Celebrating Ray Harryhausen and lifelong journeys to ‘Mysterious Island’

It was that giant crab that started it.

The fact that it was followed by a prehistoric chicken-bird, a human-sized bee with a honeycomb so large it could trap two people in one of its cells, and a deadly giant cephalopod all in the same film was almost too good to be true.

Of course, none of what happened in the 1961 film “Mysterious Island” was true, but it was riveting to watch nonetheless. Those fantastic beasts didn’t even come from the Jules Verne novel that was the source material for the film.

Michael Callan and Beth Rogan are trapped in a honeycomb by a giant bee in “Mysterious Island.”

Instead, they were from the fertile imagination of Ray Harryhausen who magically brought them to life as a way to improve on the novel’s basic idea of “how to survive on an island” by “incorporating strange creatures” in the movie, as he explained in an interview on the movie’s DVD.

I can’t imagine the film without them.

In celebration of the centennial of his birth (June 29, 1920), it’s fitting to honor Ray Harryhausen, a filmmaker and artist who has inspired me, entertained me and given me giant reasons to return to “Mysterious Island.”

* * *

Although I didn’t know it at the time, “Mysterious Island” was my introduction to Harryhausen. Later, when I understood that Harryhausen was the connection between those creatures and others in films like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), I sought out more of his films. (Didn’t we all?)

The giant octopus from “It Came From Beneath the Sea” was awesome.

“It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) and the very cool giant octopus; “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) and its Cyclops; “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) with such wonders as the Hydra and the living skeletons; “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957) and the Ymir; “Clash of the Titans” (1981) with the triple hit of Pegasus, Medusa and the Kraken; and the dinosaur films like “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) and “Valley of Gwangi” (1969).

Honestly, I love them all. But if there is only one Harryhausen film I can choose, it is and always will be “Mysterious Island” for a personal reason – it’s our family film.

Dad introduced me to “Mysterious Island” as a kid. We watched it over and over and enjoyed it with the same enthusiasm on each viewing. We always did that thing where one of us would look at the other before every key “entrance” (i.e., creature) in the film.

The castaways are attacked by a beast that looks like a giant chicken in “Mysterious Island.” Ray Harryhausen modeled it after the prehistoric flightless bird Phorusrhacos.

Later, when my twin nephews were about the same age as I was when I was introduced to the film (about 8 or so), we all watched it together. Repeatedly. (Clearly, “Mysterious Island” is a film that works best on repeat.)

Multiple generations of our family were swept away to the mysterious island of Harryhausen’s imagination. Dad loved it and so did I. I might have been young, but was still thrilled at turning kids on to a film that I loved, just as dad did for me. Time passed. Great nephews Tyler and Matthew came along. Guess what we watched together?

* * *

The creatures may be a huge part of my obsession with “Mysterious Island” but there’s so much more. The opening credits were set over tumultuous waves as Bernard Herrmann’s booming brass motif (a character of its own) clashed over it all. A daring escape in a hot air balloon during a massive storm followed. (I blame my unfounded fear of hot-air balloons on this film.)

Then castaways. Pirates. “The eyes” on the side of a mountain cave. A romance. A volcano. Captain Nemo (was he good, bad or just ill-advised?). The Nautilus. Did I forget anything? Yes! Harryhausen’s Superdynamation. “Mysterious Island” had it all.

It’s only fitting that the mysterious Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) found his way to “Mysterious Island.”

The list of great things about “Mysterious Island” is long, as are the stories of how Harryhausen inspired generations of filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante to Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to see Harryhausen’s work and not be inspired in some way. I’m not a filmmaker, but I owe a lot of my creativity to Harryhausen.

These maquettes, modeled after Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors from “Jason and the Argonauts,” are part of a collection owned by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who was inspired by Harryhausen. They were part of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Photo by Toni Ruberto)

I saw how much he meant to others when Harryhausen received the George Eastman Honorary Scholar award in 2004 at the George Eastman House (now the Eastman Museum). Located in Rochester, N.Y., about 90 minutes from Buffalo where I live, I was lucky to have attended with my cousin, Gene. There were other friends from Buffalo there, too.

Being in a room with Harryhausen was unbelievable . When he walked on stage we were giddy like children. Then there was an audible gasp at the recognition of a man who was with him: Phil Tippett, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor whose many talents included stop-motion animation. (You can see Tippett was inspired by Harryhausen in his films with directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.) The idea that Tippett traveled from wherever he had been to Rochester in honor of Harryhausen wasn’t lost on any of us.

At left, is my autographed DVD cover of “Mysterious Island.” It inspired the drawing of the crab attack by my great-nephew, Tyler. (That’s us sitting in the first row of the theater watching the film.)

Harryhausen was gracious and cordial. We were blown away that he had brought models of some of his creations including one of my favorites, Medusa. Later he signed autographs. Of course, I brought my DVD cover for “Mysterious Island” to be autographed.

A few years later, great-nephew Tyler was inspired to draw a picture from the film. It was perfect – not only did it capture the spirit of the movie, but our family, too. We’re sitting in the first row of a movie theater and watching the scene with the giant crab.

What else would we be doing?

The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

There is much more information on Ray Harryhausen, including activities in honor of #Harryhausen100, at the website for his foundation. Harryhausen set up this foundation in 1986 to “to look after his extensive collection, to protect his name and to further the art of model stop-motion animation.”

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Ray Harryhausen and lifelong journeys to ‘Mysterious Island’”

  1. Excellent Toni! Ray was great. One of my favorite filmgoing experiences was sitting next to him in a beautifully restored movie house watching KING KONG – with Ray providing whispered commentary throughout. “Watch now,” he’s say quietly, “one of the natives is going to lose his headdress.”

    Just a lovely man – his wife Diana was marvelous too. I always called him “the humble genius,” because that’s what he was.

    Incidentally, I was at that George Eastman screening too – I wish I’d known you then, I’d have introduced you!

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    1. Such a great story. You were blessed to not only have met him, but to have watched a movie with him and heard his commentary. I’ll need to hear more about that. I’m not surprised you were at the George Eastman screening – I wonder how many other times our paths have crossed!

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