Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons – The Ray Harryhausen Playbook



While the current crop of fantasy and sword and sorcery films were hit and miss in the early 1980’s, there was at least one library of cinematic wonder we could all reference for both style and substance. For many members of the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, their first exposure to the magic of Ray Harryhausen was Clash of the Titans (1981), which turned out to be his last movie. Side note: they had planned a follow-up to Clash which was to be all about the Norse myths: Thor, his chariot pulled by goats, ravens, the Midgard Serpent, Fenris Wolf, the giants…I can’t even fathom how cool that would have been. I just can’t.


As a Monster Kid, I was already familiar with Harryhausen and his work, having watched all of his older movies on television and having seen Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger on the big screen in 1977. But Clash was the movie we saw, post-D&D, that re-colored our impressions and upped the levels of the game for us. Even though CGI became possible if you had enough money in the 1990s, we wouldn’t really get true character-driven computer-generated animation for creatures until Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy at the end of the decade. Prior to those movies, Harryhausen was the gold standard for creating stop-motion monsters that, while not strictly realistic, often were better actors than the oiled imbeciles fighting them in Dynamation. If you, for some unfathomable reason, don't know about these movies, click on the titles below to see the trailers.

The movie that became Harryhausen’s swan song enjoyed a robust afterlife on HBO, where we watched it whenever it came on, because, why wouldn’t you? Perseus, played by a Pre-LA Law Harry Hamlin, is set on a quest by Zeus, played by Sir Lawrence Olivier (killing it, by the way), and aided on Earth by Burgess Meredith. Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress (wasted in her role as Aphrodite), Claire Bloom, and other British stage stalwarts round out the pantheon of Greek gods as they play their chess games with the lives of mortal men. But that’s all stuff and bullroar, because this is a Ray Harryhausen movie, and Harryhausen’s work is the only thing that could possibly upstage Olivier at his scenery-chewing best.

While certainly not the apex of his career, it’s a heck of a victory lap to go out on. Clash of the Titans was the biggest budget film Harryhausen made, and a lot of it was spent on the marquee names above, leaving Ray to innovate on his own, as usual. He relented and used some blue screen optical compositing in the movie, but the print itself has a lot of day-for-night shots in it that just muddy up the screen and all of Ray’s lovely stop-motion work.

Tramp's Medusa. Based on the
1964 Hammer Film, "the Gorgon."
Ray's Medusa.
Only one of these monsters
makes players shit their pants.
Still, we got a lot of great monsters to behold, including Calibos, the Accursed Lord of the Marsh; Pegasus, the Alpha and the Omega for flying horses; a giant vulture, because that’s just crazy; giant scorpions, straight out of the movie and into our wilderness encounter tables; Bubo, the Proto-Steampunk Automaton Owl, inserted into the movie because apparently Perseus needed an R2 unit on his quest; and the incredible, incomparable, Medusa, brilliantly re-interpreted by Harryhausen himself. I took one look at the picture of Medusa in the Monster Manual and said, “Nope. My medusa has a serpent body.” And so did every other DM in America.  In fact, Harryhausen’s design was so good that it has since supplanted any other design for a medusa, never mind THE Medusa. No disrespect to Dave Trampier, who was awesome and instrumental, but no one could have possibly anticipated what Harryhausen would have come up with, nor the impact that it would have on pop culture and D&D. Medusa is easily one of Harryhausen’s Top 5 best creatures of all time.

The third and final Sinbad movie from the veteran production team of Schneer and Harryhausen gets frequently overlooked, I suspect, because it came out in the same year as a little movie you may have heard about called Star Wars, premiering two months after Luke Skywalker entered the public consciousness.  That’s a shame because this movie is chock-full of wonders and remains solidly entertaining upon repeated viewings.

Sinbad the sailor is tasked with carrying a Princess and her ensorcelled brother (in the form of a baboon) to a faraway land to meet the guy who’ll take the curse off of him so he can claim his birthright. Along the way, they are pursued by the evil witch Zenobia, her son, and their clockwork brass “Minoton,” a mechanical golem in the shape of the Minotaur of legend, played by none other than Peter Mayhew.  The lands in the north are a hellscape of crazy creatures, thanks to the magic of Harryhausen, and Patrick Wayne (yep, John Wayne’s son) does his level best to interact with all of them.

The creature list for this movie is small but impressive:  an oversized troglodyte with a horn on its head gets a lot of screen time; Patrick Wayne fights a giant saber-toothed tiger, as well as a trio of bug-eyed ghouls conjured by Zenobia; everyone is surprised by a giant walrus; and of course, the baboon is stop-motion animated because it needs to play chess in one scene and a real baboon would have eaten Patrick Wayne’s face.

The second Sinbad movie is my least favorite of the three, but that’s not because it’s not good; rather, it’s just not AS good, as the other two. The wizard Koura, played by Tom Baker, is trying to open a temple of knowledge that will make him all-powerful. Naturally, Sinbad and the Vizier of Marabia (wearing a brass mask, a la Alexandre Dumas) want to get to the temple first. Thus begins the quest, peppered along the way with frequent stops and wonderful monsters.

