All Creatures Great and Tall – By Philip Smolen

There is no sub genre of film that speaks to the inner child in me as directly and completely as the giant monster genre. For some inexplicable reason, I revert back to being eight years old whenever I see a giant monster movie (GMM). It doesn’t matter that I’ve been around for almost six decades and that I’m a well adjusted husband and father (you might get some argument from my wife and kids on this). As soon as I know that there’s a GMM playing, I get as excited and giddy as if Santa had just arrived.

As a kid there was nothing better than watching a movie where a huge monster rises up from the ashes of the atomic fire to scare the bejesus out of a city’s populace. I just loved seeing people’s reaction as they stared in disbelief at a giant creature that was delivering a huge can of whup-ass. I always loved the confrontation between the military and the creature and how traditional weapons always had no effect. I knew the creature had to die at the end, but it was always great to see him gets his licks in.

While the GMM had its origins in the 1920s (The Lost World) it was the classic King Kong that set the standards for the genre (mythical creature taken out of its element and let loose on modern society).  It’s really never been surpassed. It certainly was most influential on the GMMs of the 1950s (the decade with the most number of giant creature films made). In Japan, it was such an influence on special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya that he spent almost two decades making variations on it.

But it wasn’t just on a cinematic level that King Kong influenced the GMM. In 1952 the 19 year old film was re-released theatrically in the US. And it cleaned up at the box office. And when a film rakes in the bucks at the box office, movie producers sit up and take notice.

So with the social and political environment on every 1950’s American mind (the bomb, communism, etc.), audiences were ripe for a new type of menace to scare them.  All film producers had to do was look around in their backyards (and read the daily profit reports) to know what kind of movies would pack them in – radioactive giant monsters!

The genre fell out of favor in the early 1960s (except in Japan). Since the 1960s it mounts a minor comeback every decade or so (look at Cloverfield from a couple of years back), but the 1950s remain the definitive decade of the giant creature.  To audiences back then, it was new and exciting. So I think it’s time to look back at some of the 1950s best GMMs. Sure, they can be silly, sappy and stupid, but to the eight-year-old in all of us, they sure do still satisfy!

1. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (Warner Brothers, US – 1953)

It’s hard to believe that this one small independent film still resonates 56 years after its release. But it was a huge hit in the theatres and became such a staple on television in the 1960s and 70s, that its influence on fans and film makers can not be overstated. While supervising atomic bomb tests in the artic, scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) survives a close encounter with a freshly thawed out dinosaur (called a Rhedosaurus in the film). No one believes him of course. It’s only with the support of a beautiful young paleontologist assistant (Paula Raymond) that they are able to convince her boss Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) that the creature is real. The real trouble begins when the Rhedosaurus comes ashore in New York and proceeds to reclaim the city as its new home.  Modern weapons have no effect on the monster and worse it’s found that the blood of the beast is highly virulent. It comes down to modern science to destroy it; so Christian and an army sharpshooter (a young Lee van Cleef) fire a radioactive isotope into the rampaging dinosaur.

Beast established many standards for the GMM (the scientist who no one believes, the path of destruction the creature leaves, the inability of the military to develop a way to destroy the monster). There are also many great images in the film including the famous eating the policeman scene and the destruction of the rollercoaster. The two men who deserve the most credit for this classic are Eugene Louriè and Ray Harryhausen. Three of the four movies Louriè directed were GMMs. He could be considered a real author on the subject. Here in Beast he falls back on his career as an art director to create a real feeling of uneasiness and foreboding. His direction of the actors is merely routine, but he does a great job establishing a mood for the film. Harryhausen created his famous reality sandwich for Beast and his effects gave the film a bigger more expensive look. His animation of the rampaging dinosaur is superb. The Rhedosaurus has such character and life that it still remains one of the ten best dinosaurs ever put on film.

Quotable Movie Line: “The monster’s a giant germ carrier of a horrible virulent disease. Contact with the animal’s blood can be fatal.”

