Ray Harryhausen: modern Prometheus / by Paul Pensom

An appreciation of one of the true artists of twentieth century special effects, Ray Harryhausen

The Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)

The Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)

If my dreams had end titles and a special effects credit, that credit would go to Ray Harryhausen, who died five years ago at the age of 93. Over 24 films and a career spanning 63 years, Harryhausen worked at the vanguard of cinematic special effects, a field which, along with his mentor, the great Willis O’Brien, Ray could lay strong claim to having helped create.

In tributes much was made of Harryhausen’s capacity to instill fear. A lot of his back catalogue could fall under the designation of ‘monsters’; indeed his most celebrated sequence is probably the intricately choreographed skeleton battle from 1963’s ‘Jason And The Argonauts’

Ray’s monsters are part of my imaginative DNA; some of my earliest memories are of crouching behind the armchair as ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ laid waste to Manhattan, or watching enthralled as the mighty Ymir broke its bonds and ran amok in Rome.

But what made Harryhausen’s work immortal wasn’t the fear factor. My abiding memory of ‘Valley of the Gwangi’ (1969)—an ambitious genre mash-up pitching cowboys against dinosaurs—isn’t one of terror. It’s sobbing inconsolably as the poor Allosaurus burned to death in the Cathedral, fulfilling the old Hollywood dictum that country dwellers can never prosper in the big city.

It was this that made Harryhausen a Modern Prometheus; this ability to make us care, to breath a real spark of life into his puppets of clay, steel and rabbit fur. Time and again when I rewatch Ray’s films, it’s the small things I notice. The way characters shift their weight from foot to foot if they’ve been standing a while; an absent minded scratch of the thigh; the brief, anticipatory lick of the lips, as the Cyclops prepares his dinner of spit-roasted sailor.


Recently I watched some of Ray’s earliest work, a series of nursery tales for US TV called ‘Mother Goose Stories’. They were produced in 1946, just before he began work on the marvelous ‘Mighty Joe Young’ under the tutelage of King Kong maestro Willis O’Brien. These solo efforts already show a rare talent in the making though. In ‘King Midas’, just look at how well he models dissatisfaction, in the opening scene as the eponymous King sits disgruntled on his throne.

Likewise, look at the young Prince in ‘Rapunzel’ at 2:40. It’s a perfect sketch of idling. It was this talent for catching the incidental moments of life that made Harryhausen’s work so memorable.

As a child I once spent many hours trying to fashion a coathanger, toilet roll and sellotape into an approximation of a Mummy, that I might film it and send the results to Ray. I never got to bring that Mummy to life, hamstrung by insurmountable problems such as the lack of a camera, but I have passed my love of Ray’s creations on to the next generation: one of the first sentences my son could say was “Dad, make Cyclops come on your phone again.”

Thank you Ray.

This article first appeared in Creative Review magazine.