My brother was reminding me that in the 1950s, the Arctic (Ocean) was kind of like the last frontier on earth. It had been visited, but was not well known and it was during the 1950s that nuclear submarines were engaged in mapping the arctic, floating both among and under the ice floes. It was not until the late 1950s that a submarine was able to push through the ice and, in the words of my brother, take a selfie on the North Pole. It was like the closing of a frontier. After the arctic, there was really nothing else to do but take the exploration in films to space and out-right fantasy. No more going to islands and discovering King Kong or the Arctic and finding prehistoric monsters or even aliens.
But this might be why the Arctic features in a few 1950s sci and fantasy films, most prominently in The Thing From Another World and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms begins with a test of a nuclear bomb in the Arctic, which releases a prehistoric monster that had been frozen in the ice for millions of years. A specialist in radioactive isotopes, Dr. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) sees the monster, but no one will believe him. He contacts the respected paleontologist, Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), but he finds the idea of a frozen dinosaur come to life incredible. Only his assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) believes Tom. Together, Tom and Lee track down several fisherman who claim to have lost their boats when attacked by a giant monster.
Eventually, the evidence mounts up so that not only Dr. Elson, but also Tom’s military friend, Col. Evans (Kenneth Tobey) believe him and they try to locate the monster (which they call a Rhedosauros, a fictional dinosaur), except that the monster has other ideas and invades New York City a la Godzilla.
Interestingly, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released over a year before the Japanese classic Godzilla and served as an inspiration. There are many similarities: the connection between atomic weapons and monsters, the way it attacks boats, the way it comes ashore to destroy a whole city. Ray Harryahusen’s Rhedosaurus probably looks better than the original Godzilla, which is really a man in a suit. However, the Japanese film gave their monster a much deeper significance. Godzilla is not just a rampaging dinosaur, but a direct product and representation of the atomic bomb and it’s deadly effects and trauma.
However, despite the lack of an especially deep meaning, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still a fun movie. It’s not a long movie, only 80 minutes, and incredibly was made for little more than $200,000. It’s a testament to creativity on a shoestring, a creativity that influenced films from Godzilla to Them! and beyond.
The idea came from a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Fog Horn,” which featured an attack by a giant monster on a light house (a scene which makes it into the film). Ray Harryhausen – who had previously worked with Willis O’Brien on Might Joe Young – was for the first time able to work alone. He said they could only afford one model of the Rhedosaurus, unlike King Kong, where there were multiple models – you can even track the changes through the film. Ultimately, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus looks to me like a cross between a T-Rex and a Komodo Dragon.
The director, Eugene Lourie apparently used to tease Harryhausen that he made his monsters die like a tenor in an opera. This made me laugh when I heard it because it’s so true. The pathos Ray Harryhausen manages to wring out of the death of a rampaging creature is impressive. He did the same thing at the end of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, pausing for a truly operatic end for a dragon that really wasn’t in the story that much, but managed to convey more emotion that the entire cast put together.
In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Rhedosaurus goes out amidst a burning roller-coaster on Coney Island, taken out by a radioactive isotope. He gets all the drama, while the people are along for the ride, though Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson is quite good. I am always happy to see him in a film and the character even makes jokes about leprechauns, which I thought was ironic since Cecil Kellaway had played a leprechaun in a movie only a few years before. Another familiar face is Kenneth Tobey as Colonel Evans. He makes a crack about flying saucers, another irony, since he helped discover one in the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World.
The film grossed over $5 Million, an impressive return for a film made for only $200,000. But the creative returns were even more impressive, inspiring Godzilla and Them!, but also launching Ray Harryhausen as solo creator and unique genius.