2. THEM (Warner Brothers, US – 1954)

Until the release of Mimic in 1997, I considered Them to be the best GMM ever.  Even now Them still surprises and satisfies. It’s a shame that after Beast and Them, Warner Brothers only distributed one more GMM. But it’s reported that Jack Warner was furious that Them was green lighted and slashed its budget three days before filming began (it was supposed to be in color and 3D). The story is very simple and direct. New Mexico police officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) investigate the disappearance of several people only to find out that giant ants are responsible. With the help of two concerned scientists (Edmund Gwen and Joan Weldon), they destroy the New Mexico colony but not before two queens escape. It’s then a “hunt the enemy story” as our heroes’ fight the giant invaders in the sewers of Los Angeles. The best part of Them is the screenplay by Ted Sherdeman (who initially was going to produce). He creates real characters and situations and slowly takes us along as the true nature of the mystery slowly unfolds. He also supplies some socko set pieces (including the famous exploring the nest scene and the climax set in the sewers of LA). Gordon Douglas directs with a steady hand, but one of the great aspects of Them is that it remains one of the best acted GMMs. All of the leads sparkle and Edmund Gwen gives an iconic performance as Dr. Medford. While the ants themselves don’t hold up to scrutiny (their jaws are impossibly large), the puppets are used judiciously enough that they really do seem to be part of a hive of giant creatures. Them remains a great GMM. With remakes all the rage in Hollywood, can a CGI remake be in the cards?

Quotable Movie Line: “We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true. And there shall be darkness come upon creation. And the beasts shall reign.”

3. GOZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (Toho Studios, Japan – 1956 [US release])

For sheer power and clout, it’s hard to top Godzilla. Japan’s main monster remains a gigantic force in GMM history.  Produced on a low budget by Japan’s Toho studio, Godzilla was inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It tells the story of how atomic testing produces a 200 foot tall fire-breathing dinosaur that proceeds to destroy Tokyo. It’s only by the heroic sacrifice of a dedicated scientist, that Japan and the world are saved from a fiery fate.  Although much of what is good in Godzilla are the scenes of Godzilla attacking Tokyo and destroying the city, there are other points of interest along the way. My favorite is the scene where Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) demonstrates his oxygen destroyer to his betrothed Emiko (Momoko Kochi). He initially believes that she will be awed by this new weapon but her reaction of horror crystallizes for him that they are from two different worlds and would never be happy. Over the years a lot has been made about the inclusion of Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin (in the American version). Certainly the Japanese version of Godzilla has more power and it is clearer here that the monster represents the burning atomic death that only the Japanese experienced first hand.  But for American audiences having Burr skillfully edited in the film was a good gamble. Burr gives the film a good central focus. Still what one remembers best from Godzilla are Eiji Tsuburaya’s great destructive scenes. Whereas American GMMs emphasized the quickness of their monsters, Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo is slow and deliberate. There is no escape.  He means to get everybody. It is those scenes of Godzilla stomping Tokyo that helped this movie generate box office gold the world over.

Quotable Movie Line: “Now it seems Tokyo has no defense.”

4. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, US – 1957)

The return of an American spaceship from the planet Venus brings destruction and terror for the city of Rome in this enjoyable variation on the King Kong theme. After his rocket crash lands off the coast of Sicily, astronaut Colonel Calder (William Hopper) is nursed back to health by medical student Marisa (Joan Taylor). Meanwhile a young Sicilian boy (Bart Braveman) finds a cylinder from the ship and sells the contents (an unusual looking lump of jelly) to local scientist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia). That night a scaly creature from Venus (unofficially known as the Ymir) emerges from the jelly and proceeds to double in size every day. It escapes and terrorizes the good citizens of Rome. It’s up to Col Calder and the Italian army to send the Ymir back to Venus in a box. 20 Million Miles to Earth is a simple GMM, but it gets the job done. The first part of the screenplay is merely an excuse to get to the monster rampage. But that’s where this movie excels. Literally the last half of the movie consists of the Ymir kicking major earth butt. Whether he’s attacking a farmer and his dog or knocking down important Roman architecture, the destruction is the movie’s raison d’etre.  And from the looks of things, Ray Harryhausen was having a blast. His Ymir is one of his best creations. It’s alien and frightening, but also has a lost and lonely fish out of water quality to it. I like how it doesn’t start destroying everything until after it’s been repeatedly attacked by humans. Then it finally releases its full fury on the people of earth. Everyone connected to this movie must have known that Ray was the driving force here. His effects are a tour de force of Dynamation visuals. And every time I watch this film, it takes me back to that magical first time I watched it. That’s how I know it’s a good GMM.

Quotable Movie Line: “Well hello almost a doctor.”

