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By Phil Boot on

The legacy of Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa

Phil Boot, collection manager for the Ray Harryhausen Project, explores why Medusa is one of the most recognisable characters in model animation cinema history.

Historian Stephen Wilk has suggested that most people know the story of Pegasus and Medusa through Ray Harryhausen’s depiction of the mythological femme fatale in his 1981 film Clash of the Titans.

Indeed, Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa is one of the most recognisable characters in model-animation cinema history.

Medusa model © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Medusa model © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

For such a pivotal character in the Ray Harryhausen canon of creations, Medusa spends little time on screen—just under five minutes—and yet she plays such an essential role in Clash of the Titans.

Historically and cosmetically different, Harryhausen’s Medusa changed our perception of the character forever.

In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who had once been stunningly beautiful, ‘the jealous aspiration of many suitors’, according to the Roman poet Ovid. She was raped by the god Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, and when Athena discovered them, she turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and gave her the curse of turning all living things that looked at her into stone.

Medusa, Caravaggio c.1598
Medusa, Caravaggio c.1598

A subject that has fascinated artists, writers and poets throughout time, Medusa was always portrayed as beautiful, even in grotesque paintings by Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rubens.

In cinematic history up to 1981, Medusa was probably made most recognisable by her appearance in the 1964 Hammer film The Gorgon, directed by Terence Fisher. Played by Prudence Hyman with rubber snakes in her hair, the character looked more like Cinderella’s Stepmother than a fearsome vengeful creature (Harryhausen never referred to his creations as monsters).

Reference print of Prudence Hyman made-up as the Gorgon, 1964, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL, courtesy of the Roy Ashton estate
Reference print of Prudence Hyman made-up as the Gorgon, 1964, Science Museum Group collection, courtesy of the Roy Ashton estate

The earliest illustration of Medusa in the Ray Harryhausen Collection is from 1977. This representation was soon to be etched in the minds of film audiences around the world.

Sketch of Medusa © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Sketch of Medusa © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Ray designed Medusa to be ‘a striking yet unconventionally hideously ugly demon’—something that was completely different from what film audiences had seen before.

Medusa in Hammer’s The Gorgon had worn a flowing gown, but animating flowing fabrics was virtually impossible at that time, thus an alternative was required.

Harryhausen designed a serpent’s body for Medusa, which complimented the ugliness of her face and created a wholly repulsive creature. Ray Harryhausen is the first artist to ever give her this shape.

But it was not that drawing which sold the concept of Clash of the Titans: it was a bronze statuette made by Harryhausen.

Medusa bronze statuette © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation
Medusa bronze statuette © Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

The bronze sculpture entitled Slaying of Medusa by Perseus, an integral part of the Ray Harryhausen Collection, was cast using the lost-wax process in 1978. It depicts a naked Perseus strangling Medusa while using his shield as a mirror in order to avoid the dreaded glare of the creature’s eyes. It was this bronze sculpture that helped MGM Studio bosses to approve the making of Clash of the Titans.

The legacy of Harryhausen’s Medusa is phenomenal and, as noted by Wilk, certainly has changed the mental image of Medusa for most of us.

Artists, film-makers and designers have paid homage to Ray’s interpretation of Medusa and have given her a serpent’s body, thus reinforcing Medusa’s new public persona.

Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010 by Louis Leterrier, adapting Ray’s original concepts for Medusa, and in 2005, the videogame God of War depicted Medusa in a similar style to Harryhausen’s serpent creature.

It’s credit to Harryhausen’s genius as an animator and an artist that the Medusa sequence is so memorable. Never before, or arguably since, has someone made a serpent look so feminine and graceful, juxtaposed with ugliness, suspense and terror.

Medusa can be found throughout the Ray Harryhausen Collection. She, rather than an actress, was used to shoot close-ups in scenes, and Ray made lots of copies of the model which were used to assist the lighting of scenes, so that the latex on the Medusa would not degenerate under the constant heat of studio lights.

The Collection also includes many drawings, storyboards and sketches of Medusa illustrated by Harryhausen, and though she may not stalk Greek heroes any longer, she now spends her days lurking in museums around the world.

For more information about the Medusa sequence, take a look at:

  • An Animated Life, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
  • The Art of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
  • Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy Scrapbook, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton

6 comments on “The legacy of Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa

  1. Over 30 years since I first saw Clash of The Titans and the marvel of Ray Harryhausen’s work still astounds me. For me this is the pinnacle of stop motion animation. Many have tried but none have equalled the mastery of Harryhausen’s work. Along with Calibos, Pegasus, and The Kracken this film is still at the top. Happy memories of growing up and being inspired by the skill and craft work of a master at work.

  2. I will never forget the moment when Ray handed me the Medusa model in his home in 1983 or 1984. I almost dropped her on his desk because she was so unexpectedly heavy. Examining her in detail, I was amazed to see that she was articulated down to her fingertips. Even the snakes on her head had ball and socket joints. The way her shoulders moved when you moved her arms…just incredible craftsmanship.
    I miss Ray Harryhausen a lot. He was a great presence in my life and I am proud to have met him in person.


  3. The first time I saw cyclops in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad I was horrified by its looks.
    To this day it and all of Ray’s creations are nightmares. He did such a fantastic job!
    CGI doesn’t even come close. Even though you knew it was a split screen and claymation, it still is frightening. The detail on each creature is amazing then add movement and sound and you have a nightmare. Fascinating. Thank you for creating this page of information, it was a great read..

  4. I think it’s also worth pointing out the bow that Harryhausen’s Medusa wields. I’m not aware of any prior Medusa depictions which had her using that weapon (or any other), yet it seems like the most common armament for Medusae who use weapons.

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