The auteur theory generally holds for directors when discussing film. However, until looking it up hardly anyone remembers 1963's Jason and the Argonauts director. What comes to mind immediately with a mere mention of this Greek myth are Ray Harryhausen's special effects, especially those swashbuckling skeletons that would still be battling if they only knew how to swim. Long before CGI, Harryhausen fashioned definitive stop motion action models, and they continue to mesmerize forty years later—as well they should since they inspired virtually every special effects artist of today, who invoke his name as a god more often than the ancient Greeks called upon Zeus!
Among the many film treatments of Greek myths, Jason and the Argonauts remains the most sophisticated and represents the standard against which all others are measured. And it's not just due to the pioneering special effects follow up to Harryhausen's success with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Location filming of exteriors south of Naples adds greatly to the production, particularly the shooting of the Harpy sequence at the ancient temples at Paestum, Bernard Hermann adds another memorable score, and screenwriters Beverly Cross and Jan Read adapt Apollonious Rhodios' poem "The Argonautica" with sufficient dramatic flair.
So effective is the motif of Zeus playing a Mount Olympus game of chess in the affairs of men that it has been borrowed by subsequent films, including Clash of the Titans, often cited as its main competitor for genre supremacy. The fact that Jason (Todd Armstrong) doesn't rely solely on the gods and that Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) likes his stubborn independence signals deeper themes than rote lessons about accepting your fate and obeying the gods. As Hera (Honor Blackman) remarks that their influence will fade when men stop believing in them, Zeus indicates that he's resigned to that fate.
Fate plays a huge role in the story, yet human choice still comes into play. The film opens with a soothsayer examining ashes to inform Pelios (Douglas Wilmer) that he will triumph over Oristo, take over his kingdom, but inevitably lose it to one of his three children. Of course, Oristo stupidly attempts to change his Fate, resulting only in propelling it towards its course. One of the children escapes, and in twenty years a man wearing one sandal is destined to take back the kingdom—naturally, this is Jason.
Old Pelias remains somewhat clever within the boundaries imposed by the gods, and he quickly backs Jason's plan of sailing to the ends of the world to seek the Golden Fleece that will bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom and ensure the support of the people. But how to find a proper ship and a worthy crew brave enough to sail where no man has gone before? Without Captain Kirk around, Jason must summon help from the gods, and this is where the screenplay goes beyond the usual adventure fare. Jason doesn't believe in the gods, so it takes some strong convincing to make him rely on their assistance—an actual visit to Mount Olympus for a face to face meeting with Zeus and Hera.
So Jason learns enough to realize he can't go against the edicts of the gods and accepts the limited assistance that Hera will provide, but he refuses direct gifts from Zeus—preferring to find a ship and crew on his own. The bravado expressed by this miniature "chess piece" impresses Zeus, and he begins his predictably perilous, impossible journey—meeting various monsters and obstacles fashioned by Harryhausen.
Largely faithful to the heroic Jason myth, the actors hit their marks adequately without being overly cheesy and getting in the way of the effects. Younger audiences may wonder what the big deal is after seeing modern state of the art computer generated effects, but consider the "sticks and bones" technology of the times to get a feeling for Harryhausen's artistry before jumping on the jerkiness of the titan Telos that creaks to life after Hercules disobeys Jason's orders on the Isle of Bronze. Harryhausen had always wanted to create a "Colossus of Rhodes" and does so effectively in this stop motion scene—a smooth running live statue just wouldn't work as well. Go watch Jurassic Park or Star Wars: The Phantom Menace if fluid motion is what you demand of your giant action figures—this is the original art that inspired the guys at ILM.
Not everything relies on stop motion animation techniques. To save on time and budget, the filmmaker inserts a human Triton to save Jason's ship from the crushing rocks, relying on standard blue screen techniques to get the proper perspective. Still the highlights rely on recreating the adventure with judicial use of Harryhausen's creations. Today, the two harpies and seven headed hydra may look "ordinary" despite the mind-boggling complications of co-ordinating the multiple neck movements of the latter, but those sword wielding skeletons continue to amaze. They take me back to my pre-teen days where I feel like King Aeetes—"There's one! There's another!" Jason and the Argonauts was never designed to be great art, but it visualizes the Greek myths better than any other film and is a lot of fun, making it an essential film for anyone to see at least once. Older viewers, historical film aficionados, and special effects artists will watch it many more times.
Note: The two sided DVD (to allow a choice between widescreen and the inferior full screen versions) contains a brief interview with Ray Harryhausen that discusses behind the scenes anecdotes and gives a great look at one of the original cotton-filled skeleton models used in the film, making this a worthwhile collector's item.