Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By the late 1950s a glut of cheap monster movies had worn out the welcome of American giant monster epics from Hollywood, leaving the subgenre open to enterprising foreigners. The resurgence of Godzilla & Co. spelled several years of wonderful, if ever more juvenile fantasies, but the last gasp of class-act giant monsterdom was produced in England on a relatively lavish budget. Brilliantly designed by its director Eugène Lourié and decked out in impressive Technicolor hues, Gorgo is the Ben-Hur of colossal monsters from the deep. Its impressive poster shouted, "Like Nothing You've Ever Seen Before!", when the film was certainly very much like everything that had come before. The difference was in the presentation. Gorgo employed the man-in-suit vs. miniatures art-craft favored by the Japanese, but with a decided English flavor. What's more, the story fronts a radical proto-ecological statement that pleased almost everybody: not only do the city-smashing monsters survive, they prevail.
Renowned French art director Eugène Lourié's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first '50s movie about a prehistoric monster on the loose. Lourié's efforts to extend his directing career stalled in The Colossus of New York, a cheap Paramount picture about an irate cyborg. The English producer of his next film, The Giant Behemoth (Behemoth, Sea Monster) rejected the concept of an abstract, invisible blob monster before production began, so Lourié regrouped, restructuring the 20,000 Fathoms story into the tale of another dinosaur jolted from suspended animation by nuclear radiation.
Anyone would have thought that would be enough, but the prolific producers Frank and Maurice King decided that their next film would be yet another story of a monster attacking a city. They hired Lourié to undertake the same challenge for yet a third time. The big difference was that the King Brothers saw their movie as an expensive Technicolor production.
Gorgo's main title towers on the screen in giant stone letters to the crashing chords of Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's symphonic score. The cinematography is by Freddie Young, who would soon dazzle the world with Lawrence of Arabia. Claiming that their new show was a personal ode to mother love, the King Brothers spared no expense. Filming commenced in 1959 in both England and Ireland. American Cinematographer magazine devoted an article to the film's enormous River Thames miniature set, with its realistic model of the Tower Bridge.
The storyline bears strong similarities to King Kong, but with more emphasis on the crass commercial exploitation of a newly discovered marine animal. Salvage partners Joe Ryan and Sam Slade (Bill Travers & William Sylvester) almost lose their ship to an enormous underwater disturbance. Looking for repairs on the Irish island of Nara, they are given a cold welcome by McCartin (Christopher Rhodes), an archeologist who hoards valuables found on the sea bottom. Tipped to McCartin's illegal cache by orphan Sean (Vincent Winter), Joe and Sam conduct their own search for ancient gold. They instead find Sean's sea-spirit "Ogra", an oversized sea monster with red eyes and dragon-like ears. Joe descends in a diving bell, the beast is netted and the ship heads to London to take advantage of a lucrative exhibition deal with a Battersea Park circus run by Dorkin (Martin Benson). Sam and Joe restrain little Sean from setting Gorgo free. They ignore the advice of professors Hendricks and Flaherty (Joseph O'Connor & Bruce Seton), even when the experts calculate that their aquatic captive is a relative infant. Sure enough, a towering 200-foot parent monster rises from the deep. It stomps Nara Island flat and sets a course for London, to liberate its offspring.
The screenplay by John Loring and Daniel Hyatt (actually blacklisted writers Robert L. Richards and Daniel James) introduces a powerful ecological theme, chastising civilized man for his arrogance and hubris. As in John Huston's earlier 'save the elephants' epic The Roots of Heaven, human greed is the villain. Joe and Sam exercise their business rights by strong-arming the competition and ignoring government experts blocking their way to a fast profit. Just like old King Kong, Gorgo is exploited as a circus attraction. The pint-sized Sean predicts disaster, being a believer in the pagan sea fairies later celebrated in Local Hero. Sure enough, Mother Nature comes to the rescue with a vengeance. Interestingly, actor Bill Travers and his spouse Virginia McKenna were avid nature preservationists, as seen in their later movies like the immensely popular Born Free. It too is about an animal species endangered and abused by meddling mankind.
