FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
I haven’t re-viewed animator Ray Harryhausen’s final theatrical film, CLASH OF THE TITANS, in many years. At this time it remains my least favorite of Harryhausen’s otherworldly fantasy-films. Harryhausen’s other venture into Greek myth, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, possessed a strong theme, that of man’s growing independence from the gods who created him. But the 1981 CLASH seemed little more than a series of episodic fantasy-sequences built loosely around the archaic myth of the hero Perseus. In addition, the simple charm of Harryhausen’s stop-motion techniques seemed to me at odds with the then-current mood of 1980s triumphalism.
To be sure, the 2010 CLASH, directed by Louis Letterier, isn’t long on charm either, but arguably its CGI techniques are meant to be more overwhelming than charming. That said, this version does attempt to approach the same theme seen in JASON, asking once more the question, “What does man owe the gods?”
By and large the 1981 CLASH sticks with the bare bones of the Perseus myth. Letterier’s version expands the mythic topography, hearkening back to the beginnings of the Greek myth-world, when Zeus led a younger faction of gods against the elder generation of deities, the Titans. In addition, the gods triumphed with the help of a cosmic beast, the Kraken, who was spawned by Zeus’ brother-god Hades. (For some reason the Kraken is later described as a “Titan,” which makes no sense given that he’s the spawn of a god.) However, despite Hades’ contribution to the triumph, he got the short end of the stick when it came time to divide up the universe, since Hades got stuck with overseeing the underworld. Hades, who plays no part in the archaic Perseus stories or in the Harryhausen work, becomes the villain of Letterier’s cosmos.
In the original Perseus myth, Zeus simply begets Perseus on a whim, and Perseus’ later feat of saving the city of Argos from a great sea-beast is set in motion by an unrelated challenge to the dignity of divinity. Queen Cassiopeia of Argos unwisely proclaims that her daughter’s beauty surpasses that of the sea-nymphs, the Nereids. The nymphs complain to Poseidon, who sends a sea-monster against the city. In the 1981 film it’s Thetis whose divine beauty is challenged, but the Letterier film ramps up the stakes.
This time, the mortal king Acrisius swears to overthrow Olympos—a patent evocation of the story of the Titanomachy. Zeus, who ostensibly loves mankind, holds back from simply destroying the king and all his people and settles for humiliating the impious mortal by sleeping with and impregnating his wife. Acrisius tries to destroy his wife and her bastard child by hurling them into the sea. The mother perishes but Perseus is found and raised by humble fisher-folk, while Zeus takes further vengeance on Acrisius by converting him into a monster named Calibos (a boogeyman from the Harryhausen film who had nothing to do with Perseus’ family tree).
Twenty years later, Perseus is still a fisherman based near the city of Argos when the city’s rulers attempt to do away with the gods—not by direct assault as Acrisius planned, but by destroying the gods’ temples. Though I’m not aware of any archaic authors who believed the gods to be dependent on man’s worship of them, the idea is common coin for both mortals and gods in Letterier’s cosmos. Zeus and the other gods are enraged that mortal impiety may end their immortal gravy train, but Hades is the first to take retributive action, sending forth his demons to kill several mortals. Hades himself kills Perseus’ parents, apparently with no more knowledge of the hero’s demigod status than he himself possesses. Perseus swears vengeance upon Hades. In addition, Perseus is more than a little put off when he finally learns that he himself is the son of Zeus, making him kin to the evil god who slew the only parents he knew. In contrast with the hero of the Harryhausen film, this Perseus is deeply conflicted by his intimate and unassailable relationship to the capricious tyrant-gods. He swears to act only with the power of a man, foreswearing any godly heritage he may possess.
The mortals continue in their impious defiance. With a little prodding from Hades, who acts rather like Satan toward God in THE BOOK OF JOB, Zeus agrees to turn loose the Kraken on Argos. Yet even here he allows an “escape clause” designed to force the mortals to acknowledge their ignominy: the city will be spared if they sacrifice Princess Andromeda. To be sure, there’s a minor line in which the queen mother does exalt her daughter’s beauty above that of Aphrodite, but that’s no longer the principal cause of the gods’ enmity as in the Harryhausen film.
