The film was made in collaboration with stop motion animation master Ray Harryhausen and is known for its various fantasy creatures, notably the iconic fight scene featuring multiple skeleton warriors.
The film score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, who also worked with Harryhausen on the fantasy films The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), and Mysterious Island (1961).
Pelias (Douglas Wilmer), misinterpreting the prophecy given to him by the god Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), usurps the throne of Thessaly, killing King Aristo and most of his family. The god Hermes (Michael Gwynn), disguised as Pelias' soothsayer, holds back his army long enough for the infant Jason to be spirited away by one of Aristo's soldiers. Pelias slays one of the king's daughters, Briseis (Davina Taylor), as she seeks sanctuary in the temple of the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman). Because the murder has profaned her temple, the angry Hera becomes Jason's protector. She warns Pelias to beware "of a man wearing one sandal".
Twenty years later, Jason (Todd Armstrong) saves Pelias from drowning (orchestrated by Hera), but loses his sandal in the river; Pelias recognizes him from the prophecy. Learning that Jason intends to find the legendary Golden Fleece, he encourages him, hoping Jason will be killed in the attempt.
Jason is brought to Mount Olympus to speak with Zeus and Hera. Hera tells him Zeus has decreed he can only call upon her for aid five times. She directs him to search for the Fleece in the land of Colchis. Zeus offers his direct aid, but Jason declares he can organize the voyage, build a ship, and collect a crew of the bravest men in all Greece.
Men from all over Greece compete for the honor. Because their ship is named the Argo after her builder, Argus (Laurence Naismith), the crew are dubbed the Argonauts. Among them are Hercules (Nigel Green), Hylas (John Cairney), and Acastus (Gary Raymond), the son of Pelias, sent by his father to sabotage the voyage.
Hera guides Jason to the Isle of Bronze, but warns him to take nothing but provisions. However, Hercules steals a brooch pin the size of a javelin from a treasure building, surmounted by a giant statue of Talos, which comes to life and attacks the Argonauts. Jason again turns to Hera, who tells him to open a large plug on Talos' heel, to release the giant's ichor. Talos falls to the ground, crushing Hylas, hiding his body. Hercules refuses to leave until he ascertains the fate of his friend. The other Argonauts refuse to abandon Hercules, so Jason calls upon Hera again. She informs them that Hylas is dead and that Hercules will not continue on with them.
The Argonauts next reach the realm of King Phineus (Patrick Troughton), who has been blinded and is tormented by harpies for his transgressions against the gods. In return for his advice on how to reach Colchis, the Argonauts render the harpies harmless by caging them, whereupon Phineus tells them to sail between the Clashing Rocks, which destroy any ship in the narrow channel, and gives Jason an amulet. Arriving at the Clashing Rocks, the Argonauts witness another ship suffering that fate. When the Argo tries to row through, the ship appears doomed. Jason throws Phineus' amulet into the water, and the sea god Triton rises up and holds the rocks apart so the Argo can pass them. The Argonauts rescue a survivor from the other ship, Medea (Nancy Kovack), high priestess of Colchis.
Challenging Jason's authority, Acastus engages him in a duel. Disarmed, Acastus jumps into the sea and disappears. Jason and his men land in Colchis and accept an invitation from King Aeëtes (Jack Gwillim) to a feast. Unknown to them, Acastus has survived and warned Aeëtes of Jason's quest for their prized Golden Fleece. Aeëtes has the unwary Argonauts imprisoned, but Medea, having fallen in love with Jason, helps him and his men escape.
Meanwhile, Acastus tries to steal the Fleece, but is killed by its guardian, the Hydra. Following right behind Acastus, Jason is able to kill the beast and retrieve the gift of the gods. Aeëtes, in pursuit, sows the Hydra's teeth while praying to the goddess Hecate, producing a band of skeletal warriors. Jason, together with Phalerus and Castor, hold off the skeletons while Medea and Argus escape back to the Argo with the Fleece. After a prolonged battle in which his companions are killed, Jason escapes by jumping into the sea, and he, Medea, and the surviving Argonauts begin their voyage home to Thessaly. In Olympus, Zeus tells Hera that in due time he will call upon Jason again.
