As the stunning Kubrick exhibition prepares to depart Los Angeles, here is a quick tour (with some additional photos). Think of this as a prelude to a future perambulation through the Kubrickian maze….
“Essentially the film is a mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific, literal explanation.” — Stanley Kubrick.
The altering eye: Kubrick’s cameras and lenses
From Kubrick’s photos of New York life in the 1940s in Look magazine:
Cartoonist Peter Arno with model
Deep space and wide angles — Kubrick signatures
The following shot — a Kubrick favorite
Full Metal Jacket
Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray
The art of strategy — the strategist in art. On set and onscreen Kubrick always had a chess game in progress (here in Paths of Glory)
On location shooting Paths of Glory
The patterns of war: storyboards for Spartacus by the legendary Saul Bass
Costume for Crassus (Laurence Olivier)
The Senate set
Matte painting for Spartacus by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw
Contemplating James Mason contemplating Lolita….
…. and Lolita contemplating us…..
Kubrick and Sue Lyon (Lolita) photographing the iconic scene
Promotional shot of Sue Lyon by Bert Stern
(More photos from Bert Stern’s legendary shoot can be found here).
Designing Armageddon: model of the War Room set from Dr. Strangelove
Copy of source material for Dr. Strangelove, with Kubrick’s notes for possible film titles
Riding the Bomb
Who says doomsday is the end of the world?
Peter Sellers filming Kubrick playing chess with George C. Scott on set of Dr. Strangelove
Polish poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001 co-author Arthur C. Clarke with Kubrick on set
Designing movement for the Dawn of Man
Grasping new concepts (2001: A Space Odyssey)
2001 in 1968
Model of the giant centrifuge set
The real thing
Filming inside the centrifuge set
Caution: Unattended Monolith
Early thoughts were to “fly” the monolith with wires. This idea was later abandoned.
The alien in the familiar: suspended model of the White Room where Man takes the next step in his evolution (2001: A Space Odyssey)
One possible future of Man —
or another —
Even mannequin Alex inspires unease (A Clockwork Orange)
Design sketch for Alex’s room
Fallout from the film led to Kubrick withdrawing it from circulation in the UK for 27 years. I had to travel to Paris to see it for the first time, dubbed into French
Set design sketches by John Barry
In which our Hero lies amidst the illusions of his invulnerability (Barry Lyndon)
Kubrick would use location photos to storyboard, as with this shot of a carriage
Customized camera and lens for capturing the impossible beauty of Barry Lyndon
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends —
It gives a lovely light.”
Early poster design by Saul Bass
Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on set
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (The Shining)
What critic Michael Ciment calls “the return of the repressed”, a strand of behaviour that weaves throughout Kubrick’s work, becoming a murderous psychosis signalled by a telltale look:
Private Pyle (Full Metal Jacket):
The duality of Man: Joker’s helmet from Full Metal Jacket
Enemy — thy name is Woman!
Cataclysms echoing endlessly through time: Aryan Papers installation (abandoned film project)
The people of the Himalayas believe the gods live in the high mountains, and that summits are sacred places. Everest was once known as Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of Mountains”. After the Chinese invaded Tibet their authorities decreed that the mountain would again be known by that name, rather than Everest (named after the surveyor who had first mapped the region for the British). Before leaving the summit in 1953, Tenzing buried some sweets and biscuits as an offering to the Buddhist gods of the mountain.
In 1951, as my father and other members of the Reconnaissance expedition gazed upon the southern slopes of Mt. Everest, did they wonder what gods they might encounter here?
As they peered into the lower reaches of the vast Western Cwm and up towards the towering Lhotse face, it was clear that whatever god or gods protected the mountain were going to make them work hard for the privilege of entering its Elysian snow fields. Mountaineers entering these high realms have been known to get a strong case of religion.
Looking up the Western Cwm towards the Lhotse face, gateway to the summit.
Not so my father. He was inclined towards practical thinking and was already well into his medical training when he first figured out a potential southern route to the summit in the basement of the Royal Geographical Society in 1951. The son of middle class expatriates living in Malaya, he had attended the public school of Marlborough, and therefore shared something of the gentleman’s club background of the British climbing establishment. However, he admitted to none of the sense of entitlement and rejection of professionalism that had plagued British mountaineering in particular, and British athletics in general, for years. (This issue was tellingly investigated in the Oscar-winning film about the British runners at the 1924 Olympic games, Chariots of Fire). The Alpine Club, home to generations of British climbers, was the Club of Clubs when it came to extolling the virtues of gung-ho amateurism over targeted training and systematic preparation.
