The title, Jason and the Argonauts, is slightly misleading. It’s really the story of Zeus, an overworked Greek god who is beginning to tire from the strain of dispensing (literally) earthshaking decisions seven days a week. His loving wife, Hera, is starting to assert her own divine authority and meanwhile, down on earth, mortals themselves are throwing their weight around… they’re beginning to question, for the first time, His Word.
In fact, it’s the betrayal of one of Zeus’ commands that sets Jason’s plot in motion: the warlord Pelias has been allowed to kill and overthrow the King Aristo… but he must allow the king’s children, Briseis and Jason, to survive. The greedy Pelias, hoping for a longer tenure on the throne, disobeys Zeus and kills Briseis. But Jason escapes and grows to adulthood… ready to seek his revenge on Pelias. Fearful of Hera’s command that, if he kills Jason, “you kill yourself”, Pelias tricks Jason into a deadly journey to find the Golden Fleece.
Jason and the Argonauts is about the mythological versus the mortal and so it follows that the film’s visual scheme contrasts the very small with the very big. By combining Harryhausen’s creatures with an elegant and witty script (by Beverley Cross and Jan Read), Jason manages to function as both a nimble account of the origin of Greek philosophy and a monster movie. And what monsters.
From the pitiless, heavy metal attack of the bronze giant Talos (the original Terminator) to the smooth as silk many-headed Hydra, Jason is the quintessential Harryhausen film. Though shot mainly in Italy, the cast is primarily English as was the director, Don Chaffey (The Three Lives of Thomasina). Chaffey gets the most out of material that exposes the Gods as more human than human and, even more daring, genuinely conflicted. Zeus himself (Niall MacGinnis of Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure) is made alternately weary and bemused by the tiny creatures he pushes around on his giant chessboard… he seems genuinely unsure of his next move.
As Hercules, Nigel Green (Masque of the Red Death) is the most earthbound and conflicted of any mythological hero. He’s a victim of real wanderlust and, in a dark moment, his carousing brings his best friend to a bad end. These are all bigger than life, otherworldly characters with down to earth problems… it’s the wonderful irony of Jason that, for once, we identify more with the gods and goddesses than the earthbound mortals.
And never more so than when Zeus realizes that, at the end of the film, he’s been checkmated by forces that even He doesn’t comprehend. As the Argo sails into the sunset, Zeus offers this moving valedictory for Jason: “For the moment, let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze and each other… the girl is pretty, and… I was always sentimental. But for Jason, there are other adventures. I have not yet finished with Jason… let us continue the game another day.”