Friday, 5 July 2013

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Not a masterpiece, but a classic of its genre that stands the test of time.

Director:  Eugène Lourié
Producer: Jack Dietz; Hal E. Chester
Writer:  Ray Bradbury (story)
Screenplay:  Fred Freiberger; Eugène Lourié; Louis Morheim; Robert Smith
Inspired by:  The Fog Horn 1951
Music:  David Buttolph
Cinematography:  Jack Russell
Visual effects:   Ray Harryhausen.
Editing:  Bernard W. Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Running time: 80 minutes
Budget:  $210,000
Box office:  $5,000,000


Paul Christian:  (Professor Tom Nesbitt)
Paula Raymond:  (Lee Hunter)
Cecil Kellaway:  (Dr. Thurgood Elson)
Kenneth Tobey:   (Colonel Jack Evans)
Donald Woods:   (Captain Phil Jackson)
Ross Elliott:  (George Ritchie)
Steve Brodie:  (Sgt. Loomis)
Jack Pennick: (Jacob Bowman)
Michael Fox:  (ER Doctor)
Lee Van Cleef:   (Corporal Jason Stone)
Frank Ferguson:  (Dr. Morton)
King Donovan:  (Dr. Ingersoll)
James Best: (Charlie, Radar Man)


An experimental atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle!

A hibernating dinosaur unfrozen and unleashed upon the world!

Death and destruction in New York City!

Will ancient wrath re-awaken to wreak havoc and spell doom for our world?


(Warning: Spoilers lurk beyond this point!)

The film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, starts off north of the Arctic Circle, during a nuclear bomb test called, ‘Operation Experiment.’ The tension is almost palpable as the narrator informs us that “there can be no margin for error” while the countdown proceeds inexorably from ‘H’ minus 56 seconds, 52 seconds and so on. Almost in answer to physicist Thomas Nesbitt’s reflections about "What the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time will tell", the nuclear explosion thaws out and unleashes a 10-metre tall, 30-metre long hibernating carnivorous creature called a Rhedosaurus. The creature had been locked in the ice for 100 million years. The observation that “this test will add to our knowledge” is called into question by what follows.

Tom Nesbitt witnessed The Beast’s awakening, but he is dismissed as being delirious and is put through a “psychiatric interrogation” where it is determined that his mind has “lost contact with reality.”

The Beast, meanwhile, travels down the east coast of North America and having gotten out of the wrong side of the bed after 100 million years, proceeds to sink fishing vessels, demolishes a lighthouse and vents his spleen on various buildings in Massachusetts. Despite The Beast doing all it can to advertise its existence, the reports of its presence is treated in a frivolous manner by the media with such headlines as “Sea Serpent Reported off Grand Banks,” as well as by the public as voiced by Nesbitt’s nurse who believes such reports belong on the “comics page.”

One of the fishermen who survived becoming an hors d'oeuvre for The Beast, identifies the same creature as Nesbitt saw from a collection of drawings. This fisherman had also been traumatised by the encounter with The Beast and was called crazy. Nesbitt finally gains the support of palaeontologist Thurgood Elson and his assistant, Lee Hunter.

Elson, now a convert to the idea of The Beast’s existence (“What makes you sure there are no flying saucers?”), firmly believes the Beast is returning to the Hudson River area where fossils of Rhedosaurus were first found. The plucky professor insists on venturing into the undersea Hudson River Canyon in a diving bell in search of The Beast. Elson seems to be completely oblivious to the danger he is about to face. He is only interested in the benefits to science. After all, according to him, “we’re scientists, it’s our job.” Unfortunately, the long delayed holiday plans of Professor Elson are permanently curtailed when he is killed by The Beast which promptly swallows Elson, the bathysphere’s operator and the bathysphere itself. . Well, I suppose 100 million years of hibernation would make anyone ravenous! You have to admire the professor as he continues to give a rundown of the creature’s features (”the dorsal spine is singular, not bi-lateral as we thought”) moments before disappearing down its gullet, “But the most amazing thing is…” Gulp!

In a foul mood, (probably due to a bout of constipation after swallowing the bathysphere) The Beast comes ashore in Manhattan and the extent of his bad temper is proclaimed in a newspaper report of "180 known dead, 1500 injured, damage estimates $300 million". This rampage thoroughly annoys everyone, especially the military who, led by Col. Jack Evans, proceed to zap The Beast with an electrified defensive fence, blast an extra orifice into the beast with a bazooka, pepper it with bullets and drive it back into the sea,  thereby making it clear he is definitely not welcome.

