees himself and escapes out into the world where he is met with fear and violence at the hands of his Earthling enemies, all the while he tracks down sulfur which enhances his power and causes him to grow. As a metaphor for escalation and fear-induced violence, the story is as relevant to day as it was in 1957, perhaps more so.
There are a lot of great scenes in this film including the scene in which the Ymir first gets a taste of human hostility when an ignorant farmer and his dog go after the poor creature in a barn. Another wonderful scene is the Ymir’s fight with an elephant (again recalling Kong) and his final stand atop the Roman Coliseum.
But for its simplicity, epic scale, and iconic quality, I have to say my favorite scene is the discovery of the shuttle in the sea, the image of a giant brought down in ruins just really encapsulates the whole message of the film.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
After a slew of science fiction disaster movies featuring giant creatures destroying famous landmarks, both Ray Harryhausen and his long-time friend and producer Charles Schneer decided that it was time to move on to something new and different. Science fiction had ruled the cinema during the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s when aliens and giant monsters became symbolic of political concerns, yet by the late ’50s these films had all but blended together in their unoriginality, so Harryhausen and Schneer made the decision to test the waters of another genre: the fantasy adventure. In their minds, the first thing that had to be done was to find new monsters, so the two looked to the ancient past and old myths from around the world, and then Ray came upon the perfect hero to battle these monsters… for who epitomized adventure better than the daring sailor Sinbad? In 1958 the result of their imaginations was unleashed upon the screen in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the first major motion picture to feature the merging of stop-motion animation and live-action in dazzling Technicolor!
Like the Middle Eastern legends which inspired it, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was chock full of astonishing adventures in which Sinbad and his brave crew came up against the strange and fearsome forces of evil. However, unlike in the original legends, Harryhausen took some liberties and had Sinbad face-off with creatures from other mythologies such as the cyclops. He would also introduce the world to what would become his most famous creation… the stop-motion animated skeleton warrior, who later would be given an iconic treatment in Jason and the Argonauts.
Sinbad also fought against a giant two-headed bird called the Roc and a monstrous fire-breathing dragon. But there were other special effects that didn’t utilize animation that were just as memorable such as the ‘shrinking’ of the princess and the appearances and disappearances of the Genie.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
While the 1960s ushered in a new era of science fiction that was more realistic and thought-provoking than the previous decade, fantasy films remained as gloriously imaginative and light-hearted as ever and this fun adaptation of the classic Jonathan Swift satirical novel is proof. Though it didn’t feature as much stop-motion animation as the other films Harryhausen worked on, it did give him the opportunity to explore the possibilities of playing with the scale of his characters as Gulliver (played by Kerwin Mathews who had been Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) visited different environs where he was either a giant capable of ending a war single-handed or a tiny little man who could be threatened by a mere domesticated cat.
Among the most memorable scenes in the film are those in which the different scales of the characters are emphasized in extraordinary shots using either trick photography or special effects. The most famous of these images in the iconic image of Gulliver as he awakes on the beach to discover that the tiny Lilliputians have tied him, however ineffectively, to the ground.
Mysterious Island (1961)
As an adaptation of the classic Jules Verne tale, Mysterious Island comes off as something of a disappointment when one takes into consideration the many liberties that the film takes with its addition of giant creatures bred by the notorious Captain Nemo. However, as a work of cinema the film is an incredible and engaging work that in some ways becomes more imaginative and more adventurous than the its source material. The story follows a group of people escaping the violence of the American Civil War as they take off in a hot air balloon and end up being caught in a storm which carries them far out to see and leaves them stranded on an island full of uncanny creatures and great dangers. The action sequences are simply breathtaking.
There are many scenes which manage to burn their way into the memory banks of viewers. For me, the battle with the giant crab is absolutely marvelous in both its conception and execution (however I’m sad to say that the model was not created by Harryhausen so much as preserved by him, if you catch my meaning) due to its fantastical realism.
