Three films that recapture the feel of one of the books that touched me greatly in childhood, The Heroes by Charles Kingsley.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
The original and still the best, regardless of any commercial success enjoyed by that 2010 pretender. To cut a long story short, Perseus gets to save the princess Andromeda from the Kraken by killing the Gorgon Medusa and using her fearsome visage to turn the monster to stone. He is helped in his quest by a mechanical owl that appears to be channeling R2D2, and the flying horse Pegasus. He is impeded by the brute Calibos (probably derived from Shakespeare’s Caliban), who also has designs on Andromeda, the Stygian witches, and a two headed dog, with various gods and goddesses intervening to help or hinder. Led by a too pretty by half Harry Hamlin as Perseus, the cast seem to be having a great time and there’s a sense of fun about the production as a whole. Harryhausen’s stop motion creations are a joy to behold; not as realistic perhaps as the CGI monsters of 2010, but crafted with soul and skill that makes them seem somehow greater than reality, as mythic in their way as the creatures they portray. Yes, the film is very much a product of its time and dated in many ways, but at the same time there is an ineffable feel of magic to it. Or maybe that’s just the nostalgia talking.
It stars Dwayne Johnson and so I didn’t have high hopes for this, but in the event it was more entertaining than I’d anticipated. Johnson plays Hercules with an almost expressionless mien, with the occasional lapse of concentration to reveal that he is a man haunted by past guilt. The backdrop is not so much mythic as a matter of false reportage, with the legendary labours revealed as quite mundane tasks that grew in the telling and the matter of H’s parentage shrouded in shadows. Our hero is not above using these stories to enhance his marketability as the leader of a group of professional mercenaries. Hired by the King of Thrace to train his army and help stamp out a revolt, H learns too late that he has picked the wrong side in a war that is now very much his business. He needs to confront the demons of his past if he is to meet his greatest challenge. With its emphasis on how fantastic stories become accepted as fact, this is a film that has fun with the narrative conventions of Greek mythology, cleverly playing on the old saw about there being a grain of truth in every legend. I also liked the way in which it shows essentially good people being used in a bad cause, abetting a tyrant in oppressing his people, though here I felt that the film could have addressed such ideas even more explicitly, asking questions of an “ends justifies the means” nature and how far we are prepared to go. The characters were all well done, with each member of H’s elite band of warriors given distinguishing characteristics and distinct personalities. The battle scenes were impressive, without verging over into complete silliness, and the use of CGI was restrained and effective. In the end though, for H the real battle is with the monsters of the Id, and to triumph in the battle against others he first has to overcome himself. While I don’t feel this was a classic, even a classic of a genre so small as that derived from mythology, it was a good way to pass a couple of hours, entertaining without insulting the intelligence.
Having consorted with Perseus and Hercules, we now encounter Theseus, though apart from the name and a battle with something that could be a Minotaur (or maybe just a really, really big warrior with a bull helmet) any resemblance to the classic story ends there. King Hyperion, a man with a personal grudge against the gods, is seeking the Epirus Bow, a weapon that he can use to release the Titans and end the reign of the Olympians. Theseus doesn’t have much love for Zeus and co either, but when Hyperion’s soldiers attack his village and kill his loved ones the young man knows which side he is on. With the oracle Phaedra and chosen others, he leads the resistance, but it’s only with the Titans’ release and the direct intervention of the gods that things can be brought to a head. Directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell and The Fall), this is, as you’d expect, a very visual film, with a predominantly dark backdrop illuminated by the occasional splash of colour, and mythic themes incorporated into a plot grounded in the realism of conquest and bloody warfare. Theseus, played by Henry Cavill, initially has more in common with Hyperion, with a similar attitude to the Olympians, but in seeing how far Hyperion will go to further his cause Theseus learns moderation, that the ends does not justify any means. Mickey Rourke as the fanatical Hyperion dominates the film with his presence, the embodiment of Nietzsche’s dictum about what happens to people who fight monsters, but he has a goal many of us can identify with, even if we don’t like his methods, and is given credible motivation for how he feels and acts by the things that happened in his past. Add in lots of well-drawn supporting characters, epic battle and fight scenes, not least of them Theseus’ showdown with Hyperion, and a restrained use of CGI; the end result is an excellent film, one that pays respect to its source material but isn’t afraid to go beyond their boundaries to deliver a story with implications for the modern world and touching on age old themes. I liked it very much.