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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gorgo (1961) review

GORGO 1961

Bill Travers (Joe Ryan), William Sylvester (Sam Slade), Christopher Rhodes (McCartin), Vincent Winter (Sean)

Directed by Eugene Lourie

The Short Version: This fanciful, and frequently stunning British giant monster movie was the third such picture, and arguably best from director Lourie. It's easy to see how much influence GODZILLA had on the production, and also in how much influence the film had on the Japanese Kaiju Eiga genre. One of the purest forms of old style kids entertainment, it's strictly a boy's world as there are no women in the movie save for the matriarchal enormity of Mama Gorgo. Stoked by a wide variety of special effects, seeped in color and a thick air of atmosphere, Lourie's last directorial hurrah is perfect for the Godzilla crowd, delivering gargantuan thrills one crumbling cityscape at a time.

After an underwater volcano nearly destroys their vessel, treasure seekers Joe Ryan and Sam Slade dock at Nara Island for repairs. During their stay on the Irish isle, the two men discover several others have disappeared scavenging for gold just offshore. An enormous underwater creature soon makes its presence known. Joe and Sam decide the undersea monster has even more lucrative potential. They capture the beast and take it back to London to put it on display in a circus. Not long after, the two enterprising businessmen find out to their horror that the captured creature has a much larger mother lurking somewhere beneath the sea.

Long held as a favorite among SciFi and giant monster movie fans, GORGO (1961) is still an impressive piece of filmmaking some fifty years after its release. Packed with an enormous amount of whimsy, this childhood favorite was a major attraction for monster kids who caught the creature feature during its original theatrical release; and was summarily introduced to a new generation of monster film fans upon its inevitable videocassette release in the 1980s.

Eugene Lourie (Loo-ray) was much more than a director. He worked in other aspects of production behind the scenes -- primarily as an art director, but also in special effects and production design. Arguably more widely known for directing a string of science fiction and monster movies, Lourie was reportedly disenchanted with being typecast as a helmer of such pictures. He was very good at making them, though. Of his four films in this genre, three were giant monster movies and one was a concentrated science fiction tale (COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK [1958]).

Lourie's first film, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, was born out of the atomic bomb era of the 1950s. That films wild success ensured more awakened, and irradiated beasts would terrorize the civilized world throughout that decade. Lourie's lesser THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) falls into this atomic age/cold war category as well. GORGO (1961) is the least serious natured, but the most ambitious of his unofficial giant monster trilogy. There's also an air of fantasy absent from his two earlier monster features. The destruction rivals, if not surpasses that of his first B/W SciFi spectacle; but among the many scenes of screaming humans burned and crushed by falling debris, the script keeps child-like wonder close to its heart.

Ostensibly a kids movie, it's nowhere near the level of doom-laden gravitas broached by one of its antecedents, Toho's GODZILLA (1954); itself influenced by Lourie's very own THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). There's a bit of irony in that Japan's iconic, atomic sea-dwelling beast was inspired by Lourie's inaugural movie; and in turn, Lourie's later picture would be inspired by the enormous success of the Toho production. 

One of the most obvious, if somewhat awkward inclusions ported over from the US cut of GODZILLA is a reporter chronicling the carnage. However, he isn't a main character as Raymond Burr was. The reporter in GORGO figures prominently during the last half following Mama Gorgo everywhere throughout her urban renewal of London. The use of this reporter is a modest diversion from the central characters, and inadvertently comical by his participation. 

Incidentally, GORGO initially began as 'Kuru Island', a co-production with Japan before the King Brothers finally got the film off and running in the early part of 1959. 

The scenes of city destruction, the use of miniatures and a man in a monster suit are all staples popularized by Toho's world renowned series. The Japanese films were also noted for imbuing their giant creatures with humanistic qualities -- something the US monster epics lacked in the 50s incarnations. To compensate, the monsters were sometimes made to be pitied; creatures whose destruction owed more to man's meddling than any they wrought on their own. 

The classic example of this lies with THE LOST WORLD (1925), but was exemplified superbly with Merian C. Cooper's KING KONG IN 1933; the latter of which left its paw on Lourie's color King Brothers production in a few ways. Whether putting a creature on display that ultimately leads to calamity, or in the level of ballyhoo associated with the films release as an event picture, the presence of the King of Skull Island is felt in GORGO.

Regarding a humanization of monsters in Japanese genre pictures, the same emotional attachment applies to GORGO; even though the monsters themselves rarely echo the same level of commiseration. More over, this bond created between the viewer and the rampaging beast is facilitated by the participation of a small boy named Sean. The inclusion of a youngster in a supporting role was a stroke of genius -- whether intentional or not -- as it no doubt resonated with the thousands of kids that flocked to see this "Eighth wonder of the world" during its theatrical exhibition. Lourie also used a kid in a supporting role to good effect in his underrated SciFi feature THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958). 

