Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eugene Lourié's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

While geeking out reading David Kalat's informative "A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series," he refers to the influence of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It pre-dates Godzilla by one year and is, on the surface, a very similar film. The story and the monster in Godzilla were closely modeled after the successful Beast, and, as Kalat explains, animator Ray Harryhausen harbored "a personal grudge against Toho's Godzilla series for decades thereafter, thinking that they had won commercial success only by stealing from his film."

I was kind of embarrassed I had not seen this film, apparently outside playing with cow pies when it was probably playing on TV. Regardless, I assumed this grudge was either an artistic ego at work or some form of Western superiority. Boy, was I wrong. Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus knocks the lumbering Godzilla right out of the water. The animation is impressive, bringing the monster to vivid life. The story might be lacking, but it hardly matters in light of the visual effects.

Long before we were concerned about the melting of the polar ice caps, we find our heroes preposterously conducting nuclear tests near the Arctic Circle. Cleverly named "Operation Experiment," the test has unwittingly awakened a 'Rhedosaurus' from its very long and cold cryonic sleep. Two scientists conducting observations of the blast site on foot happen upon the monster, leaving one dead and the other injured. When scientist Tom Nesbitt regains consciousness and tells his story of the monster, the poor sap is labeled crazy. But wait! He finds an unlikely ally in a beautiful young paleontologist, who is intrigued by his story. Concurrently, there are similar sightings of such a monster making its way via the Atlantic down the Eastern seaboard. The lost little Rhedosauraus seems to be heading home to New York City!

Harryhausen and his agile beast is the true star of the film. His effects and incredibly visionary animation bring the monster to life. Harryhausen's first major film was Mighty Joe Young (1949), working as an assistant to the pioneering animator Willis O'Brien, earning them an Oscar for special effects. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was his first feature as solo animator, working from a short story penned by his friend Ray Bradbury. Although The Beast elaborates on the story, entitled "The Fog Horn," the centerpiece of the film where the monster attacks a lighthouse is the visual ethos Bradbury's piece. The scene is one of the crowning visual moments of the film with all the long-range shots of the beast and lighthouse shot totally in silhouette. I'm not sure if I have seen a more striking monster movie image made either before or since.

Harryhausen's method of stop motion animation has since become iconic. Imbedded in my subconscious are the creatures of his creativity. At some point I must have stopped playing with cow pies and planted myself in front of the TV, because I vividly remember Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. I may not remember the stories, but, wow, do I remember the Minotaur, Cyclops and the skeletons! It is odd how something you can barely remember can seem so familiar. Call me nostalgic, but his methods of animation is worlds beyond any CGI. As Harryhausen's Rhedosauraus makes its way around NYC, every movement of this four legged giant is considered down to the most subtle detail. The poor creature's death is more melodramatic that any actor could ever come up with.

The place where Godzilla excels is its geographical place in historicity. The diverging perception of the atomic bomb in the 1950s is sort of summed up between The Beast and Godzilla. Many people in the US believed the propaganda that the atomic bomb, especially as it was used in WWII, was peacemaker; a necessary force in the face of evil-doers. The Japanese knew differently, especially Ishiro Honda who saw the destruction in Hiroshima. Godzilla is a sobering reminder of mankind's failures, but heroism and optimism lives in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The Beast is light fare, but the special effects represent how magical movies can be, something I forget all too often.


Barry Kryshka said...

We ran this as part of the first Bell Sci-Fi series. It was intended to be outside, but once the rain started we moved into Bell Auditorium.

I'm seriously considering a Harryhausen series for our new venue, to coincide with the remake of Clash Of The Titans.

Anyone interested?

Kathie Smith said...

Barry, it's like you are reading my mind. Of the Harryhausen movies I had seen when I was a kid, they were all on TV. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to see them on film.

He's still alive, too. On The Beast DVD there was this great conversation between Harryhausen and Bradbury. Really awesome.

Sign me up for the series!

joe said...

Kathie, you are my hero for bringing up Harryhausen! I love that man's work! Seeing Jason and the Argonauts and the Sinbad movies as a kid changed my life. It still blows my mind. I ran a Harryhausen series at Grumpy's at the end of the City Club Cinema days there. This stuff can't be shown too much. Barry, if you can make a series happen, I would be more than happy to help you spread the word and promote it. Do it!!! (please?)

Kathie Smith said...

Okay, the Harryhausen committee has been set! I would love to see this happen.

Dan said...

Hi, Kate! I forgot to tell you about a great community called The Besides a nice forum and reviews by the staff and other great things, recently, with the help of societies and Scorsese, they founded the World Cinema Foundation ( that restores untraceable films and allows to watch 'em online free! There is also the Korean classic The Housemaid!
The project started some days ago and it will expand in the near future.