Saturday, 12 June 2010

Clash of the Titans (dir. Desmond Davis, 1981)


Yesterday was the launch of the latest issue of Rosetta, the departmental journal of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham, and also the annual changeover of the editorial team. I don't have anything in this particular issue, but I'm a specialist editor and I was books reviews editor a couple of years ago so I still have some connections to the journal. For the launch, the team hired the Electric Cinema in Birmingham, one of a few cinemas with a claim to be the oldest working cinema in the UK (it closed for a little while, but is open again now) and put on a special showing of the 1981 original Clash of the Titans.

The Electric is a lovely cinema - it has an arthouse feel to it, with a small bar, cakes on sale and sofas and tables at the back of Screen One from which you can enjoy the movie in real comfort, but it shows major blockbusters as well as arthouse movies and classic screenings. I saw classic French film noir Rififi there a few years ago, a film I would never normally have watched on television never mind gone to the cinema to see, but which I was taken along to by my housemates, and it was brilliant (Rififi is the one famous for a half-hour long silent heist scene, though the rest of the movie is good too!).

Anyway, we were there to watch Clash of the Titans together and see how it compared to the recent re-make. Reactions to the film varied - some had forgotten that certain elements of the new film actually came from the old film, some were more impressed than they expected, others dsiappointed that it wasn't quite as good as Jason and the Argonauts (and contained rather more nudity!). The one thing that was universally popular was the cute little mechanical owl that sounded like it was related to The Clangers, which was more than a bit ridiculous, but far too cute to dislike.

I spent much of the film thinking that no Titans were clashing in this version either, but that maybe I could forgive it since 'Titans will Clash!' was not its tagline and assume that perhaps 'clash of the Titans' was a metaphorical reference to the clash between the 'titanic' deities Zeus and Thetis. Until, that is, two thirds of the way through the film one of the Stygian witches declared in a grandiose manner that pitting Medusa against the Kraken would be putting 'a Titan against a Titan!' Oh dear. As I mentioned when I covered the re-make, not only are neither Medusa nor the Kraken Titans (Medusa is a Gorgon, the Kraken is from an entirely different mythology), but I confess I really don't consider holding the dead head of one of them up at the the other one to be a 'clash' anyway. Ah well, they tried. At least they didn't use the terrible tagline.

There were a number of things about this film that worked better than the corresponding elements in the re-make. Most importantly, the ridiculously high calibre actors playing the gods, chiefly Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Maggie Smith as Thetis, actually had something to do, and real emotions to play. This is because, in this story, the gods experience and act on typical human emotions and human concerns, rather than seeming remote and disconnected. While, as Plato pointed out, this may be theologically unsound, it makes for a much more interesting story and is, in a sense, closer to the way the ancient Greeks told stories about the gods.

On the other hand, the older film does not contain the interesting idea of man railing against the gods that was so central in the newer version. In this film, no matter what terrible and senseless things the gods do, no one ever questions their power or their superiority. Considering what the gods can clearly do, this seems very sensible, but it is perhaps grating to modern sensibilities to see an innocent young woman led out to sacrifice without anyone so much as mentioning that this seems a bit unfair.

Andromeda herself is a curious mixture. At first she seems rather empty, without much personality, and rather shallow (it is initially implied that she was happy to marry Calibos before he was 'uglified', which would make her a wee bit on the shallow side, but once engaged to Persues, she suggests that she was never really that attached to Calibos anyway). On the other hand, she can be brave and stand up for herself, and the moment where she tells Perseus he's not her master yet and she'll do what she likes is quite good. Later, she is led calmly out for sacrifice to save her people - but starts to struggle and try to get away the minute she actually lays eyes on the Kraken. So, all in all, an odd and not entirely consistent character.

The Kraken itself has, perhaps, not aged as well as some of Harryhausen's earlier creations, looking rather like a cross between King Kong and Godzilla, with some extra tentacles thrown in. Whereas the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts look as good now as they did when the film was made, both the Kraken and Medusa look rather bulky, clumsy and stilted in their movements, especially Medusa. Though I have to confess, during the Medusa sequence, the sofas became simply too comfortable and I nodded off for a few minutes, so she may have looked great in between the bits I saw! (I understand that I was not the only person this happened to).

