Clash of the Titans (1981) From Myth to Movie

If you have spent any amount of time reading about the Greek gods the one big takeaway you will most likely get is that the gods were a bunch colossal dicks. Take ever human foible, explode them way out of proportion, give them all various super powers, and that is basically the Greek gods, but this also made for some kick as stories. The Greek pantheon of gods is easily the best mythological creation – certainly kicking the crap out of Christianity’s boring “one god” theme – and so it’s no surprise that these stories have been adapted numerous times over the centuries. Once special effects in movie making reached a point where the impossible seemed possible we finally got to see these stories in movie form, and at the top of the heap of such works would be the movies of producer Charles H. Schneer and stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen.

This duo brought some of the greatest fantasy stories to life, from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights and the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor to the fantastic tale of Jason and the Argonauts, and today we will be looking at their final collaboration, Clash of the Titans. In all of the films these two worked on together they would take inspiration from these classic tales, but they also never felt obligated to be all that faithful to the source material, as the myths themselves have had varied versions and interpretations over the years. That all said I will now examine not only the film itself but the myths that inspired Clash of the Titans in the first place, and we will take a look at just how far Harryhausen and friends drifted from the original stories.

First off the title of the movie is a bit of a misnomer, as not one single Titan from Greek mythology makes an appearance in this movie, the Titans were a group of divine beings that preceded the Greek gods – at least the ones we’re most of us are familiar with – in fact the Titan Cronus ate all his children because a prophecy told him he’d be overthrown by his son.  As Cronus had previously overthrown his own father Uranus, this was an understandable assumption, but if you know anything about prophecies you know they will always turn around and bite you in the ass, no matter what you do to avoid them. The Titan Rhea – not wanting anymore children eaten – took baby Zeus and swapped him for a rock that she wrapped in swaddling clothes, and of course Zeus later freed his swallowed brethren and they overthrew Cronus.

Note: If you check out the Disney animated movie version of Hercules you can get a peek at an even less accurate version of what the Titans were all about.  In Clash of the Titans we are treated to numerous mythological beings but there is no sign of the likes of either Cronus or Atlas, who were actually Titans.

This movie opens with King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston) having his daughter Danaë (Vida Taylor), along with her newborn baby Perseus, placed inside a chest and tossed into the sea. His reasoning here is that her crime of get “knocked-up” out of wedlock has brought shame on her people, and that by condemning her to the sea it will, “Purge her crime and restore my honor.” He also believes that this action will not put blood on his hands, for if Danaë and her son die at sea then its Poseidon’s fault not his.

Somehow he thinks this will fly with the gods.

Needless to say Zeus (Laurence Olivier) does not take this well,  and he orders Poseidon (Jack Gwillim) to make the king pay for this foul deed, “Acrisius must be punished and his people with him. Destroy Argos! And to make sure no stone stands, that no creature crawls I command you to release the last of the Titans. Let Loose the Kraken!” That does seem rather extreme, sure the King is a dick for trying to murder his daughter and grandson but what the hell did the people of Argos have to do with that? And exactly why is Zeus so hot and bothered about this particular action by a stupid mortal? Well turns out Danaë had caught the eye of “The Father of the Gods” and despite being locked in a tower Zeus impregnated her – while in the form of a golden shower, and one can only hope that this “golden shower” was not the kind President Trump was accused of partaking in – and thus her son Perseus is the also the son of Zeus.

And don’t anyone dare play with his toys.

But why was Danaë locked up in a tower in the first place? Well in the movie we are told that Acrisius was jealous of her attracting suitors, which is all kinds of creepy being he is her father and not her husband, but in the myth the oracle of Delphi told the King that his daughter’s son would one day kill him, and so he locked her up where no man could touch her, let alone knock her up. Once again we have a character not really understanding how prophecies work, and whose actions will in fact make them come to pass. In the movie Zeus uses his godly powers to crush the bones of Acrisius during the Kraken’s attack, which causes a tsunami that wipes out Argos and all who live there, but in the myth Acrisius does not get his comeuppance until much later, well after Perseus has defeated Medusa and saved Andromeda from being sacrificed.  The King actually dies when Perseus accidentally kills him with a thrown discus, or in another version Acrisius stupidly accuses Perseus of not killing the Medusa so our hero pulls out his trophy and shows him, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

Seriously, what idiot would ask to see the head of Medusa?