John Phillip Law was a pretty uninspired Sinbad, but do we ever really watch these movies for the human actors? Okay, Tom Baker is great as the evil sorcerer, but that’s because he’s Tom Baker. Also in the cast is a Pre-Bond Girl Carolyn Munroe, who manages to almost compensate for John Phillip Law in her scenes with him.

For DMs taking notes during the commercial breaks (ahem!) there was a lot to parse out: a winged homunculus belonging to the wizard Koura kicks the movie off; a griffin fights a giant one-eyed centaur; a statue of Kali comes to life, each of her arms wielding a sword; the wooden figurehead on the ship comes to life, as well, and attacks the crew; and Harryhausen’s patented special effects process allows the wizard to vanish in the middle of a sword fight, leaving only the dancing sword weaving and bobbing in mid-air. And then there’s the set pieces, like the Fountain of Destiny, with green-skinned worshippers and incredible luminescent effects, courtesy of Harryhausen again. 

This is it; the technical zenith of Ray Harryhausen’s career, for one reason and one reason alone. I will get to that in a second. For now, this is important, so important, as the first Greek myth film that Schneer and Harryhausen did, because of all the touches that found their way into Dungeons and Dragons. Jason has to sail to Colchis to retrieve a ram’s fleece made of gold, which has magical healing properties, and so he assembles a team of the world’s most able sailors and adventurers (the first Olympics--or first super hero team, if you like). His crew includes the Mighty Hercules (no, really!) and together they battle strange creatures, bargain with gods, and are hoisted on their own petard by their arrogance—all before they meet Medea and fight the army of the dead.

Are you freaking kidding me? This movie holds up. It’s actually pretty close to the voyage of the Argonauts, with the notable exception that all of the sailors in the original story had one cool super power they could perform, and those tasks and feats now all fall to Jason himself in the movie. Todd Armstrong (dubbed by Tim Turner) plays Jason and he is surrounded by capable actors and stuntmen to help sell the idea of these guys sailing to the edge of the world. But it’s Hercules, played by Nigel Green, who nearly steals the movie with his over-the-top performance. In addition to the usual visual magic (literally, not figuratively) that is present in all of Harryhausen’s films, Jason and his crew encounter a pair of harpies, a giant iron statue of Talos, a seven-headed hydra, and in the finale of the movie, seven animated skeletons.

Harryhausen's masterpiece. This is his own artwork, too.
This final sword fight is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. It took Harryhausen four and a half months to shoot, by himself, not counting the live-action footage he directed and helped choreograph. This sequence is widely considered to be one of the greatest animation scenes ever filmed, and is name-checked by just about every animator working today. It’s because of this sequence that we have animated skeletons in Dungeons and Dragons. You’re welcome, everyone who ever played D&D.  


That Genie Kid is the worst. 
This is the first of Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies and the first of his big fantasy adventure films—in other words, this film kick-started the best of Ray Harryhausen’s career. Sinbad and his crew rescue Sokurah the magician from a cyclops, and they travel with him until they realize what a dick he is. I’m over-simplifying, I know, but this Sokurah is an asshole, using his magic to transfigure a dancer into a snake-woman, shrink the Princess Parisa, and double-crosses everyone in the movie. This guy sucks. Kerwin Matthews is the sun-bronzed but still Caucasian man of action, pitting all of his wits against the forces of darkness and rescuing princesses by sailing to the Island of Colussa, where they venture into the Valley of the Cyclops for mad monster fighting action. Sokurah plays these guys for suckers and leaves them to do the fighting while he schemes and kidnaps the Princess, who is still in miniature form.

The movie is supremely entertaining, even with a child playing the all-powerful genie of the lamp. Also, I always wondered about the other six voyages. But there’s a lush storybook quality to the movie and the creatures are top-notch. I cribbed shamelessly from this movie for my cyclops, and why the hell not? It’s visually way more interesting than just a big guy with one eye and a club. And Harryhausen knew it, too. The cyclops remains one of Harryhausen’s most recognizable characters ever created.

Fun fact: Gene Simmons based his on-stage movements
on the Cyclops from 7th Voyage of Sinbad
For visual inspiration, there’s the aforementioned Cyclops, who later in the movie battles Sokurah’s dragon; a two-headed giant roc; and later, an animated skeleton summoned by Sokurah. The swordfight with Sinbad and the skeleton is a dynamic piece of choreography and led directly to the battle sequence in Jason and the Argonauts. The ending is pure schmaltz, but it’s a fairy tale, so you ignore that and rewind to the parts where the Cyclops is roasting Sinbad’s men over a fire pit. That’s the kind of thing that made for a good wilderness encounter in the Valley of the Mage in Greyhawk.

There were many other Harryhausen movies featuring mega-fauna; giant bees, the prehistoric moa, and a giant crab, for example, in MysteriousIsland (1961).  I suspect these movies are a significant factor for all of the mega-fauna in D&D. But few fanasy films drove home the magic spell, swashbuckling, and the gods meddling in the affairs of mortals like the ones mentioned above, and did so in such a way that made the unbelievable come to life, indelibly imprinting on our emerging Theater of the Mind.

Hey guess what? part 1 of this series can be found right here.  Part 3 is right here. Part 4 is here, and Part 5 is here.
If you want to read more encapsulated movie reviews by me, here's a list of Top 5 Horror movies over on Finn's Wake.

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