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By Emma Thom on

Animating antiquity: Ray Harryhausen and the classical tradition

Our conference with Leeds University explored the ways in which Ray Harryhausen has shaped our perception of the classical world in modern popular culture.

In 2011, in partnership with Classics at Leeds University, we held a conference that sought to explore the relationship between Ray Harryhausen’s films and the classical world of myth; not only the influence of the ancient world on Harryhausen, but also the ways in which Harryhausen has shaped our perception of the classical world in modern cultures such as television, cinema and video gaming.

Animating Antiquity: Harryhausen and the Classical Tradition took place on 9 November 2011 during the Bradford Animation Festival. Over 30 delegates heard a programme of nine papers delivered by academics from the UK and USA that engagingly explored different aspects of how stories from the Odyssey and the Arabian Nights have been interpreted on film by Harryhausen, and how these interpretations have in turn influenced later versions.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones of the University of Edinburgh looked at how the Greek gods had been depicted in the two films based on the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), looking particularly at sets and costumes, while in a later paper Stephen Trzaskama of the University of New Hampshire contrasted the different roles of Zeus and the gods’ relationship to the mortals as played in the two films.

In Jason and the Argonauts, the gods are shown as playing a game with the mortals for their own entertainment and becoming engaged with them—much as we would watching a television drama. Clash of the Titans, however, sees Laurence Olivier play Zeus as a commanding role, controlling the way the story develops so that Perseus fulfils his destiny.

Taking his cue from Ray Harryhausen’s insistence that his creations are ‘always creatures, never monsters’, Dunstan Lowe of the University of Kent examined how today’s writers, filmmakers and animators approach Greek mythology in the Percy Jackson novels, The Immortals and games such as God of War, finding the creatures lacking the fundamental humanity of Harryhausen’s creations. The capacity of today’s CGI technology—which allows animators to create enormous, spectacular enemies which meet ever-more violent ends—has, he argued, transformed the nature of the Greek hero from an upholder of peace to a rebel.

Eleanor O’Kell from the University of Leeds looked closely at the depiction of the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and how it has profoundly influenced later portrayals in the TV series Lost in Space (1965–68) and even Monsters, Inc. (2001) in which, of course, one-eyed Mike Wazowski takes his girlfriend to Harryhausen’s Restaurant.

The development of the Argonautic myth from Homer through William Morris and Robert Graves to Harryhausen and beyond was the subject of Helen Lovatt’s (University of Nottingham) paper.

Looking closely at Harryhausen’s depiction of the Harpies and Earth-born warriors (for certification reasons, Harryhausen felt they had to be skeletons rather than rotting corpses) she showed how Jason and the Argonauts had led to a spate of children’s books with illustrations based on his visualisations, turning a story previously the preserve of adults towards a youthful audience.

Anthony Keen of the Open University convincingly demonstrated how elements from Greek mythology—the Cyclops, Minotaur and Centaur—had been appropriated for Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad films and how these had also influenced the two Greek myth adaptations, with the use of skeletons from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in Jason and the Argonauts, the transformation of the cobra woman into Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and so on.

Brock DeShane, film producer and writer, looked specifically at the settings of Harryhausen’s films and their referencing of 18th and 19th century depictions of classical and ancient architecture—even in films set in the 20th century such as Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

The influence of the 18th century also finds its expression in Harryhausen’s use of the ‘surprise reveal’ within scenes; a favourite device of garden designers of the period, with their fondness for follies and temples in their created landscapes.

Liz Gloyn from the University of Birmingham applied a gender studies approach to the creatures and the landscapes in which they appear in the two versions of Clash of the Titans.

In Harryhausen’s 1981 film, the feminine, through Thetis the goddess of water, is a dominant theme with the creatures—the Kraken, Kalibos and Medusa—living in, or close to, water.

The 2010 film, however, moves the creatures to the Underworld, the male preserve of the god Hades, and a place that can be simply understood as a repository of danger and evil. However, this change loses the narrative richness of aspects such as the ambiguity of motivation provided by Thetis’ love for her son, Kalibos, in Harryhausen’s version.

Finally, Steven Green of the University of Leeds provided a further examination of the 2010 Clash of the Titans, looking at aspects of motivation and personal identity in the film: a reinvention of the Perseus myth for 21st century audiences that engages with individuals’ concerns in coming to terms with their own identity and relationship with society. Naturally, this prompted discussion which rounded off the conference in a lively manner.

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