Gorgo: Mother and child reunion?

Gorgo directed by Eugene LourieGorgo directed by Eugene Lourie

Gorgo directed by Eugene LourieAlthough the Russian-born French filmmaker Eugene Lourie has dozens and dozens of credits to his name as a production designer and art director, it is for the three “giant monster” films that he directed in the early ‘50s to early ‘60s that he is probably best remembered today. I have already written here about the first of that trio, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which, thanks largely to the incredible stop-motion special effects provided by Ray Harryhausen, remains to this day my favorite monster movie of all time, and one that I have watched on dozens of occasions. I have also written here of Lourie’s second dinosaur extravaganza, The Giant Behemoth (1959), which, even as a kid, I found to be second rate as compared to The Beast, featuring as it does stop-motion effects by the great Willis “King Kong” O’Brien that strangely come off as clunky and unconvincing. I had not seen this one in many years until fairly recently, and my opinion of the film remains the same as when I was a kid. And then there is the third film of that trio, Gorgo, which I retained very fond memories of, although I had not been able to watch the film in a good {mumble mutter} decades. But I am here to tell you that I have finally caught up with this beloved kiddy favorite again, and that it has charmed me anew. Originally released in March ’61 here in the U.S., and seven months later in its country of origin, the U.K., the movie was filmed in color, unlike those other two, and at a cost of a respectable $650K … more than three times the budget that was necessary to bring the Beast to the screen. Again unlike the first two films, the monsters this time were brought to life not via stop-motion techniques, but rather with the “man in a suit” expedient that had featured in the Gojira film of seven years earlier. Still, the results are completely winning.

The film introduces us to the captain of a salvage ship, Joe Ryan (English actor Bill Travers, whose experiences while working on the 1966 film Born Free would lead him to become an animal rights activist), whose crew has been diving for possible items of value in sunken ships off the Irish coast when we first encounter him. He and his first mate, Sam Slade (American actor William Sylvester, who many will recall as Dr. Heywood Floyd in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey), along with the other men, are astounded when an undersea volcano erupts not too far off their port side, stirring up the waters for miles around and damaging their craft. The men put into the lonely Irish island called Nara to effect repairs, where they meet a young lad named Sean (Scottish child actor Vincent Winter, 11 years old here, who would go on to a career in film himself as a production manager before passing away prematurely in 1998, at the age of 50), the assistant to the surly harbormaster. Trouble soon looms on the island when several local fishermen go missing; one of them is eventually found in the nearby waters, having died of shock. And before very long, the cause is revealed: a gigantic amphibious dinosaur that has been belched up from beneath the bottom of the ocean by that volcanic blast, and which wastes little time in attacking the villagers.

The creature is caught by Ryan and Slade using steel nets (following a diving-bell hunt that might bring to mind the much more effective one in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) and hauled up on deck. The two resolve to bring the creature back to London and make a fortune by displaying it to the world, much against young Sean’s wishes. But soon enough, the creature, which the owner of Dorkin’s Circus, Dorkin himself (Martin Benson, who many may recognize as Mr. Solo in the 1964 film Goldfinger), has dubbed Gorgo (a nod to the Gorgon of Greek myth), is put on display in a sunken pit, to the delight of sellout audiences. But trouble again looms when two Irish scientists, who had wanted to study the creature, inform Capt. Ryan that they have determined that Gorgo, despite its size, is merely a baby, a fact leading to the inevitable conclusion that its parent might be out there somewhere … and mighty ticked off by its absence! And sure enough, that parent (which generations of viewers have assumed is Gorgo’s mother, although there is really every possibility that the 200-foot-tall monstrosity is actually its Dad) eventually does show up, kicking butt on the British navy in mid-ocean, and fighting its way up the Thames and into the heart of London itself, to get Junior back…

