Films and Archaeology (I): The Clash of the Titans (1981)

If you have ever seen a picture of me on a digital profile you would have thought: OK, I got it. He watched Indiana Jones and wanted to be an archaeologist. There is always a strong polemic about these archaeology/peplum films, and how the field and the past are portrayed in them. Critics are right sometimes, but I tend to adopt a more neutral position. A work of fiction is just that, fiction. It can be better or worse, but if it does not cheat the viewer pretending to be a documentary, I do not see what the problem is. They can even play an important role in increasing the social interest in past societies. This is a long and complicated debate and I do not intent to give here a full solution. I just want t present you with some films that I believe represent the best of this tradition about “adventures in ancient times”, and that because of these characteristics can be entertaining, fictional but also a good way of approaching the past.

Let me tell you by the way that you were wrong. Although I think Indiana Jones’ saga is great, even The Crystal Skull for reasons I will explain in the future, these films are not the origin of my love for archaeology. Everything started when I was eight years old, and I watched The Clash of the Titans, directed by Desmond Davis. The hero fighting monsters in a flying horse triggered my imagination, and it took less than a year to me from going to read books about Greek mythology to conclude that archaeology was the best because you were able to “touch the things of the past.”

This film has a great meaning for me and that is why I decided to start my reviews with it. The Clash of the Titans belongs to a genre called neomythology, not exactly peplum but a fantasy tale in which the main sources are variations of the Greek myths. This narrative style starts in the cinema with the Hercules of Steve Reeves (1958) and that faded away at the end of the 60’s. The Clash of the Titans was a swan song, blessed by the magic of the stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen (paradoxically also one of the last films employing this technology). He was behind the effects of another classic of the genre, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which will appear soon in this blog. In some aspects the film belongs more the the sword and sorcery tradition than to the peplum, in a period when the former was getting momentum; Conan the Barbarian will appear the year after.

If you do not have seen the film, please do so. I do not want to spoil the film for you, so just a brief note about the storyline: Perseus, son of Zeus, has to kill Medusa in order to save princess Andromeda from the kraken, sent by the gods to punish the hybris of queen Kasiopea. Most of the storyline comes from the most common mythographers, and although Pegasus should only appear at the very end (read your Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 42-44) there is actually a late version of the myth by Lactantius that describes the story much closer to the film. I do not think the film is getting any classical author as a direct source, but from the arts that took this version of the myth as the main source, such as Boccaccio, Corneille or Picault. Other elements, specially Callibos and the incredible Bubo, are original creations of the film.

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Perseus and Pegasus by Picault

Among the main cast we find Harry Hamlin as Perseus, Judi Bowker as Andromeda, Burgess Meredith as Ammon and Siân Phillips (Livia in I, Claudius) as Queen Cassiopeia. Among the gods, famous faces such as Laurence Oliver as Zeus, Maggie Smith as Thetis or Ursula Andress, a Bond girl and an immortal queen, as Aphrodite. Acting on the film has been criticized, as it usually happens in many adventure films, but despite actors do not offer us here their best performances I think they all contribute well to the film. I specially enjoyed since I was a kid the acting of Ammon, with phrases like “I was partial to tragedy in my youth. That was before experience taught me that life was tragical enough without my having to write about it”. Script was written by Beverley Cross and Laurence Rosenthal composed the original soundtrack. Finally, as a trivia-film comment, I am sure those more familiar with the classical studies will recognize the temples of Paestum as the dungeon of Medusa.

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Medusa in her dungeon.

The Clash of the Titans is not the best film in the history of cinema, and it does not need to be so. But it is an entertaining work, those films of Sunday afternoon in the sofa, that do not cheat pretending to educate, because they are not a documentary, but that can trigger the interest in knowing more. The interest in picking up a book and read the same stories and the lives of those who wrote them down. And that is a potential those of us who love archaeology should appreciate much more. The film releases the kraken as well as the archaeologist within you!

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