Clash of the Titans (1981)

4 out of 5

Directed by: Desmond Davis

Yes, I am absolutely rose-tinted in my viewing of this film. It was a mainstay during my youth, and had repeated viewings as I grew up, continuing through relative adulthood when I eagerly checked out the remake – which I also enjoyed. However, I don’t think I’m permanently subjected to such bias experiences of things I dug as a kid, and so I do think there’s a lot that Clash of the Titans does very well that allowed it to stay watchable and fun over the years, and also why I’m not the only kid for which it was a noteworthy film – and surely also not the only kid who understood that the effects were janky, even then, but had a great time all the same.

So let’s quickly review what the flick doesn’t do well, which is mostly down to things that would be pretty important in any other movie: character, and scene-to-scene plotting. As to characters, there practically are none. There are actors – and good ones, filling out some hollow roles with a lot of screen presence – but I haven’t learned a lick about who or what motivated Perseus, or why, exactly, he was all gaga for Andromeda, and even the “easy” characterization of Zeus as the eternal jerk is kinda open-ended. Clash gets a pass because we’re working in mythology, and so it’s all about the general heave of the tale from one emotional state to the next (petty gods; lovelorn or jealous humans), but there’s really zero attempt at convincing us that there are rationalities driving these heavings – it’s clear we’re at the whim of whatever lore writer Beverly Cross wanted to stuff in there. Similarly, director Desmond Davis / cinematographer Ted Moore are functioning completely at the whims of whatever was needed for Ray Harryhausen’s effects to work (or work well enough). There’s no real personality or look to the movie – it is a camera pointed at excitement, so we can ogle it. Fair enough. Lastly, there are the, eh, details – little time-wasting distractions that don’t make much sense, but are there just to carry us from scene to scene, and justify why Perseus isn’t just an OP hero who saves the day as soon as he’s gifted all his magic gear. This stuff is pretty fleeting, and so it’s not a huge knock by any means – Clash’s near 2 hour runtime goes by super quick – but, again, even as a kid, I sort of thought it was silly how, like, soldiers are getting slain by Cerebus while Perseus accidentally dropped his giant-killing sword underneath a snake.

But:

I mentioned the actors, and they bring all the needed zest to the screen to excuse their cardboard cutout roles. Hamlin is all dreamy-eyed wonder as Perseus; Judi Bowker’s Andromeda shows an intelligent sparkle beyond her otherwise one-note damsel; Burgess Meredith’s Ammon – Perseus’ buddy – is sort of our humble point of view, and he’s immediately welcoming in that sense; and Laurence Olivier strikes the perfect tone as the offhandedly assholish Zeus. This thing is made for scenery chewing, but it’s not quite that – it’s more the actors allowing themselves to sink into their archetypes, and it works.

The major piece, though, is how Clash of the Titans just keeps moving, and keeps tossing new things at us. This is what smoothes over the aforementioned jankiness of the effects, as well as the herky-jerky plotting: there’s hardly a fifteen minute stretch without some new creature or quest on which to focus, and the energy of quirkiness of Harryhausen’s work makes even the jankiest of jank fun to watch. Even with more awareness of how this stuff was done, it becomes rather more impressive – the braveness of bringing so many live and animated elements together, along with fog, and flame, and water. It never convinced; it never looked real; but I’ve never felt that to be the point. Clash was this oddball, cosmic, larger-than-life tale, and so it was fitting that it didn’t try to pretend like its giant scorpions and flying horses were flesh and blood. Yes, some of the compositing is very bad – Poseidon near the Kraken’s gate; the opening destruction of the city – but these also get a pass when stacked up to how many exciting and kooky scenes are in the movie, and which are presented with gleeful enthusiasm. This momentum is why I feel the movie continues to work where other older pics fall flat after an initial view or two – even on a recent rewatch, I questioned if all of the scenes I remembered were in this movie, or maybe I was confusing them with another, but no – they’re all there; they’re all from this one movie. It’s jam-packed.

So Perseus spies on a chick while she’s sleeping – not creepy at all – and falls in love, and then has to save her from being fed to a sea monster. There’s a flying horse, and a medusa, and, why not, a mechanical owl. If you’re one of the blessed few who hasn’t seen it, set your MCU expectations aside and start with a fresh page – I think Clash is a hard movie to not at least be successfully distracted by, if not wholly enjoy.