The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Of Ray Harryhausen’s black-and-white creature films, most fans will pick 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) featuring the reptilian bi-pedal Ymir as their favorite film. It has a lot to offer —an unusual storyline which has a space crew carting an embryonic egg capsule of a sulfur-eating creature from Venus back to Earth, Italian coastal landscapes, an exciting finale in Rome, Harryhausen’s superb animation of a spacecraft (a rocket!) and the star of the show, the Ymir. It’s one of my favorite Harryhausen films, along with Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and the underrated The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).
However, 20 Million Miles to Earth has one major flaw with stiff William Hopper (Emmy nominee for Perry Mason, 1957) in the lead. Don’t agree with me? Just watch the ….Alright…. almost a doctor…. scene with Joan Taylor in 20MMTE. I just don’t think William Hopper is a very good actor. Universal-International’s The Deady Mantis (1957), essentially a remake of Beast, also suffers for the same reason. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is one of Harryhausen’s best films due to competent direction by veteran Eugene Lourie, story by Ray Bradbury, and decent acting, with Swiss-born actor Paul Hubschmid (Bagdad, 1949; The Day the Sky Exploded, 1958; Fritz Lang’s Der Tiger von Eschnapur, 1959) in the lead as Professor Tom Nesbit, Cecil Kellaway (Harvey, 1950) as paleontologist Professor Thurgood, Paula Raymond as Lee Hunter, and Kenneth Tobey as Col. Jack Evans. Lee Van Cleef even gets in on the fun as a sharpshooter aiming an isotope-laced shell at the title creature.
Harryhausen’s black and white films have been criticized for having the same essential story: A – Big monster is discovered, B – Big monster creates some havoc, C – Alpha male has romance with the girl, D – Big monster enters city and causes a lot of damage, E – Scientists figure out how to kill the big monster. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) differs a bit in not having a monster so to speak, but has splendid animated UFOs integrated into the same basic story. Beast works for me in being one of the first giant monster films (only a few silents, the seminal King Kong (’33) and its offspring Son of Kong (’33) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), and a few lost Japanese films anticipate Beast), and what a marvelous design Harryhausen came up with for the prehistoric Rhedosaurus. I think the creature is totally believable as an amphibious marine creature, with a powerful, broad and flattened tail like a crocodilian.
Beast was filmed on a modest budget of approximately $200,000 ($1.7 million adjusted by today’s standards) and made approximately $5 million. It was a very sucessful film and one of the hits of 1953. I don’t think the film looks cheap at all. Even the polar sets come across as being realistic, with snow-capped rocks and fissures. As with most science fiction films of this era, stock military footage is used, albiet infrequently in Beast. Here’s a shot of the ubiquitous Douglas C-47 transport plane. The same aircraft with landing skis appears in Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World (1951).
Film buffs will have fun spotting several character actors. The Beast has minor parts for Frank Ferguson and King Donovon (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956). Kenneth Tobey appears as a military man like he does in The Thing (1951) and in Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). I like Tobey in films of this nature. He smoked quite a few cigarettes in his day and lived to the ripe old age of 85.
There are a few scenes in Beast where an artist’s render of the Rhedosaurus is shown. Does anyone know if that is a production sketch prepared by Ray Harryhausen? I think it might be a conceptual drawing used by Ray to develop the stop-motion puppet used in the film.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was imaginitively directed by Eugene Lourie (The Giant Behemoth, 1959; Gorgo, 1961), whose background included art direction (Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion; Chaplin’s Limelight, 1952) and film direction. Lourie’s competence in set design can be seen in collaborative sequences with Ray Harryhausen, including the lighting of the live action portions of the Fog Horn sequence. I particularly like the scenes set under the water, which offer a rare opportunity for humans to interact with a monster in its habitat. For instance, in 20MMTE the Ymir is brought to Earth. I would have loved to see the Ymir running around the landscapes of Venus. Prequel anyone?
These canyon scenes remind me of sequences later animated by Pete Peterson in The Black Scorpion (1957).
Behold the Rhedosaurus!
I wonder if Ray Harryhausen based the creature design off a modern analogue? Compare the Rhedosaurus to a modern day living fossil Tuatara.
The Fog Horn sequence….
The Rhedosaurus in New York….
And the finale! The concept of a gigantic prehistoric beast cornered in the skeletal frame of a wooden rollercoaster was just brilliant. Go get ’em Lee Van Cleef.
Ah, they don’t make ’em like they used to!