Gorgo is the first monster movie to clearly understand that kids couldn't care less about the handsome hero and his girlfriend, and instead want to root for the beleaguered monsters. Joe finds Sean grinning in delight as Gorgo's mother pulls half of London down around them: "You little knothead!" He yanks the kid to safety, but we're on Sean's side all the way -- sharing the radical yet righteous notion that decadent mankind needs to be taken down a few notches, even at the cost of wholesale death and destruction. Not only that, but an editorializing radio reporter intones a stirring (if unlikely, considering the suffering all around him) epitaph to the whole affair:
"Yet, as though disdaining the pygmies under her feet, she turns back, turns with her young, leaving the prostrate city, leaving the haunts of man. Leaving man himself to ponder the proud boast that he alone is Lord of all creation."
Thanks to the King Brother's generous budget Gorgo has by far the most spectacular and impressive 'giant monster' effects seen before computer generated illusions. Young Gorgo rises determinedly from the sea with water pouring over its glowing red eyes, but retreats with howls of protest when Joe leads the Nara fishermen in pelting him with firebrands. Clever camerawork makes Gorgo's mama appear suitably enormous as it wades upriver, smashing through "London's oldest landmarks" and ripping a path right through the city center. One breathtaking shot shows mother Gorgo approaching the Houses of Parliament under a blazing sky of purple and red smoke. In the awesome finale the monster's giant foot flattens Dorkins' circus enclosure, and we see the once-imposing Young Gorgo dwarfed by his colossal parent. The cacophony of music and destruction subsides for a moment as the creatures exchange squawks like the trumpeting of elephants. It's a fairy tale saga of Mother Nature triumphant.
All evidence points to Gorgo as a troubled production that may have stalled for a number of months. Scenes showing Hammer's The Mummy playing in Piccadilly Circus date back to October of 1959. The cutting of the movie suggests a major rescue job by the creative editor Eric Boyd-Perkins... possibly to add excitement to a story that unspooled too slowly, or (more likely) to patch together an unfinished movie that ran out of money. Watch the opening scuba diving sequence closely, and it will become clear that one dive by Joe has been broken up into two separate dives to slow down the pace. When Joe announces that he's going down again, the words are heard only in voice-over. Boyd-Perkins works feverishly to assemble sometimes-inadequate special effects and stock shots into acceptable sequences. Scenes with the main characters barely seem to cover the story essentials, suggesting that filming was curtailed before the entire script was filmed, or that Boyd-Perkins kept only those scenes that moved the action forward. Boyd-Perkins expands and contracts time for maximum pacing effect. He also radically changes the sequence of various actions. About halfway into the city destruction sequence, Vincent Winter leaps into a truck on its way to central London, forcing Joe and Sam to follow. But the shot where the partners watch Sean leave shows them standing in front of the portable power apparatus brought in to improvise the electrical trap for Mama Gorgo. That scene doesn't get going for another reel. Boyd-Perkins definitely re-ordered the sequence of events when the giant mother monster surfaces in the Thames. We first see an exciting sequence of sailors attempting to stop mama Gorgo by setting the river on fire. But in the background of this scene, sharp eyes will see the destroyed Tower Bridge, half hidden in smoke. The monster doesn't attack the unique-looking bridge until the next scene.
