Monday, June 29, 2009

Multiple Digressions on Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen turns 89 today, and though computer-generated special effects replaced his style of stop-motion animation quite some time ago, he remains the spiritual father of my idea of giant movie monsters.

I have idolized the man’s work from the day my mother dropped me off to see Jason and the Argonauts while she went shopping. This was in downtown Altus, Oklahoma, and the theater was the same one where I had seen Bob Hope’s Call Me Bwana* just the week before.

Harryhausen studied his craft under filmmakers George Pal and Willis O’Brien, whose 1933 film King Kong had inspired him to become an animator. I had seen King Kong on television, of course, and had been especially terrorized by the shot of Kong parting treetops to get a good look at helplessly captive Fay Wray—but thrilled by Kong’s fight with a tyrannosaurus rex.

I had, in fact, been introduced to Harryhausen’s work earlier. I had seen his 1953 movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on late-night TV and been similarly traumatized by the monster’s gulping down a policeman on a busy Manhattan intersection. I was also an avid reader of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which ran numerous articles on Harryhausen and his special-effects techniques.

In Jason, Harryhausen’s genius was pointed out in four sequences—the giant bronze man Talos, the attack of the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the battle against an army of skeletons. Each of these scenes stands alone as a monument of movie magic, and though the in-between action and dialogue are often sketchy (though never outright camp), these four scenes are the reasons we recognize the movie as a classic**.

The Talos sequence, in particular, is the one that sticks in my imagination—and probably played a small role in developing my fixation on tall men (a thrilling mix of terror and sexual attraction to this day).

The film’s American leads, blandly handsome Todd Armstrong and blandly lovely Nancy Kovack, both of whose voices were dubbed by British actors, were continuously upstaged by Harryhausen’s jerkily animate wire-and-latex models and, apart from Armstrong’s dark, even tan, made no impact on me whatsoever.

Other aspects of the human cast, though, did have an impact. The filmmakers’ decision to cast fortyish, hairy, and not-at-all-ripped actor Nigel Green as Hercules—instead of a more Steve Reeves type—might initially be expected to disappoint. But Green’s performance is superb—probably the best acted version of Hercules ever (not saying much, but something still)—and while not breaking any taboos on the depiction of homosexuality in film, this movie at least portrays with sensitivity and compassion Hercules’ love for Hylas (John Cairney, who played a eunuch the same year in another epic of the classical world, 20th-Century-Fox’s Cleopatra***). On some level, I think, the subtext of this male-male love story struck a chord in my pre-adolescent mind.

More overtly erotic, for me, was a minor character, Euphemus, who at one point strips off his toga to wrestle the evil Acastus underwater. Acastus stabs him, and poor Euphemus floats belly up like a goldfish. Doug Robinson****, the stunt man who plays Euphemus, looked a lot like the choir director at the Baptist church my parents and I attended in Altus, and so for months afterward I’d get a woody just at the thought (the hope!) that the song leader’s white shirt and tie would bust open to reveal smooth, glistening, sinewy pecs.

None of this is meant to imply that Harryhausen is a gay man or a classics scholar—I have no reason to think so—or to distract in any way from this wonderful man’s birthday. But it is interesting to me to note the impact movies had on me and others of my generation. A monster movie for kids stirred my immature sexuality and left me with a lasting love of mythology and classical art and literature, filling in for what my conservative straight parents with no college education could not provide for my hungry gay pagan soul, stranded in an aggressively heterosexual and "Christian" culture.


*Because Call Me Bwana ostensibly takes place in Africa, where I was born, I idiosyncratically searched the opening credits for my name, on the off chance I had appeared in the film—somehow—time comprehension and reality in general were particular challenges to me for at least another year or two.

**And not just to me. Before handing Harryhausen an honorary Oscar in 1992, Tom Hanks said, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made."

Also, I don't mean to totally dismiss the rest of the screenplay, whose potentially subversive theological content I have written on elsewhere.

***I didn’t get to see Cleopatra (the in-its-day highly controversial spectacle starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) until, some months later, my family moved to Yokota Air Force Base in Japan—and I might not have seen it at all, if it weren’t for the Shermans. My parents had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie, which they regarded as probably vulgar and immoral, as advertised, although—weird yet typical of them—they had no problem in my going to see it, if I wanted to. Ordinarily this would not have posed a problem, but theater managers barred children without their parents from seeing Cleopatra when it was first released.

But it so happened that the first people my parents asked over to a home-cooked dinner in Japan were Sgt. Sherman and his wife. Over dinner, the Shermans casually mentioned that they were going to see Cleopatra later that night—the last showing at the base theater. I begged them to take me with them, and they agreed to act as my surrogate parents—a small victory for mid-sixties civil rights, in my opinion, because the Shermans were black.

I suppose it was the hints of nudity and frank depiction of adultery that caused the movie to be restricted. For me, like many moviegoers, the most memorable part of the movie was Cleopatra’s way-over-the-top arrival at Rome, with Julius Caesar’s illegitimate son bouncing in mini-pharaoh drag on the queen’s lap—though Alexander the Great’s alabaster-encased corpse also stuck in my mind for years later, too.

****Robinson also appeared in Ben-Hur (further complicating my inner conflict between Christianity and homoeroticism) and taught judo to actress Honor Blackman (Catherine Gale on TV’s The Avengers and, of course, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, another formative movie in my childhood, but that's another story altogether).

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