A Colossus of Adventure: 1963’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS

REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks — and their comics adaptations…


“Some people say ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Citizen Kane.’ I say ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ is the greatest film ever made.Tom Hanks, 1992

It was 60 years ago that special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen created what many consider to be his finest cinematic achievement, Jason and the Argonauts. Based loosely on The Argonautica, written in the 3rd Century BC, the film tells the story of Jason, son of the slain king Aristo. The gods themselves guide Jason as he goes on a series of adventures to find the legendary Golden Fleece, so he can reclaim the throne against Pelias, the would-be ruler who killed his father and sister.

Jason builds a ship, the Argo, and assembles a team of brave men to accompany him, including the mighty Hercules, whose bravery and strength often outpaces his common sense. Also on board is Acastus, son of Pelius, who is a spy for his father. During this adventure, Jason and the Argonauts face numerous magical creatures, like the shrieking Harpies, the sea god Triton, the giant metal statue Talos, the multi-headed Hydra, and an army of sword-wielding skeletons.

Jason and the Argonauts, which premiered June 13, 1963, was directed by Don Chaffey, who helmed the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon and Shawkshank inmate Andy Dufresne’s favorite movie, 1966’s One Million Years B.C. It stars Todd Armstrong as Jason, Douglas Wilmer as Pelias, Nancy Kovack as Medea, and Nigel Green as Hercules. The fact that these actors did not become household names due to their association with this film says less about them than it does about the scale of Harryhausen’s work.

To this point, almost all of Harryhausen’s previous films (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20,000 Miles to Earth) were relegated to “B” movie status; that is, they played as the second feature to what the studios considered the more impressive “A” feature. However, once Columbia got a look at Jason and the Argonauts, they promoted it as the lead film.

To our modern eyes, Jason and the Argonauts is a lot of sweaty guys talking in between The Good Stuff. As played by Armstrong (dubbed entirely by another actor), Jason is a fairly dull hero, and the Argonauts are a relatively indistinguishable bunch. Only Nigel Green’s bombastic Hercules really stands out among the crowd. His confidence is such he defies no less than the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman), who warns Jason and his men all not to steal anything from the Isle of Bronze. Hercules’ defiance leads to dire consequences.

But none of that really matters because Ray Harryhausen delivers so spectacularly. Aided immeasurably by the legendary Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score and fantastic sound effects work, bolstering the visuals (the incessant shrieking of the Harpies, the grinding metal sounds that accompanies all of Talos’ movements, the rattling of the skeleton army’s bones), the big set pieces of Jason and the Argonauts remain so fun and wonderfully executed that they get you through the many overly talky scenes.

One odd detail about the film is that it seems to stop midstream. Sure, Jason acquires the Fleece, but he’s still on his way home when the film ends and Zeus tells Hera he “is not done with Jason,” suggesting we’re in for a whole series of films. Sadly, that was not to be, because JATA was a mild box office disappointment. Luckily, that did not stop Harryhausen—he kept working and would deliver some even more impressive visual effects work for movies like the aforementioned One Million Years B.C., The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (my personal favorite), and Clash of the Titans. Movie audiences would catch up with Jason down the line, and after not too long, the film became regarded as a classic, with big screen heavyweights like Tom Hanks and Peter Jackson singing its praises.

Part of the fun of writing these REEL RETRO CINEMA columns is discovering when an older film had a (to me) heretofore unknown comic book adaptation—two of my favorite things in one place! So you can imagine how happy I was when I learned that Dell published a Jason and the Argonauts one-shot in the summer of 1963. Ray Harryhausen’s work—so mind-blowing on the screen—is perfect for the budget-less world of comic books.

That said, a lot of the adaptations for older films can seem a little dated to modern tastes. And it’s unfair (if not downright mean-spirited) to metaphorically pull an old comic out of a longbox and make fun of it because it seems so out of date, decades later. No one working in comics at the time (OK, maybe Kirby or Eisner) thought this stuff was going to be relevant for more than the month or two it sat on newsstand shelves. But, even with that low bar firmly in place, the Dell version of Jason and the Argonauts is strictly dullsville, man.

Written by Paul S. Newman and drawn by John Tartaglione, Jason and the Argonauts the comic starts off wrong from the very beginning—the cover. Why, when you had multiple Ray Harryhausen creations to use, did Dell decide to use a photo of the shirtless Triton? Not the Harpies? The Hydra? Talos? The Skeleton Army??

To make matters worse, Newman and Tartaglione decided to retain a lot of the jibber-jabber, cut the Harpies and Hydra scenes way down, and reduce the skeleton army fight—the film’s big climax—to just a page and a half before the whole thing wraps up. We all know that Dell Comics, the Talos-like giant of the industry at the time, avoided Comics Code Authority scrutiny by ensuring their comics were so kid-friendly that no parent could ever find even a single panel objectionable. Unfortunately, that sometimes meant Dell could produce a comic so stiff and lifeless that it read like a giant metal statue trying to come to life.

One imagines what Marvel or DC—just a decade later—could have done with a Jason and the Argonauts adaptation. Artists who excelled at period fantasy like Gil Kane, John Buscema or Walt Simonson could have sunk their teeth into material like this, and produced something more in the spirit of Ray Harryhausen. Oh well.

Uninspired comic book aside, Jason and the Argonauts remains a wonderful adventure, filled with enough eye-popping action scenes to enthrall kids of all ages. It may be 60 years old, but it remains timeless.


— The Kitschy Greatness of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Click here.

— RAY HARRYHAUSEN: 13 FABULOUS MOMENTS Created by the Filmmaking Wizard. Click here.

ROB KELLY is a podcaster, writer, and film historian. He is the host of various podcasts on The Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Fade Out, Pod Dylan, TreasuryCast, and M*A*S*HCast.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. This is a great movie. I had never seen it until recently. My kids and I were visiting my Dad and he put it on. The kids loved it so much, my youngest decided to be a skeleton warrior for Halloween.

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  2. Saw this when I was maybe 8 years old (at a drive in) and after having just watched the trailer, am stymied why the skeleton army stuck in my head (and nightmares) more so than any other of Harryhausen’s creations.

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  3. Say what you wlll, that comic got me SO fired up to see the movie. I read the covers off it.

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  4. I actually made a reference to the renewing skeleton army in a conversation at work a few weeks ago, using them as an analogy (but to what, I don’t exactly remember). Happy. to say that several people “got it,” though most didn’t, but just accepted it (with good humor) as “typical Mindy talk.”

    Honor Blackman…wasn’t she Pussy Galore* in “Goldfinger?”

    Ever see the original “One Million Years, B.C.?” Stars Carole Landis, Victor Mature, and Lon Chaney, Jr. I actually like it much more than the Welch version. (Though of course I understand why the boys/men love Welch and that fur “bikini.”)

    If “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” is the one in which his love is shrunk by the evil sorcerer, then I’m with you…I love that movie.

    *”I must be dreaming.” My mother’s favorite piece of dialogue in a Bond movie. Always made her laugh. (Me, too.)

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    • And, yes, Honor Blackman was Pussy Galore! (I almost added it as the editor of the piece. Maybe I should have!)

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  5. Hey, what happened to my post????

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