Clash of the Titans has two chief antagonists, the goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) and her son Calibos (Neil McCarthy), who are the ones constantly getting in the way of Perseus and his true love. In Greek myth Thetis was the goddess of water and mother of Achilles, but here she is the mother of a Calibos, a dude that was betrothed to Andromeda (Judi Bowker), but he screws it all up by pissing off Zeus. Now pissing off Zeus doesn’t seem too hard a thing to accomplish – not angering the gods is probably a lot harder – but Calibos goes the extra mile by hunting down and killing all of Zeus’s sacred wing horses, until only the winged stallion Pegasus remains.   Zeus curses Calibos, by turning him into a monstrous satyr, and exiles him to the marshes. Surprising enough it turns out that being a hideous satyr is a bit of a deal breaker for Andromeda, and so the wedding is called off.  Thetis being just as spiteful as Zeus places a curse on the city of Joppa, stating that only a suitor who can answer a particular riddle can ever win the hand of the fair Andromeda, with the nasty catch being if you get the answer wrong you are burnt at the stake.

“As Calibos suffers so will Andromeda.”

But cursing a city and ruining a girl’s love life isn’t enough recompense for what was done to her son, so Thetis also grabs Perseus – who has been living the quiet life on a peaceful shore with his mother – and magically teleports him to the floor of an amphitheatre in Joppa. Of course this attempt to screw with Zeus’s kid will only backfire, and will result in the death of her own son. Some people just never learn.

A now grown Perseus (Harry Hamlin) meets poet/playwright Ammon (Burgess Meredith), who becomes his friend and is able to fill the young man in on the actions of the gods. When Zeus sees that his son has been plopped down in a strange city – practically naked and completely unarmed – he orders the other gods to outfit his son with gifts to aid him on his destiny. Perseus gets a helm of invisibility from Athena (Susan Fleetwood), an indestructible sword from Aphrodite (Ursula Andress), and a shield from Hera (Claire Bloom). Sadly these three items he will proceed to lose on the course of his adventures; he drops the helmet in the marshes while fighting Calibos, the shield gets wrecked by Medusa’s blood, and the sword he just leaves stuck in Calibos’s corpse. What a total git, but what’s worse is that after losing the helm Zeus orders Athena to give Perseus her owl, because heaven forbid the guy not have a full complement of godly gifts at hand. Not about to hand over her beloved pet, Athena has the god Hephaestus (Pat Roach) build the careless sap a mechanical owl.

Bubo, this film’s R2-D2

When Perseus learns of the curse that has befallen Joppa – and its beautiful princess – he immediately investigates, which of course involves using the invisibility helm to sneak into her bedchamber to watch her sleep. I know that doesn’t sound all that heroic to you or me but Ancient Greece was a more liberal time, and hey it worked for Bella and Edward in Twilight, so who are we to judge. When Perseus witnesses a giant vulture land on the balcony of Andromeda’s bedchamber – and then sees her spirit leave her body and depart with the winged monster – he quickly realizes he will need some air support if he is to learn what the hell is going on. So with the aid of his sidekick Ammon, and the invisibility helm again, he manages to capture the winged horse Pegasus.

Myth Note: The winged horse Pegasus actually sprang from the severed head of Medusa, which makes his appearance here quite a bit out of continuity with the Greek myth.

Perseus is able to use his winged mount to follow Andromeda on her next nightly excursion, and learns the answer to the riddle by overhearing Calibos – while wearing the helm of invisibility, which he then quickly loses. The next day Perseus shows up at the palace, declaring he is a suitor for Andromeda’s hand, and when given the riddle he promptly solves it – cause of the whole cheating thing – and then to be a complete drama queen Perseus whips out the severed hand of Calibos. Did no one tell this idiot that the goddess Thetis – who is this monster’s mother – is also the patron goddess of Joppa? But not to be outdone in the stupidity department Andromeda’s mother Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips), during the wedding, declares that her daughter is more beautiful than the goddess Thetis herself. These people really seem to go out of their way to piss off the gods for some reason.

