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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Beast (for short) is not a spectacular movie, but is an important milestone movie for the sci-fi genre. It kicked off a sub-genre that would prove very popular, and in many ways, become the stereotype of sci-fi B films. It was the first of the giant -creature-awakened-by-nukes subgenre. There were many to come in this class, but Beast was the first. The most famous will be Godzilla in 1954.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Scientists monitoring a nuclear test in the arctic inadvertently awaken a giant predatory dinosaur which had been frozen in the polar ice. Only one of the scientists catches a glimpse of the beast, but he is injured in the dino-caused ice quakes. While hospitalized, no one believes him. All assume he's delusional. He, Tom Nesbit, consults a world expert in paleontology, who remains highly skeptical. Dr. Elson's pretty young assistant, Lee Hunter, however, believes Tom. Meanwhile, a fishing boat off the Grand Banks is wrecked by the beast. A coastal town is mysteriously damaged.. A lighthouse is wrecked.

Eventually, the authorities consent to a diving bell search for the beast which is making its way down the east coast towards New York City. Dr. Elson, in the bell, is lost when he spots the beast just before being eaten by it. The Beast comes ashore in NYC, causing much panic and destruction as it stomps through the streets. The army is called out, but they cannot contain it. Drops of beast blood, from a bazooka wound, carry ancient germs which begin a plague. The beast must be stopped.

Nesbit advises that only a shot with a radioactive isotope, into the wound, will kill the beast an not spread more germs. The beast holes up in the roller coaster of Coney Island, wrecking a good deal of it. The marksman hits his spot, but in its death agonies, the beast starts a dramatic fire of the coaster's ruins. He dies dramatically on the beach. NYC is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Firstly, because it was the first of a popular sub-genre. The creator of Godzillia is said to have based his tale on Beast, though he may not have seen it. The parallels are unmistakable. Secondly, Beast is the first artistic effort by master-animator Ray Harryhausen. Stop-motion animation had been around for a long time (King Kong in the 30s and Lost World in the 20s), but Harryhausen brought an artist's heart to the task. His fictional dinosaur -- a Rhedosaur -- moves and reacts quite credibly. Others will copy Harryhausen work, but almost never equal to his skill. Lastly, there are little bits in the dialogue which are fun. More on that below.

Cold War Angle
It has been said (and occasionally rebuffed) that much of the 50s' sci-fi was allegory for Cold War or Nuclear anxieties. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Beast clearly is. The movie opens with a nuclear test. That testing awakens the beast. Trailers for the movie left little room for doubt. "Are we delving into mysteries we weren't meant to know?" (superimposed over nuclear test mushroom cloud footage) "Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers?"
An interesting double standard is that the Rhedosaur represents the destructive potential of nuclear power, yet it was a radioactive isotope that was the solution. This highlights the double-mindedness of people in the 50s. Nuclear power was both frightening and yet still seemed like a fascinating blessing too.

Ray Bradbury Conection? -- The opening credits say that the story is "suggested by" a Saturday Evening Post story written by Ray Bradbury. This isn't actually true, but is a great example of name dropping to make a buck.
Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhousen had been friends many years prior, and both were fond of dinosaurs. Bradbury wrote a short story entitled: "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," which ran in the June 23, 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. (more on his story below) A year or so later, Hal Chester and Jack Dietz begin to produce a dinosaur-loose-in-NYC movie using Ray Harryhousen. Their working title was, "Monster from Beneath the Sea." Since the two Rays were friends, it was inevitable that Bradbury would eventually hear of the movie and visa versa. Dietz and Chester were aghast that to find out Bradbury had written a similar story two years before. While their Beast movie was an independent work, its writers may well have been influenced by Bradbury's story.
To ease legal troubles, they bought the rights to Bradbury's story. Sensing a benefit, they changed the title of their movie to match Bradbury's story. There was a little collaboration, but Bradbury's contribution to the Beast movie was minimal. Harryhousen lobbied to insert a lighthouse scene. Bradbury would later re-issue his short story, but with a new title: The Fog Horn.

Bradbury's Tale -- The original short story was one about loneliness and the rage loneliness can bring. A giant sea monster, perhaps the last of his kind on earth, is attracted to the sound of a lighthouse's fog horn. It sounds just like the mating call of the female sea monster. At his approach, the keepers turn off the horn. This sends the monster into a rage of both anger at the deception and at crushing of a hope. He destroys the lighthouse.

Harryhausen Tale -- Ray Harryhausen was granted a good deal of artistic freedom in the movie. He suggested changes, inserted scenes and directed the story flow. As such, Beast was effectively co-written by Harryhausen. His beast, like Bradbury's is all alone. Instead of seeking a fog horn, his beast follows an ancient migratory path to its ancestral home, the Hudson River. Along the route, he finds a lighthouse and destroys it, for a deliberate parallel to Bradbury's story. When he gets "home", he finds New York City there instead of any kin. The way Harryhousen models him, the Rhedosaur is more a giant frightened orphan puppy in scary and dangerous place. The destruction he causes is unintentional (he's just huge) or semi-justified retaliation. In the end, you almost feel bad that he had to die. Not as much so as King Kong elicited, but some sympathy still.

Interesting Scenes -- At one point, Colonel Evans is scoffing at the idea of living prehistoric beasts. "Next thing, they'll be trying to get me to believe in flying saucers." To which, Dr. Elson asks, "You don't believe in flying saucers? Why not?" This tiny little bit of wit may have been picked up by movie-goers in 1953, but is probably lost on modern audiences. Colonel Evans was played by Kenneth Toby, who starred in The Thing just two years prior. In that movie he battled an alien who had landed in a flying saucer. I have no doubt that movie audiences would have recognized Tobey's prior role and been amused at the reference.

Nothing shocks New Yorkers -- As the Rhedosaur moves from the waterfront to downtown, a lone NYPD cop walks resolutely against the human tide fleeing the beast. He strikes a very Clint Eastwood air. He deliberately takes out his service revolver and fires at the beast. When that was ineffective, he calmly reloads. (The beast then eats him). A New York cop is unflappable. "Hmmm. I'll have no giant dinosaurs rampaging through MY beat..." The stoic tough-guy hero cop scene was amusing.

Bottom line? Beast is pretty mild for modern tastes, but was a bigger deal at it's time. It is still entertaining enough, provided the viewer's modern CGI expectations can be reigned in. As an historical benchmark, Beast is well worth seeing -- the first nuke-made monster movie.


MGL said...

What makes us feel for this puppy like monster?
Like King Kong before him and Mighty Joe Young after him, he is lost in his new world, and we feel for him.
Great acting, great effects, and a story that keeps your interest.
If only he could find his mate.

Anonymous said...

I love Kenneth Tobey's scene in this movie. He played the same role in a number of sf films, even if the names were different. He owned the part.

Phil said...

Interesting review, placing the film in context.

Sorry to be a pedant, but can I point out a couple of repeated spelling mistakes, though?

Harryhausen (not "Harryhousen")

Rhedosaur (not "Rheosaur")

...all in the interests of accuracy, of course!

My own brief review of the film is here:

And I have various other notes on the Bradbury connection here:


- Phil Nichols, www.bradburymedia.co.uk

Nightowl said...

Thanks for catching the typos. No idea why I typed Harryhousen instead of Harryhausen. I knew that.

All in the interests of accuracy. :-)