5. RODAN (Toho Studios, Japan – 1957 [US release])

 Another orgy of destruction film that I always made time for. Along with Godzilla, Rodan is one of the few Japanese kaiju films to translate well around the world. There are no silly subplots or dopey kids that plagued the Toho films of 1960s (and ruined these films for me). Instead we get a nifty combination of Them and Godzilla. In the mining sections of Japan, engineer Shigeru (Kenji Sawara) investigates a collapse of one of the mine’s tunnels.  Unfortunately more than earth is disturbed by the collapse. First it’s giant bugs that proceed to attack the miners.  Later a pair of impossibly huge flying reptiles also rises from the mine and set about destroying Japan. The air force and the army prove ineffective against the monsters and it’s only when the pair are tracked to their lair that they are destroyed by a massive missile barrage that triggers a volcanic eruption.  To me Rodan is one of the best Japanese GMMs because it starts out so differently. The early scenes in the mine are really creepy and remind me of the nest scene in Them. I also love the scene where the Rodans hatch and proceed to eat the giant bugs. But the most fun are those wonderful scenes of chaos and destruction. Eiji Tsuburaya’s wonderful miniatures and effects add so much to the film. It really does seem as if the world has gone mad and is being ravaged by a pair of prehistoric monsters. All these wonderful effects build up until the climatic scene where the Rodan’s are destroyed. It’s an absolute orgy of pyrotechnics and exploding miniatures. The final narration (written for the American version by David Duncan) is quite melancholy as Sawara describes the dying creatures in noble terms. I remember crying the first time I saw the end. I think that’s the only time a Japanese GMM ever bought tears to my eyes.

Quotable Movie Line: “Quiet! You yap like a hen.”

6. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (United Artists, US – 1957)

Along with Them, The Monster that Challenged the World is the only other GMM on this list that featured a live action creature and not either stop motion or a man-in-a-suit-a-saurus. It’s a low key but very suspenseful GMM. Over at the Salton Sea (in California) earthquake activity has released scores of giant snail like creatures (called Krakens in the film) from an underground sea bed. They begin feeding on the local population draining them of their fluids. Navy Inspector John Twillinger (Tim Holt) investigates the murders and with the help of the base scientist (Hans Conried) tries to stop the creatures from escaping the Salton Sea and threatening the world. The Monster that Challenged the World is one of the most satisfying GMMs. It very rationally develops and builds its case for the giant slugs. Director Arnold Laven generates a good deal of tension in a number of scenes as characters go off into the monster’s lair with the inevitable results. The actors are also a cut above a lot of GMMs. Tim Holt and Audrey Dalton make a good couple and Hans Conried conveys real earnestness as the lead scientist. But the real star of the film is the hydraulic sea slug created by special effects man Augie Lohman. With its vacant eyes, stubby legs and nasty pinchers the slime-dripping Kraken was a real treat for sci-fi fans in the 1950s. Even today the creature is still an impressive bit of special effects magic. It made a unique menace back then and still packs a good monster wallop today.

Quotable Movie Line:  “Now I don’t want to alarm you gentlemen but can you imagine an army of these creatures advancing on one of our major cities?”

7. THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists, US – 1959)

For my review of Eugene Lourié’s The Giant Behemoth, please see my June 2009 Rogue Cinema entry “Secondhand Scares.”

8. GORGO (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, US – 1961)

Somehow it seems fitting that the swan song of non Japanese-GMMs should also be directed by Eugene Louriè. Gorgo was a first for the genre (and a last apparently). Louriè gives us two monsters for the price of one. Off the coast of Ireland, volcanic eruptions (near Ireland?) release a 60 foot baby bipedal dinosaur. The creature is captured by salvagers Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) and sold to Dorkin’s circus in London. Ryan and Slade are horrified to learn that the creature they have on display is only an infant. Mama Gorgo follows her baby to London and proceeds to tear up the city in the process. Nothing the military throws at her slows her down. Finally she’s reunited with her offspring and they turn their scaly backs on human kind and head back to the safety of the ocean. As an adult I see the problems with Gorgo. It seems pasted together; there are too many scenes of the military rumbling down the streets of London, and there is way too much stock footage. Much worse is that after Mama Gorgo frees her infant, it only takes two minutes for the two of them to get to the ocean (this is after it took Mama hours tearing through the heart of London to get to her baby in the first place). But as a kid, Gorgo was pure bliss. Going to see that at the Liberty Theatre in Elizabeth, New Jersey was one of my most cherished childhood memories. I loved the theme of monster mother love. I loved Vincent Winter as young Sean (whom of course I identified with). And Tom Howard’s wonderful colorful effects won me over. I vividly remember the red eyes of the creatures as well as the terrific confrontations with the military.  Gorgo may not hold up well for modern audiences, but for a boy in the 1960s, it was GMM heaven.

Quotable Movie Line: “They’re going back now, back to the sea.”

Certainly one could add another film or two to this list (Tarantula, maybe Mothra?, The Black Scorpion?) but for me, these are the GMMs that really hit the spot. Any time I want to be eight years old again, all I need do is pop one of these classics in my DVD player. And I don’t even need my milk and Bosco.

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Selected References:

Berry Mark F. The Dinosaur Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2002.

Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004.

Johnson John. Cheap Tricks and Class Acts. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1996.

Warren Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.

Weaver Tom. Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1988.

Webber Roy P. The Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2004.