Once all this set-up is done, the film essentially follows the plot of the 1981 film. The desperate rulers send Perseus on a quest. Perseus obtains the aid of Pegasus and talks the wise-women, the nearly-eyeless Graieae, to learn the location of Medusa. As in the 1981 film Perseus beheads Medusa—who once again is termed a “titan” in order to rationalize the film’s title—and uses it against that other “titan,” the Kraken. Incidentally, the 2010 CLASH features a clever joke at the expense of the 1981 movie, which seems to be pretty much the only humor in this generally grim and unrelenting film.
As with many remakes, the digressions are more interesting than the likenesses. While Perseus is following his heroic course, Hades makes his move for rulership of Olympos, blithely informing Zeus that he Hades has become stronger because he feeds on mankind’s fears. It seems pretty improbable that all Hades needs to conquer his heavenly sibling is to get fueled by the fears in one lousy city. However, the contrivance makes it possible for the script to place Zeus in danger as well, the better to disassociate him with the evil of the Kraken’s rampage.
Letterier’s film doesn’t have much of a handle on its hero’s “daddy issues.” When Zeus becomes belatedly aware of his mortal offspring, he sends Perseus a magic sword. Perseus initially rejects the blade as a way of denying kinship with the father who begat Perseus but showed no interest in raising him. Yet the hero ends up using the sword to slay Calibos/Acrisius, who is in a sense the mortal equivalent of Perseus’ divine father. Later, though the hero can’t actually slay Hades, he again uses the blade to banish the death-god back to his dismal realm. Since Hades had been injected into the story as a second “bad father,” the one who does Zeus’ dirty work, this makes it possible for the film to end on a reconciliation of the demigod and his father. Unfortunately it doesn’t ring true and seems merely a convenient wrap-up.
The nature of that reconciliation may be the most interesting change. The romantic trajectory of the 1981 CLASH follows the same premise as the archaic myth: as the prize for defeating the sea-beast, Perseus wins and marries Andromeda. In the 2010 version, Andromeda is noble and self-sacrificing, but holds no romantic interest for Perseus, any more than he does for her. Were the scriptwriters reluctant to validate the old “save-the-woman-and-then-marry-her” trope? Or did they simply want a more active female lead? To the latter end they introduce another character foreign to both the Perseus myth and the 1981 film: a woman named Io, who though born mortal has acquired immortality and oracular powers. She’s seen watching over Perseus as a child when he and his deceased mother are hauled forth from the ocean. Twenty years later, she follows him on his quest, instructing him in the ways of the gods (and even giving him a little martial training). She dies at the hands of “bad father” Calibos, but at the end of the film Zeus resurrects Io and reunites her with Perseus.
Though I’d never accept Freudian analysis as a universal tool of interpretation, I must say that even the image of Io watching the re-delivery of the child Perseus from the sea is enough to mark her as an alloform of Perseus’ mother Danae. It’s probably not coincidence that the scriptwriters named the heroine “Io,” who in Greek myth is best known as one of Zeus’s conquests—in fact, by one account she was Zeus’ first mortal conquest as well as one of Hera’s temple-maidens. In addition, the fact that Io is many years older than Perseus, despite looking to be his age, also rings Freud’s version of the Pavlovian bell. Of course the original Perseus myth is full of “hostility to the father” tropes, though it’s not overtly Oedipal. But though there’s no hint that the Zeus of Letterier’s film has any history with this Io, the mere fact that Io shares the name of a Zeus-paramour in real myth suggests that Perseus’s reward for accepting his heritage and saving his father from conquest by Hades is to receive one of his father’s former conquests. I’m aware of no myth in which the traditional Zeus does this. However, there is an interesting story which states that when Zeus’ demigod son Heracles was about to perish, he had his son Hyllos married to one of his wives. Obviously this hand-me-down-wife wasn’t Hyllos’ own mother, but she did possess the name of “Iole,” which is strongly comparable with the name of Zeus’ first mortal conquest. How much of this tradition was known to the writers of the 2010 film is, of course, anyone’s guess.