June 29 of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ray Harryhausen. I've spent some time thinking about putting together a tribute post for the occasion....but what sort of tribute post? A list of my favorite Harryhausen films? Or a list of my favorite Harryhausen stop-motion creatures?
Those ideas seemed somewhat generic, so I asked my friends Tim Durbin and Joshua Kennedy if they had anything to offer. It was suggested that I write a list of my favorite human performances in the Harryhausen movies.
The more sarcastic would venture to say that Harryhausen's creations were the best actors in the films he worked on (this has been suggested in several books and articles). It's an easy point to make, but I think it's unfair. The films showcasing Harryhausen's work are filled with capable performers, particularly the colorful adventures made in the 1960s and 70s. It's fair to say that at times the leading men in the Harryhausen films were not as dynamic as one would expect, but the titles always featured notable supporting casts that enlivened the productions.
Any actor who was able to make a mark in a Harryhausen film, when having to compete with fantastic monsters, deserves credit. I think if one looks back on the Harryhausen Cinematic Universe, the overall acting is more than proficient.
Here's my list of favorite live-action performances in films featuring the FX work of Ray Harryhausen.
Kenneth Tobey as Pete Mathews in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA
Tobey was the quintessential sci-fi movie hero of the 1950s--a stalwart, no-nonsense fellow who looked perfect in a military uniform, and who brought a sense of reality to whatever bizarre situation he was involved in. Tobey appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, but I appreciate his performance here more, because he's the actual leading man of the film.
Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
If THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is the ultimate Harryhausen film, then Mathews is the ultimate Harryhausen hero. The actor looked like he came out of a storybook. Whenever I see Mathews in a film or TV show that has a modern story, he seems out of place--he just doesn't look right in modern clothing. Mathews also had the lead role in THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER.
Torin Thatcher as Sokurah in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
The ultimate Harryhausen villain. A variation on the character of Sokurah appeared in just about every film that featured Ray's work after 7TH VOYAGE. Thatcher has the same fairy tale quality about him as does Kerwin Mathews.
Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
Lom's Nemo doesn't get as much attention as James Mason's interpretation of the legendary character. But it's a fine performance, with this Nemo being a true loner, without any sort of crew. Lom is as much of a castaway as the people he decides to help, and the actor elevates the entire production.
Niall MacGinnis as Zeus in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
Laurence Olivier played Zeus in CLASH OF THE TITANS, but I much prefer MacGinnis' take on the role. MacGinnis' Zeus isn't overpowering or bombastic....he has a bemused, bored attitude towards the mortals he rules over. He appears to realize that the human race isn't really worth bothering with--the whole thing is a game that he's tired of playing. MacGinnis as Zeus defies expectations, which is why he is so memorable.
Nigel Green as Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
This is my all-time favorite performance in any Harryhausen film. Green's Hercules isn't an exaggerated muscle-bound super-being...he's real, with actual emotions and feelings. Green makes such an impact that after his Hercules winds up leaving the main story, the rest of the film feels as if it's missing something.
Nigel Green as Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
Patrick Troughton as Phineas in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
Troughton plays the pathetic Phineas, a man tormented by the Gods and rescued by Jason and his crew. It could easily have been just another "funny old man" role, but the always-excellent Troughton makes it far more than that. Since I'm on the subject of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, I might as well point out that it has the best overall human performances of any Harryhausen film--other actors in it such as Douglas Wilmer, Jack Gwillim, and Michael Gwynn could have made this list as well.
Nancy Kovack as Medea in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
Jason again! Actually this is my choice for a female representative of the Harryhausen Cinematic Universe. "Hammer Glamour" is a well-known film geek phrase, but what about "Harryhausen Glamour"? The movies Ray worked on were filled with beautiful women, such as Faith Domergue, Joan Taylor, Beth Rogan, Martha Hyer, Raquel Welch, Martine Beswicke, Caroline Munro, and Jane Seymour. I picked Nancy Kovack as Medea mainly due to her sultry and exotic presence in JASON, and the fact that she's actually much more than just a damsel in distress.
John Phillip Law as Sinbad in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
Law's Sinbad is more down-to-earth than Kerwin Mathews' portrayal of the character, and the actor infuses the role with some dry humor. Law is still able to be heroic and swashbuckling when he needs to be.
Tom Baker as Koura in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
Koura is basically another version of Sokura, but due to Baker's unpredictable and eccentric acting style, the character stands out. Baker lets it rip at times, but he's perfect for a Harryhausen film.
There's plenty of others I could have put on this list, and I'm sure I'll be reminded of that on social media. Whatever your personal choices may be, this list reminds one that the films of Ray Harryhausen had plenty of great human performances to go along with all the FX master's outstanding creations.