I’ve featured the first two of Eugène Lourié’s “Sea Monster” films, so it’s time to talk about the last and most spectacular of them. It’s the one with the biggest budget, but surprisingly the most kid-friendly of them. While not a stop motion film, it made up for it with one of the most elaborate suitimation monsters and sets. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you 1961’s British kaiju epic Gorgo.
Gorgo was not only third and last of Lourie’s directorial efforts, but also the last and third time a dinosaur wrecked London. The transition from stop-motion to suitimation didn’t phase Lourie’s eye for art, but it was a sign of the times. While King Kong’s re-release and the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms ignited Ray Harryhausen’s career, their progeny Godzilla’s success showed that it could be done with a smaller budget with the right kind of effects team and director.
Enter the King brothers Herman and Maurice-swindlers, genius businessmen, gamblers, visionaries, liars (they even had their last names changed from Kozinsky), and exploitation pioneers. Starting as humble slot machine producers they made it into the highest echelon of Hollywood with films like Dillinger, the Brave One (more on that one when we get to Gwangi) and Carnival Stories. They saw how big Godzilla was in the international box office and decided to dip their toes into it. If it was violent and melodramatic, it’s going to be big bucks, especially if you’re flexible.
They loved Godzilla so much they decided to make the movie in Japan, hiring Lourie for his previous successful sea monster movies and calling it “Cruel Islands”. Lourie had other plans for it-making his heroes pearl divers who discover a giant marine dinosaur. The military would play no part in it-Lourie had been all tired of it after making Beast and watching Godzilla.You see, Lourie’s daughter, having seen the premieres of his previous dinosaur movies, scolded him on their drive home; “You were bad, daddy; you killed the nice beast!” Lourie turned the compassion of his child into an imaginative idea: the monster was a protagonist himself. Children would have a child character to empathize with who respects the monster when no one else does. So, he made the monster a child himself.
The film was renamed Gorgo after the leading captive monster. The character Dorkin invokes the Gorgons Medusa and her history of the Greek epics, and Mike Nelson would call it “The Vice President’s unimaginative campaign slogan”, but most likely it’s after the Gorgosaurus rounding out the American Museum’s cast of big predators after Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus.
Turns out all the money set aside for effects meant they couldn’t shoot in Japan. The Kings suggested Paris, but Lourie, who knew and loved Paris inside and out, pointed out how long it would take for a sea monster to walk up the Seine. So, as a compromise, it was set in London, with the Ryuku islands replaced with Ireland and its surrounding isles. The Kings insisted on touching up Lourie’s script-the pearl divers replaced with greedy treasure hunters, and to mimic Godzilla the Royal Navy and army attacks Gorgo’s mother as she plows through London to Piccadilly.
Lourie wanted the monster effects to be the best-he couldn’t afford Harryhausen this time, and Harryhausen was busy with The Three Worlds of Gulliver anyway. Instead, he hired Tom Howard, who put a lot of effort in miniatures, costumes and matting for the fantasy epics Thief of Bagdad and Tom Thumb and would later go on to do the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Howard, having a higher budget than Tsuburaya, made his suit far more elaborate, with glowing red and yellow eyes and adding hydraulic animatronics to the head to make the eyelids, mouth, eyebrows, and head fins move. He outdid Tsuburaya on sets, too-the Toho stage was far larger than what Willis O’Brien worked with for Giant Behemoth, but in turn was dwarfed by the detailed miniatures at MGM’s lot in Borehamwood. Like Tsuburaya, Howard had traveling mattes, split screens, and overcranked footage for the monster, with a few shots that involved both mother and son monster being even more difficult due to having to combine multiple sets at different scales.
It was so expensive the King Brothers went overbudget-$650,000 in 1960 money. With production lasting almost two years and costing so much that they had to cancel their other films, the Kings still insisted on military action. So Royal Navy stock footage was used instead. It was finally released in 1961 to impressive success in Japan, the US, and the UK, the first two countries being huge fans of the kaiju genre at the time. Critics like L.A.’s Leonard Maltin enjoyed Gorgo, and I have a soft spot for the film myself. Like Maltin, I do have a sense of humor about it, but unlike him I can’t cameo on Mystery Science Theater’s episode on this film, so I’ll just quote my favorite jokes at the appropriate times.
