Sunday, 2 February 2020

Harryhausen - The Lost Movies

Stopped Motion

Harryhausen -
The Lost Movies

by John Walsh
Titan Books ISBN: 978-1789091106

Many viewers of fantasy cinema love the stop motion worlds created for the screen by the late, great Ray Harryhausen in films such as The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (reviewed here). However, do you remember Ray Harryhausen’s 1959 movie version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars... in Cinerama, no less? Or how about his 1969 version of Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian character?

If you’re scratching your head and thinking quizzically about that then don’t worry, you’re not losing your mind and tripping into some fantastic alternative reality. These are film projects that were planned at the time and never came to pass and, fascinating as they are, this is just scratching the surface of John Walsh’s new book Harryhausen - The Lost Movies.

Written by the current gatekeeper, so to speak, of the legacy of this remarkable stop motion animator and film maker extraordinaire, this book is a nicely illustrated look at the many different projects which are the fabulous “what if?” periods of Ray Harryhausen’s life... mostly but, not always, coupled with his producing partner Charles H. Schneer, of course. And as you can imagine, it’s a treasure trove of lost projects that, in some cases most regrettably, never came to pass. It’s also a source of some quite surprising things, when you look at some of the cinematic treasures which were possibly ‘in the mix’ for Harryhausen’s attention.

Starting off with quote testimonies about the frequency of lost projects the average film maker has to regrettably turn his back on by five famous movie directors... Guillermo Del Toro, John Landis, John Boorman, Mike Hodges and Nicholas Meyer... the book goes through the life’s work of missed or passed on opportunities of the great man chronologically and with chapters set into periods of his work.

The book takes the works of three categories of ‘lost film’(and occasional TV show or series of short films like the proposed 1950 Baron Munchausen shorts) as it goes along with the different types designated thusly:

Projects turned down by Ray - these are ones which, for some reason or another, Ray either wasn’t interested in or saw some huge problems which might scupper the project and so didn’t spend too much time on them. For the Conan movie, for example, Ray knew he wanted to do it ‘straight’ to the tone of the original pulps and was pushing to go for a violent, gory approach for the subject matter... something he didn’t usually entertain as a good route with his work but, for this project, he thought that would be the right choice. Regrettably, various producers didn’t think a fantasy film with that level of violence would be deemed commercial enough for the cinema on the expected release year of 1973 (once all the animated creature sequences were done) so the project didn’t go ahead.

And it’s an impressive and surprising list of projects that Ray turned down, many of them which you could see would have benefitted from Ray’s golden touch and would have made sense if he’d taken them on. They include among them, such famous titles as The Giant Claw, Night/Curse Of The Demon, King Kong Vs Frankenstein, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, The Land That Time Forgot, The Hobbit (in 1974), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (although that lovely shot of him standing next to the stop motion version of the Tauntaun at ILM is reproduced in this book), The Princess Bride, an early version of the X-Men and David Lynch’s version of Dune. An impressive list of projects to pass on to be sure but there are many others mentioned in this book and in some cases it also talks about who approached him for which project and the reasons why Ray turned them down.

Projects that Ray was developing - these were propositions to make into a film project but which didn’t get finished for one reason or another and they run the gamut from the book being able to show just a single surviving sketch such as a proposed 1948 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher to having a load of surviving artwork plus assembled models ready to be animated and, in the case of some of the projects (and I guess you’ll need to scour YouTube to see some of these), actual test footage of the models in preparation for filming.

Alas, for some of these projects such as a proposed 1954 version of H. G Wells’ The Time Machine, no preliminary sketches have survived.For others of these though, you can get a real glimpse, sometimes more than a glimpse, of what might have been. For instance, Ray’s version of War Of The Worlds would have included the proper tripods from the book and not what George Pal ended up doing with his movie version. Or the much mooted Sinbad Goes To Mars project.

And then there’s a third category of films, where the movie was made by Ray and is another jewel in his filmography but sequences were either developed but not shot for these or just left on the cutting room floor. So a sequence where two Cyclopses fight each other in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad was storyboarded out (the book is full of Harryhausen’s illustrations and models of these kinds of things, by the way) but never made it into the final version. Also, scenes with snakes (and also in the case of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad... rats) were cut out from most of the films where they were originally to be included, purely because Charles H. Schneer had a phobia about them and so he always eliminated those scenes first. One has to wonder how the Medusa in Clash Of The Titans got past him. Interestingly, a decade after the film came out, a young 17 year old fan sent a homemade mask of the Cyclops from that film to Harryhausen and Ray responded with an encouraging letter. Ladies and gentlemen, that young fan grew up to be the famous Hollywood creature creator Rick Baker.

And some of the commentary on these existing films contain their own surprises...

So sure, the scene in The Three Worlds of Gulliver where the title character fights a devil homunculus never made it to the cameras but, apparently neither did Danny Kaye, who was wanted for Gulliver but couldn’t get Sam Goldwyn to release him from his contract to shoot the movie.

Or the fact that for The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, Christopher Lee was originally wanted for the main villain of the movie, a part that went to the then unknown Tom Baker (and which brought him to the attention of the producers of the show that shot him to international fame).  Also from this movie, Orson Welles was apparently wanted for the role of The Oracle but an uncredited and completely unrecognisable Robert Shaw plays the role in the final film. As for the Valley Of The Vipers scene originally slated for the movie... well, you can bet Schneer got rid of that one too.

Also, I have to say that, judging from the storyboards in this book, the unused Shadow Men who created the Minoton from Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger would have been a really scary thing for children to view and, perhaps, should have stayed in the movie.

Fans of Hammer movies will also find much of interest in here with the unmade projects like When The Earth Cracked Open (one of the famous 'pre-posters' for that film is reprinted in this tome) and their attempt to make their own King Kong movie.

As for Clash Of The Titans, one of my least favourites of Harryhausen’s ouevre, it explains why the death of Medusa in the film is so different from the one in the Look-In graphic novel sold at the time of the film’s release. However, regarding this motion picture, the most interesting but, also, the most frustrating revelation of this book is the discovery made by the writer when researching this. That is the discovery of a TDK blank cassette on which is recorded John Barry’s rejected demo score for the film. I would love to hear this... as would a lot of people but, I’ve no idea what condition the tape is in or if it could be preserved for a commercial release. It must be a fascinating listening experience though. 

And that’s me done with this book for now. There are a heck of a lot of dead movies covered here and there’s many more you can read about in Harryhausen - The Lost movies. John Walsh has conceived and written a really fascinating book which gives a real insight into what some of these productions might have had going for them, with plenty of the original illustrations and models reproduced here too. A real dream of a book for certain readers, I’m sure and something most cinephiles of a certain kind will want to immerse themselves in. Definitely worth a read.

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