During the creature’s running amok through New York City, we witness people almost trampling over each other to get away. People run headlong past kids with little thought to their safety and even a blind man is knocked to the ground and left to fend for himself. Sometimes The Beast we need to worry most about is the one that resides in each of us which sometimes rears its ugly head under certain circumstances. And so, we are left with New York appearing “like a city besieged” where the heart of the city, Times Square “has stopped beating.” An unwelcome resonance for modern audiences considering recent history!

It turns out that the uninvited guest had the bad manners to bleed all over the place, unleashing a "horrible, virulent" prehistoric germ, contaminating the soldiers who went after it, as well as the general population. Unable to blow The Beast to Kingdom Come or barbecue it, in case such measures spread the contagion, it is decided to kill The Beast by shooting a radioactive isotope into its neck wound in order to burn it up from the inside.

The Beast next has his sights set on Coney Island amusement park. It is now up to military sharpshooter Corporal Stone (a young Lee Van Cleef) to stop The Beast armed with only a rifle grenade loaded with the radioactive isotope and a ton of pressure weighing him down, since the isotope is the only one of its kind outside of Oak Ridge. He has to take the crucial shot by riding a roller coaster to the top of the tracks so that he is eye-level with The Beast.  Stone fires the isotope into The Beast's neck wound resulting in The Beast dramatically meeting his maker amidst the wrecked and blazing ruins of the park. We can only hope that Corporal Stone won a prize at Coney Island Amusement park for scoring a bullseye!

Points of Interest

The scene depicting The Beast destroying a lighthouse had its origins in The Fog Horn short story of 1951. Notice too how The Beast seems to look far more impressive or dramatic when shown in silhouette or in a darker setting in the film. 

As can see above, The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms had a production budget of $210,000 and ultimately grossed over $5 million. This was a pretty good return on the investment and a testament to the film’s popularity at the time. The film was nominated for AFI's Top 10 Science Fiction Films list.

You will have noticed the scene where Professor Nesbitt attempts to identify the Rhedosaurus by examining the dinosaur drawings of Charles R. Knight. In my post A Tribute To Ray Harryhausen, a reference is made to Charles R. Knight who inspired Harryhausen and who died in 1953, the same year The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms was released.

The climactic roller coaster scenes were a product of special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen who combined the live action of the actors and coaster background footage from The Pike parking lot in Long Beach California with the stop-motion action of The Beast destroying a model of the roller coaster.

Ray Harryhausen made effective use of “plate photography” of actual locations such as footage of New York streets projected behind a tabletop miniature where Harryhausen animated the armature puppet of the Beast, one frame at a time. The effect is of a quite realistic-looking huge monster moving through the streets. The scale of the Beast is emphasized by the low angle shots of it as it strides forward. Compare the movements of this creature with similar examples from other films such “Unknown island” 1948, and you’ll see what a leap in such technology was made by Harryhausen.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ushered in the era of films featuring grumpy giant monsters being rudely awakened by inconsiderate human beings detonating atomic bombs and who then proceed to exact revenge on humanity by levelling its cities. It’s a bit like being woken up early on a Sunday morning by some fool mowing their lawn. So, if you enjoy giant monster films (whether it’s Godzilla from 1954 or Cloverfield from 2008), then take some time out and give some thought to the legacy of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with its use of H-Bomb testing, reflects or stands as a metaphor for the fears of the time when people had genuine concerns about the Bomb’s potential for the first time in human history, to bring about the end of human civilisation. Every era has its own set of fears and concerns and only a small leap has to be made to having similar films reflecting our own current fears and preoccupation with threats to our way of life from terrorism. The perceived monsters may vary, but the themes remain strikingly similar.

The characters in the film are largely forgettable, despite their adequate performances. For me only two characters stand out. The first is Dr. Thurgood Elson, played by Cecil Kellaway. Kellaway seemed to be made for such academic / professor type roles that call for a kindly, absent-minded but brilliant character. You just can’t help liking him. The second is The Beast itself which manages to capture our attention with its personality and even though it appears to be destructive and frightening, it does nevertheless evoke our sympathy, especially at the end of the film when it collapses and dies. After all, it didn't ask to be placed in this situation. It was merely driven by its primitive instincts impelling it to head for its ancient breeding grounds which happen to be occupied by New York City!

I have certainly had fun watching and writing about this particular film and I hope you will have fun watching it too! Enjoy!

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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