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Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Lourie’

As someone who had to wait to see the original Godzilla until Channel 4 showed it in the wee small hours of Christmas Morning 1999, it was a source of some irritation to me that my father would occasionally make casual reference to having seen the film when he was younger. This lasted until I took the trouble to actually enquire as to what he’d thought of the film. ‘Oh… well…’ he said, vaguely. ‘I think they caught a monster and put it on display, but they didn’t realise it was really a baby… and then Godzilla came to get it back… it was all right.’ The mystery was solved: he hadn’t actually seen Godzilla at all, but the 1961 British film Gorgo. I’m not sure this quite qualifies as an instance of the Mandela effect, but it’s a fairly understandable mistake for someone to make: it’s very tempting, and far from inaccurate to refer to Gorgo as the British Godzilla.

After a properly stirring set of titles, the film gets under way off the coast of Ireland, where a small freighter is going about its business. Captaining the vessel is Joe Ryan (William Travers), along with his business partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester). The duo are a pair of opportunistic salvagers, but their efforts are disrupted by an underwater volcanic eruption which causes a severe storm, damaging their ship. Needing repairs and supplies, they call in at nearby Nara Island, noting as they do some grotesque fish floating dead in the water.

The reception at Nara is not especially warm, except perhaps that of Sean (Vincent Winter), a young orphan who basically just follows Joe and Sam round for the rest of the movie (Social Services are not to be seen anywhere). It turns out the local harbour master is doing some illicit treasure hunting of his own and is keen to see the back of them, but since the storm there have been problems – one of his divers was fished out of the bay in a doornail-like condition, apparently scared to death, while another has disappeared entirely. The mystery is solved when the sea froths and the head of a sixty-foot-tall reptilian monster emerges!

Sean recognises it from local legends of immense sea beasts, but no-one listens to him much; instead, Joe and Sam bully the harbour master into paying them to get rid of the monster. A resourceful duo, they manage to ensnare it in a suitably large net and lash it to the deck of their boat – but now what? The University of Dublin is very interested in taking this unique scientific specimen from them, and a deal is struck for it to be delivered to the mainland. However, Joe is far from impressed with the money on offer and promptly reneges on this arrangement in order to sell the monster to a circus in central London. (One of the many unexpectedly satisfying things about Gorgo is the way in which it gradually reveals that its main human characters are actually quite unpleasant individuals.)

Having thus pulled a fast one on the Irish in the time-honoured English style, Joe and Sam deliver the monster, now christened Gorgo, to London where it is installed behind an electric fence. Astonished crowds are soon swirling around it (not much sign of Health and Safety, either). Some concerned boffins are soon on the scene, and eventually impart some worrying news to Joe and Sam (it’s not really clear why, given they’ve sold the monster by this point, but it certainly helps with the flow of the story) – their examinations have revealed that Gorgo is only a little baby monster, and the adult version will be vastly bigger and more powerful. Could this explain why all contact has been lost with everyone on Nara Island…?

Calling Gorgo ‘the British Godzilla‘ does have a degree of accuracy to it, as already noted, but things are actually a little more complicated than that. Gorgo‘s director was Eugene Lourie, who eight years earlier had been in charge of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, an American monster movie in which a dinosaur, resuscitated by an atom bomb, ends up running wild through New York. As is now quite well-known, this film was enthusiastically seized upon by a well-known Japanese film studio who did their own uncredited remake of it, which was of course Godzilla itself. So accusing Lourie of doing any sort of version of Godzilla seems to me to be very probably putting the cart before the horse. We should also consider the similarities between Gorgo and any main-sequence version of King Kong you care to mention – in both films, the monster is dragged unwillingly off to civilisation, and is basically sympathetic.

My point is that Gorgo isn’t as lazily derivative as it looks, for all that it concludes with a performer in a rubber monster suit lumbering through a model city – indeed, there are a couple of ways in which it anticipates the way this genre would end up going – firstly, it is one of the first colour English-language monster movies in this tradition, beating the first colour Godzilla film to the screen by a year. Secondly, and more importantly, it is the first notable movie where the monster wins, delivering an admonitory smack to human civilisation before returning from whence it came. It may not have the extraordinary bleak intensity of the original Godzilla, but this is still a film with a thought-through and serious message about the relationship between humans and the environment, and one which is still timely today – thoughtless exploitation is bound to end in disaster.

The fact that Gorgo’s script is so good – apart from the slow reveal of Joe and Sam’s real characters, it also manages the killer twist at the heart of the story with great aplomb – may explain why it was able to attract an equally good cast – William Travers was a bona fide film star at the time, being relatively fresh from the sentimental hammer-throwing melodrama Geordie. One suspects the American William Sylvester is mainly there to help sell the film in the States, though he is also an actor assured of a tiny piece of cinematic immortality, thanks to his role as Dr Floyd in 2001. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of the kind of distinguished British character actors who bring extra heft to whatever they appear in, including an uncredited Nigel Green – I have to say that this is a film very much of its time, with only one credited female performer (a stuntwoman) – there is, of course, one very crucial female character in the story, but she is three hundred feet tall and has no dialogue beyond roaring a lot.

If there is a department in which Gorgo falls down somewhat, it is of course the special effects: we are in the realm of suitamation and dodgy compositing, and this is before we even get onto the film’s voluminous use of stock footage (the US Marine Corps play a surprisingly large role in attempting to defend London from the looming threat of Ogra, Gorgo’s mum). But the film has picked up sufficient interest and charm for this not really to detract from the entertainment value of the climax, which is very impressively mounted, the population of London fleeing in panic and terror as Ogra tours various landmarks, demolishing each one in turn (the moment where Ogra tears down Big Ben is as iconic as any in the history of pulp British movies), the London underground collapsing and flooding, and so on. I would say this is as good as sequence as anything comparable in the genre.

