It’s no secret that I’m old. I’m so old, in fact, that I saw all the Star Wars movies, the entire summer of ’82 and ’84, plus the original Clash of the Titans, RoboCop, and Total Recall in the theaters when they were released. No HBO needed for me to see a lot of these classics for the first time.
The original Clash of the Titans is of particular note because, aside from some terrible Italian Steve Reeves movies and Jason and the Argonauts, it was the go-to film for the English teachers of my era to show us when studying Greek Mythology. Trust me, it made for a nice diversion from reading Edith Hamilton’s famous book about the subject.
When I studied Greek Mythology in high school, our teacher showed us Clash of the Titans, which led to the inevitable questions of how this all fit together. How had we not heard of the badass that was Calibos? Did Perseus really fight the Kraken? Where the Hades did Bubo come from anyway?
And that got me thinking again:
How much of Clash of the Titans was accurate to Greek myths?
The Answer: About half. The rest ranges from misplaced mythology to total bullshit.
Let’s start with what the film gets right. The overall framing story is basically taken from mythology. Perseus (Harry Hamlin) was born of Zeus (Laurence Olivier) and a human mother in the city of Argos, making him a demigod and a would-be hero. He and his mother were cast out to sea, and later in life, he falls in love with the maiden Andromeda (Judi Bowker). When Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips) insults the gods, a sea creature is let loose to lay waste to the city, and only the sacrifice of Andromeda can save them.
Of course, there are a few differences in the film. The creature sent to attack the city was Cetus (a generic whale-like sea monster), not the Kraken (more on him later). Also, Perseus only really meets Andromeda when he basically stumbles upon her tied to a rock. Being the hero that he is, Perseus frees her and marries her. What a guy.
Perseus is famous for killing the Gorgon Medusa, who was once a beautiful celibate woman but after having sex, she suffered the greatest slut-shaming of them all. She was cursed with a hideous appearance so terrifying it will turn men to stone. Perseus does defeat her using the reflection on his shield, and Perseus carries the head with him, ready to make stone statues out of anyone who would defy him, including Andromeda’s betrothed, a man named Phineas. (No, not the same guy from Phineas & Ferb, though that would make one hell of a mythology story, wouldn’t it?)
Additional players in the Clash of the Titans gallery were also basically how they appeared in the myths, including the Stygian Witches (though they are traditionally called Graeae) who tell him how to kill Medusa, Charon the Ferryman who takes Perseus across the river to the underworld (though he must have been moonlighting because he usually just takes dead people), and the multi-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld (though he is generally depicted with three heads rather than the two shown in the film).
All this is pretty impressive for a Hollywood adaptation, but…
What did they get wrong?
Let’s start with one of the most iconic characters in the film, also seen on gas station signs all around the United States: Pegasus. The white-winged stallion is a famous element from Greek Mythology. He did, indeed, belong to Perseus. However, there were no herds of these magnificent creatures roaming Greece, and Calibos most certainly did not hunt down and kill all but one of them.
Instead, Pegasus was a unique creature who was born from the blood of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. In the film, it was just giant scorpions that grew from the ground when the head bled. Of course, this was obviously changed from the original stories because Perseus needed a way to fly and travel great distances before getting to the Gorgon’s lair.
Also, remember how Andromeda was tied to the rocks as a sacrifice for a sea monster? That sea monster in Greek myths was Cetus, not the Kraken. This makes sense because the Kraken was a creature found in Norse mythology rather than Greek mythology. The people of Norway had access to the open ocean rather than the Mediterranean and Agean Seas. With occasional reports of giant sea creatures like giant octopi or possibly colossal squid, the Kraken myth was born.
More realistically depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the Kraken is a giant tentacled cephalopod large enough to sink a vessel. It is not a humanoid beak-faced monster with killer abs, nipples, and (amazingly) a belly button.
Also, considering the stories came from entirely different mythologies, the Kraken was never a Titan. The Titans were the god-like creatures that ruled the world before the Olympians defeated them. Greek Mythology is pretty specific about the Titans, naming twelve to start with and having a relatively short family tree with their children. In fact, the Titans are slightly more accurately conceived in Immortals and Wrath of the Titans, the 2012 sequel to the Clash remake.
So, no, the Kraken wasn’t a Titan. Nor was Medusa. So the Stygian Witch who yells “A Titan against a Titan!” was high on something.
Speaking of getting things wrong…
What was totally made up?
There were two well-known characters from Clash of the Titans that were completely pulled from the writer’s butt. The first was the badass antagonist, Calibos (Neil McCarthy). In the film, Calibos used to be a handsome man who was betrothed to Andromeda. Zeus was mad because Calibos was ungrateful, so he cursed him with a terrifying appearance. This resulted in some great stop-motion work by Ray Harryhausen and one hell of an awesome bad guy in the movie (who was utterly neutered in the 2010 remake, of course).
Then there’s Bubo, the metal owl that Athena (Susan Fleetwood) has Hephaestus (Pat Roach) fashion to help Perseus on his quest. Where does Bubo show up in Greek Mythology?
This was the 80s, remember, in the wake of the success of Star Wars. Bubo was this movie’s R2-D2, meant to be cute enough to bring in a younger crowd. While the character’s name likely comes from the scientific name of the Eurasian horned owl (Bubo bubo), it is ironically also the Greek word for a swollen lymph node resulting from the bubonic plague, gonorrhea, or syphilis.