Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gorgo (1961)

Typecasting can be a pain in the ass. As an actor, you may want to play Othello but you end up stuck as the guy who plays a cross-dressing Mammy stereotype. As a director, you may want to do an inspirational film but you're just seen as a horror film director.

And then you have the weirdly specific typecasting. Eugene Lourie, a Ukraine-born French director is known specifically for three films that are so alike in subject matter that you could easily call them a trilogy--The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; The Giant Behemoth; and today's film, Gorgo. You may have picked up that Gorgo is not a biopic about the queen of Sparta and that all three of these films are about giant monsters. Giant amphibious dinosaurs, to be specific.

Lourie was so frustrated at having been shoehorned into these films that after directed Gorgo he quit directing so he wouldn't be stuck making "the same comic-book monsters." Somewhere, with fourteen kaiju movies under his belt, Ishiro Honda calmly drags on a cigarette and chuckles.

The amusing thing about Lourie's trilogy of sea monsters is that the latter two films feel weirdly like response pieces. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was, in essence, a game changer. In 1953 it set the stage for the majority of giant monster films to follow--beginning, as it does, with a nuclear blast releasing a giant dinosaur from the arctic ice and setting it loose to destroy a major city.

The original Godzilla drew inspiration from this, but whereas the nuclear explosion in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is only a MacGuffin to set the plot in motion, Godzilla is all about the dangers of nukes. Even in the cut-up and re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! that the film was released as for American audiences, Godzilla is still a walking avatar of nuclear weapons. He is indestructible, radioactive, and beyond human control.

Lourie seemed to have a bizarre need to one-up the creature that had arisen as a result of his own creation. The Giant Behemoth is, like Godzilla, a giant amphibious dinosaur that was minding its own business at the bottom of the sea until nuclear contamination drove it out, and like Godzilla it can discharge its own radiation as a weapon. Unlike Godzilla, the Behemoth is slowly dying of its radiation and is therefore a mortal creature to begin with.

But Gorgo is the most blatant attempt by Lourie to one-up his apparent saurian nemesis. You see, both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth used stop-motion effects for their monsters. (And a truly unfortunate prop head in The Giant Behemoth, which we will get to eventually) Gorgo, on the other hand, takes a page from Toho studios and renders its monsters with a man in a suit destroying miniature sets. Lourie apparently wanted to beat Toho at their own game by doing it better.

How did he do in his attempt? Well...

We open off the coast of Ireland, as Americans Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers, who looks rather like Dominic West to give any fans of The Wire material for riffing) and his first mate Sam Slade (William Sylvester, better known for 2001: A Space Odysssey) are anchored in order to exploit the riches of a sunken ship. Suddenly, a volcano rises up out of the ocean and erupts--the resulting rough seas nearly capsizing their vessel. With the rudder damaged, they're forced to go ashore to get supplies on nearby Nara Island until they can repair it.

On the way in they encounter several (patently rubber) dead fish that look like nothing either of them has ever seen. Clearly the volcano displaced everything from even the deepest part of the ocean. Ashore the men find themselves not exactly welcomed by the inhabitants, who refuse to even speak anything but Gaelic at them. The most welcoming native is Sean (Vincent Winter), an orphaned young lad who either lives with the harbormaster or just hangs around to let strangers inside to show them the Viking artifacts the self-styled archaeologist has found and tell them about Ogra, the legendary sea serpent. McCartin (Christopher Rhodes), the harbormaster, is less than thrilled to have two salvage men around all his stuff when he comes home and tells them they can't stay in his harbor more than 24 hours.

However, something is about to force McCartin to deal with the sea raiders a bit longer. Two divers have gone missing and when one is found, he promptly dies--seemingly of fright. (As opposed to the bends, caused by coming up too fast due to fright, which seems more likely) The dead man had gold doubloons with him, so Joe and Sam figure McCartin was trying to keep them out of his treasure stash and decide to dive down to find the source. Instead, they glimpse what caused the diver to die of fright--a huge reptilian creature, and they decide that the gold is not worth the risk.

As Joe and Sam are loading up in order to leave Nara, they summoned by Sean to meet with McCartin. They observe a group of boats searching for the shark they think got the missing diver--but naturally they find what really did it when one of them throws a harpoon at a disturbance in the water and promptly a 65-foot dinosaur bursts from the water and smashes the boats. Sean, watching the creature from the shore, identifies it as Ogra. Unfortunately for Nara, Ogra is amphibious and charges ashore--harpoons and bullets only angering it further. Fortunately, Joe and Sam discover that the beast is terrified of fire and drive it back into the sea by flinging torches at it.

