Friday, April 9, 2010


Your Humble Narrator still isn’t quite done with Clash of the Titans, I’m afraid. As I noted yesterday, I’ve been on one of my periodic stop-motion animation jags ever since I found myself defending the original 1981 Clash, a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s animated creatures, over the remake now in theatres, which offers its wonders in CGI.

A high-school (& now Facebook) pal of mine—the guy who got me my first movie-usher gig—recently posted on FB that he’d seen the new Clash, & thought it clearly superior to the original. So I dug the old movie out & watched several of the key sequences for the first time in some years, & my opinion still holds—the seamlessness & scope of the new technology is no match, artistically, for the far less literally convincing but far more humanly beautiful feel of the old craft.

But that’s not what I want to discuss about the original this time. No, I want to talk about Laurence Olivier, & about the stupid owl.

Probably the most grumbled-about of all Harryhausen’s characters was Bubo, the little comic-relief clockwork owl...

...sent by the goddess Athena, on orders from Zeus, to assist the hero Perseus in his adventures. This chirping, whistling, clicking, zigzagging rara avis (who gets a snarky cameo in the new film) has been reviled as an attempt by Harryhausen or the producers to emulate R2-D2, despite claims that he was conceived before Star Wars came out.

I can’t say that I found Bubo’s scenes—which were, Harryhausen says, mostly the work of assistant animator Steven Archer—especially rib-tickling, but if his presence in the original movie did nothing else, it provided a demonstration of Laurence Olivier’s way with a line of dialogue. When Olivier’s Zeus...

...orders Athena (Susan Fleetwood) to send her pet owl to Perseus (she sends him the mechanical version instead), his line is “It is my wish…my command.

Now for your typical slumming limey character actor, it would be enough to say that line in a firm, authoritative voice. But not Sir Larry—he turns those six words into a tiny aria. “It is my wish…” he says, and then he puts a sheepish smile on his face, turns, & strolls away, adding “My…” and then, with high-register nonchalance “…command.” The subtext is unmistakable: “I really hate to pull rank, but after all I am…well, you know, the King of the Universe.”

The new film’s Zeus is played by Liam Neeson. Wonderful actor. But for all Neeson’s beefy, melancholy warmth, he offers little of Olivier’s Almighty Grandeur & Caprice.

Sure, I know the counter to this—that I’m gushing about a self-conscious, artificial effect, that I’ve been suckered by a display of technique. Throughout his long career, Olivier had his elaborate detractors. Germaine Greer said he was “too actorish by half” (in Rebecca!); in Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield complains that Olivier plays Hamlet too much like a “goddam general” instead of a “sad, screwed-up guy.” David Mamet sniffed that with Olivier, “I’m hungry for lunch, and all he’s serving is an illustrated menu.

Each of these observations is true. The trouble is, in order a.) complaining that Olivier is actorish is like complaining that Leonardo da Vinci is painterly, 2.) sometimes sad, screwed-up guys are like goddam generals, & 3.) yeah, but when the illustrations in that menu are that beautiful, you can wait for lunch. Olivier was indeed a knowing, showoffy actor, but to dismiss him on that basis is to suggest that showing off can’t be high art & marvelous entertainment. Watch him in the title role of his self-directed film of Richard III, & you’ll see the heights that a phenomenally gifted showoff can attain.

But it isn’t just in Shakespeare that you can see his chops. Olivier appeared, for quick paychecks, in stuff like Bunny Lake is Missing & Marathon Man & The Betsy & The Cassandra Crossing & The Boys From Brazil & the original Clash & others, farther down the schlock scale, & conferred something like classic status on them with his very presence. Movies like Clash of the Titans aren’t supposed to be about the acting, but there’s Olivier, obviously dropped into the movie just to add a little marquee prestige, & instead of just walking through the part, he’s drawing witty illustrations, all over the menu.

OK, now I think I’m done with Clash of the Titans. For the moment.


  1. I stumbled upon this looking for pictures of Bubo. I loved the original Clash of the Titans movie and I admit that I really liked Bubo. I was fascinated at the idea of a mechanical owl and all those moving parts and that it could still manage to fly.

    I love your description of Olivier's performance.

    I also really enjoyed Maggie Smith in that movie and I remembered her from that when I saw her in Murder By Death and later the Harry Potter films.

    Anyways, I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post and your thoughts on this.

  2. Just saw this; greatly appreciated!