For GORGO (1961), a portion of the plot is focused on this little boy named Sean. Fascinated by the sea-dwelling creature, a link is made by Sean between the monster and a sea spirit named Ogra. There's even a hint that the child has seen the creature before. Kids with big imaginations could easily relate to Sean and his fixation with ancient legends and the mysterious creatures that were built around them. 

When the monsters mother emerges, another parallel surfaces with it -- not only do kids identify with Sean, but they now identify even further with the creature -- it being a youngster, too. Speaking of mothers, surprisingly, there are no women in this movie -- even in supporting roles. It's strictly a man's world, although the matriarchal Gorgosaurus is 200 feet of scaly feminine pulchritude.


Being born in 1975 I was too young to experience the big screen majesty of GORGO during its original theatrical release, but caught up with it on its VHS unveiling in 1987. I was an enormous fan of Godzilla and other Japanese giant monsters, and this British interpretation was unknown to me at the time. The original US cuts of GODZILLA (1956) and RODAN (1957) had been released on Vestron Video in 1983, and Paramount's Godzilla releases came later, so it was now more convenient to see those movies on tape any time without waiting for them to surface on television again. Considering its pedigree, it was only a matter of time before GORGO (1961) would stomp its way onto home video. 

Upon spying it in one of the local video stores, my father kept raving about it and how much I'd like it; and how it was better than any creature feature from Japan. He saw it first run in theaters, and I was catching it first run from United Home Video. Needless to say, I did enjoy it, but there was no way GORGO was supplanting my devotion to all things Kaiju from the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Similar in structure to its Nipponese brethren, the one shot that stood out to me for years afterward was the shot of Mama Gorgo rising from the sea and opening those red eyes. But whereas movies like GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS and RODAN left me in tears during their powerful, fatal finales, GORGO finished in a totally different fashion. For a one-off giant monster picture from Great Britain, it definitely left an imprint on the mind of one 12 year old monster kid.

Furthering the exchange of themes and ideas, Japanese film producers eventually became cognizant of the number of children attending their own giant monster pictures. Studios like Toho and Daiei took the GORGO scripting device -- the allure of monsters through the eyes of children and expanded on it. Daiei's GAMERA series was the epitome of this concept. Furthermore, Toho's GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1970) is the high mark of this theme with its lonely, latchkey kid imagining himself on Monster Island where Godzilla (and his Pillsbury Doughboy son Minya) teach him to stand up to bullies, and fight his own battles.

In traversing further with films that were influenced by GORGO, we stop yet again in Japan with the 1967 Nikkatsu production of what was known here as MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (aka GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTER). The plot is virtually the same. The one major difference is that there are two parent monsters -- a mother and a father -- that come looking for their offspring captured and put on display.

And in America, Universal's JAWS 3D (1983) was essentially GORGO (1961) but with man-eating sharks running amuck at an underwater theme park. The kid-friendly atmosphere was replaced by gory scenes including severed limbs, rotted corpses, and a man swallowed whole. That film also borrowed bits of its finale from the one seen in TENTACLES (1976); itself a clone of JAWS (1975).

Again from America came the 1998 Made For TV movie GARGANTUA. Designed to cash in on the gargantuan disaster that was the Emmerich/Devlin misfire GODZILLA (1998), this lower budgeted, but just as bad flick borrowed elements from GORGO. Interestingly, like MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967), there were two parent creatures.

Aside from the films it influenced, and was influenced by it, the technical aspects of GORGO are exceptional for the time, and remain so today. The budget was $650,000. Cooper's KING KONG cost the same amount in 1933. The one major difference of course is that Cooper's movie used stop-motion animation while Lourie's went the man-in-suit route. The picture also has a staggering amount of blue screen, traveling mattes, miniatures, composites and other effects trickery. Not all of them are convincing, but most of them are.

The only real negative one can levy at GORGO is the abundance of stock footage showing various military men and their machines in action. There's even stock shots of music bands inserted for the circus sequences. 

The musical score by prolific Italian maestro Angelo Francesco Lavagnino matches the spectacle seen onscreen. The composer was familiar to fans of genre cinema for a string of Euro-westerns and sword and sandal pictures. His scores were often exciting, robust compositions that enhanced many of the low budgeted films he was assigned to. Like those Italian film scores, everything is big and boisterous in GORGO (1961), and Lavagnino's music is no exception.

There are no strong characters in GORGO, but there doesn't need to be. This is merely a good old fashioned monster picture. It's the sort they don't make anymore. The storyline is thin, the editing tight, and the special effects plentiful. If you're a fan of 50s monster movies and Japanese genre pictures, you're doing yourself a serious disservice by not adding GORGO (1961) to your collection. Lourie's last movie is so colorful and saturated in atmosphere, it's difficult to not find favor with this fantasy tinted British classic from the early 1960s.

This review is representative of the VCI DVD from 2013.


Tommy Ross said...

Cool post. All Hail Gorgo!!

venoms5 said...

I watched it a couple weeks ago, and that was the first time I'd seen it since the 90s, Tommy.

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