Blu-Ray Review – The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume 2: 1961-1964

This set might be the best of the three collections of Ray Harryhausen’s films which Powerhouse put together this year. This dual-format set includes the following three films: Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon.

Mysterious Island is based on the Jules Verne book, but it’s a relatively loose adaptation. Verne was having a bit of comeback in the 50s and 60s, including Richard Fleischer’s version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney, which was a smash hit in 1954, Around the World on 80 Days, which won an Oscar, and several more. It helped that Verne’s work had gone into the public domain not long before, as had the work of H.G, Wells, leaving it open for filmmakers to use without payment. Mysterious Island is basically a Lost World-meets-Robinson Crusoe story. Union soldiers in a Confederate prison camp manage to escape using a balloon and end up on an island where there is a volcano and all kinds of amazing monsters, including giant bees and a giant crab.

It is technically a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways, because Captain Nemo reappears and there is also character overlap with the second film. (Disney also did a version of In Search of the Castaways the year after). Nemo is played by a Czech actor as a sort of Eurasian type—not quite as close to the reality as the 70s version in which Omar Sharif starred.

It is of course loads of fun –not too long, and full of cool Harryhausen stop-motion animation. The highlight is when they are trying to escape from the island. They can’t use the Nautilus to get off the island, and have to fight off a giant real nautilus as they try to escape. It was directed by Cy Endfield, a slightly underrated American director who worked in Britain due to the blacklist. He also did Helldriver, The Sound of Fury and other films noir. Endfield is best known as the director of Zulu.

Jason and the Argonauts is a bona fide classic at this point, and probably Harryhausen’s best film. It melds his style with Greek mythology, and is surprisingly faithful to the original myth (more so than several other films that use it as a starting point). Only the most family-unfriendly bits of the tale have been left out. Harryhausen also used a hydra instead of a dragon, but Hercules appears in the story for a bit—and besides, a hydra is much cooler-looking than a dragon. It’s Harryhausen at his best, although The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Clash of the Titans come close. The battle with an army of skeletons is absolutely one of the best sequences in cinema.

Finally, there is First Men on the Moon, a 1964 film based on an H.G. Wells book. It has a really clever framing device: the UN is launching a rocket to the moon, thinking it will be the first time humans have been there, but then they find a note claiming the moon for Queen Victoria—proving that actually men had made it there in 1899. The film is mostly set in that time period, and of course the science makes no sense—they are wearing what looks like unsealed helmets and diving suits. So the film plays into the space race, which was then the hottest thing possible at the time. It was released as a double bill with East of Sudan in the UK.

There’s not a huge amount of Harryhausen stuff, but it features some very cool aliens with giant heads. The whole film has a slightly trippy feel. According to John Landis, who would know, it’s fairly faithful to the original novel.

All three films have been fully remastered. The 2K restoration version of Jason and the Argonauts here is exactly the same one that came out as an HMV Premium Collection release. The set has quite a few special features: commentaries from the late Ray Harryhausen (I believe his commentary track for Last Men on the Moon is the last one he ever did, for the Twilight Time version), interviews with cast and crew, The Harryhausen Chronicles and a Jon Landis interview with Harryhausen, and much more. There are several additional commentary tracks, including Peter Jackson on Jason and the Argonauts, a huge 80-page book with essays by Kim Newman and Tim Lucas, both excellent writers on genre filmmaking.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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