It’s been suggested by historian Stephen Wilk that most people know the story of Pegasus and Medusa through Ray Harryhausen’s depiction of the mythological femme fatale in his 1981 film Clash of the Titans.
Indeed, Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa is one of the most recognisable characters in model-animation cinema history.
For such a pivotal character in the Ray Harryhausen canon of creations, Medusa spends such little time on screen – just under five minutes, and yet she plays such an essential role in Clash of the Titans.
Historically and cosmetically different, Harryhausen’s Medusa changed our perception of the character forever.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who had once been stunningly beautiful, “the jealous aspiration of many suitors”, according to the Roman poet Ovid. She was raped by the god Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, and when Athena discovered them, she turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and gave her the curse of turning all living things that looked at her into stone.
A subject that has fascinated artists, writers and poets throughout time, Medusa was always portrayed as beautiful, even in grotesque paintings by Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rubens.
In cinematic history up to 1981, Medusa was probably best recognised to cinema-goers in the 1964 Hammer film The Gorgon, directed by Terence Fisher.
Played by Prudence Hyman, the character looked more like Cinderella’s Stepmother with rubber snakes in her hair, than a fearsome vengeful creature (Harryhausen never referred to his creations as monsters).
The earliest illustration of Medusa in the Ray Harryhausen Collection is from 1977. This representation was soon to be etched in the minds of film audiences around the world.
Ray designed Medusa to be “a striking yet unconventionally hideously ugly demon” – something that was completely different from what film audiences had seen before.
Medusa in Hammer’s The Gorgon had worn a flowing gown, but animating flowing fabrics was virtually impossible at that time, thus an alternative was required.
Harryhausen designed a serpent’s body for Medusa, which complimented the ugliness of her face and created a wholly repulsive creature. Ray Harryhausen is the first artist to ever give her this shape.
But it was not that drawing which sold the concept of Clash of the Titans, it was a bronze statuette made by Harryhausen.
The bronze sculpture entitled Slaying of Medusa by Perseus, an integral part of the Ray Harryhausen Collection, was cast using the lost-wax process in 1978. It depicts a naked Perseus strangling Medusa whilst using his shield as a mirror in order to avoid the dreaded glare of the creature’s eyes. It was this bronze sculpture that helped MGM Studio bosses to approve the making of Clash of the Titans.
The legacy of Harryhausen’s Medusa is phenomenal, and as noted by Wilks, certainly has changed the mental image of Medusa for most of us.
Artists, filmmakers and designers have paid homage to Ray’s interpretation of Medusa and have given her a serpent’s body, thus reinforcing Medusa’s new public persona.
Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010 by Louis Leterrier, adapting Ray’s original concepts for Medusa, and in 2005, the videogame God of War depicted Medusa in a similar style to Harryhausen’s serpent creature.
It’s a credit to Harryhausen’s genius as an animator and an artist that the Medusa sequence is so memorable. Never before, or arguably since, has someone made a serpent look so feminine and graceful, juxtaposed with ugliness, suspense and terror.
Medusa can be found throughout the Ray Harryhausen Collection. She, rather than an actress, was used to shoot close-ups in scenes, and Ray made lots of copies of the model which were used to assist the lighting of scenes, so that the latex on the Medusa would not degenerate under the constant heat of studio lights.
The Collection also includes many drawings, storyboards and sketches of Medusa illustrated by Harryhausen, and though she may not stalk Greek heroes any longer, she now spends her days lurking in museums around the world.
For more information about the Medusa sequence, take a look at:
An Animated Life, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
The Art of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy Scrapbook, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
Post written by Phil Boot, Ray Harryhausen Project collection manager