My father was also well acquainted with Everest history, and the long series of British failures on the mountain. Already well into his training for an eventual career as a surgeon, he thought scientifically and methodically, and was determined to make sure none of the avoidable mistakes of the past would be repeated to keep the British from claiming their prize. Little did he know how much of an uphill struggle this would prove to be.
He knew about Mallory and Irving who, in 1924, had disappeared from sight en route to the summit.
The last photo of Mallory and Irvine.
He knew about the inadequate clothing, faulty equipment, bad hygiene, and the British abhorrence of taking anything more than an amateur approach to the laws of physics and anatomy during the course of preparations for Himalayan mountaineering. Reading the accounts by some of these Everest veterans one could be forgiven for thinking that it was better to martyr oneself on the mountain rather than admit scientific thinking into the climbing equation. “Muscular Christianity” was an ideology of embracing God through athleticism that came to prominence in the Victorian era and had become pervasive in the climbing world. Over the years Muscular Christianity had demanded — and received — a large volume of human sacrifice from its acolytes: toes and fingers from the frost-bitten limbs of those who survived, everything else from those who did not. Later in his career, my father became the go-to expert on frost-bite because of his success with preventing amputation.
The Everest problem, for my father, was the problem of high altitude – in particular the last thousand feet, where the human body enters a realm it is not naturally equipped to survive.
High on the Lhotse face.
Here the air is so thin and cold, that, without supplementary oxygen, the human body starts to shut down, even though the owner keeps walking. Trouble was, no one had been able to lick the oxygen problem. Flawed thinking and faulty equipment meant more often than not that oxygen sets appeared to make things worse and were abandoned by frustrated climbers who often felt they intruded on the “pure” mountaineering experience anyway. Thus, as he approached the summit, the living climber turned into the walking dead. He just didn’t know it yet. The history of high altitude climbing is littered with tales of those returning victorious or otherwise from the upper reaches of the mountain only to die as they descend: literally stopped dead in their tracks.
One of scores of dead bodies to be seen on Everest today.
My father spent his whole career railing against those who resisted the so-called “cheat” of having safety oxygen available at all high camps. Several superb mountaineers he had climbed with died needlessly on other people’s expeditions, he felt, because they did not have back-up oxygen for emergencies. Alan Rouse, who had climbed with him on the first ascent of Mt. Kongur in China, died on K2, sitting in his tent, left behind by his companions, drowning in his own bodily fluids as he spoke to his pregnant girl-friend by radio.
Alan Rouse (l), Michael Ward (c), Chris Bonington (r). London, 1980.
My dad felt events like these turned mountaineering into a blood sport, and his disdain for its practitioners knew no bounds.
“The most inhospitable place on Earth”: the South Col.
For my father in 1951, the solution to the Everest problem lay not in faith – faith in the human spirit’s ability to endure beyond what was endurable simply through brute physical force and mystical will-power – but in a thoughtful, well-researched and practical application of scientific principles to the challenges of high altitude, cold, and the limitations of the human body to function in both. The question was: how to overcome these challenges, and who was the man to lead the way?
Looking down the Lhotse face
After he had figured out the route and approached the Himalayan Committee about putting together a Reconnaissance expedition, he made inquiries which led him to the name of Griffith Pugh. Thus it was that my father found himself walking into the gaunt edifice that was the Medical Research Council’s Division of Human Physiology in Hampstead.
In Harriet Tuckey’s probing new biography of Pugh, Everest – The First Ascent (whose revelations amount to a re-writing of accepted Everest history), she describes their fateful first meeting. It’s an iconic scene, straight out of a movie. After finding no receptionist at the front door, “Ward searched along wide, dark corridors, eventually finding Pugh’s laboratory on the second floor. Entering the laboratory past crowded shelves of scientific equipment, Ward was confronted with a large, white Victorian enamel bath in the middle of the room, full to the brim with water and floating ice-cubes. In the bath lay a semi-naked man whose body, chalk-white with cold, was covered in wires attached to various instruments. His blazing, red hair contrasted sharply with the ghostly white pallor of his face. The phantom figure was Dr. Griffith Pugh undertaking an experiment into hypothermia. Ward had arrived at the crisis point when rigid and paralysed by cold, the physiologist had to be rescued from the bath by his own technician. Ward stepped forward to help pull him out of the freezing water. So began a long, fruitful collaboration and friendship.”