The sequence with the giant bee is also one which is haunting for many children who can’t help but wonder what a bee sting from a bee that size would feel like.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Quite easily one of the all-time greatest fantasy films, Jason and the Argonauts, which was written by Beverley Cross who later penned the last film Harryhausen worked on, Clash of the Titans, became a classic of adventure and fantasy and remains a beloved film. The film upped the ante on action, but more than any other film that Harryhausen created effects for, it was also the best acted and most well-written. The story was inspired by the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, in which Prince Jason cannot ascend to throne because it has been stolen by his wicked uncle Pelias, but he is told that should he obtain the legendary Golden Fleece his kingdom shall be returned to him. The film takes the basics of the myth and breathes new life into them by incorporating elements of other myths and adding a bit of political intrigue to the story as Jason is manipulated by Pelias and his son as well as standing up to the very gods of Olympus themselves.
Almost every frame of this movie is memorable as far as I’m concerned and there can be no doubt that the iconic scene in which Jason and his Argonauts battle seven reanimated skeleton warriors is one of the most amazing scenes ever put on film. The scene in which Jason and his men rescue a blind seer, Phineas, from the vulture-like harpies is also stunning in its execution. Not to be forgotten is the battle between the Argonauts and the giant man of bronze, Talos, who comes to life after Hercules steals from the vaunted treasure Talos guards. The fight between Jason and the six-headed Hydra is another stunning example of how talented Harryhausen was at working with multiple elements and bringing them together seamlessly.
But still, nothing compares to that final scene with the resurrected skeletons for its sheer audacity and precise animation.
First Men in the Moon (1964)
Based upon the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, this retro sci-fi tale from 1964 tells of the creation of a space vehicle which is launched into space via an anti-gravity substance dubbed Cavorite and lands on the moon with a small group of lunar explorers lead by Arnold Bedford. What they aren’t prepared for is what’s waiting for them beneath the surface of the seemingly serene moon. Bedford, his fiancée Kate, and a scientist named Joseph Cavor (played to campy perfection by Lionel Jeffries) discover that there is intelligent life after all, but it’s not what they or anyone would expect. A race of ant-like men, called Selenites, live underground and they interrogate the humans after very quickly establishing an understanding of English and as it turns out plan to use the Cavorite to attack Earth.
All in all, the story is very dated, but there’s a charm here that is reminiscent of Disney‘s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The introduction of the Selenites is quite memorable even though they don’t really pose much of a threat in terms of their appearance despite their insidious nature. The appearance of the ‘moon-cows’ (don’t ask me why that name actually got used), giant space caterpillar-like creatures that are similar to the worms in Dune, are also very memorable.
Perhaps the most unforgettable scene is the scene depicting the Victorian space craft being hurled into space and landing on the moon.
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Ray Harryhausen animation, Hammer Films, dinosaurs, and Raquel Welch as a sexy cave-woman in an animal skin and fur bikini. What more could one ask for?
This 1966 fantasy-adventure film has gone on to become a cult classic and for a number of very good reasons mentioned above. The anachronistic story elements which bring humans and prehistoric beasts together isn’t the film’s strong point and it sure doesn’t act as an historically accurate guide to the life of neanderthals, but as an alternate history or as a pulp adventure, it works rather nicely. The film is remembered for its cheesiness and especially for the iconic image of a scantily clad Raquel Welch as Loana the Fair One.
More so than any other Harryhausen film, this one is more memorable for the appearance of its stunning starlet than for any single special effect or piece of animation, but having said that there is some great animation here of various dinosaurs and particularly of battles between dinosaurs such as the one featuring the triceratops and the ceratosaurus.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Capitalizing on the success of the previous anachronistic meeting between humans and dinosaurs, The Valley of Gwangi goes to even greater degrees of pulp magazine silliness and adventure by introducing Weird West elements. So, what you end up with is a rousing action film about cowboys and dinosaurs. The story owes something to the 1925 silent film production of The Lost World and there are a number of sequences which are clearly inspired by that film, but the tone is less serious and more playful.
This is the only Harryhausen film I’ve never seen in its entirety and thus it makes it hard to say what the most memorable scene is, but from what I have seen of it the most iconic scene would have to be the one in which a small group of cowboys lasso the allosaurus Gwangi. The scene is stunning in how seamlessly it combines the live-action actors on horseback with the stop-motion Gwangi and how the ropes which go from one to the other match.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
It’s hard to argue the adventurous appeal of Sinbad, though the follow-ups to the 1958 adventure never reach the same level of high quality entertainment of the original. Part of the problem comes from the direction which feels rather lackadaisical, part of the issue arrives from the casting as none of the actors to portray Sinbad after Kerwin Mathews manages to be as convincingly heroic or fun-loving, and part of the fault can be placed with the dull and unoriginal villain. But it cannot be denied that the special effects improve with each Sinbad film and 1974 sequel The Golden Voyage of Sinbad features a stunning array of effects including one fight scene that was very much ahead of its time. Sure the plot is silly and there are gaps of logic in the story that are so large Sinbad could sail his ship through them. Who cares?! The films are still a great deal of fun and with eye candy like Caroline Munro and the living figurehead of the boat.
