From 1949 to 1981, stop motion animator and visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen brought some of cinema’s most indelible creatures to life, inspiring a whole generation of filmmakers to get into the business of monsters. Certainly directors like Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen) and James Cameron (The Terminator) owe a debt to the man who brought skeletons to life in Jason and the Argonauts, a Cyclops in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Medusa in Clash of the Titans.
Arrow Films recently released the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen Special Effects Titan which is a great overview of the filmmaker’s career, touching on pretty much his entire career from Mighty Joe Young to It Came From Beneath The Sea and beyond. The film includes enlightening interviews with the man himself as well as filmmakers Randy Cook, Peter Jackson, Nick Park, Phil Tippet, Terry Gilliam, Dennis Muren, John Landis, Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and others.
But what the documentary doesn’t cover is all the films Harryhausen planned to make but couldn’t, or almost did but they fell apart for some reason. Some may surprise you while others may have you glad it didn’t work out his way. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say each would have been pretty interesting.
War of the Worlds
While serving in the Army, Harryhausen became fascinated with the idea of adapting H.G. Wells’ alien invasion novel “The War of the Worlds” using stop motion animation. Moving the action from London to New York where his signature devastation would include the toppling of the Brooklyn Bridge, he completed an outline for the project in 1942. From there he drew a number of sketches and even produced a short 16mm test reel (below) as a proof of concept. Packing it all up, he embarked on studio meetings with no luck in finding support for the project.
As a last ditch effort, Harryhausen met with George Pal who seemed interested in the material he was shown. Unfortunately, in true Hollywood fashion, Pal used Harryhausen’s work to negotiate a deal with Paramount to make the film only to cut Harryhausen out of the project. While Pal’s 1953 film is considered something of a classic, I can only it would be even more interesting had Harryhausen boarded for the visual effects and creature work.
Skin and Bone
Based on the 1936 novel by Thorne Smith, Skin and Bone would have been a big departure from the usual Harryhausen fare. An eccentric, macabre comedy about a scientist who’s skin disappears whenever he drinks alcohol, Harryhausen brought it to Columbia in the 60’s who liked the idea but ultimately decided it didn’t have suitable commercial appeal.
Harryhausen continued to pursue the project into the early 1980’s, even developing some of its ideas into the also unmade Sinbad on Mars movie. But alas, a single sketch is all we have of the project.
If you thought Iron Sky was original, think again. A lost city above the arctic circle, vikings who ride giant war eagles, dinosaurs and, yes, even invading Nazis were already at the center of War Eagles way before that series adopted the madness.
War Eagles was originally going to be made in the 1930’s with King Kong director Merian C. Cooper and his visual effects parnter Willis O’Brien at the helm. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich and the politics at the time put an abrupt end to the film’s development.
Harryhausen tried to make the film for more than 30 years following Cooper’s departure, but could never get the support he needed. For anyone interested, a novelization of the project does exist along with a comic book.
The Princess Bride
In 1982, following the success of Clash of the Titans and the beginning of sword and sorcery boom, Harryhausen was approached by British producer Milton Subotsky (Cat’s Eye, Maximum Overdrive) who wanted to bring William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” to the big screen. Harryhausen liked Goldman’s book but was not impressed with Milton’s screenplay, so the two worked through iterations together, ultimately unsuccessfully.
While Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation is considered a classic of the era, it’s fun to wonder what the Harryhausen touch would have brought to the film.
Food for the Gods
Another H.G. Wells story that slipped from Harryhausen’s grasp was Food for the Gods. Harryhausen received call in 1950 from Merian Cooper who wanted him on board the project as an assistant. Since the story about an alien substance that, when eaten, turns animals giant in size was right up Harryhausen’s alley he jumped at the chance to get on board.
Unfortunately, this single sketch Harryhausen drew of chickens towering over a farmhouse is the only evidence we have of the film to be. In 1961, Harryhausen pursued the project again, only to find that an unnamed pop star had the rights and was trying to wrangle financing.
Bert I. Gordon eventually directed the film twice, once in 1965 when it was called Village of the Giants, and then again in 1976 when it retained the Food for the Gods title.