My son has been reading a lot of Greek mythology so I pulled up this 1981 flick for our family movie night.
The kids’ favorite character was Bubo, the mechanical owl. My son was disappointed with the depiction of Poseidon, and he said this movie made him hate Zeus. He was also ready with small critiques, like the River Styx being located above ground. And he said when it was over that nobody could tell him that Medusa was stop-motion, so real did she seem.
I can appreciate Harryhausen’s special effects better than ever, and I’m particularly entranced by Pegasus (who is an undeniable improvement on the flying sandals that Perseus wears in the original myth). As for the mortals, I’ll start by saying that I’m sorry for Thallo, one of Perseus’ armed companions, who is mortally stabbed by Calabos and who had said earlier in the film, with genuine feeling, “We live in fear of him.”
But I couldn’t say who my favorite character was. I’ve been watching this movie since it was released. Back then, I was not attached to any character nearly as much as I was to Perseus’ weapons; I grieved for his helmet, shield and sword as each was lost in turn. This time around I’m thinking about Medusa. And Athena.
Athena is my favorite goddess anyway, after my recent read of The Odyssey. But even watching “Clash of the Titans” as a kid in the 80s, Athena’s sudden declaration of love for her owl stood out, and now it strikes me as the only moment of pure love in the movie. For just a moment she’s human.
As for Medusa, while the movie depicts her as something less than human, it’s her will that stands out. There’s no hesitation in her character, no vague purpose. And no apparent fear. She’s probably been hunted before; it’s only logical that others would have wanted her power. She surely knows why the men led by Perseus have come to her dwelling place. But she doesn’t hide. She doesn’t even wait. She goes right out to meet and kill them; and she nearly succeeds in killing all three.
Later, when Perseus lifts Medusa’s head toward the Kraken, her eyes come alive again, and it’s obvious that it’s she who defeats the Kraken. In the movie, unlike in the original myths, both Medusa and the Kraken are Titans, so I see now, maybe for the first time, the meaning of the movie’s title. (As a kid I probably just understood it as a general clash of powerful figures from Greek myth). She’s not an inanimate weapon at the end; she’s present for the clash. And she’s still more powerful than the Kraken. Even as a kid I marveled at how a mortal-sized head could affect a creature as large as the Kraken. He’s as tall as a mountain, and every inch of him turns to stone after a sidelong glance at Medusa.
It’s this clash, its David-and-Goliath scale, its luminous eyes and crumbling stone, that lingers for me today, and leaves me thinking.
Medusa was cursed by the gods, but this punishment gave her enormous power, so you can almost hear her saying: If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine
And within “Clash of the Titans,” she has a kind of sister. There is another woman who can still open her powerful eyes after her head is separated from her body: anyone who has seen this movie remembers Maggie Smith suddenly opening her eyes from the dead stone of Thetis’ rolling head, striking fear into all before demanding the life of Andromeda “for the insult you have done to me and the cruel injury inflicted on my son”.
This, too, backfires, for just as Thetis’ rolling head foreshadows the slaying of Medusa, we see the remaining part of Thetis’ statue crumble, foreshadowing the end of the Kraken.