The film is one of the mythically-themed fantasy ones scored by Bernard Herrmann. Apart from being the composer's fourth collaboration with Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and Mysterious Island, made in 1958, 1960, and 1961 respectively), Herrmann also scored the science fiction films The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).
Contrasting with Herrmann's all-string score for Psycho, the film's soundtrack was made without a string section. This leaves the brass and percussion to perform the heroic fanfares, and the woodwinds along with additional instruments (such as the harp) to dominate in the more subtle and romantic parts.
In 1995, Intrada released a re-recording of the original score. The new version was conducted by American composer/conductor Bruce Broughton, and performed by the Sinfonia of London.
The film differs from the traditional telling in Greek mythology in several ways.In mythology, the Argonauts encountered Talos on their return journey after they had obtained the Golden Fleece. He was defeated not by Jason, but by Medea casting a spell on Talos, causing him to remove the bronze nail from his ankle which kept the ichor inside. The mythological Talos guarded Crete, not the "Isle of Bronze", and was protecting not a treasure, but Queen Europa.
In the film, Hylas was killed when the crumbling remains of Talos crushed him. However, in mythology, Hylas was actually kidnapped by a naiad who fell in love with him as he took a drink from a spring. When Hercules could not find him, he believed him to still be alive, and stayed behind on the island to look for him (as in the film).
The harpies were not caught in a net or caged, but were chased away by the Boreads: Calaïs and Zetes (also Zethes)
In the film, the god Triton saved the Argo from destruction passing through the Clashing Rocks: however; according to Apollonius of Rhodes, Phineus instructed Jason to release a dove and if the bird makes it through, row with all their might and the goddess Athena provided the extra push to the ship needed to clear them; "the Argo darted from the rocks like a flying arrow". Another source is Homer's Odyssey, where Circe tells Odysseus, "One ship alone, one deep-sea craft sailed clear, the Argo, sung by the world, when heading home from Aeëtes shores. And she would have crashed against those giant rocks and sunk at once if Hera, for her love of Jason, had not sped her through."
Jason was not betrayed by Acastus in the classical tale. Jason openly told King Aeëtes that he had come for the Fleece. The king promised Jason could have it if he performed three tasks, knowing full well they were impossible. However, Jason was able to complete the tasks with the help of Medea. It was not the Hydra that protected the Fleece but rather a dragon. Jason did not slay it, but instead Medea cast a spell on it, causing it to fall asleep. Jason sowed the dragon's teeth into the ground, not Aeëtes. Jason defeated the "dragon's offspring" (the spartoi) by making them fight amongst themselves and destroy each other, rather battling them with his colleagues.
One of the two Argonauts killed by the skeletons is Castor, who in Greek mythology would perish much later as the result of a feud with Idas and Lynceus. The other is Phalerus, who in mythology would also survive the adventures of the Argonauts.
The film ultimately omits the story of Medea killing and dismembering her own brother, Absyrtus, to help Jason and the Argonauts escape. as are the episodes with Cyzicus, the Gegeines and the Argonauts' stay on the isle of Lemnos.
The film was shot in Eastman Color.
The film received critical acclaim and is now considered a cult film classic. It currently holds a 93% "fresh" rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 41 reviews, with the consensus: "Don Chaffey's Jason and the Argonauts is an outlandish, transportive piece of nostalgia whose real star is the masterful stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen.". In April 2004, Empire magazine ranked Talos as the second-best film monster of all time, after King Kong.
At the 1992 Academy Awards, in honoring Ray Harryhausen with a lifetime-achievement award, actor Tom Hanks remarked "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made".
Ray Harryhausen regarded the film as his best. Previous Harryhausen films had been generally shown as part of double features in "B" theatres. Columbia was able to book it as a single feature in many "A" theatres in the United States. The skeletons' shields are adorned with designs of other Harryhausen creatures, including an octopus and the head of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth.
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated the film for its Top 10 Fantasy Films list.
Columbia released the film on Blu-ray (for regions A, B, and C) on 6 July 2010. The disc's special features include two new audio commentaries, one by Peter Jackson and Randall William Cook, and the other by Harryhausen in conversation with his biographer Tony Dalton.Dell Movie Classic: Jason and the Argonauts (August-October 1963)