Pugh, a brilliant physiologist, Olympic skier, and trainer of high-altitude commandos during the war, not only knew his science but also thought outside the box. Eventually he would reassess every aspect of equipment, diet, hygiene, and physical training in order to overcome the problems of “the last thousand feet of Everest”. In effect, the successful outcome of the ’53 expedition would have been impossible without this application of scientific thinking to an intractable series of problems. Pugh’s work revolutionized all sports that took place in the mountains, and paved the way for a whole new field of scientific inquiry, what my father would refer to as “a cornucopia of science”.
Hilary and Tenzing en route to the summit of Everest, wearing the open circuit oxygen sets that Griff Pugh had diligently refined.
But in order to achieve this Pugh would have to win over not only resistant climbers, but also the entrenched, anti-science culture of the Himalayan Committee that was running the show. It was a struggle every bit as epic as the quest to ascend the world’s highest mountain, and the true story of what actually happened, and the full measure of Pugh’s contribution, was suppressed for many years by those in a position to do so. It is only with the publication of Harriet Tuckey’s book that this riveting story – which in fact is far more interesting and inspiring than the hitherto accepted orthodoxy — has been made public for the first time.
In these fascinating extracts from a scientific film that Pugh assembled with the aid of Tom Stobart (the official Everest cameraman) and George Lowe (who shot the high altitude sequences), we can see some of the issues he was tackling.
After his experiences on the Cho Oyu expedition in 1952, a dry-run for Everest itself, Pugh insisted on an extended period of acclimatisation for the team. The benefits were enormous.
Another major factor contributing to the success in ’53 was an increase in food and fluid intake, per Pugh’s recommendations. He made sure to pack each climber’s rucksack with favorite delicacies for consumption at high altitude, where appetites were normally depressed.
My father found working on the science of high altitude with Pugh utterly absorbing, and it stimulated an interest he was to pursue for the rest of his life. Here he assists Pugh with a step-test in an experiment at Advanced Base Camp (21,000 ft.), just above the icefall.
My father’s interest in the effects of high altitude dovetailed perfectly with his career as a clinician and surgeon. When Pugh decided to put together the first dedicated expedition to research high altitude physiology, my father immediately came on board.
The Silver Hut expedition of 1960/61, in which a group of mountaineer-researchers lived at 19,000 feet for six months, performing a wide range of experiments upon themselves, jump-started a whole new field of research in spectacular fashion.
Riding a stationary bike inside the Silver Hut. My father would later continue these experiments high on the Makalu Col.
The constant round of experiments was alleviated by skiing —
Griff Pugh skiing with the Silver Hut mascot, Rakpa.
— and by the ascent of local unclimbed peaks.
Ward and Gill, barely visible dots just below the summit of Rakpa Peak (named after the Silver Hut mascot).
My dad led a successful first ascent of the spectacular “Matterhorn of the Himalayas”, Ama Dablam, narrowly avoiding disaster on the way down when a sherpa broke his leg and had to be carried down on the backs of others, and sometimes swung like a pendulum off the peak’s precipitous rock faces. It was the first ever winter ascent, alpine-style, of a Himalayan peak; it was another eighteen years before the mountain would be climbed again.
The second attempted ascent of the expedition, of Makalu (the world’s fifth highest peak at 27,825 ft.), did not have such a happy outcome. Bad weather plus a series of accidents and collapses owing to high altitude resulted in the entire party being stranded at different camps high on the mountain.
Pete Mulgrew who collapsed near the summit of Makalu. Note frostbite on his fingers and nose.
If it hadn’t been for the presence of safety oxygen and the determined good sense of the one relatively inexperienced mountaineer in the party, John West, who climbed back up the mountain to see where everyone was, many could have died, including my father. He described his own rescue, after being stranded alone at 24,000 ft. for two days, thus: “At about 11 o’clock that morning I had my first brush with consciousness again. This was John West’s bearded face gazing at me. I remembered his teeth very well. They looked remarkably clean.” (The whole enterprise is described vividly in Harriet Tuckey’s book and my father’s autobiography, In This Short Span).
