Skip to content

Ray Harryhausen

As mentioned here, finally the post about Ray Harryhausen—not before time, as his work loomed large in my childhood!

(I’m assuming everyone knows who Ray is, and what stop-motion animation is…)

Stop-motion is, of course, long since deprecated, especially since the wonders of CGI took over everything and made the world of cinema so much more entertaining and lovely. Maybe I’m being a little facetious. Maybe I just prefer the human touch and don’t feel shiny perfection is the be-all and end-all of everything. How old-fashioned!!

Ray, like everyone else who saw it as a kid, became absolutely obsessed with the original King Kong (1933) when he got to see it during its original run. The ground-breaking visuals in Kong (especially the stop-motion work) inspired Ray to pursue the field himself. Unlike everyone else, he actually got to meet FX pioneer Willis O’Brien, who became his mentor.

Kong was my absolute fave as a little kid (still is, really). Well, how could you not love this fella?

King Kong

A love of Ray’s own work was a natural progression. I had the pleasure of seeing his final two movies, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1978) and Clash of the Titans (1981), at the cinema during their original runs. And then I waited for his next project. I remember seeing an interview with him in a movie magazine around 1985. I was excited to read if he was planning a new movie, but it wasn’t to be. In this interview, he made it clear he was retired; he also reflected that his techniques were obsolete and modern cinema had no use for him. It made me really sad to read this. I’m glad he received so much appreciation and recognition in his final years.

Recently, we watched no less than four of his classic movies on Blu-ray… a few visuals and comments to follow…

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

This was Ray’s first movie credit, appropriately enough as Willis O’Brien’s assistant (although Ray ended up doing a large amount of the work alone), in what is unofficially the final part of the “Kong Trilogy”. It really has nothing to do with Kong, or its fun but somewhat sappy sequel Son of Kong (also 1933), but it was made by the same creative team—producer Merian C Cooper, director Ernest B Shoedsack and, of course, effects maestro O’Brien—and features a very big ape. So it’s kind of a spiritual sequel.

All three films also star Robert Armstrong, who by 1949 was pushing 60, and was given a rather iffy toupee in an attempt to disguise the passage of time! Mighty Joe‘s female lead, Terry Moore (20 years old at the time but playing a teen), is still with us at the time I write this, now aged 93.

Mighty Joe Young 1

The FX work in Mighty Joe is, at times, much more complex than the earlier films and, at its best, is executed brilliantly. The above shot combines Joe with a live-action lion and the result is damn near seamless.

Mighty Joe Young 2

The current BD/DVD print features the climactic orphanage fire sequence in its original sepia tones, for dramatic effect (see below). It was the first time I’d seen the film this way… my previous viewing, on UK TV about five years ago, was the regular B&W print.

Mighty Joe Young 3

One thing Mighty Joe really gets right is that Joe survives! It made dramatic sense, of course, for Kong to die, but the needless, heartless killing-off of his smaller, cuter progeny in Son of Kong left a really bad taste… I think the production team understood that killing off Joe was an absolute no-no.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

Now this film is Ray’s first credit where he is solely responsible for the FX wizardry, and he pulls it off with style. It’s a big monster flick, of course, featuring the completely made-up dinosaur Rhedosaurus. The big guy is revived from his ages-long slumber in the Arctic by a nuclear bomb test.

20,000 Fathoms 1

Although based on a short story by Ray’s lifelong friend, Ray Bradbury, the nuclear bomb angle was devised in fleshing out the plot for a feature-length movie.

20,000 Fathoms 2

Ray gets to do a lot of interesting & fun things visually when the beast hits the streets of NYC, as above.

It’s worth noting this movie predates the famous Gojira (Godzilla) by more than 12 months. Some people, Ray included, believed the similarities were less than coincidental.

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)

The second of Ray’s mythological epics, following 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sindbad. The Greek myths are a great source of concepts to play with, even if we always seem to favour the bastardised Roman naming (Hercules instead of Heracles, etc). The bronze giant Talos surely inspired one of Ray’s most striking visual creations.

Argonauts 1

But the real show-stopper has to be the Hydra, which is beautifully realised.

Argonauts 2

Oh, did I forget the skeletons? No! But the first time Ray used the skeleton animation was 7th Voyage—and I may do a post on all three Sinbad movies, so we’ll cover the bony ones there!

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)

Gwangi started out as a project developed by Ray’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. Although Obie died in 1962, a very different version of the idea finally came to fruition here. For me, this was a big childhood fave simply because it had dinosaurs (I was a big dinosaur fan!). The chief monster, the titular Gwangi, is an Allosaurus (or is it really a T-Rex?). The model work for Gwangi really is terrific, with some wonderful detailing.

Gwangi 1

Especially memorable is the long battle, towards the climax, between Gwangi and an anatomically inaccurate elephant! Incorrect it may well be, but it looks good!!

Gwangi 2

It must be said that the Blu-ray presentation of these films does absolutely show the “joins” a lot more than we remember back in the day. The process involved in combining live-action and animation generated heavy grain and detail loss, especially in the earlier films (by the ’70s, it was much improved), which high def reveals fully, warts & all. Does this bother me? No. It is what it is—technical limitations don’t diminish the craft on display.

And of course, I’ll take this over any amount of CGI. Call me Boomer!

5 thoughts on “Ray Harryhausen”

  1. Chrissie,

    A great look at the masterful work of Harryhausen. Like you, I feel there is nothing like the personal touch of a craftsman. It is unique and much more compelling than any CGI effects.
    Love King Kong of course, but Mighty Joe Young and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are personal favorites.

    1. One of my favourite moments in King Kong was the scene in which a T-Rex wanders into the background and absent-mindedly scratches its nose. Ray was clearly equally as taken with this flash of personality, since he never missed an opportunity to have his creations *act*, a skill which appears largely lost in this age of CGI.

  2. When I was about ten, I saw 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and it is by far my favorite Harryhausen film. I was obsessed with the Cyclops, who had an amazing personality and mannerisms, and the battle between him and the Dragon is beyond wonderful.

  3. Chrissie,
    Your enthusiasm makes me want to watch these films again. I’ve only ever seen them on TV so it would be good to see them in higher definition. A drawback for me was always human interaction with the ‘monsters’ – the animation was always more successful without people involved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.