King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston) is furious at his daughter for having a baby when he had kept her locked up in his palace, jealously guarding her beauty. What the King doesn't know is that she was impregnated by the King of the Gods, Zeus (Laurence Olivier) and when she and her son are placed in a box and sent out to sea to their supposed doom, Zeus takes a mighty revenge, ordering Poseidon, god of the oceans, to let loose the dreaded Kraken on the land. And so Argos suffers a catalogue of disasters while the princess and her baby are safely guided to another island where the son grows up to be Perseus (Harry Hamlin). However, the Gods have plans for this young man...
After Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were released, they set new benchmarks in the quality of special effects. This was old news to craftsman Ray Harryhausen, who had been setting his own standards in the field for decades, but by the time Clash of the Titans came out, all those years of mythological beasts rendered lovingly in stop motion animation were beginning to look a little past it, however unfairly. So with this film, Harryhausen and regular producer Charles H. Schneer crammed in everything but the kitchen sink to make the movie as spectacular as possible - for the last time, as it transpired. Scripted by Beverley Cross, the story draws from a number of Greek legends but still comes across as somehow staid.
This is not simply due to the plot, which is nothing if not eventful although the expected Harryhausen effects are barely seen until about half an hour into the running time. Perseus has an enemy on Mount Olympus, and she is Thetis (Maggie Smith), who has a grudge against Zeus turning her son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) into a monster. Calibos was promised the hand of princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) in marriage, but now she shuns him (superficial or what?) so almost every day a new suitor arrives to answer a riddle posed by Calibos. If they answer incorrectly, and they always do, they suffer death, but now Perseus has made his presence felt on the island.
Not through choice, it must be said, he was transported there by Thetis as a punishment. But Perseus has the advantage of being given special objects by Zeus: a powerful sword, a strong shield and a helmet of invisibility and these will see him through his adventures. He has also made friends with Ammon (Burgess Meredith), a playwright who has fallen on hard times, as have most of the population of the island. But where are the Harryhausen special effects? They turn up with a giant vulture which takes the dream self of Andromeda to Calibos, who is played not only by McCarthy, but as a model as well, complete with moving tail.
The creations show up thick and fast after that, some impressive, such as the winged horse Pegasus which Perseus tames after about fifteen seconds, and some less so, such as the twittering mechanical owl - obviously the film's attempt to make a new R2-D2 character and none too welcome at that. In fact, Clash of the Titans looks about as up to date as one of the myths it relates; there's a stodginess in the storytelling. And how is one supposed to take lines like "Once he even tried to ravish me disguised as a cuttlefish" in any other way than camp? The Medusa that Perseus needs to defeat the Kraken is, however, a splendid creature with its head full of snakes and a serpent's body, and the film doesn't hang around too long in one place to be truly dull, but its old-fashioned hero saving the beautiful princess antics are too straightforward for totally compelling drama, even if the action largely makes up for it. Music by Laurence Rosenthal.