The recent death of Ray Harryhausen inspired me to watch the first of these three films, and the fact that they were the only recent fantasy purchases I hadn’t yet watched decided me on the other two.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
I loved this film when I first saw it as a teenager and I love it still. It captures perfectly the feel of the Greek myths, which I encountered as a child filtered through the medium of Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes. The gods play their games with us mere mortals, giving a kingdom to one man only to then oversee his death at the hands of another, and call it all fate. Jason is the hero who acts as their pawn, but at the same time he finds a measure of defiance, daring to dream of a time when things will be different. Nonetheless, you cannot help feeling that his determination to steal the Golden Fleece from the King of Colchis makes him little better than the indifferent Olympians, placing his own desires above any higher moral law and the rights of others. All of which is by the by, as the appeal of this film is in Harryhausen’s creations, the giant Talos, the harpies, the skeleton’s sown from the dragon’s teeth. It is dazzling stuff, as breathtaking now as it was all those many years ago when I first saw it, the appeal not dimmed by the greater potential of CGI. We’re off the map. Here be dragons. Here be the magic of stop-motion. Hail Harryhausen.
Solomon Kane (2009)
A character created by Robert E. Howard, Kane is a ruthless mercenary, the leader of a band of killers for hire, who abandons his violent ways when he learns from a demon that his soul is forfeit to hell (you’d think it would have occurred to him before, given all that murder and mayhem). But then he is forced to abandon his newfound pacifism when a young girl he has vowed to protect is stolen by the servants of an evil necromancer, and the quest to save her leads Kane back to his ancestral home and a fight with the older brother he left for dead many years ago. This didn’t do too well at the box office as I recall, but I rather enjoyed it. James Purefoy in the title role is suitably dour and laconic for the Puritan Kane, but this isn’t really Howard’s character and so his interpretation seems slightly off kilter in a story driven by CGI, and with a necessity for each action scene to top what has gone before. While the CGI pales compared to Harryhausen’s work, seeming quite soulless, I can’t deny that it is visually impressive, and the film is at its strongest when depicting scenes of a ravaged England, bleak and arid landscapes, people living in squalor and fearful for their lives. I can’t help wondering what they might have achieved if they’d stayed faithful to the source material, worked with shadows instead of filling the screen with monsters. This was worth the pound I paid for it, and I may watch it again at some point, but it will never have the hold on my affections that Jason does.
Dark Crystal (1982)
Strange thing – when I first attempted to watch this, I had to give up as it all seemed a bit Clangerish; second time around I stayed the course and loved it. The film is animated, courtesy of Jim Henson and Frank Oz (the Muppet men) and with creatures designed by the artist Brian Froud. It’s set on a world dominated by two dying races, the benign Mystics and the evil Skeksis, who rule with the aid of their Garthim servants. Only the Gelfling Jen can heal the world and cause it to regenerate through repairing the dark crystal. There’s an almost childlike feel to this film, something akin to the reputed sensawunda beloved of science fiction aficionados. You revel in the evil of the reptilian Skeksis and the atrocities of which they seem capable, enacted by the crablike Garthim, and opposed to them is the power of the gentle, placid Mystics, who seem distinctly ordinary in comparison, the lavish lifestyle of the former versus the bucolic contentment of the latter. The film’s makers seem to realise that both are one-dimensional, absolute good as tedious and lacking in potential as absolute evil, and there are various clues in the narrative that prime us for the final revelation, both races are parts of an incomplete whole. Their ‘healing’ is achieved through the intervention of Jen and Kira, the last of the Gelflings, and it is with their race that the future lies, they are the inheritors, the ones who may still aspire. It’s a slow film, frustrating at times, but ultimately rewarding.
I also watched a video compilation DVD Britney Spears Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, but enjoyable as they undoubtedly are, those type of fantasies lie outside the scope of this blog post.
So what fantasy film favourites do the rest of you have?