Jason and the Argonauts
Famous for its Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation, old school creature favorite Jason and the Argonauts brought ancient Greek heroes and evildoers to the big screen with fantastical detail. Like the film, the “real” 10th century hero Jason supposedly led a team of gifted fighters — dubbed the Argonauts — in his quest to capture the Golden Fleece. The hair from the golden-haired, winged ram was Jason’s ticket to the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Along the way, the gang battles several mythological obstacles including a sleepless dragon. The film’s finest assault, however, is Jason’s brawl with a skeleton army.
Using Norse mythology in a Marvel Comics universe is this year’s Chris Hemsworth superhero vehicle, Thor. After Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding god is stripped of his powers and banished to earth, his brother Loki turns wicked and wily, concocting a plan to take his place on the throne and rule the kingdom of Asgard with the evil Frost Giants. The relationship between these two figures in mythology is convoluted at times, but Thor duked it out with the trickster Loki on several occasions — despite also teaming up with the shapeshifter for many adventures. There’s even a story about Loki stuffing Thor into a wedding dress to sneak him into the homeland of the giants, Jotunheim, to retrieve his stolen hammer. That’s certainly reason enough for the uber manly god to hold an eternal grudge.
Hammer Films, famous for their contributions to the horror genre, looked to Greek mythology for 1964’s The Gorgon. Vampire legends Christopher Lee (a Dracula favorite) and Peter Cushing (one of vamp history’s mightiest slayers) star in the film about a Gorgon who haunts a European village turning everyone to stone with just one look. (Her shoddily constructed serpentine headdress was pretty awful, but entertaining nonetheless.) Mythology’s most famous Gorgon, of course, was Medusa who fought the hero Perseus. The son of Zeus was sent to behead the woman whose locks had been transformed into snakes by the goddess Athena for her salacious behavior in a sacred temple. Perseus used his sword’s reflection to watch her during battle, avoiding her deadly gaze and successfully beheading her in the process.
Hayao Miyazaki’s exquisitely animated Spirited Away uses Japanese Shinto mythology as its basis for a story about a bratty young girl who undergoes a personal transformation after wandering a supernatural universe. There, she is forced to contend with creatures and other ancient forces, particularly a witch who has turned her parents into pigs. Just as with Shinto, Spirited Away doesn’t use a typical good vs. evil approach. There are no absolutes. The Shinto struggle surrounding harmony with nature and the self, however, is at the forefront of this movie’s “battle” with questions about morality and other social themes.
The Trojan War is a mythological epic full of stories about vengeful gods, desecrated temples, a thousand ships, and a wooden horse that helped the Achaeans enact a bloody revenge against the Trojans for stealing Helen of Troy away (the cowardly Paris abducted her for his own). Wolfgang Petersen does his best to adapt Homer’s The Iliad for the blockbuster crowd, with Brad Pitt in the role of Achilles — the handsome hero of the legendary battle.
Takashi Miike’s Gozu (Japanese for “cow head”) is a bizarre trip that seems to use the mythical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as its inspiration. As the story goes, the lovelorn Orpheus has to contend with the land of the dead in order to be reunited with his lost Eurydice. In Miike’s twisted version, the strange city of Nagoya serves as the perfect underworld that his “Orpheus,” Minami has to wade through on his quest. With its own river Hades, cow-headed demons, and ghost-like figures, Nagoya is truly hellacious. There’s also the matter of the dead Yakuza boss who’s reborn as a woman — seemingly driving home the point that Gozu is the director’s own unique take on the enduring myth.
Bronze bodybuilder Steve Reeves starred in Pietro Franicisi’s sword and sandal epic, 1958’s Hercules, as the Roman mythological demigod. (There are several Greek mythological references at play here as well, since Hercules is based on the Greece’s Heracles.) A low-budget and amusingly dubbed take on the illegitimate son of Jupiter’s story, Hercules follows the strongman after he falls in love with Princess Iole. Before they can wed, he must carry out a series of tasks. Known as the Twelve Labors of Hercules, these “tasks” were actually created as a penance for the mythos figure after he murdered his wife and children. Most of the battles involve monsters, as the movie portrays. They don’t include a scantily clad cult siren in the form of Sylva Koscina, however.
Scandinavian mythology recounts stories about ancient trolls — giants that roamed the icy landscape devouring men. This dark part of Norway’s pre-Christian folklore is plunked in the middle of the contemporary tundra in André Øvredal’s TrollHunter. The film follows a camera crew and an undercover troll hunter who attempts to keep the monstrous titans at bay. The grotesque creatures are known to be slow and dim-witted, but put up a decent fight when confronted. Despite snacking on people like pretzel sticks, mythology tales generally revere these creatures as ancients of the homeland — even while they kick the human population’s ass.