The opening credits are in huge yellow letters over the North Sea’s rolling waves, with Angelo Lavagnino’s lush score playing over it. We meet captain Joe Ryan (played by Bill Travers, war hero and star of the films Geordie and Born Free), his first mate Sam Slade (William Sylvester of the aforementioned 2001 and the MST-famed film Devil Doll and TV series Gemini Man) and the crew of the Triton as they pack up their ship on the face of a churning sea. Joe is reluctant to leave the valuable salvage-as he dives (in an obvious pool “Someone overchlorinated the ocean”) he is forced to come back out as new islands emerge from the sea.
The ship is hit hard by waves, probably to make an early action sequence but it turns out to be dull (“For what it’s worth, my heart will go on”) and the ship is crippled but still buoyant (“We pulled into port and everyone was okay/ we went out for lunch and felt better!” sings Crow). The next day they find prehistoric-looking fish and tetrapods on the surface (“Some kind of coelacanth death cult”) as Joe and Sam row to the nearby habited island of Nara.
The locals are brusque and insist on speaking in Gaelic-“Doesn’t sound like Welcome in any language” Sam quips. At the harborship they find the artifact collector (“calls himself an archaeologist” says his employee Sean), but his lack of books and papers suggests otherwise) harbormaster McCarten (played by Christopher Rhodes from the epic El Cid and who the Satelite of Love crew identify as Samuel Beckett) and his young employee Sean (played by Vincent Winter from comedy The Little Kidnappers). The boy identifies a carving (“That’s a duck we gave bovine growth hormone”) as the monster Ogra, who is said to have destroyed a Viking fleet attacking the Irish islands-“Fine work he did that day”. By the way, none of the artifacts look remotely Viking era or Norse in form.
McCarten allows them fresh water but refuses to let them stay ashore. When Joe and Sam interrogate the local men fishing, they learn that divers that McCarten’s hired have been disappearing in the ocean. Sure enough, one of the divers rises, pale as a sheet and holding a gold coin in his hand as he dies. Joe insists on going down to see for themselves, but Sam protests “This is crazy; there was a man lost there today, not even a trace. Another saw something that scared him to death”. But Joe insists on diving for “a hatful of gold”, and they see a huge animal(“A Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Balloon!” says Tom Servo). That night, after another standoff with McCarten, Joe and Sam see the fishermen attacked by a sea theropod (“It’s the rare isosceles-eared underwater dragon” Servo quips). What really helps special effects is their use at night or in fog. In this case, both are used to make Gorgo look far more menacing and mysterious in his first surfacing, especially the big black suit and glowing red eyes. Gorgo lands (“McRoar! O’Growl!”), the islanders attack, to Sean’s distress, and is finally driven off by torches (“I’ll put on my asbestos underwear and I’ll be back!”).
The fishermen mob at McCarten’s, insisting on payment and leave. Joe and Sam confront him, revealing that among his artifacts are gold goblets from the Viking ships. They blackmail him to acquiesce to the worker’s demands, but decide to first capture Gorgo for his monetary value (OUR HEROES!) much to Sean’s protests. Joe decides to go down in a diving bell to lure him in for the ship’s nets. Gorgo grabs him (“Hey, there’s no pop top!”) but Sam and the crew drop the net and capture the creature (“So did Gorgo cooperate and wrap himself in the net?”).
Joe and co send a telegraph to publicize the capture (“Am…in…Ireland…send….real…food”) and a montage reveals the hype. Meanwhile, on the ship, Joe is met by two Irish paleontologists who ask to buy the animal for Dublin and remind him to keep the animal wet. Sam is frustrated by the unspecified payment, and Joe instead chooses to follow up on a wire from Dorkin’s Circus in London. Sean, stowing away, tries to release the animal but is caught by Joe and Sam. The guard they place, however, is killed by Gorgo.
