Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms


PreCommentary: The story is not actually based on Ray Bradbury’s short storyby the same name, but was converted from its working title, TheMonster from the Sea, because of copyright worries about thelighthouse scene and the inclination to capitalize on the Bradburyname. Rights to the Ray Bradbury story, later anthologized as “The Fog Horn,” were purchased after similarities were noticed. The film capitalized on the loose Bradbury connection, and made millions. Warner Bros. approached but couldn’t afford Willis O’Brien, who recommended his apprentice Ray Harryhausen for the technical effects. This film influenced the Japanese origin of Godzilla.

Notes: WarnerBros. Picture. 80 min.
The video box tells us: “A New Age ofTechnology Unleashes a Prehistoric Age of Terror!”
Tom Nesbitt: Paul Christian
Lee Hunter: Paula Raymond
Dean Thurgood Elson: Cecil Kellaway
Col. Jack Evans: Kenneth Tobey
Jacob: Jack Pennick
Captain Jackson: Donald Woods
Corporal Stone: Lee Van Cleef
George Ritchie: Ross Elliott
Sergeant Loomis: Steve Brodie
Sergeant Willistead: Ray Hyke
Nesbitt’s Secretary: Mary Hill
Doctor: Michael Fox
Radar Man: Alvin Greenman
Dr. Morton: Frank Ferguson
Dr. Ingersoll: King Donovan

Produced: Hal Chester and Jack Dietz
Directed: Eugene Lourie (cf. Gorgo,and The Giant Behemoth)
Screenplay: Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger
Suggested by Ray Bradbury in a story for theSaturday Evening Post.
Music: David Buttolph
Technical Effects: Ray Harryhausen

Summary: “This is Operation Experiment,” “Today is X Day,”announces the dire male voice regarding an Arctic expedition andaccompanied by atomic footage and ice cataclysms. Some machoblab pretends absolution of blame for evil via sanctimony: “Youknow, every time one of these things goes off I feel as if wewere helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Tom Nesbitt: “Let’s hope we don’t find ourselves writingthe last chapter of the old one.”

Tom survives an avalanche and a monster sighting,but ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Visited by Colonel JackEvans, Tom says: “”I’m having a hard time trying toconvince these people I’m not an idiot.”

Reports of a destroyed fishing boat includenewspaper headlines: “Sea Serpent Reported Off Great Banks.” So Tom visits Professor Elson, a paleontologist at the Collegeof Natural History, who, because the creature he supposedly sawwould be “over 100 million years old,” also doesn’tbelieve Tom. Assistant Lee Hunter, however, notes that an expeditionto the Siberian tundra unearthed a mastodon herd “dead thousandsof years, yet their fur was still intact, the meat still edible.”

Another Canadian ship is destroyed, Tom learnsfrom a radio in the hospital. Lee brings sketches of dinosaurs,but Tom finds nothing similar to his sighting: “Maybe it’spart imagination, after all–something I used to dream about whenI was a kid, or read in fairy tales. [Most bizarre, while lookingat dino pix, “With A Song in My Heart” is playing onthe radio.] Tom does discover a picture finally, and retrievesa sailor witness who identifies the same picture. The Professorsay the fossil of a “Rhedosaurus” was discovered insubterranean caves in the Hudson River, the only fossil evidenceof the species, and he is immediately convinced of Tom’s storyand that the animal is headed for its ancestral breeding grounds. Jack is notified.

The creature destroys a lighthouse off Mainein an effective silhouette sequence. Lee and Tom are inexplicablyat a ballet when another report comes in about a farmer crushedand some wreckage off Massachusetts. The Professor climbs ina cage and dives into the Hudson. We see footage of a squid battlinga shark. Then the Rhedosaur arrives and Doctor Elson makes scientificobservations instead of screaming when the mouth of the animallunges. The boat loses contact with Elson.

The creature emerges on a Manhattan dock andcomes ashore. NYC panic ensues. A cop shoots at the animal,but gets eaten. New Yorkers trample a blind man. Many cops arrive[and a large Sea Food sign is visible in the background!]. Thedinosaur plunges through a building, creates terror among peopleescaping to the subway, and a “full scale war” is declared. People are admitted to hospitals in record numbers and soldierscollapse near the blood spots left after shootings, so the creatureis toxic too. Lee declares its skull is “at least 8 inchesthick.” Bazookas leave blood spots, so Tom decides the bestcourse of action is to shoot a radioactive isotope into the creature’sneck wound in order to destroy all its tissue.

At Coney Island, Tom accompanies a sharpshooter,Corporal Stone, to the top of a roller coaster to fire at theanimal, which, in the ensuing fire, circles and collapses. Thefilm ends with no commentary.

Commentary: The film was produced on a budget of $250,000 but grossed over $5 million, a success credited to Ray Harryhausen’s special effects and director Eugene Lourie’s effective uses of darkness and shadows.

This film’s special effects are a good illustration of why Ialways feel that Willis O’Brien is to Ray Harryhausen what PeggyFleming is to most Japanese figure-skaters. In other words, thetechnique is unquestionably there with Harryhausen’s stop-motionmonsters, but you never get the humanism (for want of a less anthropocentricword)–it’s not as meaningful an experience. Not just Kong, butthe dinosaurs of O’Brien live–there’s psychological if not emotionalnuance. Harryhausen’s Beast here is impressive–particularlythe use of light on its scales–and I’d rather they hadn’t killedit, but we seem just to be going through the (stop-)motions.