Joe and Sam, our heroes, see that the islanders are terrified and furious--so they blackmail McCartin  into opening his safe and giving them all his gold coins and treasures in exchange for them capturing Ogra. Sean warns them that what they're doing is a terrible bad thing, but being adults in a kaiju movie they ignore the child who intrinsically knows everything about the monsters. Maybe if he was wearing tiny shorts they'd listen.

Having apparently never seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Joe volunteers to go down in a diving bell as a lure for the monster. It works.

"Gah! This was a bad plan and I should feel bad!"
Luckily for Joe, his boat crew are more on the ball than the last time someone tried to observe a Lourie monster in a diving bell and he escapes with nothing worse than a sea water shower, Ogra is netted and hoisted aboard somehow. Joe and Sam immediately notify the media and offer the beast to the highest bidder. They at least let two paleontologists from Dublin--Professor Hendricks (Joseph O'Conor) and Professor Flaherty (Bruce Seton)--examine the captive Ogra and imply that they'll take it to the University of Dublin, and even take the advice of the scientists that a steady stream of water should be run over the creature so its skin does not dry out. However, they just received a wire from Dorkin's Circus in London that's a much, much better offer. So for London they set sail.

Unbeknownst to them, Sean has stowed away on board. Joe catches him in the process of trying to free Ogra. Somehow this is what prompts Joe and Sam to post a guard on the animal with a rifle. After stowing Sean in a bunk, they observe that the water off of Ogra is leaving a phosphorus trail--right before they hear the guard scream. The guy was on guard duty for about five minutes and somehow got himself killed by Ogra, but damned if I know how given the creature is so tied down it can't move its front paws more than two feet. He won't be the last person to die.

Mr. Dorkin (Marin Benson) re-christens the creature "Gorgo", apparently after the Gorgons of Greek Mythology, and has it paraded through London on its way to Battersea Park. During the attempt to load Gorgo into its enclosure, a typically reckless newspaper photographer runs up takes a flash photo of the beast and wakes it from its tranquilizer-induced stupor. After a brief rampage that kills no one, the beast is driven back into its enclosure by flamethrowers--only for its tail to casually swipe some idiot who chose to stand too close as the creature makes its way into the enclosure. So really Gorgo is only a threat to to the suicidally stupid.

Naturally, while the University of Dublin is trying to sue to get Gorgo back, the exhibition of the beast--in his pitifully small enclosure with a token attempt at giving the beast some water to wet its feet--is a huge success. Joe is delighted by the success, Sam sits in his trailer and drinks. He can't shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong, and the riled up behavior of the other circus animals just convinces him all the more. So when Professors Flaherty and Hendricks summon them in the middle of the night, their news is all Sam needs to hear.

You see, Gorgo is only a baby. And if Gorgo is a baby, he must have a mama. And if Gorgo is a baby at 65 feet, well, its mother would be 250 feet tall.

"We're boned."
The professors advise that they will be notifying the authorities, over Joe's strong objections. And right on cue, the true Ogra rises from the sea and smashes her way across Nara Island as she follows the trail her child left, killing McCartin in the process.

When the military stock footage--er, I mean fleet goes to investigate they find Nara Island destroyed and fire upon Ogra when she shows her head above water. They assume she is dead--until she resurfaces and sinks a Destroyer.

Sam wants to let Gorgo loose, but Joe refuses and the British military sees no reason that Dorkin can't be allowed to hold onto the creature. Surely they'll kill its mother soon enough. Sam attempts to free Gorgo on his own but Sean (oddly enough) stops him with Joe's help.

However, the full might of the British Navy is for naught. Ogra tears through the anti-submarine nets and makes her way into the Thames. An attempt to flood the Thames with petrol and set it alight succeeds only in killing some careless onlookers. Tanks are sent to bombard the beast at tower bridge, but she simply smashes her way through.

Now she makes her way through London, smashing buildings in her path and crushing hundreds of civilians with rubble. She smashes Big Ben--though with the military's help since they shoot right through it to get at her--and continues with frightening determination towards Battersea Park. But of course, at no point does anyone suggest that maybe, just maybe they ought to give back her offspring before the entirety of London is left in ruin.

