Gorgo (1961) **½
You may not realize this, but the United States and Japan were not the only countries whose movie industries were cranking out big rubber monster movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Gorgo hails from what may be the most unlikely of all countries of origin for this sort of movie-- it could best be described as the English Godzilla. Why would the English need their own Godzilla? you may ask, and I honestly couldn’t tell you. But it’s quite clear that a mythologized personification of nuclear Armageddon was not on their minds. In direct contrast to the Godzilla series or the endlessly prolific atomic bug genre in America, Gorgo carries not the slightest hint of Cold-War nuke nightmares. Its monster comes to us courtesy of the unspeakable horrors of plate tectonics.
Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers, from Footsteps in the Fog) and his crew are running some kind of salvage operation off the coast of Ireland, when a big-ass volcano appears out of nowhere and erupts, nearly sinking their ship in the process. After his first officer, Sam Slade (William Sylvester, from Devil Doll and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), gives him an inventory of the damage, Ryan decides to take the ship to Nara Island to make repairs and take on a new stock of fresh water. In Nara’s harbor, Ryan and Slade discover hundreds of floating carcasses of marine animals the likes of which neither they nor anyone in the audience has ever seen before. Apparently neither man is much impressed, as they promptly drop the subject, and it is never raised again. But then again, they do have more important things to worry about, and let’s face it-- those weird-looking rubber fish are there for our benefit. The filmmakers want us to know that something big and prehistoric woke up when that highly implausible volcano blew its top about five minutes back.
The man Ryan and Slade need to see is McCarten (Christopher Rhodes, of “The Quatermass Experiment”), the harbor master. It turns out he’s also an archaeologist, and that he’s been doing some salvaging of his own-- he’s found the wreck of a Viking longship out in the harbor, and he has all of the local fishermen helping him bring its assorted goodies to the surface. That’s the reason he tells Ryan that he needs a permit to stay at Nara for more than a day. Some of that stuff is valuable, and McCarten would rather not have any money-hungry salvagers from the mainland poking around down there. Of course, it turns out later that night that McCarten has a use for Ryan and his crew after all. Some of McCarten’s men have been killed mysteriously down by the wreck, and as darkness falls on the day of Ryan’s arrival, we find out what’s to blame. A big, ugly rubber dinosaur surfaces out in the harbor, attacks a bunch of fishermen, and then comes ashore on Nara to wreak havoc. Later on, somebody will tell us that the monster is 65 feet tall, but on the basis of its size relative to the miniature sets that it smashes, I’d say it can’t possibly be taller than 40 feet. Its most distinctive features are its glowing red eyes and its ridiculous, wing-like ears, which it wiggles occasionally-- I guess the filmmakers thought their monster needed more power of expression than was possible with the usual compliment of reptilian facial features. Its vocalizations are pretty funny, too; it alternates between what is obviously a lion’s roar and an equally obvious pitch-shifted elephant call. Anyway, this monster trashes Nara Island for a while, until the inhabitants manage to drive it off by throwing lots of burning logs at it. The next morning, Ryan offers McCarten a deal-- he’ll solve the archaeologist’s monster problem in exchange for a portion of the loot from the Viking ship. McCarten grudgingly agrees, and the preparations begin for catching the monster.
In a scene that was lifted almost shot-for-shot from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (big surprise there-- director Eugene Lourie was also responsible for that movie, and for the equally similar The Giant Behemoth, too), Ryan descends to the wreck in a diving bell, hoping its powerful electric lights will attract the monster. The beast finds the lights so attractive, in fact, that it attempts to eat the diving bell, and Ryan only narrowly escapes death by having his ship drop a few of its super-heavy-duty nets on the thing’s head, diverting its attention and causing it to tangle itself up quite nicely. The crew then haul it aboard with their big salvaging winches and tie it up on the deck of the ship. A day or two later, a couple of scientists from Dublin University arrive on Nara to collect the monster. They tell Captain Ryan to keep its skin wet, and inform him that he will, of course, be compensated for transporting it to the University. Ryan doesn’t mention that he has other plans; just before the scientists arrived, he received a telegram from a Mr. Dorkin (The Omen’s Martin Benson), owner of the famous Dorkin’s Circus in London, offering to pay Ryan £30,000 as an advance against ticket sales if he will bring the creature to the circus instead. £30,000 or “compensation” for transport to be paid by a university-- which one sounds like a better deal to you? Yeah, that’s what Ryan thinks, too.
