Ray Harryhausen was not only an iconic and prolific filmmaker, he was a creative visionary who concocted vast amounts of fantastic tales for the big screen. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and such was the same for Harryhausen. Like many a celebrated storyteller, there were many more ideas left unrealized and stuffed in drawers than those that were ultimately produced.
Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, a handsome new book by John Walsh from Titan Books, explores the myriad projects Harryhausen had in the works throughout his career — some sketched, some sculpted, some filmed partially with test footage — that never came to pass. It’s a fascinating look into what might have been, bolstered with countless photos.
“Ray recognized trends,” says Walsh. “He recognized what was coming along, what was the next thing. He was quite a wily, old fox in that way.”
Walsh first met Harryhausen as a student at London Film School. Tasked with making a documentary project, he reached out to interview the retired filmmaker and found himself welcomed into his world. RAY HARRYHAUSEN: MOVEMENT INTO LIFE, his 15-minute documentary narrated by Tom Baker, was completed in 1990, and Walsh became a trustee of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation in 2014.
As a huge Harryhausen fan myself, by reading Harryhausen: The Lost Movies I was surprised to learn about certain well-known property projects that crossed Ray’s path in one way or another, such as some friendly consulting on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, turning down the sandworms of David Lynch’s DUNE, flirting with the possibilities of JOHN CARTER OF MARS in 1959, diving into the world of CONAN THE BARBARIAN at the suggestion of good pal Forry Ackerman in the ‘70s, finding THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS too narratively complicated, or pondering the possibilities of realizing the great white whale for John Huston’s 1956 big-screen adaptation of MOBY DICK. He even received an early script in the ‘80s for X-MEN from Stan Lee.
“As he went further through his career, he got more and more offers, but turned down more work,” says Walsh, pointing out that Ray was more interested in pursuing his own projects than simply being a hand for hire. Literally.
My relationship with the fine folks of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation goes back to my days as Executive Editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. For the 35th anniversary of CLASH OF THE TITANS, I interviewed the film’s star, Harry Hamlin, and put Harryhausen’s iconic Medusa creation on the cover. That caught the attention of Walsh, a trustee of the Foundation, and Connor Heaney, the Foundation’s Collections Manager. We’ve maintained a mutual appreciation society (ever since they set up this incredible photo exclusively for FM) and it was my pleasure to talk with Walsh about this fine testament to Ray’s creative legacy.
“He was not that forthcoming about the lost films projects, simply because it was painful to recall negative memories,” comments Walsh, who had to do quite a bit of detective work to assemble the materials of the 80-odd projects profiled in Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, talking to friends, family, co-workers and industry colleagues to piece it all together. “Not only was the material scattered within the 50,000 items of the Foundation, it was scattered within Ray’s recollection.”
The book features a foreward by filmmakers John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, Mike Hodges, Nicholas Meyer and John Boorman, who share similar tales of unrealized projects and the emotional toll it takes on a creative soul. “It’s incredibly depressing,” observes Walsh. “I think other filmmakers take comfort in the fact that Ray had so many unmade [projects].”
As for the way Harryhausen: The Lost Movies is organized, Walsh says, “Editorially, we have this kind of mishmash of ingredients. We have the films that he planned to make, such as SINBAD GOES TO MARS; we have the films that he turned down — EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and others; and we have the scenes cut from Ray’s own films.”
One’s imagination soars at the possibilities of what could have been, with such self-explanatory titles as THE STORY OF ODYSSEUS, WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN, THE DELUGE, ATLANTIS, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN, SINBAD AND THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD, and even a sequel to my favorite Harryhausen film, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD called THE EIGHTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD: RETURN TO COLOSSA.
I learned through reading this book that some scenes in films such as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD were censored at the time because they were deemed too gruesome or distressing for audiences.
“If you’re looking for a general family certification, you want to make sure that you’ve got nothing that suggests nudity or promiscuity, and in terms of violence, it has to be within a certain scope or spectrum,” explains Walsh. “JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS set the skeleton [battle] sequence at nighttime. That’s the witching hour. If you’re teasing the dead from the graves during the witching hour, you’re conjuring up the devil, effectively. And so anything that’s that malevolent for a family audience, it suddenly raises eyebrows. So if you want the skeletons, can’t have them at night time, it’s going to be lunchtime.”
He adds, “We’ve spoken to Sony Pictures about releasing a possible night version of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS — the film’s been scanned in 4K but not released yet — we’re hoping that that will be an option that you can flick between so you can see what [the battle] could look like at nighttime.”
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD saw Tom Baker’s villainous Prince Koura often speaking to the devil, a plot point that was “very upsetting for American critics and the sort of Midwest audiences who felt that promoting witchcraft, even if there is a terrible price to pay, was not appropriate in a family film.”
In 1980, I remember thinking of Ray Harryhausen the first time I saw the opening moments of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with Luke Skywalker striding along the frozen tundra on his Tauntaun. That style of stop-motion animation is so potent, it was almost like a sense-memory of an amalgamation of the many different types of creatures I watched Ray bring to life in the preceding years. That said, Harryhausen’s creative influence on other successful filmmakers cannot be underestimated.
“You know, George Lucas said, didn’t he, without Ray Harryhausen there would likely be no STAR WARS,” says Walsh. “In the case of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, there’s an awful lot of stop-motion between the Tauntauns, between the AT-ATs, and a few Scout Walker cameo sequences on Hoth.”
