Sunday, June 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Last week’s viewing of Godzilla got me thinking about the origin of the kaiju genre. It’s ultimately related to dinosaurs and our awe of the huge and strange. King Kong certainly played its part, as it its own inspiration, the 1925 Lost World. However, one film tied King Kong with Godzilla, a missing link of movie monsters, between dinosaurs and kaiju. Today we’re looking at Ray Harryhausen’s  1953 opus, the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

The story of this film dates back to 1951. Ray Bradbury, just starting his career as a writer by scribing short stories for magazines, wrote a story called “The Fog Horn”, originally published as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms the Saturday Evening Post.  The tale is of two men working at a light house. The horn of the light house sounds every night, but is answered. A giant sea creature from prehistoric times mistakes the horn for the mating cry of its kind, and tries to court the house. One night, the men turn off the horn. The monster is offended, thinking it was rejected by its mate. In a rage, it destroys the lighthouse and the men barely survive. The beast disappears into the waves, waiting until man has left the earth. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine-born French art film director Eugene Lourie was thinking along the same lines. He was inspired by American science fiction stories, and wanted to bring one to the screen.  He wanted to apply new European film techniques to high-concept American stories, and so planned to do a film on a prehistoric monster’s rampage in modern times.

The third piece of the puzzle comes from a young animator, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was exposed to King Kong at a young age, falling in love with the action, the dinosaurs, and the effects.   In 1939, he met Ray Bradbury, and their shared fascination with dinosaurs, science fiction, and fantasy forged a bond. In 1949 he fulfilled his dream of working with the master behind Kong, Willis O’Brien.  

Lourie approached O’Brien with the idea. O’Brien, busy working on a sadly never-realized film “Emilio and Guloso” (which would later be split into two movies by Hollywood-the Beast of Hollow Mountain and the Brave One) , suggested Lourie approach Harryhausen, as he knew that Harryhausen was eager to try a solo film project.   Harryhausen pointed out to Lourie that his story was similar to one of Bradbury’s, and they approached Bradbury for help on the screenplay. Bradbury was too busy to write it, but he gave them his blessing and the rights to use the title of the story.  Newbie producers Jack Dietz and Hal E Chester, fans of Bradbury’s story, eagerly joined the venture.  Together, this enterprising crew overcame their inexperience to create a film that was the King Kong of the 1950s.

The film begins as the credits play over  fish in an aquarium, setting a maritime atmosphere.  As in many other films of the era, inspired by World War 2 documentaries, the stage is set by narration over military stock footage. Thankfully, neither last long, only long enough to establish the setting of the US army making tests in the Arctic. The sequence ends with an atomic explosion before we enter the film proper. 

We are introduced to three military men-Colonel Evans, Dr. Nesbitt, and Dr. Ritchie. The last two are nuclear scientists. Briefly, a huge blip on the radar appears, but it’s ignored as the scientists go out to gather instrument readings on the explosion. A blizzard begins, and they get lost in the storm. Ritchie briefly sees a giant dinosaurian monster  but falls into a chasm. Nesbitt comes to his rescue, seeing the monster briefly before it causes an avalanche that finishes off Ritchie and Nesbitt barely survives.
Nesbitt, refusing to disbelieve what he saw, is taken to New York for psychiatric treatment.  His claim is bolstered by the monsters’ second appearance-a nighttime attack on a fishing ship. Nesbitt tries to get a biological explanation, visiting Dr. Elson, a paleontologist at the museum, presenting him with the theory that dinosaurs could have been frozen by the ice ages.  Elson is sympathetic but skeptical of the idea of a dinosaur surviving into modern times, but his assistant, Hunter, argues for Nesbitt using the evidence of intact frozen mammoths.  

Another ship sinks, and Nesbitt investigates, but now with the help of Hunter. Hunter uses her collection of pictures, mostly Charles Knight paintings, to identify the animal.  Nesbitt is touched by her sympathy and they flirt.  Eventually, they track down a survivor, and take him to Dr. Elson. The survivor identifies the same dinosaur as Nesbitt, convincing Dr. Elson. Elson calls the animal a “Rhedosaurus”, an ancestor of sauropods, and now alarmed calls the army.
While Nesbitt and Elson try to get the government involved, the Rhedosaurus
 makes another attack. This time, it attacks a lighthouse as in the original story in a beautifully shot scene.  This convinces Evans, and he manages to get more information from the Coast Guard.  Evans, Elson, Hunter and Nesbitt meet at Evan’s office, where Elson finds a pattern in the sightings: the animal is moving south and heading towards New York. Elson declares his desire to  have the animal captured alive and requests a diving bell to investigate. 