Gorgo is hardly the best of Eugene Lourie's sea monster trilogy. That honor goes, without question, to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. I would say, however, that this film runs a close second.

For one thing, there were few giant monster movies outside of the original Godzilla to truly consider the scope of an enormous creature rampaging loose in a major city. The onscreen death toll of this film is impossible to count--people trampled by crowds, set afire, electrocuted, drowned, and crushed under tons of rubble. The shots of Ogra in front of a night sky turned red with the flames she has created are downright nightmarish, as are the endless shots of frightened civilians crushed under falling bricks.

And it's hard not to appreciate a movie that ends with the stupid humans who kept trying to kill Ogra rather than give back her child watching helplessly as she finally rescues her child and they turn from the ruined city to return to the sea. Apparently, this was done because Lourie's daughter was saddened by the endings of his prior two films where the monsters had to be killed for the good of mankind. Either way, Gorgo and Mothra both hail from 1961 and remain rare examples where the monsters are rampaging because they are trying to get back something precious to them--and are allowed to leave, victorious, at the end.

As for the monsters, going back to my earlier point--Lourie had expressed a desire to have his monsters be more believable than Godzilla and with more personality. Quite simply put, he failed. Don't get me wrong, I love the creature designs for Gorgo and his mother. They're incredibly memorable creatures with crocodilian hides and wiggling fin ears. Clearly even Toho liked them, given they must have been an influence on the design for Titanosaurus.

Little flappy fin ears are all the rage!
However, Lourie apparently insisted on lots of internal machinery that would move the creature's tails and give them more of realistic presence. The end result is...they don't look any different than Toho's creations that used wires to manipulate that tails. In fact, the suits are far more stiff and inexpressive than Godzilla--though that is due largely due to the fact that Mick Dillon, the man in the suit, does not have the same sense of character that Haruo Nakajima did. Gorgo and Ogra flap their jaws entirely at random and swing their huge front paws around willy-nilly. That the suit has red, light-up eyes and absolutely zero details inside the mouth doesn't help--the suit makers did a marvelous job detailing the suit's skin and then just gave up, from all I can tell. Which is a shame, since the eyes are one of the most important parts of a monster.

And I said "suit" rather than "suits" since I honestly believe they only made one. There's no effort made to make Gorgo look different from its mama, to the point that some shots of the two creatures were clearly mixed up in editing.

The rest of the film's effects just make you appreciate Toho's all the more. Apparently this film cost millions to make, and I'd wager the majority of that money went into optical composite and rear projection in sequences that absolutely do not require it. For instance, a ghostly reporter (Maurice Kaufmann) who impossibly shows up at every part of Ogra's rampage, awkwardly composited into the shot.

Of course, given that all the optical effects are Godawful and the film would be a good ten minutes shorter without the military stock footage, it's entirely likely that the majority of the film's budget went into the pockets of its producers, the King Brothers, as they were known crooks.

As far as the human story, well, it falls pretty flat. Joe and Sam, our supposed heroes, are opportunistic cretins not afraid to blackmail at the drop of hat--and willing to let all of London be turned into a parking lot rather than give up their cash cow. That neither of them--not even Joe, arguably the more mercenary of the two--get any comeuppance is rather ridiculous. Though, I'm sure that like the opening of Son of Kong, the entirety of London's survivors sued them for every penny they ever grabbed as soon as the closing credits finished rolling.

All things being equal, I am still very fond of this film. As a giant monster film, it definitely delivers on the destruction and its monsters--for all their faults--are incredibly memorable. If you love giant monster films and haven't seen this, I definitely recommend you rectify that at once. If you don't love giant monster movies, then you're already beyond help.


  1. I first saw Gorgo when I was 5 years old I'm 58 and I still love this movie I would love to see how they shot parts of the movie I always wanted to see the rubber suit itself how the actor got in moved around .I hope they remake this movie hey they remade King Kong and Godzilla a ton of times which the 1933 King Kong was also the best

    1. Yeah, there sadly aren't any real behind the scenes shots or footage for this one like with the Godzilla movies. Most of the information about the suits I gathered from a documentary about its creation on the new Blu-ray.

      As for a remake, Edgar Wright was once rumored to be considering directing one in the late 2000s but nothing ever came of it.

  2. The Giant Behemoth is my favorite of the trilogy.....because of all of the "science"...the destruction scenes by giant monsters is my least favorite part of this genre