The editing really cooks during the core city destruction sequences, which adopt a much more frenetic pace than generally seen in 1961. As panicked crowds flee the monster's onslaught, editor Boyd-Perkins' cutting patterns revisit the rhythmic montage of William Cameron Menzies' London Blitz set piece in Things to Come. We alternate between views of the monster approaching Piccadilly Circus and frantic fast cuts of terrorized victims in full flight. One frenzied flurry of cuts perfectly expresses H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds quote about "the rout of civilization, the massacre of mankind". Just the same, the editor eventually exhausts his film material, and must recycle stage waits and vehicle drive-ups from previous scenes to 'keep the kettle boiling'. Thank heavens for Lavagnino's exciting music score, which helps maintain the hysterical, giddy tone of buildings crumbling and frightened Londoners fleeing the wrath of a fifteen-story bellowing sea monster.
The downside of Gorgo are some feeble matte paintings, B&W stock shots of ridiculously wrong jets attacking (some of them with daytime, desert backgrounds) and many poorly executed blue-screen composites that (best guess) indicate that the King Bros. and editor Boyd-Perkins had to slap together a lot of effects with no time for finessing touches. Now when I look at Gorgo, I sometimes wish that all the raw optical negative elements existed, to be re-composited by modern methods, improving everything. It's a forbidden dream of filmic revisionism.
The roving reporter narrator is the worst offender, as he pops up on rooftops all along the monster's path, chattering away even as building masonry falls around him. It seems more than likely that the reporter character was invented in post-production, as all of his appearances are crude traveling matte composites. Yet the reporter character is what allows Gorgo to connect with audiences on an emotional level: his authoritative narration gives a direction and purpose to all the destruction, and eventually acknowledges that the two monsters are the film's real heroes. In matinees in 1961, his final radiocast was met with applause and cheers. 3
Gorgo did well thanks to unusually strong distribution by MGM and positive word of mouth; reviewers prone to snubbing genre films found merit in its surprise ending. The English version is slightly different than MGM's cut (on this disc), which lops off an opening "thank you" card to the Admiralty, and irritatingly snips the very beginning and ending of the music score.
VCI Entertainment's Blu-ray of Gorgo is a special project for the company, which previously released a pair of DVD editions mastered from a Technicolor print. The first try resulted in a far-too contrasty presentation, and the second go shoveled on a lot of digital futzing in a vain attempt at a better result. In 2011 the film's original elements were located in a Kansas salt mine storage facility used by Turner Entertainment (and subsequently Warner Bros.) for many of their holdings from the pre-1986 MGM film library. VCI was granted access and let it be known that a restoration was on the way. Fans as sold on Gorgo as this reviewer is have been waiting impatiently for over a year.
How does Gorgo fare in Blu-ray? It's all there in HD, and much of it looks great. Most of the nighttime destruction scenes are excellent, as is a majority of the rest of the film. But I'd have to guess that the OCN (original camera negative) sections and the many elements generated on an optical printer have aged inconsistently, as a lot of color and density grading has been necessary to bring things back to an approximation of the original Technicolor look. Some edge enhancement or other form of digital sharpening may have been used as well. The IB Tech printing process had a way of smoothing out grainy footage, and viewers may be surprised when some scenes look better than others. It's also possible that some of the first generation footage had to be replaced with dupes -- the overall look isn't entirely consistent. Contrast levels in some scenes wash out a face or two, and then the very next shot will look perfect. Part of the film's beautifully designed 'money shot' of the giant monster threatening Piccadilly Circus has an unaccountably green tint.
But have no fear -- when the giant monster head rises from the dark water and those glowing crimson eyes beam out, Gorgo on Blu-ray brings back the pulse-quickening thrill from 1961. You poor younger pups had to make due with immaculate CG effects in glorious shows like Jurassic Park. We '50s kids saw a lot of dreck, but also got to bask in the magic of this giant rubber monster with the flippy ears (little girls love 'em) and the jaw that flutters like a pot lid. I think we got the better of the deal.
VCI has had a year to collect extras for their special edition, and their inquiries attracted a wealth of fan-based donations. The contributors have been given a scroll acknowledgement title at the film's end. So if you sent along a rare still photo, your name may be laid down on this disc for all time.
