I have always received a variety of odd looks when the subject of movies comes up and I inform people that my favorite decade of cinema was the 1950’s. After all, I was born at the tail end of the turbulent Sixties, was a young child in the groovy Seventies and survived my teen years in the preppie-fied Eighties. How could I possibly have an affinity for films that originated – at the very least – ten years before my birth? Oh, sure…there are plenty of flicks from subsequent decades that I love, but what was it about films of the Fifties that endeared me so? The simple answer is this: I grew up with them. Again, this response elicits further looks of confusion and I usually have to expound further upon my childhood in order to avert an embolism on the part of the person with which I am conversing. You see, when I was that young, wide-eyed (and annoying…all kids are annoying) kid in the Seventies, television was positively rife with horror and science fiction film programming. There were all sorts of Monstrous Matinees, Chiller Diller movies and Creature Features, many of which were hosted by some local TV personality. More often than not, many of the films shown on these programs were from the Fifties. Thus, cultivating a deep love for science fiction and horror the way I did as a child, it was impossible for me NOT to tune into these shows. My earliest memories involve watching old black and white horror flicks and I would not trade those remembrances for all the tea in China…especially since I loathe tea.
Sadly, as time goes by and I get older, those films get even older still. In recent years, they have begun to hit their 50th anniversaries and I find that many of the people who created and starred in those projects are no longer with us. Worse, younger generations have come along and having been weaned on the big budgeted, FX extravaganzas that have proliferated in the last twenty-odd years, find such older films unworthy of their attention other than to mock them. Oh, don’t get me wrong, after fifty years, those films look positively cheesy by today’s standards, but back then they positively kicked ass! They wowed audiences and scared the bejesus out of an entire generation of monster kids. Finding people younger than me that can appreciate these films has been an often fruitless task, but I have managed to meet my fair share of such folks. It is for them, as well as for those who may not be overly familiar with Fifties films that I chose to write this series. Well, that and my undying love for the decade. So, let’s venture back to the days when radiation and communists were blamed for everything, when invasion from the stars was as real a fear as atomic annihilation, when giant critters from darn near every zoological genus roamed the land in search of people to feast upon, when good old fashioned American know-how, strength and fortitude always saved the day, when mankind’s domination of space was not only expected but a foregone conclusion and when men were allowed to be men and women were hot.
For the first installment in this series, I have chosen to countdown The 1950’s Best Giant Monsters:
5. The Giant Behemoth (1959) – Once again showing that some Americans might not have as firm a grasp on the English language as they might like to think, this film –which was shot in England and released there under the title Behemoth, the Sea Monster – was given a new, albeit grammatically redundant name upon it’s release in the United States. In this film, it seems the deep ocean is the location of choice to dump radioactive material, that is until such sloppy disposal methods awaken a giant prehistoric beastie. And not just a run of the mill gigantic critter, but one that can project electric shocks and radioactive beams! After terrorizing the English coast, this humongus walking-Chernobyl makes for London where the military decides to…wait things out. Yes, it seems blowing up the creature may very well spread even more radiation and contaminate the countryside worse than just letting the Nessie look-alike roam about. While an obvious re-telling of The Beast from 20,00 Fathoms, this film still has some great things going for it. While the stop motion FX used to bring the Behemoth to life may not be as fluid or as satisfying as the work of Ray Harryhausen, his mentor Willis O’Brien does an admirable job with the short amount of time and limited resources imposed on him. The shots of the monster stomping its way through London are what giant monster flicks are all about.
4. It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) – Yet again, some gigantic sea creature is disturbed by man and takes it upon itself to teach those pesky little Homo Sapiens a lesson in how the food chain really works. This time around it’s an octopus of skyscraper-size dimensions that pops up now and then to sink the occasional ship, snack on the odd local or two and finally, lay siege to San Francisco, forever damaging that city’s tourist trade by seriously roughing up a few choice landmarks. This was a personal favorite of mine as a kid, because we lived in Daly City, which is immediately south of the famed City by the Bay. Having relatives on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge, I had been across that grand structure untold times, so seeing it reduced to so much scrap metal was a special treat. Each time we went across, I looked for signs of the critter’s earlier rampage. Despite not having the proper amount of appendages for an octopus, the giant creature on display here looks awesome thanks to the technical wizardry of stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. It was films like this one that made his name so well known to a wide-eyed (and don’t forget annoying) seven year old. In more recent years I’ve come to appreciate some of the film’s other nice bits of scenery, most notably Fifties hottie Faith Domergue. Plus, it has my all-time favorite Fifties leading man, the kick-ass Ken Tobey! While a little dialog heavy during it’s first third, this film is definitely worth a look.
