Monday, March 30, 2009

Jason and the Argonauts

One of the things I liked about growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s was that many of the local movie theaters regularly showed older classic films in addition to first-run features. Consequently, I had the benefit of seeing lots of great motion pictures on the big screen that had been released years before I was born. One of the ones I most vividly recall was 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, a movie that I now connect not just with my childhood but also with Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a lot of reasons why this is so, starting with the basic premise of the film (and the Greek myth on which it's based): an adventurer gathers together a band of other adventurers to set off to an unknown land in search of a treasure with which he hopes to reclaim the kingdom usurped from his father when he was a baby. But it's the dangers Jason and his Argonauts face that make me think most of D&D. There's Talos ("called a triple iron golem" in the Dungeon Masters Guide and illustrated by Dave Sutherland in the Monster Manual), the hydra, the harpies, and of course the "children of the teeth," skeleton warriors used by King Ae√ętes of Colchis to try and stop Jason from escape with the Golden Fleece. Those skeletons made a huge impression on me as a kid, as I suspect they did on Gary Gygax. If you check out the nifty skeletons available from Otherworld Miniatures, you'll see that some of them bear shields that are identical to those from Jason and the Argonauts.

Ray Harryhausen was my patron saint as a boy. I ate up all the movies on which he worked, like this one and the various Sinbad films, all of which I saw in theaters during the 70s. Remember that this was in an era before VCRs where readily available and well before there was a huge library of old films available for viewing by later generations. I don't know if my experience in seeing these movies as they were meant to be seen was unique, but I consider myself lucky for having had that opportunity, because my imagination was informed not just by the works of my own time but by those of the generations before me. Maybe that's why, even though I'm younger than the earliest generation of gamers, I still feel like I have a kinship with them. D&D never felt "old fashioned" to me, but perfectly in line with the conception of fantasy I've held since a very young age -- and still do.

I bought a copy of Jason and the Argonauts on DVD this weekend and watched it with my nine year-old daughter. She's got a love for mythologies of all sorts and plays in my weekly Dwimmermount campaign. She's still a little young to quite get into the game on the same level as my friends, but she's a quick learner and I feel a certain obligation to accommodate young people who take an interest in what might otherwise seem a very esoteric hobby. My daughter was a bit frightened of the harpies at first, but she otherwise enjoyed the movie a lot, particularly the hydra. She also took special interest in all the scenes on Mount Olympus, but then, when Honor Blackman is playing Hera, I can't say I blame her. I'll probably try and acquire copies of the Sinbad movies too and watch them with her in the coming weeks. I see no reason why my children should be deprived of the "classical education" I received when I was their age.

19 comments:

  1. I bought a copy of Jason and the Argonauts on DVD this weekend and watched it with my nine year-old daughter...I see no reason why my children should be deprived of the "classical education" I received when I was their age.

    Best kind of father that. It's what me and my Dad used to do on Sunday afternoons, and it's what I want to do with my own (as yet hypothetical) sprogs. :-)

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  2. I probably ought to see that one of these days. the extent of my Harryhausen literacy is his dinosaur stuff.

    Perhaps not coincidentally, my games always have at least one opportunity to fight a dinosaur. (Another of the vast number of reasons I am as fond as I am of Eberron.)

    V word: Suntsmod
    Definition: A type of clay high in chalk, commonly found in the province of Sundt, from "Sundt's Mud".

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  3. Very cool. :) My son owns most of Harryhausen's work on DVD, & loves it. Jason & the Argonauts is one of my personal favourites -- I've always loved those skeletons. I still find claymation critters to be at least as scary as those created by modern CGI techniques. The skeletons & other monsters of Harryhausen just have a real, solid feel to them that's absent from most CGI monsters.

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  4. Oh, I agree, we need to give our kids the kind of classical education we received if we're going to develop more roleplayers. In recent months, I've bought and had my kids watch: The War of the Worlds & Day the Earth Stood Still (both from the gloriously paranoid 50's), Forbidden Planet, Jason & the Argonauts, Dragonslayer, and Ladyhawke. I had forgotten about the old Sinbad movies. I'll have to hunt those down as well as Valley of the Gwangi and Rod Taylor's Time Machine.

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  5. Hi ya James,

    Ray Harryhausen was a genius. Both my daughters have been exposed to his wonderful skills and they both agree that his skeletons are by far the spookiest of the bunch.

    And, like you, I was also lucky enough to see all of those films in a theatre as a child. Nothing like watching that iron golem creak across the big screen!

