Ray Harryhausen – The Last Voyage of an FX Master

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Ray Harryhausen (right) next to Medusa
Ray Harryhausen (right) next to Medusa

As I usually do before the workday begins, I clicked on one of my preferred Websites to check out the latest happenings. Lo and behold, there flashed a breaking news story: special-effects master Ray Harryhausen passed away yesterday at age 92.

With this sad bit of news to digest, I decided to put myself to the movie “acid” test. I asked myself, “Name a science-fiction or fantasy/adventure film from the 1950s or 60s.”

After precious little thought, I came up with a few examples: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Behemoth, Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island.

“Is that good enough for you?” I said to myself.

“Yeah,” I answered, “that’s fine. Now here comes the fun part: what do all these pictures have in common?”

“Uh, you mean, do they have the same director, cast, or film-score composer?”

“You got the idea.”

I might have stalled my own thought process for days if I hadn’t gotten the idea, but after a split-second of semi-serious cogitation I came up with a proper riposte: “Well, for one, they’re all special effects extravaganzas.”

“You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

Sufficiently encouraged by my own efforts, I ventured forth with another association: “Those same special effects were designed and coordinated by one man: none other than the late Ray Harryhausen.”

“Bingo!!!”

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s or 60s, or watched a goodly amount of television in the 70s, 80s, and 90s (as I surely did), or who surfed the Internet in the year 2000 and beyond, would have come across at least one of Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular sci-fi and/or fantasy epics.

So closely was Harryhausen identified with these flicks that most people today believe he either directed or produced all if not most of them. Not likely, although he did learn about editing, art direction and photography via night classes at University of Southern California (USC), as well as some acting.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, Harryhausen was directly responsible for, or had an active hand in, an enviable number of classic FX features, including Mighty Joe Young (his first solo effort), 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men in the Moon, One Million Years B.C., The Valley of Gwangi, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and Clash of the Titans.

What an incredible list! These are some my all-time favorite movies, the ones I and many of my generation grew up with and watched time after time, ad nauseam!

The Boy and the Hairy Paw

In my younger days, I can remember an annual ritual in our household where the whole family gathered (frequently accompanied by our visiting aunt, uncle and cousins) to watch back-to-back showings of King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on Thanksgiving Day. I recall being enthralled by the black-and-white images of the enormous Kong, rampaging through 1930s Manhattan in search of screaming Fay Wray; of the giant gorilla Joe Young, dangling precariously from a burning building as he rescued a young child from certain death.

Little did I know that the first of these films, RKO’s magnificently produced King Kong, had captivated another impressionable youth from that same 1930s era: thirteen-year-old Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen.

“I haven’t been the same since,” Harryhausen commented in a 1999 interview. “I came out of [Grauman’s Chinese] theater stunned and awestruck. It was such a totally different, unusual film. The story line led you from the mundane world into the most outrageous fantasy that’s ever been put on the screen… [And] I wanted to know how it was done.”

He found out, in due course. And thus began one of the most extraordinary movie careers anyone has ever had. Harryhausen would become the envy of our neighborhood. What kid in his right mind wouldn’t dream of a career sculpting apes and dinosaurs, or making his living building miniature dioramas, then filming them in starts and stops, over a six-month or more period?

How many impressionable young minds were frightened out of their wits, or suitably transfixed (take your pick), by Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations; the countless monsters, giants, gods, and dragons, not to mention horrific harpies, flying horses, bronze soldiers, and sword-wielding skeletons?

“Some people think it’s childish to do what I’ve done for a living,” Harryhausen told the Toronto Sun in 2004. “But I think it’s wrong when you grow to be an adult to discard your sense of wonder.” Thank goodness that sense of wonder about the world and its marvels and diversity never left him.

Ray did lament the fact that most of the movies he worked on lacked suitable budgets; neither did they have many stellar attractions or great actors. But who needs great actors, I pondered, when you had superb (for the times) FX to upstage them? Who do you know had the guts, the chutzpah, the cojones to call up his idol, Willis O’Brien, the Hollywood special-effects guru of his day and the man who brought King Kong to roaring life, and ask if he could show O’Brien his collection of model monsters? And who has not been influenced by Harryhausen’s fantastic creatures?

I don’t know about you, but I cherished the few moments I had with Harryhausen’s creations. I lived for Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or after school, when our local TV station would broadcast many of these films, albeit tailored to fit the time slot. I begged my mom to buy me model animal kits, or airplanes, or rocket ships, or little monsters – anything and everything, just so I could make my own army of extras.

Ray Harryhausen with model skeleton
Ray Harryhausen with model skeleton

Heck, I would have given my right arm to know the secret of those fabulous stop-motion tricks; how he animated those makeshift puppets, how he commanded those cadaverous skeletons to do battle, or made that hideous Medusa to crawl on her stomach.  These were the kind of films that would excite us in our youth, make us think back in our middle years, and reflect longingly and nostalgically in our old age.

And as far as we knew, they had everything kids our age required to keep us happy and entertained: handsome leading men (Kerwin Matthews as Gulliver and Sinbad, Todd Armstrong as Jason, Harry Hamlin as Perseus), gorgeous love interests (Kathryn Grant, Joan Greenwood, Judy Bowker, Caroline Munro, Taryn Power), dastardly villains (Torin Thatcher, Tom Baker), exotic locales, and of course those painstakingly handcrafted monsters: the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the Giant Crab from Mysterious Island, the radioactive beast from The Giant Behemoth.  But the greatest of Harryhausen’s personal collection, I thought, was his Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth. That titanic struggle with the elephant near the Roman Colosseum was, and still is, a tremendous feat of legerdemain which has stood the test of time.

As my mind started to wander, I thought of the ship at the end of director Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, the last in the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films – all of them, super-spectacular special effects extravaganzas of their own; the ship that left Middle Earth and took Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf to the Undying Lands. How I wished that Ray Harryhausen had been aboard that same vessel.

And why not! If it wasn’t for his passion for filmmaking, his technical acumen and special-effects wizardry, there would be no Lord of the Rings trilogy, let alone any number of sci-fi and fantasy/adventure films we know and love today.

If that were the case, then it would truly be Ray Harryhausen’s last journey. To that I would add, “Bon voyage, Ray! Send us a postcard from… special FX heaven. You’ve earned this one-way trip.”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “Ray Harryhausen – The Last Voyage of an FX Master

    […] With that, a number of probes are launched from below the Imperial Star Cruiser. One of them crash lands on the surface of the ice planet. At that same instant, Luke appears. He’s riding a tauntaun — sort of a ram-horned camel crossed with a kangaroo, an excellent example of traditional stop-motion animation perfected by the late Ray Harryhausen (see the following tribute to the artist: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/ray-harryhausen-the-last-voyage-of-an-fx-master/). […]

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