Elson gets his requests, and dives  into the Hudson River Canyon despite Hunter’s misgivings. “This is such a strange feeling, I feel as though I'm leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays. “ He witnesses a fight between a shark and octopus until both are devoured by the beast. Elson witnesses the animal, calling it a “Paleolithic survivor”, where the “dorsal is singular, not bilateral” and “the suspension of the clavicle is cantilevric”  but interrupted when the monster eats his bell.

Time for some trivia and explanation:  the Paleolithic is a paleoanthopological term referring to the earliest hominin tools, less than 3 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs had become fossils.  The dorsal refers to the top of the spine, specifically the curved tuatara-like ridge running along the back of the Rhedosaurus.  The clavicle, or collar bones, tell a lot about where the animal fits taxonomically. The clavicles of theropods (including birds) fuse into one bone, the furcula. Pterosaurs and crocodiles do not have clavicles at all, but dinosaurs, phytosaurs, rauisuchians and other archosaurs have them. Furthermore, all synapsids (mammals and our ancestors and their relatives) and most reptiles have them as well. That eliminates it being a crocodilian, but says little else.
The next scene is a quiet one, with Hunter mourning the loss of her mentor and Nesbitt trying to comfort her. We return to the action with the Rhedosaurus landing at the docks and rampaging around Brooklyn. People panic and flee as the monster wrecks buildings, smashes and bite cars, and kills a defiant police officer.  The NYPD rides to the rescue, but their rifles only hurt the animal without delivering any real damage. Wall Street is left in ruins and the monster stomps off.  A news report provides exposition of the situation and a transition to the National Guard being called in. Under Evans, they battle the monster at night while Nesbitt and Hunter watch. Finally, it is stopped by an electric fence and forced to retreat when shot by bazookas. 
The soldiers pursue the trail of blood, but succumb to a horrific fever. The animal is carrying a powerful virus in its blood, and so conventional weapons would only spread the death.  As the Rhedosaurus licks its wounds in Coney Island, Nesbitt comes up with a new plan. A radioactive isotope, shot into the dinosaur’s bloodstream, will kill off both the virus and the animal in a single blow. The problem-there’s only one shot and the Rhedosaurus has only one wound.
The isotope, shaped into a small grenade, comes with a sniper, Colonel Stone. 

“Colonel says you need a dead shot, mister.”
“Yes. Ever use a grenade rifle? “
“Pick my teeth with it. “
“You know what an isotope is?”
“No, but if you can load it, I can fire it”
“Good. Just remember one thing; this is the only isotope of its kind this side of Oak Ridge, so you can’t miss”

The Rhedosaurus has taken the roller coaster as a den, and it blocks a clean shot. Nesbitt improvises, the two of them riding a roller coaster car. Stone manages to make his shot, but the car rolls off and causes a fire. They escape the conflagration as the Rhedosaurus dies with the roller coaster collapsing behind it. The end

Despite forming a connection between King Kong and Godzilla, it’s not as good as either.  It doesn’t have the action beats of Kong, or the spectacle and drama of Godzilla. However, it’s a worthy link between them.  The acting is solid; Swiss-born Paul Hubschmid made only a few films in the states, but is a charismatic and likable lead, while Academy Award nominee Cecil Callaway steals the scenes he’s in, and when his character dies, it’s genuinely tragic.  Lee Van Cleef, playing Colonel Stone, is in only his fourth picture, but makes a memorable impression in his brief scene.
Lourie is a fine director, making great use of lighting and showing a real sense of sincerity for the film; it’s not just exploitation or spectacle, but also a compelling drama about Nesbitt, Hunter, and the Rhedosaurus.

Of course, the real crown goes to Ray Harryhausen. He instills a real character to the Rhedosaurus-a proud animal, full of destructive vitality. The death scene is especially reminiscent of King Kong-you can tell Harryhausen was inspired by Kong’s pathos as the confused, pained dinosaur writhes on the sand.  The Rhedosaurus never inspires the same sympathy as Kong, but Harryhausen makes you sorry to see it die.  You can easily say this is the best special effects film since King Kong, and a worthy successor. It’s easy to see why Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and especially Eiji Tsuburaya loved this film. In addition to Godzilla, this inspired dozens of successors, including a British quasi –remake with Willis O’Brien’s last dinosaur, Behemoth the Sea Monster.  In hindsight, Gojira is the only film that surpasses, let alone equals, this original film.

Rhedosaurus is not a dinosaur, by the way. There’s no carnivorous quadruped in the dinosaur order.  One blog did a good job describing its characteristics.
However, it resembles Triassic predators-very early ancestors of crocodiles and dinosaurs.  There is one in particular that resembles Rhedosaurus quite a bit- Quianosuchus . Quianosuchus was a predatory quadruped reptile with amphibious adaptations, much like Rhedosaurus. It’s an early animal, showing that archosaurs diversified very early on in the Triassic.

I give this film an 81. Not perfect, but a strong movie, and I certainly recommend it to anyone interested in animation, spectacle, and dinosaurs.

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