Members of the Silver Hut team: (l. to r.) John West, Mike Gill, Griff Pugh, Michael Ward, Jim Milledge.
The work at the Silver Hut led ultimately to my father writing the first wide-ranging text book in the field of high altitude medicine and physiology, and subsequent editions were co-written with two other members of the team: Jim Milledge and John West. Jim gave a most moving, and entertaining, address at my father’s funeral.
However, up to his death, my father, like Griffith Pugh, continued to suffer the scorn and cold shoulder of the leader of the ’53 expedition, John Hunt, and his acolytes. There were many reasons for this. As Medical Officer my father had to order Hunt to go down the mountain when he felt his deteriorating condition and insistence on “leading from the front” during the perilous ascent of the Lhotse Face was endangering not only the expedition but also lives.
There was also a heated confrontation over Hunt’s tactics for the final assault, in particular his choices concerning the setting up of high camps for the summit attempts. My father felt Hunt was compromising the chances for success of the first assault party of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans by establishing their final camp too far from the summit. His misgivings were proved correct when the climbers had to turn back within sight of the top. Problems with their closed-circuit oxygen equipment, untested at high altitude, had delayed their progress. Pugh had warned Hunt this was likely to happen with the closed-circuit sets, which were a newer, more complex technology than the open-circuit design which Hilary and Tenzing, the second summit party, were to use. The controversy over Hunt’s strategy remains unresolved.
Here is Pugh’s discussion of the closed-circuit oxygen sets used during the first assault on the summit:
Hunt was a military man, and a fine leader in many ways (though not as strong a climber as the rest of the team), but he was definitely of the “Muscular Christianity” school of mountaineering. Harriet Tuckey: “He told his wife that on Everest he had carried with him a feeling that the hand of God was guiding him towards his goal. This sense of being chosen by God coloured the way he framed the official history of the expedition.” Which meant that science was largely relegated to the appendices of the official expedition book written by Hunt, and when mentioned at all in the official film of the expedition, made to seem like part of his own inspired leadership. There was barely a word of attribution for Griffith Pugh, the true architect of the boots Hunt had walked in, the clothes Hunt had worn, the food Hunt had eaten, the tents Hunt had slept in, and the smoothly functioning oxygen sets that had saved Hunt’s life on the Lhotse face and lifted Hillary and Tenzing to the summit.
Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary after summiting Everest.
In the introduction to the new edition of my father’s book, Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration, the distinguished French mountaineer Eric Vola does not mince words in his appraisal of Hunt and his animosity towards my father.
He recounts an extraordinary episode which took place in 1973, at the 20th Anniversary Celebration at the Royal Geographical Society when my father spoke about the contribution of science to the success of the expedition. Afterwards Hunt came up to him, furious, and started shouting: “No one wants to hear about that science!”
Faced with the ironic silence of my dad (ah, how well I remember the futility of arguing with those silences), who was by then a distinguished senior Consultant Surgeon, Hunt became apoplectic: “I hate scientists”, he fulminated. Then he turned to another member of the expedition and said: “Someone should shut Ward up”.
The Everest team in Snowdonia: my father stands to the left of the group; Hunt, in black sweater, is in the middle.
At home my father remained remarkably sanguine about all of this. His greatest frustrations derived from having various expeditions to remote corners of Asia cancelled at the last minute because of local political instabilities, and having to deal with the officious bureaucrats of the National Health Service and their equivalents in the unions. On one memorable occasion, when the umpteenth strike closed down his operating room, he called up a fleet of taxis to pick up his patients and drive them through the picket lines to another hospital so he could continue his scheduled operations without interruption.
He was a dedicated believer in socialized medicine to the end, eschewed private practice (not for him the cultivation of an unguent bedside manner), and during his very active tenure as Master of the Apothecaries (the City of London’s oldest Guild) he implemented a number of forward-thinking programs in international medical co-operation. Foremost amongst these involved bringing his own specialized knowledge and experience to bear on the problems of medical relief after natural disasters in Third World countries.
