FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*
Though the 1963 JASON will probably always be the best regarded movie adaptation of the Classic epic, this Hallmark TV-version has one advantage over the Harryhausen film: the latter actually finishes the story, however much the in-between narrative is changed.
Neither film is particularly in tune with the deeper mythology of the epic, which some view as a mortal hero’s voyage into the Realm of Death in order to bring forth a talisman of healing magic. Because ARGONAUTS appeared in the form of two two-hour telefilms, this allowed writer Matthew Faulk and director Nick (NEVERLAND) Willing to expand on the generally sketchy characterizations of the epic, though the creators aren’t quite able to articulate their own myth-theme.
ARGONAUTS’ opening resembles that of the 1963 JASON more than the Classic epic, as evil warlord Pelias (Dennis Hopper) invades the kingdom of his brother, killing former king Aeson and forcing his queen Polymele to become Pelias’s wife. Polymele does manage to help her first son Jason escape Pelias’s tender mercies. Some years later, Jason (Jason London) emerges from his hiding place and journeys to his father’s kingdom to demand his patrimony. The goddess Hera, looking down with favor upon the young hero, advises him that Pelias hungers for the legendary Golden Fleece and its healing properties. When Jason arrives at the court of Pelias, the ruthless king denies the young man's demand and even forces Polymele to deny her first son. However, Jason’s mention of the Fleece convinces Pelias to allow the youth to attempt the quest to the mysterious land of Colchis.
As in every adaptation, Jason assembles a group of doughty heroes to become the ancient world’s Justice League. Of those assembles, Hercules (Brian Thompson) is the most celebrated. The next best-known are the female archer Atalanta and the magical lyre-player Orpheus, though in this telling Orpheus is played by a black actor. (Possibly a shout-out to the 1950s film BLACK ORPHEUS?) One character stows away and joins the expedition without Jason’s knowledge of his true identity: that of Acastus, son of Pelias and Polymele. Classical lore offers conflicting motives for Acastus’ joining the expedition, but in the epic, he doesn’t betray Jason, while the Hallmark film suggests that he intends to do so. His conversations with Polymele suggest that he’s jealous of his mother’s affections for her first son.
As the quest begins, the script quickly diverges from both the epic and the 1963 film, when the ship accidentally falls afoul of the gigantic sea-god Poseidon. In terms of FX this is the telefilm’s best scene, but I’m tempted to see the scene as combining aspects of two gigantic beings in the Harryhausen movie: the gigantic robot Talos, and the colossal merman-version of Poseidon, who helps the 1963 heroes navigate the Clashing Rocks. While the heroes flee the titanic deity, the viewer gets to see both Hera and Zeus looking down upon the mortals. Zeus, it seems, doesn’t like the fact that Hera admires Jason, and swears to make the Argonauts’s journey miserable. He never does all that much, though apparently either Faulk or Willing wanted to get something of an “Iliad effect,” with two gods opposed regarding the outcome of Jason’s fortunes.
The telefilm does adapt a section of the epic that the 1963 film did not attempt: the sailors’ sojourn among the women of the isle Lemnos. The Argonauts first encounter the Lemnian women wearing armor and bearing arms, but their queen insists on making the travelers welcome. For a time, the men are all ensorcelled by female charms, and some consider making their home on the hospitable island. But Atalanta is not subject to said charms, and she exposes the truth; that the women killed their previous husbands and plan to sacrifice the Argonauts as well.
The heroes escape, but they need the guidance of a seer. Seeking out the prophet Phineas, they rescue him from tormenting harpies in a generally unexceptional sequence. The sailors can only reach Colchis by passing through the Clashing Rocks, and Jason’s men navigate this peril much as they do in the epic.
The Argo reaches Colchis, and Jason asks King Aeetes for the Fleece. Aeetes sets the heroes impossible tasks in the hope of killing them off, but the king’s daughter Medea fancies Jason and lends him her magical help. The FX-scenes during the Colchis segment are no more than adequate, and some of the developments are confusing at best. The most puzzling is a scene in which Hercules is wounded to death, and his body simply evaporates in Jason’s arms, implying that he’s been transported to Olympus. In the epic and in the sixties film Hercules, doomed to perish in another manner, simply leaves the expedition, but apparently the scripter thought a heroic but uncanonical death was more dramatic.
Jason, Medea and the surviving Argonauts return to the kingdom of Pelias. On the way Zeus tries his version of “what’s good for the gander is good for the goose,” attempting to seduce Medea, though the young witch remains true to Jason. Once the ship makes landfall, Acastus steals the Fleece and takes it to his father, but this ploy doesn’t work out well for him given Pelias’s treachery. Now Pelias has the Fleece, but it doesn’t seem to work its healing magic on him. Medea apparently expects this to be the case, for her next action is to infiltrate the king’s court, claiming to have great regenerative powers. In the epic Medea runs a similar scam, deceiving Pelias’s daughters into killing the king with the false expectation that he’ll come back to life. Here, the idea seems to be to have Medea distract the king while the other heroes invade the palace. Pelias pays for his crimes (including the offscreen death of Polymele), while Jason and Medea marry and become the reigning monarchs. In a strange coda, Zeus and Hera—both of whom had lustful intentions toward the two mortals—look down on the marriage like doting parents.
I considered that Faulk might have been trying to “Freudianize” the comparatively simple characterizations of the 1963 JASON, but if so, he didn’t succeed in his aim.
Performances are all over the place. London and Blalock are horribly bland and have no on-screen chemistry. Brian Thompson, who because of his size often gets stuck with one-dimensional heavies, brings a nice level of moxie to his interpretation of Hercules, but all of the other Argonauts are one-note figures, as are the characters essayed by Hopper, Derek Jacobi, and the actors playing Zeus and Hera. Frank Langella, playing Aeetes, has a nice death-scene after he loses the Fleece, and the scenes between Polymele and Acastus are somewhat affecting even though they don’t add up to anything.