The Giant Behemoth/Behemoth the Sea Monster (1958/1959) ***
Not many people have a whole lot to say about The Giant Behemoth, and what they do have to say almost uniformly isn’t good. Denis Gifford, Philip Strick, and Jonthan Rigby, in their various books, merely mention in dismissive passing that it exists. John Brosnan’s Future Tense writes it off as a “cheap imitation” of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, as we shall see, is entirely true as far as it goes) before moving on to spend a paragraph or so discussing Gorgo. Andy Boot, in Fragments of Fear, calls it “bad in every way that a film can be bad.” So it will surprise no one, I’m sure, that this little-seen British monster-rampage flick has been on my “one of these days” list for many years now. Nor will it surprise very many of you to learn that I enjoyed The Giant Behemoth rather a lot once I finally caught up to it. It is indeed both extremely cheap and extremely derivative, but it gets most of what it recycles far more right than a great many of its contemporaries, and there is at least one instance in which it actually improves upon its most likely source of inspiration.
The behemoth of the title is a made-up, aquatic sauropod dinosaur called a Paleosaurus. Evidently hanging out peacefully unnoticed at the top of the bathypelagic food chain for the last 130 million years, it eventually winds up the final repository for all the radioactive contamination in its ecosystem (wait a minute— were there any A-bomb test-firings in the Atlantic Ocean?) and… I don’t know. Gets pissed off, or something. The point is, it starts making pest of itself all up and down the southern and southeastern coasts of England, starting in a small Cornish town, where it kills first fisherman Tom Trevethan (Blood of the Vampire’s Henry Vidon) and then damn near every fish in the sea for several miles around with its toxic emissions. Word of the Cornwall fish-kill quickly reaches the ears of Professor Steve Karnes (Gene Evans, from Shock Corridor and Devil Times Five), an expert on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. Karnes finds the reports suspiciously similar to things he observed at Bikini Atoll, and he persuades his British colleague, Professor James Bickford (Andre Morell, of She and The Hound of the Baskervilles), to bring him along on a fact-finding mission. Upon their arrival in Cornwall, the scientists interview the local doctor; several of Trevethan’s fellow anglers; the dead man’s daughter, Jean (Leigh Madison); and her boyfriend, John (John Turner, from The Black Torment and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City), who received mysterious burns while handling an equally mysterious substance that washed up on the beach a few days ago. They go over the cove where Trevethan was killed with Geiger counters. They collect specimens of marine flora and fauna from several miles up the coast in each direction. They even have a look at the wreck of a freighter that ran aground nearby after suffering terrible damage in a collision with an unknown submerged object. And once all the data have been collated and analyzed, Karnes finds himself convinced that the culprit behind the recent mischief is a huge animal of unknown species, which is both suffering from radiation poisoning and more than happy to share.
Confirmation comes all too swiftly. Back east toward Dover, the creature wades ashore and attacks a farm. It leaves no living witnesses behind, but there’s no gainsaying its footprints, which are plenty big enough to park a police car in. Karnes and Bickford bring aerial photographs of the tracks to a paleontologist called Sampson (a wildly overacting Jack MacGowran, later seen in The Brain and The Exorcist), and it is he who makes the Paleosaurus identification. Finally, the monster swims straight up the Thames to wreak stop-motion havoc courtesy of Pete Peterson and Willis O’Brien. The military gets involved then, naturally, but Karnes regretfully informs the admiral in charge that his hands are rather tied. The radioactive contamination of the dinosaur’s flesh mandates a perfectly clean kill— no bombs, no shells, no anything that might splatter irradiated blood and meat all over half of downtown London. Still, Karnes does have an idea. Plausibly reasoning that nothing could live for long with that much radioactive material in its system, he proposes hastening the course of the monster’s sickness along with the help of a radium-tipped torpedo.