3. 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) – Everyone has experienced that odd moment when you are the proverbial fish out of water, being the only one of your type (geek, male, Republican, etc) among many strangers. If you think that’s uncomfortable, imagine being the only one of your kind on the entire planet! Worse, everyone around you is bound and determined to either stick you in the ass with a pitchfork, burn you alive with a flamethrower or shell you into oblivion with heavy artillery. Now you begin to see the predicament in which the poor Ymir found itself in this movie. Brought back from the planet Venus by a secret American (who else?) expedition, the critter survives the plunge into the Mediterranean undertaken by the big rocket, then grows to gi-normous proportions when exposed to our atmosphere, rampaging across Italy in the process. Once again, Ray Harryhausen’s magic is at work in this King Kong-inspired flick. His artistry helps portray the Ymir as a real living, breathing organism rather that just a flat visual effect, helping to transform the inherently peaceful critter into a rampaging monster and ultimately, the tragic figure who meets its demise at the hands of fearful mankind. Alas, the real monster in this flick is the greedy little village boy Pepe, who sells the embryonic Ymir in order to buy a cowboy hat and a horse. If it wasn’t for his selfish antics, the Ymir might have had a more peaceful visit to the planet Earth, not to mention the large number of people who would still be alive. If anyone deserved a one-way rocket ride to Venus, it was Pepe.
2. The Beast From 20,00 Fathoms (1953) – Well, we find ourselves in familiar territory on two fronts. First off, we are once again dealing with a prehistoric monster, in this case the fictional Rhedosaurus, that has been released from its icy tomb by more of mankind’s blundering about in things he barely understands. In this case, it’s detonating an atomic bomb in the arctic which does this trick. Secondly, said Beastie is again brought to life by the magic of Ray Harryhausen and his wonderful stop motion miniatures, in what is one of his earliest screen credits. The title critter indulges in the usual behavior for a creature of it’s size and disposition: it sinks some boats, knocks over a lighthouse and finally decides it’s time to visit the big city, which in this case is the Big Apple itself, New York. A classic rampage through the city streets, including a brief stop to gobble up a cop, now follows. Once again leading the efforts to stop the critter is Ken Tobey! Now you just know the monster is in for some serious trouble! A great cast, excellent script, and great pacing make this film an easy one to get caught up in. Plus, there is plenty of the very thing that draws us monster kids to such films: lots and lots of monster action! Don’t waste your precious time on the horrible unintentional, but obvious, remake of the film…also known in some circles as Godzilla (1998). Rather, watch this one, instead!
1. Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) – I know that technically, the original Japanese version of this film, Gojira, was released in 1954 and the horribly re-edited version, complete with Raymond Burr sandwiched into the plot, was not released stateside until two years later. However, I am choosing to go with the American version simply because this is the one most people in this country are familiar with, and the one that I saw a zillion times as a kid. Even stripped down, the American cut is a powerful film. It is an allegory for war, from the only nation on this planet that has suffered direct attack with atomic/nuclear weapons. In what has become the epitome of the cinematic law stating that arrogantly mucking about with nature leads to trouble, atomic bomb tests in the Pacific ocean unleash the long dormant Godzilla, a creature from the ancient past. A truly gigantic, lumbering bipedal lizard, Godzilla is more a force of nature than a monster. While the sheer hopelessness of the situation that arises when he decides to literally stomp the city of Tokyo (and you wondered where Chris and Scott got the name) is lessened somewhat by the cheesy nature of a man in a rubber suit jumping around a model city, it is only marginally distracting and one soon sits back in awe as they behold the Big G in all his glory, reducing mankind’s greatest achievements to rubble. Godzilla’s legacy cannot be ignored. He has endured for over fifty years now, appearing in twenty-eight films – the longest movie franchise in history. His name is known the world over and his image has probably been used in more merchandise than Elvis himself. For giant monsters from the Fifties – hell, for giant critters from any decade, or for such creatures in general, Godzilla is truly the undisputed King of the Monsters.
There you have it. My countdown of the 1950’s top five Best Giant Monsters. Don’t worry if your favorite wasn’t mentioned, as it will probably appear in a future installment, under a different category. Be sure to stop by next time when I look at the worst giant monsters to grace the silver screen back in the 1950’s. Trust me, if they don’t make you scream, then the shoddy FX will. Until next time, gang.