Thetis is able to use this affront to get back at Perseus – she can’t directly harm him as he is still under Zeus’s protection – but she can go after those he loves, so she orders that his new bride is to be sacrificed in thirty days to the Kraken, and if that isn’t cruel enough she also throws in the stipulation that she must be a virgin as well.

“Alex, I’ll take celestial cock blocks for two hundred dollars.”

Thus an hour in to the movie and we finally get our big quest, as Perseus must now find some way defeat a creature than even an army could not take down. Our hero decides to consult the Stygian Witches – but as his winged ride has since been stolen by Calibos – he, along with Andromeda and a group of soldiers, must wander around the desert for some time looking to buy a clue. Luckily Bubo, the mechanical owl, eventually shows up to give them directions. When the group eventually arrive at the lair of the Stygian Witches it’s clear that these blind hags hope to eat their guests, but their plan is ruined when Bubo steals the one eye they all share. The ghastly trio are forced to tell Perseus that only the stare of the Gorgon Medusa could possibly destroy the Kraken, for alive or dead her stare will turn any living thing into stone.

“A Titan against a Titan!”

Once again I will point out that neither the Kraken nor Medusa are Titans, but allowing that to slide let’s stop and take a moment and discuss the Kraken. In the original story of Perseus and Andromeda our hero had to defeat a sea serpent/leviathan because his mother-in-law-to-be compared her daughter Andromeda’s beauty as being equal to that of the Nereids, sea nymphs who happened to be favored of the god Poseidon. So unlike the movie Thetis had no beef with Andromeda, but instead it was Poseidon who wanted her sacrificed, due the slight against his subjects. This also makes the use of a sea monster more apropos, what with Poseidon being god of the sea and all. In the movie Poseidon seems more like a lackey of Zeus’ instead of being his all-powerful brother. Even the name Kraken is a bit weird, as that actually comes from Norse Mythology.

The Kraken of Norse Mythology

The sea serpent Cetus from Greek Mythology.

The Kraken from Clash of the Titans.

Ray Harryhausen chose to name his monster “The Kraken” because the sound of the name had a nice menacing ring to it, and I have to agree, as Laurence Olivier shouting “Let loose the Cetus!” just wouldn’t have had the same impact.  The design of the Kraken for Clash of the Titans stemmed from Harryhausen not wanting to do another dragon like monster, that he’d already used in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It’s beak like mouth is very reminiscent of a squid, which is what the Kraken in Norse Mythology resembled, and Harryhausen also gave it four tentacle like arms as well. It’s a wonderful design, and a great threat to our hero, but as cool as the Kraken was the film’s most cinematic monster is hands down the Gorgon.

In the mythology Perseus went after the Gorgon’s head because he didn’t like the creep Polydectes, who was trying to marry his mother.  Common enough problem with kids from a single parent.  At a banquet – where each guest was to bring a gift of a horse for this jerk – Perseus was unable supply a horse, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift. In the hopes of getting rid of this obstacle to his affection he demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa.

For such a dangerous task Perseus received an adamantine sword from Zeus, from Hades a helm of darkness to hide, Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, and Athena gave him a polished shield. Using the reflective surface of the shield Perseus was able to approach Medusa – while she slept – and cut off her head, and then used the helm of darkness to escape Medusa’s rightfully pissed off sisters.

So…um…that was super heroic.

If you think that’s terrible the backstory to the poor woman is worse.  Medusa was once a ravishingly beautiful maiden, who had served as priestess to the goddess Athena, but unfortunately she caught the eye of Poseidon and was raped by the god in Athena’s own temple. Enraged, the goddess Athena transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair to serpents, and made her face so terrible that to behold it would turn onlookers to stone. Yeah, that sounds fair. Now the movie uses the version of the myth where Poseidon “seduced” the priestess, but at this point we’re just splitting hairs.

So basically a poor woman is horrifically cursed by a spiteful goddess – nothing of course happens to Poseidon who is really the one at fault – and while living in seclusion she is hunted down and beheaded for a party gift, by some young git.  In the case of this movie her severed head is to be used as a weapon to take down the Kraken.

Still not justified but certainly a better reason for murder than“I couldn’t afford a horse.”

