Greek mythology returned to the big screen in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, a bid to lure in the same kids who had sat spellbound through the new mythology of Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
An impressive cast of stage and screen legends were assembled for the task – Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Jack Gwyllim, Ursula Andress and more – but for most kids in the audience, the real stars of the show weren’t even human.
Famed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen – Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) – brought his skills to the film as well, delivering unforgettable versions of Medusa, the Kraken, giant scorpions, a two-headed dog and much more.
The film chronicles the heroic journey of Perseus (newcomer Harry Hamlin), son of mortal mother Hera (Clair Bloom) and immortal father – Zeus (Laurence Olivier), chief among the gods on Olympus.
The vengeful goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith), seeing Zeus’ affection for the boy, spirits Perseus away from his peaceful island home to Joppa, where he befriends an ageing playwright named Ammon (Burgess Meredith).
In Joppa, Perseus also learns of Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), the beautiful daughter of Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) whom Thetis has cursed. If Perseus (or any other brave suitor) can solve Andromeda’s riddle, the princess will be his. A bad guess, however, means instant death.
In searching for an answer, Perseus comes across the winged horse Pegasus, who becomes another friend and loyal companion.
The handsome Perseus does solve Andromeda’s riddle, but Thetis has another foul trick up her billowy sleeve: In thirty days, Andromeda must be sacrificed to the great Kraken, an enormous sea beast or Joppa will be destroyed.
The only way to defeat the giant four-handed Kraken is with the severed head of Medusa, a Gorgon with a serpent-covered head whose stare turns any creature to stone.
But a quest to find and retrieve the Gorgon’s head would be nearly as suicidal as taking on the Kraken itself.
Along the way, Perseus overcomes the three Stygian witches with one eye between them and a monstrous two-headed wolf-dog, Dioskilos.
Clash of the Titans made the occasional nod to Star Wars, throwing in a cute mechanical owl called Bubo for comic relief, but the focus was fully on grand spectacle, delivered with old-school special effects and classical, mythic storytelling.
Unfortunately, the movie opened around the same time as Raiders of the Lost Ark and was obviously no match for it at the box office.