Size Does Matter (Giants in Fantasy Cinema) – By Philip Smolen

When I was a little kid, my parents would always drag my sisters and me to see their special friends. They lived a good hour away and I hated to go because there was nothing ever to do at their house. They had two sons, but both were substantially older than me so they didn’t have any toys to play with. They were also very, very tall (which always freaked me out). They usually ignored me, but this one time (I believe I was four) their oldest son came up from behind me while I was in their backyard, grabbed me in his arms and repeatedly (and sadistically) threw me in the air as high as he could. I was terrified and began to blubber and scream for him to stop, but he just kept throwing me in the air. Finally, after a minute or so his mother came out and yelled at him, but the damage was done. I was inconsolable and cried for a good hour. Afterwards, every time my parents wanted to go back to visit, I begged to be left at my grandmother’s. There was no way I ever wanted to see that mean human giant again.

For centuries, stories about giants have scared the crap out of us. Giant humans have been a mainstay of mythology and literature since biblical times. From David battling Goliath, to Odysseus fighting the Cyclops, books are filled with examples of human giants squabbling and fighting with their smaller cousins. These gargantuan are usually presented as somewhat slow and dimwitted, and are always outfoxed by their smaller human brethren. One of the best known children’s tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, is a perfect example of this. Young Jack is able to outwit the stupid giant and return back home with a ton of treasure for his poor mother.

With this well of material to draw from, it’s no surprise that movie producers began to make films with human giants. From “Giant from the Unknown” (1957) to “War of the Gargantuas” (1967), Hollywood (and Tokyo!) have churned out movie after movie with giant human menaces. And with Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” opening, this trend shows no evidence of slowing down. So here’s a quick look at three older, fantastic films that feature a giant human menace. They may vary in the quality of their special effects, but each one serves as a building block for later movies about giant humans.

1. THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (American International, 1957) – Director: Bert I. Gordon

At a secret military test site a group of soldiers led by Colonel Manning (Glenn Langan) prepare for the detonation of America’s first Plutonium bomb. Suddenly Manning sees a small plane crash in the middle of the test site. He runs out into the test area to try to rescue the downed pilot. Before he can, however, the bomb explodes and Colonel Manning is subjected to the full force of the explosion. But miraculously, he doesn’t die. Instead, he begins growing at a rate of eight to ten feet a day. Soon he’s 60 feet tall and a growing problem for the U.S. Army. Manning’s fiancé (Cathy Foster) is at first relieved to see that he survived the explosion, but is puzzled when a few days later the hospital tells her that they’ve never heard of him. Through her own dogged perseverance, she’s able to track him down to a secret military base in Nevada and is understandably upset at his new condition. Manning rapidly begins to lose his mind, until by the end he becomes a monster and rampages through Las Vegas, destroying landmarks and generally making a nuisance out of himself. His fellow soldiers have no choice then but to blow him off Boulder Dam.

If there ever a was a filmmaker who loved working with giants, it had to be Bert I. Gordon (Mr. BIG). Throughout his career he made five films that dealt with giant humans. “The Amazing Colossal Man” was one of Bert’s best. It was a huge hit and it’s easy to see why. First and foremost there is Glenn Langan’s caring performance. He generates a lot of sympathy as the soldier who can neither control nor reverse the massive changes going on in his body. He’s able to communicate with everyone for a good portion of the film, so the audience understands the frustration he feels. Bert’s special effects (he usually did his own effects in his films) are also better than usual. Instead of just using mattes and split screens, he also had some special props built as well, which also add credibility and realism to the scenes where Langan runs around Las Vegas. The only exception is the giant hypodermic needle made by low budget effects artist Paul Blaisdell. It’s just hysterically bad. But despite this gaffe “The Amazing Colossal Man” remains a most satisfying “giant” movie. It’s so good that it’s actually surprising that no one has remade it yet.

Quotable Movie Line: “I don’t want to grow anymore. I just don’t want to grow anymore!”

2. THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (Columbia, 1960) – Director: Jack Sher

British physician Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Matthews) is very poor, so poor, in fact, that he tells his fiancée Elizabeth (June Thorburn) that he can’t marry her until he makes his fortune. So he pays for passage on a ship and sets sail for India. During a storm, he’s swept overboard and finds himself washed ashore on an island inhabited by little humans known as Lilliputians. After he establishes their trust, he helps them overcome their fiercest foe by carrying off all the enemy ships. But when he disobeys the Emperor (Basil Sydney) by refusing to open his eggs on the little end, the Lilliputians turn on him and force Gulliver to leave. He then travels to another island which is populated with giant humans known as Brobdingnagians. There he is reunited with Elizabeth (who also became shipwrecked) and treated as a pet of the King. But when the doctor uses science to treat the Queen’s indigestion, Gulliver is labeled a witch and he and Elizabeth flee and try to return safely to England.