His retirement from clinical work also saw a focusing on his many scholarly areas of interest, with articles being published in leading medical and mountaineering journals on a regular basis. Even a horrendous car accident in no way dulled his mind, which seemed ever ready for adventure. After completing his seminal Everest history, he turned to consolidating his lifelong interest and research into the extraordinary accomplishments of the pundits, native surveyors who mapped vast tracts of Central Asia for the British in secret, using the most basic tools and formidable memory. He had in fact learned these techniques himself, applying them in part on the Everest Reconnaissance of 1951, and more thoroughly during his trips to Bhutan in 1964 and ’65. (He used to practice being a pundit during walks in London’s Richmond Park — apparently much to my bewilderment as a toddler). A book was to be forthcoming, but his death curtailed the project until it was taken on by Richard Sale. The resulting volume, Mapping the Himalayas: Michael Ward and the Pundit Legacy, opens yet another window into his lifetime’s journey of exploration and scientific inquiry.
A page from my father’s 1951 Everest Reconnaissance diary, depicting the approach to the Western Cwm.
Looking at reproductions of pages from his Everest and Bhutan diaries enables one to share some of the same excitement he must have felt as he navigated through the icefall or looked upon the remote Lunana region, Bhutan’s own Shangri-La. He somehow always managed to be amongst the first Westerners to see these wonders.
Trekking through Lunana
Given the history of his fractured relationship with the Hunt establishment in British mountaineering, it was all the more striking – and gratifying – that when my father died the fulsome obituaries went out of their way to give him the full credit denied him in his lifetime for the many areas of pioneering work he brought to the worlds of mountaineering, exploration and high altitude medicine. I was stunned to see The New York Times give him equal space with the legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks. These were two indomitable characters who I think would have liked each other if they had met.
Escaping the heat in the Arun River, en route to Everest 1951.
His funeral was remarkable for its celebratory nature, and revelatory in a way that he would have been profoundly moved by. Several elderly gentlemen, who had traveled long distances to attend, were amongst the congregation in the packed church, and were unknown to both myself and my mother. It turned out that they had been medical students under my father’s tutelage. He had inspired in them equal parts terror of what would happen to them if they made a mistake or forgot some obscure fact, and complete devotion to the practice of good medicine. That he had so inculcated in them the spirit of excellence, intellectual honesty, and moral integrity was a legacy he would have been proud of above all others.
The approach to Mt. Kongur in China (climbed by my father’s expedition in 1981), seen across Lake Karakul.
To me, personally, he was a remote figure in many ways, the result of his own emotionally undernourished childhood. It was therefore a treat to see him bond so completely with my daughter, who, upon meeting him for the first time, declared that he was “Dodo”. He wore his new name like a badge of honor. My greatest regret is that I didn’t sit down with him, with a tape recorder, and just talk. Get all the stories. All the knowledge. All his insights into a time when true explorers roamed the earth and walked off the map and had adventures the rest of us can only dream of.
He was a daunting figure in his accomplishments and no-nonsense disposition. His competitive streak, combined with a disregard for the niceties, could make him seem brusque, somewhat remote. But, in truth, he was a man of deep feeling: a remarkable man from a remarkable generation of men who, like the great British film director David Lean, were always looking to the far horizon, then tried to figure out the most interesting way of getting there.
Everest 1951: Ward and head Sherpa Angtharkay looking across Tibet from the Menlung Pass.
Michael Ward climbing in North Wales.
This is the third and final part of my reminiscences about my father’s role in the First Ascent of Everest and the 1951 Reconnaissance Expedition. You can read Part 1 – “Watching Dad on Everest” here, and Part 2 – “My Dad, the Yeti, and Me” here.
Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard a month ago, I found myself swerving to avoid a Spiderman who had temporarily lost control of his web.
Now a native Angeleno will immediately know whereof I speak. I was on the block of Los Angeles that every tourist flocks to, as well as assorted street performers acting out their superhero and celebrity complexes. This is where you’ll find Grauman’s Chinese Theater, home to the concrete signatures, handprints, footprints and even pawprints of Tinsel Town’s legends.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (note Spiderman in foreground)
Also along this street you will find the Hollywood Walk of Fame: these are the stars set into the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard that bear the names of those who have defined the movies, both in front of and behind the camera. In swerving to avoid Spiderman (who was probably trying to catch the eye of Jimmy Kimmel’s talent spotter), I found myself careening towards a bouquet of flowers set upon an easel above one of these sidewalk memorials. This is what they do here to mark the recent passage of a star from the Hollywood constellation to the Great Walk of Fame in the Sky.
