Post #10: ‘20 Million Miles to Earth’, Ray Harryhausen, and Classical Antiquity
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally posted Sunday November 30 2014
Having recently (as in, at the beginning of this month) returned from the 2014 Film and History conference in Madison, WI and heard some great papers and listened to some excellent talks, I’m inspired to write an entry about Classics and film, rather than Dune. I’ll return to the famous SF epic in a future post.
Ray Harryhausen was the special effects guru behind two of the most beloved films inspired by ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey and released in 1963, and Clash of the Titans, directed by Desmond Davis and released in 1981. He gave life to the fantastic creatures that menace the heroes: Medusa, the Harpies, the Hydra, Dilios the two-headed guard dog, and, of course, the skeleton warriors, which are are my favorites (figure 1). A quick plug: although my essay doesn’t discuss Harryhausen’s effects specifically, I do analyze the depictions of the gods in Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans in the edited volume Classical Myth on Screen, due to be published in early 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan. In the same volume Classicist Dan Curley has an essay on Harryhausen’s effects as a force that gives life to his creations.
Harryhausen engineered the effects of numerous cinematic productions, from The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 to Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977. Classical myths were very influential on his creations, whether the film’s subject material came from the ancient Greco-Roman world or not, Sinbad, a character from Arabic literature, has nothing to do with ancient Greece, but for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Wannamaker 1977) Harryhausen created a bronze robot whose appearance recalls the Minotaur from the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth (figure 2). The Minaton is completely a creation of Harryhausen’s that doesn’t appear in Greek myth. He’s a callback to Harryhausen’s earlier creation Talos, the bronze giant who in myth guards the island of Crete, from the first act of Jason and the Argonauts (figure 3). Classicist Tony Keen has written a fascinating article on this subject.
In this post I’d like to look at the appearance of ancient ruins in one of the films Harryhausen was involved with, 20 Million Miles to Earth (Juran 1957). The film features Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation of the central creature, an alien called “The Ymir” in the script, a name that demonstrates Harryhausen’s omnivorous consumption of world mythology. In Norse myth Ymir is a being who existed at the beginning of time and whose body forms the earth and heavens after Odin and his brothers kill him.
The premise of the film is that American astronauts have returned from a mission to Venus, which they hope to one day colonize. They have brought back a life form for study, a small, gelatinous blob that they have put into a small metal container for transport back to Earth. A meteor strike causes the ship to crash into the Mediterranean near Sicily, and the container with the life form washes out of the ship. It is found by local villagers, who give it to an Italian scientist. While he is studying it, a creature hatches from the blob, and it quickly grows to a gigantic size and runs amok in mainland Italy.
American troops are sent to stop Ymir’s rampage through Rome, and they pursue him through the Forum, where in the heat of battle he destroys the remains of an ancient building--possibly a reference to the Temple to Castor and Pollux (figure 4). Ymir then retreats to the Colosseum, and after he climbs to the top he is assaulted by bazookas and machines guns (figure 5) and subsequently falls from his perch to his death in the streets of Rome. This finale recalls the end of the 1933 film King Kong, in which the eponymous ape climbs the Chrysler Building in New York City but is eventually killed by gunfire from a plane (figure 6). I note that Harryhausen attributed his initial desire to be in the special effects business with seeing King Kong and that his mentor was Willis O’Brien, the model animator for King Kong, and so it’s likely that this scene was an homage to the 1933 film.
In his book chapter “Making It Big: Picturing the Radio Age in King Kong” Tom McGurl interprets the Empire State Building and the plane as symbols of modernity. Kong, who was captured from the literally prehistoric Skull Island (complete with dinosaurs) in the first part of the film, symbolizes the past, and his death represents the incompatibility of the past and the present. In 20 Million Miles, by contrast, Ymir falls from the Colosseum, which in all its ruined splendor is an instantly recognizable icon of antiquity. Considering Ymir’s body and the bodies of American servicemen buried in the rubble (figure 7), Colonel Bob Calder, the protagonist, muses, “Why is it always, always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?”
Ymir symbolizes the future gone awry; the astronauts brought him to Earth from Venus hoping to learn how they could colonize that planet. Classical antiquity is thus representative of the collective history of humanity that our over-reaching in the Atomic Age threatens to destroy. Whereas King Kong celebrates man’s overcoming bestial savagery, 20 Million Miles interrogates modernity’s desire to attain more at the expense of human lives and history.