Gorgo directed by Eugene LourieSeen largely from a child’s POV and boasting as lovely a theme song as might be imagined — a sea chanty type of melody that will stick in your head for days and that was written by Italian composer Angelo Lavagnino, who also has some 200+ other film credits to boast of — Gorgo, if not the best film of the beastly trio, is easily the most charming one of the lot. It almost operates as a fairy tale of sorts, and its winning storyline featuring a parent’s love for its child is one that anyone will be able to appreciate. Unlike the Beast and the Behemoth, the monsters here are either a scared and abused youngster or a desperate and vengeful parent; tellingly, unlike the monsters in the first two films, the ones here are deservingly victorious by the film’s end, and manage to survive all that modern-day man can throw against them. The film’s script, by Robert L. Richards (who had cowritten that great Western of 1950, Winchester ’73) and Daniel James, gives us a chance to get to know our two (human) leads, as well as the young Sean, and thus we can empathize with all of them … even with Ryan, who, by the film’s end, acknowledges to Sam that he had made a terrible mistake in bringing Gorgo back to civilization.

Of course, any giant monster movie lives and dies on the strength of its monsters themselves, and in this regard, Gorgo does not disappoint. Yes, the creatures here, being just men in rubber suits, move a bit clunkily and look patently phony (unlike the Beast, who, thanks to Harryhausen’s genius, came off as a genuine, living and breathing monstrosity), but they are charming (there’s that word again) constructs nevertheless, and when filmed against some of the picture’s pyrotechnic backdrops, look fairly intimidating. I just love the shot of Mama/Papa advancing on Piccadilly Circus, the sky a crimson red from all the nearby conflagrations. That parent really does get to tear up the area, too, in fairly spectacular fashion, and the sight of both the Tower Bridge and Big Ben being pulled down to bits are brought off very well indeed. Actually, the entire final third of the film is comprised of one long sequence of destruction, in which Gorgo’s parental unit gets to sink a Naval cruiser, withstand electrified netting, shrug off missile attacks and gunfire, walk through sheets of flame, and make its way into the heart of London itself, as it wends its way up the river to the circus in Battersea Park. It is a wonderful sequence, replete with the inevitable fleeing crowds, tumbling masonry, and general pandemonium; hugely entertaining viewing for both the kiddies and the adults in the audience. These scenes of chaos and destruction are immensely aided by the contributions of English special effects wizard Tom Howard (who would go on to work on both 2001 and one of my favorite horror films of the next decade, 1973’s The Legend of Hell House) as well as master cinematographer Freddie Young (who would serve as director of photography on the gorgeously shot Lawrence of Arabia the following year, and then on such screen classics as ‘65’s Doctor Zhivago and ‘67’s You Only Live Twice). And that final scene, the one in which parent and child are reunited and then walk off, is simply wonderful; although it had been many decades, this viewer had never forgotten Sean’s final words, as that charming melody swells: “They’re going back now … back to the sea…”

Okay, I have to admit, perhaps I am looking at Gorgo the film through a veil of fond childhood nostalgia, which tends to distort my objective viewpoint. Kids today above the age of 10 might snort with derision at the picture’s FX, which admittedly cannot compare to the ones they might take for granted in this age of Transformers and Marvel superheroes. Still, I can’t help thinking that even they might be charmed by the film’s overall aura, by its fast-moving story line, and by its bravura spectacle. Kids today might also be pleased at the fact that, like the Beast and unlike the Behemoth, Gorgo makes its first appearance in the film within the first 20 minutes; no sitting around waiting for the monster to show up already! Gorgo the film is not the work of cinematic art that The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms will always be, nor could it possibly be as influential, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch today … whether you’re a kiddy like Gorgo itself, or a full-grown adult, like Gorgo’s gender-indeterminate parent. Highly recommended for one and all!

Trailer:


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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5 comments

  1. I’ll admit, I was startled and then amused to see you use variations of the word “charming” at least three times, but it DOES sound… charming.

  2. Sandy, completely off-topic, I’d like to talk to you about the original 13 Ghosts (with the Wicked Witch of the West herself!) and the 2001 remake. I’ll email you.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Okay, Marion, but you might be asking the wrong person. I have but a dim memory of the original film, and have never seen the remake….

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