The Irish scientists are furious and confront our mercenary “heroes” about their betrayal, but Joe, Sam and Dorkin (played by Martin Benson from Goldfinger) go ahead and parade Gorgo to Battersea. By the way, the only women with dialogue are two reporters who probe Dorkin in his big pitch. The tranquilized Gorgo (“Is there a union for Monster Wranglers?”) is placed in the pit but flashbulbs awake him (ala Kong) and he attacks (“This is like England’s 178th finest hour” “The Japanese that lies dormant in all of us awakes in situations like these” “This is truly a black day in the history of Dorkin”) and kills a man (“Right in the store!”) before being driven back by flamethrowers.
Gorgo’s unveiling (“Come see Gorgo; he’ll kill your family! Come get killed by Gorgo!”) is a huge success-“Looks like a full house”, Joe celebrates. Sam’s busy sulking, all the money in the world unable to lift the dread and guilt as he drinks and smokes in their trailer. Joe stands firm, but their argument is interrupted by the paleontologists at the Natural History Museum. The news? “Captain Ryan, the creature you have captured is not an adult”
“You mean it isn’t fully grown?” Sam is shocked
“No, we believe it is rather early infancy” (“You’ll need to change him”)
“You think there might be a fully grown one of these things around somewhere?”
“It’s a fair assumption; where there are offspring there are generally parents”
“How big would a fully grown one be?” even Joe is scared
“An approximate guess-“ (“According to my unnecessarily large book”)
“the infant-“ the scientist points to a small drawing of an Iguanodon skeleton, “-the adult” (“The outfant”) he then points to the same image only twenty times bigger.
Joe denies it, but the scientists are unswayed by his protests. Meanwhile, Sean stays by Gorgo in the empty circus, watching helplessly as Gorgo is held back by an electric fence. At Nara, Gorgo’s mother finally surfaces, destroying the village and being the last thing McCarten sees in the stormy night. Back in London, the paleontologists confront a skeptical Admiral Brooks themselves, and he reluctantly sends Royal Navy stock footage (“I’m drawing Binky” “The order comes in: kill Willy” ). They find Gorgo’s mother and attack her with more stock footage (“We can’t all be number one turret!”). The Admirals summon Joe and Sam to tell them Nara island has been wrecked, while Joe and Sam explain that the water off Gorgo left a track. No sooner does the RN captain proclaim victory to the admiral than his ship is capsized with all hands.
Sam again insists that Gorgo be released, but Joe again refuses to do the right thing. The admiralty is confident they can win. That evening a drunken Sam tries to release Gorgo himself there and then, something even Sean thinks is a dumb idea. Joe punches out his best friend to prevent him to do the right thing (OUR HERO) and closes the door before Gorgo can escape.
The Royal Navy attacks Gorgo’s mom again with more stock footage (“Isn’t this cutting into the navy’s groping and harassment time?” “Movie would have been much shorter without us, sir!”) hitting her with torpedos, guns, depth charges and planes and putting up a net at the Thames estuary (I guess this IS more than what they did against the Behemoth), but she just plows through them. I’m assuming this is the mom, by the way (“How do you sex one of these things?” “Well, you put the lights down low, you play a little Barry White”).
I guess my description of the scenes is now redundant as a news reporter (the prolific Maurice Kaufman, known for being a suspect in A Shot in The Dark, a victim in the Abominable Dr. Phibes, and the star of the TV series Champion House and Gary Halliday) now describes the action as flooding the Thames with burning gasoline (“This is a fine welcome! You treated Jerry Lee Lewis better than this!”) only provides an awesome scene as the monster wades through the fire. I’m sure of the of four suit actors in this shot was scared witless.
An army officer (Nigel Greene of Zulu and Jason and the Argonauts) exposits the attack of the army as stock footage of tanks (turning into fresh footage) is intercut with crowds fleeing and infantry being driven in (“I can’t believe we all missed the bus”) and the news reporter’s narration. Of course tank cannons and machine guns can’t stop Gorgo sr from wrecking the Tower Bridge ( a beautiful, intricate model) as Challenger’s Brontosaurus did before. “The power of this thing is fantastic!” (“And I’m on half-power as it is!”)