Considering that the budget was less than a million dollars, something unheard of in action films at that time, the special effects here are even better than those in the first film. The fight between the savage one-eyed centaur and the noble griffin is pure Harryhausen magic and like many of the monster versus monster fights owes a debt to the scene in the 1933 King Kong where Kong battles a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Another scene that took the action to new levels involved the figurehead of Sinbad’s ship being brought to life by an evil magician’s spell which then caused the figurehead to attack the crew. But undoubtedly the most memorable and impressive scene has got to be the one in which the evil magician brings a statue of the six-armed Hindi goddess Kali to life and makes it do his bidding.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
At once, it is one of the weakest and greatest of the Sinbad films. What it lacks in coherence and acting it more than makes up for in its sheer excitement and pulpy fun. The script, which was written by Beverley Cross (the only Sinbad film he ever wrote), has all the classic elements of a good pulp fiction adventure and sword and sorcery. There are plenty of clever anachronistic touches and tongue in cheek jokes that knowingly and lovingly poke fun at the film. It’s this self-referential humor, the interesting cast, and the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen that make this one memorable. Oh, and then there’s the beautiful young Jane Seymour barely clothed in an Arabic harem outfit. Who could forget that?!
Actor Patrick Wayne who portrayed Sinbad in this film is the son of legendary Western actor John Wayne. Patrick Troughton who plays the Greek philosopher, alchemist, and metaphysicist Melanthius was the second actor to play Dr. Who.
The sexy young Taryn Power, who plays Melanthius’ daughter, is the daughter of the matinee screen idol Tyrone Power.
Well, Jane Seymour and Taryn Power‘s brief, partial nude bathing scene is certainly memorable.
Seriously though, the film’s use of animation is just as great as the prior installments, although there are fewer scenes of stop-motion. The prince who is turned into a baboon and remains so throughout the film never achieves the realism of the other animated characters, but that’s forgiven as he lends some unintentional humor to the proceedings… as does the attack of a laughable giant walrus. The bronze robotic minotaur remains an iconic figure in my mind. And obviously the addition of Trog the troglodyte is very memorable and his battle with the sabre-tooth tiger is simply brilliant.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Ray Harryhausen realized that with special effects being evolving and with the use of new techniques such as animatronics, the marriage of stop-motion animation and live-action may come to an end, so the last film he worked on was the Desmond Davis directed 1981 fantasy film The Clash of the Titans. The film was inspired by the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa, but featured some uniquely modern twists including the addition of Pegasus and a clock-work golden and silver owl named Bubo.
While the film was a success at the Box Office, though perhaps not quite what it was hoped to be, mainly due to the smash hit Raiders of the Lost Ark being released on the same day, it has since been praised by prominent film critics and historians as being some of Ray’s best work and it has developed a very loyal fan base. Harryhausen had hoped to follow the film up with two more mythological fantasy films, but as tastes in films changed, and audiences gravitated more towards science fiction and violent action films, Harryhausen became disenchanted with the politics of filmmaking. Later in 2010, a remake was released, but the film was widely panned by critics for its deviation from both the original Greek myth and the 1981 film. It was also criticized for its overabundance of computer generated effects, which lacked the hand-made charm and imagination of Ray’s stop-motion models.
There are so many wonderful scenes in which Harryhausen shows his mastery of his art form and creates images on screen that are so wondrous and thrilling that it’s a bit difficult to attempt to select just a few as being the most memorable.
Undoubtedly, the climactic confrontation between Perseus and Medusa is a masterpiece, but I’m also equally fond of the battle between Perseus and his allies and the giant scorpions, and there are few who will ever forget the appearance of the formidable Kraken. Yet the most stunning work in the film may not even be the action scenes, but rather the use of two characters (one which hasn’t always been given proper respect): the flying horse Pegasus and the mechanical owl Bubo.