‘Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!’ is the proud claim of the poster for Gorgo – well, even at the time that almost certainly wasn’t true. But Gorgo hits the sweet spot of genre film-making just about perfectly, balancing respect for the conventions of its genre with the need for intelligent innovation and a few genuine surprises. When this kind of film is made nowadays, it usually has impressive special effects and a script which is often only marginally coherent – Gorgo, on the other hand, may not have the greatest production values, but it does have a strong story with heart and something to say for itself – and I will choose that any day. A minor classic, as monster movies go, and a personal favourite of mine.

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Writing about Dracula AD 1972 a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the slightly odd phenomenon of good films being made to cash in on the success of bad ones. I’m not sure this necessarily applies in the case of the film under discussion now, but – well, you’ll see what I mean as we go on.

I find I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm to complete our recent run of Christopher Lee-and-Hammer-themed reviews by revisiting To the Devil a Daughter – especially not when there’s a stack of classic 50s B-movies sitting demanding my attention. So let us begin with Eugene Lourie’s (fairly) seminal 1953 monster movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Our story opens in the arctic north, where a team of US scientists and military personnel are engaged in a experimental operation with the codename Operation: Experiment. If nothing else this suggests that US government code-name writers of the 1950s were not quite up to scratch. However, everything else is working just fine and the plan to drop an atom bomb on the north pole goes like a dream. Quite what the benefit of doing this is to anyone involved is never made clear, but this is a film operating in a different, rather more innocent world.

This is not to say that all is cheerful. The tone is distinctly ominous: ‘every time I see one of those things go off, I feel like I’m writing a chapter in a new book of Genesis!’ says one character. Atomic energy still carries a dreadful mystique for these people. This turns out to be entirely warranted as it transpires Operation: Experiment has defrosted a giant reptile that was frozen under the ice cap. The creature slips into the Arctic Ocean and heads south for its ancestral stamping grounds, which just happen to be in the vicinity of New York City (yes, this film predates current thinking on continental drift as well as radiological theory).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the only witness of the creature’s first appearance has no evidence and is (not unreasonably) shipped off back to New York in a rubber plane when he persists in talking about monsters. He is Tom Nesbitt (a slightly odd name for someone who’s clearly of mittel-European origin, but then he is played by Swiss actor Paul Christian) and he spends most of the next half hour trying to get evidence that the beast is real before a genuine catastrophe occurs. In the meantime the beast is swimming merrily south, chowing down on fishing boats and lighthouses on the way.

With the aid of a genial and cuddly old paleontologist, who keeps reminding everyone he’s just about to take his first holiday in thirty years, and who might as well have DOOMED tattooed across his forehead, Nesbitt persuades his old army buddy (Kenneth Tobey, who we’ll be meeting again when we look at the original Thing From Another World) that the danger is real. However, this is just too late as the beast is already on the verge of attacking New York itself…

It’s hard to be really objective about a film so old and influential. The plot, by modern standards, is rather creaky and cliched, but this is the film that coined many of the cliches, writing much of the grammar of the monster movie genre. One notable deviation from this, however, is the way that the beast puts in a full appearance very early on. This appears to be a trademark of producer Hal Chester: the same thing happens near the beginning of Night of the Demon, another of his films.

That said, it’s not really around very much until the final act, when it runs amok in the streets of New York and we get a proper look at Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent animation. Harryhausen opts to invent his own kind of dinosaur, the rhedosaurus, and as you might have guessed it’s unlikely to get the seal of approval from genuine paleontologists for all sorts of reasons, the great man animating his own preferences rather than attempting something properly realistic. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff compared to some of the stunning work Harryhausen was to do in the sixties, but it does the job, in a film which is markedly less campy in tone than you’d expect from the subject matter.

There’s a lot of atom-age terror going on here, as you could probably have guessed, although none of it quite as hysterical (and unintentionally funny) as in the trailer – ‘Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers?’ yells a caption, while talking heads of average people give measured opinions such as ‘Who knows what waits for us in nature’s no-man’s-land?‘ and ‘Impossible? Unbelievable? Fantastic? But I tell you – it could happen!‘ One almost gets the impression of modern civilisation being crushed between the primeval threat of the beast and the ominous new menace of the atomic age.

However, the movie doesn’t quite succumb to techno-fear, and in the process neatly answers the ‘why don’t they just use heavy artillery to kill the monster?’ problem which routinely bedevils this kind of film. The beast, you see, is loaded with prehistoric viruses to which modern life has no resistance. Blowing it up would just scatter infectious material everywhere. The solution is to shoot the creature with a radioactive bullet (the sharpshooter recruited is a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef, who seems slightly disgruntled to be appearing in this kind of film), the implication being that while science may spawn the odd monster, it’s also full of ideas for getting rid of them too.

This movie, though by no means a masterpiece, essentially stakes out the territory for most of the classic monster movies that followed (director Lourie went on to direct one of my personal favourites, the 1961 British suitamation movie Gorgo, which is basically a rehash-with-a-twist of this film). But perhaps its greatest legacy lies in the fact that it was a smash hit in Japan, inspiring Toho Studios to make their own film about a rampaging prehistoric creature unleashed by a nuclear blast, the result being a legendary icon of which the world has not yet heard the last. (Rather appropriately, there are some startling similarities between the first section of the American Godzilla and Beast, as the idea comes full circle.) On its own terms, though, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a fun and competent movie which takes itself just seriously enough, and knows better than to outstay its welcome.

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