The making-of docu Ninth Wonder of the World again shows off producer Daniel Griffith's skill with graphic visuals and creative editing. As we frustrated fans know, the genesis of this film is known largely through a few remarks in Eugène Lourié's autobiography. Prime research by authors Bill Warren and Tom Weaver have unearthed some interesting facts, but not enough to piece together a history of the film's making. Weaver's work is credited as the basis for this show's script. Hardly any BTS photos were taken of the miniatures or the monster suit(s), which in these days of over-documented special effects seems unthinkable. Ninth Wonder therefore tells the entire story of dinosaur movies before getting into quick bios of the King Brothers and Lourié and from there recounting the actual making of the show. Griffiths uses eclectic, unrelated video sources to make his 'story' play, cutting to an image of a globe if someone mentions the world, and using old movie scenes of two cigar-chomping businessmen to represent Frank and Maurice King. Now, I'm not criticizing this approach, as my own remarks about the production running out of money and being shelved for a year are guesses based on evidence in the movie itself. The most we hear about the King Brothers is a repeat of the oft-told story that they were crooks. 2
The docu does come up with some interesting goodies. Collector Lee Kaplan provides a very brief 8mm shot from a studio tour depicting the monster suit either being sculpted, or assembled (it's hard to tell). And somebody else has uncovered two very impressive, high-quality photo images of the monster costume "headdress", along with a shot of what seems to be a body harness rigged with bulky hydraulic gear to operate Gorgo's mouth and ears. The Cockney Godzilla has one thing in common with Pinocchio ... no strings. Contributing to the docu as an informed on-camera spokesman is writer, director and actor Ted Newsom.
Fans will love VCI's gaudy collection of ancillary extras. This is the first good transfer I've seen of the original trailer, which must have had every kid in the country begging to see Gorgo. I myself saw one B&W TV commercial at age nine, and convinced my parents that I'd crumble into bits if I couldn't see it that coming Saturday. The art and still galleries must include every scrap of ad paper and still photo issued both here and in Europe (I, ahem, am a proud owner of a U.S. one-sheet). And collectors have contributed issues of old Charlton Gorgo comic books with their Steve Ditko art, as well as a French photo-story book along the lines of an Italian fumetto. A restoration video is included as well.
VCI's menus are attractive, although I'm not thrilled with the forced parade of disc product we must watch before accessing the main menu. I had to switch to a secondary BD player when my main machine choked at this point. So get your player's firmware updates in order.
I can't help it, it's childhood conditioning ... Gorgo may not be the most accomplished disc release of the year but it's certainly my favorite. I raised my kids on the picture -- my young daughter appreciated a self-respecting monster that didn't bite the dust in the last reel. I have also probably bored them silly explaining how no video version has come close to replicating its sense of majesty... until now. I'll find out just how tolerant my grown children are when I foist the movie on them next December!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gorgo Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good +
Audio: English and French
Supplements: The Making of Gorgo documentary, comic book-related extras, collector models and toys gallery, galleries of artwork and presskit items, photo galleries, French 'fumetto' book, restoration video, trailer, Music and Effects track.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2013
2. Author and film noir expert Alan Rode would beg to differ -- he's interviewed many people associated with the Kings in their Hollywood noir period, and has assured this writer in no uncertain terms that the 'criminal' charge is unwarranted.
3. Come to think of it, the King Brothers' use of the reporter's blow-by-blow commentary ("One of London's oldest landmarks -- smashed like matchwood!") has a precedent in a movie they released four years previously. Frank and Maurice imported the Japanese giant monster movie Rodan, a spectacular fantasy that lacks (for American audiences) a human interest story "hook". The Kings commissioned a narration track to clarify the story, but also used it to make a sentimental appeal to the audience. At the fiery conclusion, the sympathetic voiceover romanticizes the fate of its doomed flying dinosaurs, comparing them to the film's romantic leading couple: Romeo and Juliet, the Flying Monsters.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson
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