Fortunately, my collision was narrowly averted by a friendly steadying hand from Spongebob (who looked in need of a good rinse). Then I noticed the name of the legend whose floral epitaph I had almost demolished.
How appropriate, I thought, as I imagined the headline from the flowers’ point of view: “LARGE CREATURE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN WREAKS DEVASTATION FROM THE SKY!”. This was exactly the kind of thing you might see in a Ray Harryhausen movie.
Now if you don’t know who Ray Harryhausen is, then you are about to learn about one of the greatest sorcerers of the silver screen. If you are already familiar with his work, and live in Los Angeles, then I suspect you will already be planning to make the pilgrimage to this weekend’s retrospective of his work at the American Cinematheque.
Fighting the Kali from “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”
Ray Harryhausen was the master of a process practically as old as film itself: stop motion animation. The ironic thing about those early filmmakers was that after laboring so long and hard to create a technology that could accurately record and then re-project reality, they then almost immediately set their minds to creating fantasies using all manner of camera trickery. Thomas Edison, one of the pioneers of movies, made some of the earliest examples of stop motion animation.
From the beginning, film led a double life. By day, it was a mild-mannered reporter of the factual and everyday; by night, a Jungian fantasist with superhero powers of endless invention.
Stop motion, just one weapon in the technical arsenal of the film wizard, is the process by which an animator films a model one frame at a time, slightly moving the model with each new frame exposure. Then, projected at 24 frames per second, the inanimate model miraculously comes to life. The most famous early examples of this technique used in features were The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). Willis O’Brien, who created the animation for both films, was later Harryhausen’s mentor.
Harryhausen took this technique and expanded upon it, eventually creating his own process to combine models and live action, which he named “Dynamation”.
My mind is prone to find odd equivalencies, so I consider Harryhausen to be the Chuck Jones of stop motion model animation. This is not because his films are funny (they aren’t – they are mostly about Armageddon monsters and mythological beasties – but they can give rise to unintentional giggles in rare moments of misjudged invention), but because he brought a level of genius to something that was completely artificial, often visibly so, and imbued it with incredible humanity, rendering it credible and, to the audience, utterly real.
With Jones it was line drawings which, in his greatest cartoons — like the Road Runner meditations on the futility of pursuit, literal or otherwise — were given broad stroke design and crude animation (at least compared to Disney’s fantasias), yet still seemed to capture the deep absurdities and pathos of the human condition. With Harryhausen, when the black-and-white T.Rex from outer space (official name Ymir) in 20 Million Miles to Earth is gunned down by soldiers in the Colisseum, and becomes a ruin in the ruins, guess who we feel sorry for, and guess who seems more human than the humans?
We may be aware of the sometimes jerky movements of Harryhausen’s animated creatures (his preferred term for his creations), the subtle but clear differentiations between the models and the real actors and locations. But at the same time we marvel at the apparent interaction between the models and the separately filmed elements. We buy the fantasy, because we imbue the models with character and emotion. How is that possible? They are just models.
Why do our hearts break at the end of King Kong? How is it that we, like Fay Wray, learn to weep for a rubber monkey?
Kong, after touching his bullet wounds, struggles to comprehend the blood on his fingers.
Firty years from now, which version of the Perseus legend are you going to take your kids to see? The recent CGI, 3-D run-amok Clash of the Titans, or Ray Harryhausen’s whimsical 1981 version starring L.A.Law’s hunky Harry Hamlin and his dimple, with Larry Olivier hamming it up as Zeus on Mt. Olympus? (And keep an eye open, or maybe two, for James Bond’s Blonde Venus who arose from the waves: Ursula Andress as — yes, you guessed it — Venus/Aphrodite, minus the conch).
Shooting the flood on miniature sets for “Clash of the Titans”
So what kind of cinematic alchemy is at work here, decades before CGI is able to render reality with more reality than reality?
Getting an eyeful of the Medusa in “Clash of the Titans”
Well, maybe that’s the point. Sometimes reality on film is less real, aesthetically and emotionally, than the real thing. Emotional truth is more important than strict pictorial accuracy. Art has always been about the missing piece, the leap of imagination, the interpretative act that is required of the viewer or listener to fully engage with the construct (the art work). In film, as Hitchcock so tellingly observed, it’s what you do not see that tickles the imagination, which in turn teases you into the spaces between the frames, between the visible. This is where the soul of film resides, and where we make the connection with our dream life.