This appeared on I Can Haz Cheezburger today, and made me laugh

The backbone of the plot, which is cut or altered in the new film to make way for the showdown between Aslan and Voldemort, is an original story that seems to be a strange corruption of elements of The Iliad with a bit of nineteenth century monster-within literature thrown in. Thetis, Maggie Smith's character, in Greek mythology is a sea goddess who is the mother of Achilles, played by Julie Christie in Troy. Here, she has a different son, Calibos, who is cursed by Zeus and made into a monster, and he becomes monstrous in personality as well, cursing Andromeda in turn for refusing to marry him and going around murdering people and making friends with vultures (he reminded me a little of the Phantom of the Opera - original book version). Thetis does not react very well to this and it is she that demands the sacrifice of Andromeda. Poseidon once again does nothing except let the Kraken out (in two very amusing sequences where he pops down to the sea bed looking like he's holding his breath) and Hades doesn't appear at all. Perhaps the new version was inspired by Disney's Hercules.

There are lots of fun touches in this movie. I like the statuettes of the mortals that the gods use, which look like playing pieces, and I was amused that the gods don't actually seem to have anything to do except stand around and have a chat in their pretty white robes when they're not cursing mortals. It was nice to see Tim Piggott-Smith, who usually gets given rather slimy or quietly tragic roles, getting to be properly heroic for once. Thetis' reference to Zeus trying to assault her as a cuttlefish got a laugh from everyone, and the conversation between goddesses was nice. Maybe the new version was inspired to cast Atia of the Julii as Cassiopeia by the casting of the Empress Livia as the same character in 1981 - and, just as in their respective TV series, the two are similar, but Livia is more imperious, more powerful and less interested in frivolities than Atia.

Less good stuff included the talking shield, repetitions of the word 'Invisible!' and once again the 'Stygian witches', which don't seem so much like the Fates in this one apart from the one eye thing, but seem to have got lost looking for Macbeth. Perseus' sudden cry of 'We have a flying horse!' got a laugh from everyone, but I'm not sure it was supposed to. Perseus' outfit was rather silly and not nearly as practical as the new one and why did Burgess Meredith's Ammon (a name of Zeus in myth) feel the need to throw cats around? Cruelty to cats is Not On!

The bit at the end about how the stars named for the characters would shine on 'even if we gods are abandoned or forgotten' was rather nice, and this was one of very few moments of philosophical intropection, nearly all from Zeus (though Ammon quotes Herodotus' 'call no man happy until he is dead'). Zeus implies that in the future, the gods may 'no longer be needed', which implies a milder version of the new film's hero's insistence on ignoring them as far as possible, and Zeus also notes at the beginning that a hundred good deeds cannot atone for one murder.

The very cute Clanger-owl, easily the best thing in the movie!

All in all, not the best movie ever made, but certainly not the worst either. I think watching it with a large group of friends helped, as this is a film best enjoyed as a light, frothy evening's entertainment, possibly with some alcohol. It hasn't stood up as well as some other, similar films of the time though, partly because the special effects have aged more noticeably than some others, and the plot and characterisation are too thin to compensate.

7 comments:

  1. I read recently that the story for the new version was completely revised after shooting was almost over. By filming one or two extra scenes and leaving quite a bit on the cutting room floor, they totally changed the entire meaning of the film.

    The original may have aged badly, but it wasn't that great to begin with. These days, I can only see Harry Hamlin as his lawyer character from LA Law. As for the owl, at the time it was simply too reminiscent of both the robot sidekick in Buck Rogers and the stupid robot dog from the original Battlestar Galactica. The late 70s and early 80s had a thing about cutesy mechanical sidekicks. (And the only thing I know about the Clangers is from The Sea Devils episode of Doctor Who, where the Master is watching them on television and trying to figure out their language.)

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  2. Totally irrelevantly to the subject of your post (sorry), you've got a link in your blog roll to PhD woes or writing 100000 words about Martial. It appears to be broken.

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  3. Thanks for the heads up - the blog seems to be defunct so I've removed the link

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  4. Original: Zeus = Laurence Olivier
    Remake: Zeus = Liam Neeson

    Tells you all you need to know.
    D

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  5. Not a bad firm. Medusa would be the delight of any optician.

    Marsia

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  6. On the other hand, Harry Hamlin is a better Perseus then Sam Worthington, who looks perpetually confused....

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