As I’ve already hinted, there’s every reason why the preceding synopsis should sound rather familiar. It’s practically the same story as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, only with the action relocated from the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas to London and the Channel Coast. In making the transplant, writer/director Eugene Lourie was doing no more than Ishiro Honda, Shinichi Sekizawa, and Takeo Murata had done with Godzilla: King of the Monsters (which started life as an unapologetic bid to cash in on the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in Japan), but there was one major, telling difference— Lourie himself had directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms! And in fact even this second go-round was not enough to work the idea out of his system, for he would make essentially the same movie yet a third time as Gorgo in 1961. It makes one wonder, especially given that those three films together comprise 75% of Lourie’s output as a motion picture director. (Lourie also did a bit of directing for television, but was primarily an art director and production designer.) Furthermore, The Giant Behemoth goes so far as to copy a few other notable copies of Lourie’s earlier film. The monster’s ability to concentrate its radioactivity into a sort of area-effect death-ray (mind-bendingly explained as a fortuitous development of its natural capacity to generate and discharge electricity, like a torpedo ray or an electric eel) is obviously akin to Godzilla’s atomic breath, while the scene in which the Paleosaurus tears its way through a line of high-tension electrical towers is also plainly lifted from Godzilla. And the climactic duel beneath the surface of the Thames between the dinosaur and a midget submarine armed with a single, specially modified torpedo owes a great deal to the showdown against the monster octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (although this version is handled with far more excitement and suspense). There’s a whole lot of déjà vu going on here, even before you factor in the unfortunate frequency with which Lourie tries to economize by replaying bits special-effects footage with different frame-cropping or with the film flipped to create a mirror image of itself.
I did, however, say that I enjoyed The Giant Behemoth, and I didn’t mean simply that I had a good laugh at its expense. There were numerous such laughs, obviously (and I haven’t even mentioned the terrible hand-puppet that represents the monster when only its head and neck are visible emerging from the water), but there is more to this movie than might initially meet the eye. Oftentimes the non-monster material in movies like this is a trial by boredom, but to a close observer of the genre, it is in the human story that The Giant Behemoth really shines. I can think of few other such films that are so utterly sensible in their progression from a series of strange incidents in an isolated locale to a large-scale governmental and military operation in the heart of a major population center. For one thing, it’s honestly rather amazing to see an ostensible science fiction movie from the late 1950’s in which the scientists ever practice anything recognizable as genuine science. When Karnes and Bickford begin their investigation of the earliest creature incidents, they proceed in exactly the manner you would expect of real-world marine biologists. It isn’t just that they collect testimony from witnesses, examine the scenes of the events, and take water samples and wildlife specimens. The tests to which we later see Karnes and his assistants subject those specimens are authentic, and really would detect the sort of phenomena for which they’re searching. And when the hunt for answers leads Karnes and Bickford outside of their areas of competence, they turn to recognized experts in the relevant fields. This is what people in their profession are supposed to do, but it only too rarely happens in the movies— and that doesn’t just go for cheaply-made monster films! What’s more, when Sampson first sees the photographs of the monster’s footprints, his automatic assumption is that the colossal tracks are newly discovered fossils, rather than the spoor of a living dinosaur; it brought a smile to my face when I realized that he didn’t immediately grasp the true significance of what he was seeing.
The uncommonly careful approach to science in this movie even extends to the monster to a certain degree. Yes, the notion of an air-breathing marine animal as massive as the Paleosaurus somehow going unnoticed, even in the open ocean, until the late 1950’s is absurd, and the notion of a carnivorous, electric, salt-water sauropod is equally so. However, the idea that the Paleosaurus has become radioactive as a consequence of the geometrically progressive concentration of toxins at each higher level of the food chain is dead on. It’s exactly the same process that has brought the California condor to the brink of extinction, and that makes the livers of top predators like the great cats lethally poisonous to humans. Let us also not lose sight of the fact that this particular atomic monster is slowly dying from its irradiation, or that its worsening sickness is at one point explicitly raised as a possible explanation for its violent, erratic behavior. And as stupid as that “bioelectricity as atomic death-ray” business is, the movie redeems it just a little during the fight against the submarine, when we see the Paleosaurus using low-power discharges as a navigational aid, just like electric fishes do in the real world.
Finally— and this may be the most shocking thing of all about The Giant Behemoth— there is no perfunctory romance. I repeat, there is no perfunctory romance! Though it seems at first that Jean Trevethan and her boyfriend are destined to be the movie’s love interest, both characters disappear from the narrative fairly early on. Some might hold that against the movie, but I score it instead as another manifestation of The Giant Behemoth’s unusual realism. After all, why the hell would a Cornish fisherman’s daughter and her waterman lover remain involved in the hunt for a radioactive dinosaur after they’ve told the investigating authorities what they know? They have nothing more to contribute once they’ve relayed their respective stories about Tom Trevethan’s death and the weird things that washed up on the beach a day or two afterwards. Beyond that, Jean has a father to mourn, and John has to earn a living. If Eugene Lourie sees no need to keep a girl around just so that there’ll be somebody for his hero to kiss in the final shot, then I say more power to him.