Despite the hopes of Mike and the bots that Mary Poppins, Robbie Coltrane, or the Queen Mum coming in to save the day, mummy Gorgo shrugs off rocket attacks to destroy the Westminster Clock Tower in the highlight of the film. Big Ben shrieks its last as the elaborate miniature topples and makes her way towards Piccadily and her son. Joe (finally doing something heroic) and Sean escape to the Underground and narrowly avoid getting killed by the collapsing tunnel and rush of water from the river.
Madam Gorgo crashes through Piccadilly square (another beautiful shot), the RAF arrives via stock footage to no effect (“Pacifist or not, Gandhi’s gotta be chuckling about now”), Joe and Sean reunite with Sam at the circus (wait, isn’t that where they started from?), and the paleontologists and army decide to push all the power in the metro area at the electrical fence between the Gorgos. Joe comes full circle, apologizing to Sam as they help set up the wires. The approach of the parent through the circus uses a full set, and it’s another gorgeous shot.
The movie reaches its climax as Joe, Sean and Sam watch (and the reporter narrates) as Lady Gorgo rescues Jr (“You’re coming with me, young lizard!” “Damn, mom; you’re big!”) and wades back. The reporter gives one last piece-
“We prayed for a miracle. Maybe our prayers have been answered. A great city, overwhelmed, exhausted, lies helpless under the immeasurable power and ferocity of this towering apparition from before the dawn of history. Yet, as disdaining the pygmies under her feet, she turns back! Turns with her young, leaving the prostrate city, leaving the haunts of man, and leaving man himself to ponder the proud boast that he alone is lord of all creation.”
Big Gorgo roars in reply (“SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP! Windbag!”) as the family wades back to the Thames en route to the North Sea.
“You’re going back now. Back to the sea” Sean closes the movie with a relieved smile, and the last shot is of the monsters wading off into the distance.
Gorgo was successful enough to warrant an American comic (released by Charelton Comics and drawn by the legendary Steve Ditko), a British Novel by Carson Bingham (of which I cannot find a copy) and a Japanese ripoff by Toei studios in Gappa, the Triphibian Monster. It’s been speculated that Gorgo doing well compared to the straightforward sci-fi epic Undersea Warship (also titled Atragon) is what led to Godzilla’s return to the screen in his first kid-friendly adventure in 1962.
What do I think? I think it’s a good movie. Yes, it’s got boring parts and the leads are fairly boring and unlikable on first viewing (Joe’s rescuing Shawn and apologizing to Sam comes very late in the picture), the cast is minimal (it’s a two-man show like Behemoth), and the military stock footage is insufferable, but it makes it up in many other ways. I’m going to be hated for this, but I like this more than the other 1961 kaiju-to-the-rescue-wrecks-greedy-people epic Mothra. Gorgo’s suit is impressive and intimidating, the sets are gorgeous and well-integrated, the premise is innovative, the music by Angelo Lavagnino is lush (Lourie especially loved it more than his other film’s scores) and the cinematography (by Freddie Young of Ivanhoe, Mogambo, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and You Only Live Twice) and art design (by Lourie’s English counterpart Elliot Scott who worked on films from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to the aforementioned Tom Thumb) is gorgeous. Eugune Lourie was a great visual director, giving an earthy beauty to the prehistoric monster and the dirty, grey British isles.
I recommend this movie to fans of kaiju, effects films, and sea monsters. Dinosaur fans might be annoyed by the total fantasy and stereotypical presentation of the dinosaur here, but I think the production values make up for it. I give it a 73/100; a flawed but strong film that’s definitely worth remembering. The Mystery Science Theater version is one of the best episodes; and in Shout Factory’s 25th anniversary set of episodes it’s accompanied by an excellent documentary by Balyhoo Entertainment called “Ninth Wonder of the World”.