Note: In the myth after beheading Medusa our hero Perseus proceeded to use it as a weapon for some of the worst reasons imaginable.  In the land of Mauretania the king there refused to grant hospitality to Perseus, so the little sociopath turned the king to stone out of spite, and then later at his wedding to Andromeda he gets in a quarrel with Phineus, who Andromeda had been betrothed to before the awesome Perseus showed up (as she was to Calibos in the movie), and Perseus then used the Gorgon’s head to turn his rival into stone. What a complete dick.

In the movie he wraps the head of Medusa in his cloak – it apparently being immune to the poison of the Gorgon’s blood for some reason – and proceeds to head back to rescue Andromeda, but then he and his men decide to camp for the night without posting a guard, and this allows Calibos to sneak up and stab the severed head of Medusa as it hangs from a tree branch. The blood drips out and transforms into three giant scorpions, that Perseus and his two remaining soldiers must fight. My question is why in the hell didn’t Calibos just take the head? Without it Perseus would die fighting the Kraken – so that seemed to be the better play here – but then again I’m not the son of a pissy goddess, so what do I know.

Note: We see a soldier and Perseus each kill one scorpion, so apparently the third one said “Fuck it” and wandered off because we never see what happened to it.

Calibos then learns that you shouldn’t bring a whip to a sword, as Perseus sends his blade flying into the satyr’s guts, killing the poor dumb bastard. Perseus leaves behind the sword, because he has this awesome turn-things-into-stone head, and what are the odds of every needed a magic sword again? Regardless, things turn out fine as Perseus is aided by Bubo – who flies off to free Pegasus and makes us all wonder why they didn’t do this earlier – and the Kraken is given a good hard stare.

Perseus and Andromeda get married, and the gods place them in the constellations so that “Even if we are forgotten these two won’t be.”  Wait…what? Are these the same egocentric gods we’ve been watching through this whole thing? The crux of the film seemed to be about a god – who couldn’t keep it in his pants – helping his own kid defeat the kid of another god.  Sure Perseus was kind of heroic, but the nuts and bolts of the story is about a dysfunctional family infighting, with all the chaos and pain that is bound to result from such shenanigans.  When it comes to dysfunctional families there are none as fucked up as the Greek gods.

“Tonight on Fox, The Real Housewives of Olympus.”

We even get this bullshit query from Hera wondering, “What if one day there are other heroes like Perseus, if courage and imagination become mortal qualities, what will become of us?” Was she not paying attention to what was going on? Perseus was getting help from the gods almost non-stop, so I don’t think the gods of Olympus have to worry just yet about being forgotten and left behind.

As much as the movie diverges from the source material it still manages stay true to the temperament of the myths, that the gods are vain and petty, and we mere mortals are just pawns in their games. So good triumphs over evil – and we also get to see Andromeda naked, so a win for everybody. Clash of the Titans is far from the best work produced by special effects master Ray Harryhausen, but it’s still a lot of fun, and though some of the optical work in the film is just godawful the character animation of the mythological beasts is spot on fantastic – with the Medusa fight being the film’s highpoint. Director Desmond Davis does a serviceable job behind the camera, Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker are both fine as Perseus and Andromeda – in your standard somewhat bland Disney Prince and Princess way – while Laurence Olivier was clearly a perfect choice to play Zeus, the vengeful father of the gods.

In conclusion if you want to bone up on Greek mythology, before taking an exam on the subject, you may want to skip watching this film, but if you are up for some good popcorn eating fun than you could do a lot worse than a viewing of Clash of the Titans.

Final Thoughts:

• Thetis being the one to butt heads with Zeus is a bit odd when it’s his constant infidelity to his wife Hera that is the cause of most of the problems on Olympus. Hera is given almost nothing to do in this film other than to look exasperated that her husband is a sex maniac.
• Perseus has to pay Charon to cross the River Styx so he can find Medusa’s island. The River Styx is the boundary between our world and the Underworld and is governed by the god Hades, not the place to find the Gorgons.
• Guarding Medusa is a two-headed dog called Dioskilos, if this was the Underworld Perseus would have been facing the three-headed dog Cerberus. This change was due to Harryhausen finding a third head on the armature made the creature to awkward looking.

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