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  6. Coincidentally, I rewatched 7th Voyage of Sinbad for the umpteenth time this last weekend: the Cyclops from this movie has always been my model for what "real" RPG monsters should be like, as well as those glorious skeletons. (Isn't it a shame skeletons are such cheap monsters in most RPGs? I've never felt they got their due for the horrific abominations they are.)

    I don't recall ever seeing these films in the theater, except for maybe the latest, even though I'm older than you. For me, they were a treat on the Sunday afternoon "TV matinee," which also rans those 50s sci-fi films I so love.

    You're so right that these primed an audience, as it were, making them ready for F&F and other FRPGs. Between these and reading so many wonderful stories by Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, et al., picking up the dice seemed the most natural thing to do.

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  7. I love Ray Harryhausen. He's perhaps the only movie person I'd ever care to meet. He seems like a normal and amiable gentleman, unlike the bizarro types so common in Hollywood.

    Of Harryhausen's movies, Jason and the Argonauts is my favorite. I'd love to try a PC party with a total number of 50 (just like the Argonauts) some day.

    My favorite part of this movie is that with Talos. When Hercules and Hylas enter the valley of Talos, and when Talos first moves, is awe-inspiring.

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  8. I've worked with a group here in the Bay Area that puts together film festivals, and our first big one was in 2004, the "Dynamation Celebration". I put together a "Ray's Greatest Moments" slide show that ran before and between the films, and we had guests from today's SFX industry like Phil Tippet, who still love and are inspired by Ray's work. We had a display of original Harryhausen figurines and screened really gorgeous prints of "7th Voyage Of Sinbad" and (I think) "Earth vs The Flying Saucers". Seeing these on the big screen is wonderful, and we had a huge turnout. People still love this stuff.

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  9. Ray is easily one of the Patron Saints of Adventure! I must have watched this movie (and all the Sinbads) two-dozen times as a kid. It was one of the first times I remember seeing a true 'fantasy' come to life!

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  10. Interesting. Now that you mention it, I recall that around about the age of fifteen I hunted down just about every "fantasy" film (including films like El Cid and Spartacus) I could lay hands on (which largely meant scouring the weekly program listings for the four television channels we had available.

    I had dim memories of the clashing rocks and harpies, having seen the films at an age before I could really comprehend them, and was constantly on the lookout to have those memories reignited by watching the films again.

    I was not alone in this pursuit, my friends would largely watch the same films (especially if I recorded them). This was definitely tied to my love of Dungeons & Dragons (imagine my amusement and delight when I discovered Hawk the Slayer for the first time, and disappointment that his adventures were not continued). However, it was really a "chicken and the egg" sort of affair, with Star Wars being one of my earliest memories and introduction to fantasy.

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  11. About 5 years ago I was in Berlin on a long weekend with some friends and we went to the Film Museum located at the Sony Centre. Not much idea of what would be on display there so we were blown away completely to walk into one hall and discover that some of Harryhausen's personal collection was on show AND IT INCLUDED THE ORIGINAL SKELETONS!

    They looked a bit battered, but one was set up showing you how he animated them a frame at a time and we just stood there grinning stupidly at each other because HERE WERE THE ORIGINAL SKELETONS!

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  12. Ha! Got you beat: I saw "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" at a drive-in. Can't get no more old school than that! ;D

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  13. There is this common saying in modern film making that states: Before CGI we couldn't do this stuff.

    It is bull. I too recently picked up Dragonslayer to see if it really was a cool as I remember it being, and was just blown away by it again!

    In regards to Harryhausen, there is a really nice box-set that you can pick up. Any boy who didn't race outside immediately after watching one of those films to have sword-fights with sticks is just abused in my opinion.

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  14. Just in case anyone is under the misapprehension that Ray Harryhausen was, er, he still is. Still making movies, even.

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  15. James wrote:

    Ray Harryhausen was my patron saint as a boy.

    Any creature that appeared in a Harryhausen movie is the model for how they are in my D&D games. Could we settle one thing here and now. Hydras don't have legs. If a slugs body was good enough for Harryhausen, its good enough for me.

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  16. The skeletons & other monsters of Harryhausen just have a real, solid feel to them that's absent from most CGI monsters.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree.

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  17. Ha! Got you beat: I saw "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" at a drive-in. Can't get no more old school than that! ;D

    Nice! I only ever saw a few films at drive-in theaters and I'd like to do so again someday, just to get a better sense of what the experience was like.

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  18. There is this common saying in modern film making that states: Before CGI we couldn't do this stuff.

    It is bull.


    I couldn't agree more.

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  19. Jason and the Argonauts is my favorite Harryhausen film. It was my son's (8 years old) until he watched The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which is now his favorite.

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