On the way to London, the only real complication is the discovery of a stowaway, a young orphan named Sean (Vincent Winter), who had been working for McCarten. He doesn’t think it’s a good idea to take the monster anywhere, so he sneaks aboard with the intention of freeing it once the ship gets further out to sea. Ryan and Slade catch him trying to cut the nets holding the big lizard down to the deck, stop him, and then set him up in Slade’s quarters so that they can keep an eye on him. This kid Sean is probably the human character who gets the most screen time in the film, so it’s a damn good thing he’s nowhere near as annoying as all those kids in the later Godzilla movies, or God forbid, the Gamera series. Anyway, the ship arrives in London, the monster (whom Dorkin names Gorgo, after “the Gorgons-- creatures so frightening that any man who saw them would be turned to stone!”) is set up in a very large pit enclosure on the circus grounds, and the movie generally begins to resemble the section of King Kong in which Denham exhibits the titular monster in New York. (Shit, Dorkin even goes so far as to call Gorgo “the Eighth Wonder of the World!”)
Now about this time, we’re thinking, “okay, how long can it possibly be before Gorgo gets loose?” but the movie throws us a curve. Those scientists from Dublin come back, poke and prod Gorgo for a little while, and then tell Ryan, Slade, and Dorkin that Gorgo is not yet an adult. Not only that, they say, he’s probably in the early stages of infancy. They then whip out this huge folio and turn to a page bearing a sketch of two dinosaur-looking skeletons. “In relation to the infant,” says one of the scientists, “the mother would probably look something like this,” as he points to the larger of the skeletons, to whose knee the smaller one barely reaches. Ryan does the math for us: “That would make her almost 200 feet tall!” And at that moment, the movie cuts to the shore of Nara Island, which is just then receiving a visit from Ma Gorgo. In the next scene, we are told that the island was totally destroyed.
Next comes the part we’ve been waiting for-- Ma Gorgo vs. the Royal Stock Footage. First, she takes on the navy, sinking a cruiser with all hands (the movie calls it a destroyer, but trust me, it’s a light cruiser, one of the big 10,000-tonners descended from the HMS Belfast), and later brushing aside an attack by all the stock footage of warships that the studio could get its hands on. Then Ma Gorgo comes ashore and knocks down the Tower Bridge and Big Ben while paying almost no attention to the hundreds of tanks and infantrymen pouring ammo into her. The military makes one more try, sending in the Royal Air Force (represented by bombing range footage of American F-100 fighters) to strafe her with rockets and 20mm cannons to absolutely no avail. The whole time this is happening, we are treated to the most amazingly over-the-top commentary by a reporter from some TV news program or other, in which he tells us exactly what we are seeing, apparently on the off-chance that some blind people might be watching. I’m not going to give away the ending, because Gorgo was, at the time, the only big rubber monster movie yet made that ended quite the way it does. But it won’t be giving anything away to say that the military proves entirely unequal to the task, because I’m pretty sure the last time a giant rubber reptile was brought down by conventional weapons was in 20 Million Miles to Earth, and before that in King Kong.
And that brings me to the last thing I want to say about the story of Gorgo. Pay attention to the battle scenes. In addition to the amusing (to me, anyway) fact that most of the stock footage is of the American military rather than the British, note that each time Ma Gorgo defeats one branch of the armed forces, the next one up attacks her with less powerful weapons than the ones to which she proved invulnerable in the preceding scene. After she shrugs off the depth charges, 152mm guns, and 533mm torpedoes of the navy, the army goes after her with tanks carrying 75- and 105mm guns, and with infantrymen carrying 7.62mm rifles. Finally, the air force shows up with fighters armed with 20mm machine cannons and 70mm rockets. And the generals and admirals in charge of the whole fiasco seem genuinely surprised at the results.
Now, I’m sure all of this is making Gorgo sound incredibly stupid, and you’re probably at least a little surprised at the lack of a minus-sign in front of the two-and-a-half stars I gave it. But the surprising fact is that this is actually a pretty well done movie. Most of the really laughable stuff (like the stock footage and the monster suit) stems from the studio trying to keep the cost of the movie under control. It seems impossible, but the Godzilla movies were the highest-budget films in the Toho Studios production schedule until the budgets started shrinking in the mid-60’s, and it wasn’t because Toho made cheap movies, either. To make a movie using that much special effects footage is expensive, even if it ends up looking fake by today’s standards. Other than the cost-cutting measures, there isn’t a whole lot to make fun of in Gorgo. The news man at the end is the only really bad actor, and it’s clear that everyone involved was really trying. And of course, there’s the ending, which I’ve already said was then unique in the world of big rubber monsters. Unfortunately for Gorgo, screenwriters John Loring and Daniel Hyatt chose to take the approach of piling up all the plot in the first half of the movie, and all of the action in the second, with the result that we spend he first half wishing something-- anything-- would happen, and the second half thinking, “you know, I could have sworn that there were some characters in this movie.” It was a bad call, and it makes Gorgo not nearly as much fun as it should have been.