As a child of the early 1980’s, few films sparked my imagination the way Clash of the Titans (1981) did. Even though it followed visual FX extravaganzas like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Superman, Ray Harryhausen’s painstaking stop motion work was still more than capable of inciting wonder in my young mind. The film, in fact, started a lifelong love of fantasy and mythology for me. I watched it countless times on HBO (along with the aforementioned Star Wars and Superman films), so it was a pleasure for me to revisit the film as an adult, in honor if its 40th anniversary.
Grab your sword, your shield, your helmet, and your golden owl, and travel with me back to the time of Zeus (or at least the time of Ronald Reagan) to pay tribute to a stop motion, fantasy classic!
Clash of the Titans (1981) Synopsis
Perseus, son of Zeus, goes on a perilous quest to marry Princess Andromeda and rescue her soul from the clutches of her evil captor, Calibos. Along the way he must battle mythological monsters, consult with the Stygian Witches, and pit a Titan against a Titan: using the severed head of Medusa to defeat the seemingly invincible Kraken.
Desmond Davis (Girl With Green Eyes) directed the film from a screenplay by Beverley Cross (Jason and the Argonauts). Clash of the Titans stars Harry Hamlin (“L.A. Law”), Claire Bloom (The Haunting), Ursula Andress (Dr. No), Burgess Meredith (Rocky), Maggie Smith (Harry Potter franchise), and Sir Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man).
The film’s tagline, “Experience The Fantastic” proudly adorns the official movie poster!
Release and Reception
Clash of the Titans was released on June 12, 1981. The film opened in 2nd place that weekend, behind Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. It debuted in 1126 theaters and earned just over $6.5 million, en route to a $70,000,000 worldwide gross. That hefty box office haul (for the time) made it one of the biggest grossing films of 1981.
Reviews were mostly positive. Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 Stars out of 4, calling it a “grand and glorious romantic adventure” and “a lot of fun.” Ebert’s cohort, Gene Siskel, also awarded 3 1/2 Stars out of 4, calling the film “a special effects spectacular that succeeds brilliantly as an old-fashioned adventure film.” Variety trashed the film as “an unbearable bore.” Aggregated, Clash of the Titans carries a Fresh Rating of 68% positive on Rotten Tomatoes with a 70% audience score.
Time Magazine opined: “The real Titan is Ray Harryhausen.” That’s a recurring theme in nearly every review from the original release. Critics either praised Harryhausen’s work and thus, the film, or they dismissed it all out of hand. This is, after all, primarily a Ray Harryhausen showpiece. The man had plenty to say about Clash of the Titans. Check out his wonderful and informative interview with the FX wizard below.
Good VS. Evil
Every films needs a hero. The audience is introduced to Clash‘s hero, Perseus, from the very beginning. In the opening scene, an infant Perseus and his mother are entombed in an ornate coffin and cast out to sea by the King of Argos. This angers Zeus, King of the Gods, because Perseus is Zeus’s son. Zeus orders Poseidon, God of the Sea, to unleash the Kraken on Argos. The Kraken attacks and levels the city, leaving no one alive. So here, in the first fifteen minutes of Clash of the Titans we find that the Gods are mighty, petty, and vengeful, and mankind and its cities are subject to the Gods’ cruel whims.
Just as every film needs a hero, so, too, must it have a villain. Our villain is Calibos, son of the sea Goddess Thetis. He is betrothed to Andromeda and destined to rule Joppa and all of Phoenecia. But Calibos, like the King of Argos, also incurs the wrath of Zeus. Calibos has run wild over Zeus’s lands and killed all but one of his beloved winged horses. Only Pegasus remains. Zeus curses Calibos, mutating him so he is as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. It is interesting, and fitting, that the King of the Gods, Zeus, is directly responsible for creating both the hero, and the villain in this film
Calibos’s mother, Thetis, is outraged that Zeus would do this to her son. She sets out to defy Zeus and take her revenge on Perseus himself. Thetis lifts Perseus from the island where he grew up, and sets him right in the heart of Joppa. And right into the heart of the action!