In the pre-digital era the action of creating film was first a physical process, then a chemical one. First the object or actor moves or is manipulated. With Harryhausen his fingers shape and move the model frame by frame, touching it, pouring his energy through his fingers into the rubber or clay. Light bounces off the reality being photographed, passing through lenses onto the recording medium itself, then is manipulated and developed through chemicals in a laboratory, and finally imprinted. It is literally an alchemical process: disembodied light acting on one set of materials to turn them into another. Moving clay or rubber models in front of lights is a physical, organic process: a performance, like that of an actor, except this one is recorded one frame at a time.
On the other hand CGI, the digital equivalent of Harryhausen’s stop motion, takes place in an alternative reality generated within a computer. It is a mathematical process, a sampling of reality dressed up to look like a recording of reality. On some deep, intuitive level, that artificiality is communicated, and our brains, our souls do not completely buy it. We’re used to imperfection in everything we look at and experience in the physical world. Models exist in that world, and carry that DNA with them.
CGI can be further compromised by the desire of the modern filmmaker, paying no heed to Hitchcock, to fill in the blanks: now that he can show everything, he does show everything. There’s no space into which the viewer’s consciousness can quietly slip and settle, then absorb, grow, and make connections.
Harryhausen himself put his finger on it: “There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
Polish poster for “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”
Understanding that music is another magical alchemy that enhances the emotional connection we make to moving images, Harryhausen also made the brilliant decision to hire one of the best composers around, Bernard Herrmann, for four of his films, including his two best: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. It was Herrmann who added soul to Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s masterpieces Vertigo and Psycho with his bold, imaginative scores. Herrmann was a supreme colorist and a master of inventive orchestration. Harryhausen’s mythic creatures inspired him to create dazzling combinations of unusual instruments to lend each animation its own personality, like the sword-wielding skeleton in 7th Voyage of Sinbad who attacks with xylophone, percussion and brass staccatos.
In the 1970s, Decca’s hi-fi specatacular label, Phase 4 Stereo, embarked on a series of recordings of suites from these scores with Herrmann himself conducting. Their success helped nurture the growing interest in film music as a serious art form in its own right, and are now considered audio classics, with used LPs fetching high prices.
Some years ago I took my then 8-year-old daughter to a screening of The 7thVoyage of Sinbad. She was utterly transported by this Technicolor fantasy voyage come true.
But as far as I was concerned this was just the warm-up to the main event. We walked across the street to meet the man himself, who was signing copies of his latest book.
This was a lavishly assembled collection of stills, drawings and storyboards from his movies, and framed copies of certain drawings hung on the walls of the bookstore. They would not have been out of place in a LACMA exhibit.
Hollywood art. Yes, there is such a thing.
My daughter was excited beyond measure to meet the man whose movie had just brought to life the myths she had only read about in books, or been told by me. Uncharacteristically tongue-tied, she came to the head of the line, clasping the book to be signed.
I told him we had just been to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. My daughter was visibly trembling, completely in awe. Harryhausen immediately put her at ease.
“So what did you like the best?” he asked gently.
Then: “The skeleton. He – “ note the use of the word ‘he’ rather than ‘it’. Now she hesitated, wanting to be sure to use exactly the right words. “He — was so real.”
“Well”, came Harryhausen’s reply. “He was real.”
Precisely my point.
That book continues to stand in pride of place on my daughter’s bookshelves, next to the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy epics that have so thoroughly colonized the landscapes of her imagination. Mythology and creatures from the beyond will always be with us, as will — thanks to film — the fantastical worlds of Ray Harryhausen.
And I’m willing to bet J.K. Rowling’s a fan too
The Kraken and Andromeda in “Clash of the Titans”
Piero di Cosimo’s version of the same scene, with Perseus rescuing Andromeda (1513)
In fact, by the time this photo was carried on the cover of every newspaper on the morning of June 2nd, the climbers were back at Base Camp, having actually reached the summit on May 29th. But the news was held back for the morning of the Queen’s Coronation.
This is what Tenzing would have seen as he looked back down the way he had come, through the Western Cwm…
… and what he would have seen looking east towards Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world…