In pre-production to the first STAR WARS sequel, determining how many screen minutes of stop-motion animation would be required figured importantly into the budget of the film, which Lucas was bankrolling himself this time instead of the distributing studio, 20th Century Fox. Harryhausen, who was busy working on CLASH OF THE TITANS, stepped in to help with the math and logistics. “Lucas had spoken to Ray during the original STAR WARS about the chess set pieces as well, so Ray was the kind of the go-to person to stop-motion,” says Walsh.
Of Harryhausen’s intriguing storyboards showing a raging ocean battle with Herman Melville’s fabled white whale, Walsh says that the MOBY DICK entry was the last film to enter his book because it raised so many questions. Essentially, following much investigation, Walsh came to the conclusion that after Ray’s good friend Ray Bradbury was hired by John Huston to adapt the massive Melville tome — and the two clashed mightily over the screenplay — Bradbury talked to Harryhausen about bringing the white whale to life when the special-effects budget ballooned out of control.
“Ray Harryhausen created the sketches to pass along to Ray Bradbury for them to go to John Huston, but in the end Bradbury decided not to introduce Harryhausen to that tempestuous, disruptive element,” explains Walsh. “Because they may have got a great whale sequence — if they would have done it would have been fantastic — but the friendship could have been destroyed on the back of that movie, and Ray Bradbury felt it it obviously wasn’t worth it. But Harryhausen would have shot live-action, full scale water and front-projected it against the whale, so you wouldn’t have had that rather awkward, Gerry Anderson-scale/depth-of-field issue you get with water and model work.”
Out of the many unrealized Ray Harryhausen projects that Walsh discovered in assembling Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, I asked him to choose a pair of projects that he personally wishes would have been made.
“SINBAD GOES TO MARS; I’m a great believer that Ray works best when he’s working in those familiar genres that he’s had the most success in. And one of the reasons that didn’t happen was because they felt it was a slightly nonsensical way that Sinbad transports by using the pyramids to get to Mars. Of course, in 1992 Roland Emmerich’s STARGATE did a very similar thing, so I’d like to see that made.”
He adds, “I’d like to see Ray’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. His Martian invaders would have been on tripod legs, unlike anything that would have been seen on screen. To have seen them stride the landscape would have suited his stop-motion really well.”
Though Ray Harryhausen passed on in 2013, the one lost film project he was closest to getting produced after CLASH OF THE TITANS may still have a chance to be made today, thanks to Walsh’s efforts with the Foundation.
“Of all of Ray’s unmade films, I think FORCE OF THE TROJANS was the one that had the most development material,” says Walsh, singling out that the film had a completed sword-and-sandal screenplay by JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and CLASH OF THE TITANS writer Beverly Cross and a studio deal struck by Ray’s longtime producing partner Charles Schneer. ”But the wheels came off, because the criticisms that CLASH OF THE TITANS received was stinging. The effects received really kind of unpleasant reviews.”
Basically, special effects were evolving fast in contemporary films, and audience tastes were moving on to battles beyond the stars, not flights of fantasy — even though CLASH proved to be Ray’s most financially successful film ever, ironically. Still, “Ray’s idea of what would work for big audiences seemed slightly out of step,” observes Walsh. That, combined with MGM’s financial woes, ruled out any possibility that FORCE OF THE TROJANS would get the green light. Rather than press on, Harryhausen would retire not long after the release of CLASH.
Set in the same ancient milieu as CLASH, FORCE OF THE TROJANS is based on Aeneid, about a Trojan prince who battles for revenge after his wife is killed in the battle of Troy. With plenty of Harryhausen-styled creatures in his path, his journey leads to the founding of Rome, including a trip to the underworld.
“It’s an interesting story in its own right,” says Walsh. “I reshaped it, and kept all of the Harryhausen sequences, the creature fights and what have you. And interestingly, in both JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and CLASH OF THE TITANS, Beverly Cross wanted to include Hades and going into hell. Originally, the Golden Fleece was going to be protected by the seven-headed Hydra in hell itself, and the children of the Hydra, the soldier skeletons at the end of the film, would break out of their graves and fight Jason in hell with the Hydra. But, of course, the censors were like, ‘No no no, you can’t go to hell. You can’t even mention hell. That has to go.’ I’m putting it back in, so we kind of top and tail it in the underworld.”
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? The big question, of course, is how will they conquer the special effects in our age of CGI with a film that serves as a posthumous tribute to Harryhausen’s signature stop-motion animation?
“How do we respect Ray’s legacy and do something that contemporary audiences would want to see, bearing in mind the film will be quite expensive if it’s if it’s realized in the way everyone wishes?” asks Walsh. “How can you choose [the effects] in a way that respects tradition, but also brings in modern audiences who are desperately needed to make the film pay for itself?”
His answer: “What I suggested, and it’s what everyone so far is agreed to — we’ll wait and see if this stays in place — is that the film would have a combination of both both stop-motion and CG, and the final showdown will be between a stop-motion creation and a CG one. So we’ll be able to kind of put it to the test on screen. No large motion-picture studio picture has actually had that face-off between the old and the new, between the photochemical world and the digital world, and I hope that might be enough to get people interested.”
FORCE OF THE TROJANS is very much still in development. Optimistic that he can shepherd the film into production, Walsh is a realist as much as he is an idealist. “It needs to punch its own weight. You can’t go into the ring flabby and old and expect people to give a free pass, because that’s not how opening weekends work.”
He concludes, “I’m only a temporary custodian at the Foundation. I’m keen to do what I can while I’m here to ensure it’s future, so that when I am no longer here, at least I’ve done what I can to enhance and maintain it’s future.”
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