A Hero’s Journey
After his arrival in Joppa, Perseus meets and befriends an old poet named Ammon (Burgess Meredith) and a Joppan soldier named Thallo (Tim Pigott-Smith). Perseus learns of the princess Andromeda and the curse of Calibos. He decides he must rescue her, and ultimately marry her. But only if he can solve the unsolvable riddle and break the curse.
Zeus orders the Gods to send help to Perseus. That help arrives in the form of a golden shield, sword, and helmet, each imbued with special magic. Later, after Perseus loses his Helmet, the Gods send a quirky mechanical owl, Bubo, to help. This is all very cool stuff! If you ever played Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s or 1990s, you can rest assured these magic items more than likely made an appearance in your local campaign. I digress…
What follows is a grand adventure and a true Hero’s journey. Perseus defeats Calibos and solves the riddle. Outraged, Thetis orders Andromeda be sacrificed to the Kraken or Joppa will perish the way Argos did. Perseus and Thallo go on a quest, battle giant scorpions, the Stygian Witches, a giant, two-headed dog, and Medusa herself before returning to face off against the Kraken.
Can Andromeda be saved? Does Perseus emerge victorious? It all unfolds before you on a brilliant canvas of technicolor glory. I loved it. You will, too.
Clash of the Titans was a gateway to fantasy for a generation of moviegoers, not just me. The early 1980s was a haven for sword and sorcery and fantasy films, and Clash of the Titans stands proudly among the best of them. Ranker and Rotten Tomatoes list it among the Top 75 fantasy films of all time. I know I certainly can’t make a “Top Fantasy Films” list without including this little gem.
Clash of the Titans won Saturn Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith), Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith), and Best Fantasy Film. It also took home the Young Artist Award for Best Motion Picture – Family or Comedy – Family Enjoyment. That’s an important award, because this is, at its heart, a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family. I’m looking forward to showing it to my own children in the very near future!
This was the end of an era for stop motion creatures. Ray Harryhausen left an indelible mark on Hollywood with his visual FX work and creature designs. Times change. Technology advances. But the legacy remains. Clash of the Titans was, and remains a tremendous swan song for him. Sadly, Ray Harryhausen passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on and will continue to live on because of films like this.
- Filmed at Pinewood Studios in London (and on location) in 1979. Released in 1981.
- Michael York, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Chamberlain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all considered at one time for Perseus.
- Ursula Andress and Harry Hamlin developed a personal relationship on set and had a son together in 1980.
- Actor/Stuntman Pat Roach appeared in both Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Top 2 films at the Box Office June 12, 1981 weekend.
- The first Ray Harryhausen film to get a rating other than “G.” Clash of the Titans was rated PG for violence and nudity.
- A four part Comic Book sequel, Wrath of the Titans, was released in 2007.
- In addition to the Comic Book sequel, the film spawned a toy line in 1981 and feature film re-imaginings in 2010 and 2012.
- Laurence Rosenthal scored the film. Famed James Bond composer John Barry was originally chosen, but Harryhausen didn’t like the demos.
- Ray Harryhausen’s final film in a Visual FX role.
Clash of the Titans – Final Thoughts
What can I say? I love pretty much everything about Clash of the Titans. Greek Mythology fasicnates me, so I enjoyed seeing these Gods, Titans, and monsters brought to life on the big screen. This film has it all: action. Romance. Adventure. Horror. All wrapped up in an epic hero’s quest. With an amazing score! Laurence Rosenthal’s haunting, original music will stick with you long after the credits roll. I loved this movie back in 1981, and it still has a special place in my heart, 40 years later.
Clash of the Titans is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and even VHS on Amazon! You can also rent it on a variety of digital services for $3.99 or less. If you’re in the mood for some old school, throwback fantasy fun for the whole family, I recommend it highly.
What do you think? Are there any Clash of the Titans fans out there in PopHorror land? What do you have to say about the film in honor of its 40th anniversary? Tell us in the comments!