By 1960, Ray Harryhausen had established himself as a bona fide special effects genius and had elevated stop motion animation into an art form with his amazing films. “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” remains one of his best. It retains some of the satire and bite of Jonathan Swift’s novel and is visually stunning. While there are only two stop motion creatures in the film (the fight with the alligator is a fabulous highlight), Harryhausen’s use of split screen, sodium matting and forced perspective is simply spectacular. This film is an absolute visual delight and is especially enchanting for young children. I remember being dazzled by the array of special effects wizardry on display here when I first saw “Gulliver” in a local New Jersey movie theater. This is also one Harryhausen movie that features excellent performances. Kerwin Matthews is appropriately confused throughout as he meets humans of various sizes. He’s also a good swashbuckler in all of the fighting scenes. But perhaps my favorite performance is by Peter Bull as the evil sorcerer who’s mad at Gulliver for usurping him. The film also features a sonorous music score by the great Bernard Herman which is rich, vibrant, and dreamy. “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” is a great “giant” fantasy and remains a sparkling tribute to the consummate skills of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

Quotable Movie Line: “You can’t fool me. The criers are going though the square proclaiming your kindness. That means somebody is going to be executed soon!”

3. JACK THE GIANT KILLER (United Artists, 1962) Director: Nathan Juran

In medieval England, a young famer boy named Jack (Kerwin Matthews) is tending to his chores when he hears a young woman screaming. Jack then sees a fierce giant carrying off a pretty maiden. Without thinking of his own safety, Jack immediately attacks the giant. He manages to kill the beast and rescue the girl who turns out to be the royal princess Elaine (Judi Meredith). For his bravery, Jack is knighted by Elaine’s father, but the evil sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher) still manages to capture her. Jack decides to sail out to Pendragon’s castle, but his crew rebels and throws him overboard along with his young ward Peter (Roger Mobley). They are rescued by a Viking named Sigurd (Barry Kelley) who is in possession of a bottle that contains a magical Irish imp (Don Beddoe). Together the four adventurers travel to Pendragon’s evil lair and attempt to rescue the princess.

The history of the original “Jack the Giant Killer” is a fascinating Hollywood story. Producer Edward Small once turned down the opportunity to make “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” with Ray Harryhausen. After the film’s phenomenal worldwide triumph (it was the “Star Wars” of its day), Small decided to make his own similar film. He hired the same actors (Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher), the same director (Nathan Juran) and employed stop motion for all the creatures in the film as well (a firm called Projects Unlimited did the effects). However, Columbia Pictures slapped Small with an injunction claiming copyright infringement and halted its release. The case was eventually settled and the film was distributed, but it was not the huge success Small hoped it would be (he even added musical numbers to it and rereleased it). Despite all the legal problems, “Jack the Giant Killer” is still a fun “giant” fantasy. All of the giants are humanoids in appearance and are quite menacing. And while the puppets themselves don’t have the level of detail that Harryhausen’s puppets always do, they are still well animated by a young Jim Danforth.

I remember loving this movie as a seven year old. The scene that stood out for me was when Pendragon’s witches descend on Jack’s ship. I was truly terrified and glued to my seat the entire time. All of the actors acquit themselves well and Don Beddoe is charming as the rhyming leprechaun. This is one of those movies that can be easily dismissed by a modern day audience, but is adored by those folks who first saw it as children. After more than 50 years, it’s still a ton of fun.

Quotable Movie Line: “What’s that? A little man you say? Oh for that there’ll be the devil to pay!”

Fun Movie Factoid: Here’s an interesting story about “Jack the Giant Killer.” Back in 1957/58 teenager Jim Danforth contacted Ray Harryhausen and told him of his interest in stop motion. Just as a young Ray was encouraged by his mentor Willis O’Brien, Ray generously invited the young Danforth out to his California studio and encouraged him about his work. The two struck up a great friendship and Danforth carefully watched how Ray worked his magic. Danforth later used many of these same techniques in “Jack the Giant Killer.” When Ray saw the film, he was upset that many of his cinematic secrets that he pioneered were being used on another company’s film. Supposedly, Ray never let another young animator watch him work that closely again.

Of course there are many more movies that feature human giants (see below for a partial list). But I will always be loyal to these three entries. They feature great colorful giants and are all solid examples of this incredible sub-genre.

 

Additional Movies with Human Giants

1. Atlas Against the Cyclops (1961) – Sword and Sorcery Movie

2. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) – Allison Hayes is still the sexiest giant ever!

3. The Cyclops (1957) – Cheap Bert I. Gordon monster fest.

4. Frankenstein Conquers the World (1964) – Gothic horror and Kaiju Eiga meet!

5. Giant From the Unknown (1957) – Buddy Baer as a revived conquistador.

6. Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) – Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meet Buddy Baer.

7. The Magic Sword (1962) – Bert I. Gordon again!

8. Sword and the Dragon (1956) – Weird combination of sorcery and myth.

9. The Thirty Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) – Lou Costello’s girl gets large!

10. The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962) – Moe, Larry and Curly Joe fight a two-headed Cyclops.

11. Ulysses (1955) – Classic with Kirk Douglas fighting a Cyclops.

12. Village of the Giants (1965) – Guess who? Yup – Mr. BIG once again.

13. War of the Colossal Beast (1958) – And one more Mr. BIG special!

14. War of the Gargantuas (1967) – Its giant vs. giant action as two huge monster brothers square off.

 

Selected References

Brosnan, John. Movie Magic. The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.

Naha, Ed. Horrors from Scream to Screen: An Encyclopedic Guide to the Greatest Horror and Fantasy Films of All Times. New York, New York: Avon Books, 1975.

Pettigrew, Neil. The Stop-Motion Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc, 1999.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.