Detour: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms


1953

Director: Eugene Lourie

Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond

Watch the trailer!

Introduction      Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-Up

My Rating:  Class A (3/7).  This is not a great movie, but it is a tremendous amount of fun and boasts a number of firsts.  For the time period the effects are fantastic, but to audiences of today, it is primarily of note for the nostalgia value.

 

Introduction

I’m honestly not sure how we wound up with this film, except that we had a planned detour from the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds and this was probably the intended replacement.  It is clearly not a top fifty film, but we had fun with it and I guess that’s what counts.

They say that the movie is loosely based on a short story by the incomparable Ray Bradbury titled “The Fog Horn.”  This film is most notable for being one of the first “monster movies” and the one which gave rise to the Godzilla phenomenon (notice that I do not include the standard gothic and human scale monsters like Dracula, the Mummy or Frankenstein’s monster, as they first saw the lamps of the projection booth in the thirties).  It is also the first solo work of Ray Harryhausen, a noted practitioner of stop motion animation; it is probably the first film in which a giant monster is awakened by an atomic bomb.

The monster has center stage here, but the script is a bit more robust than the standard festival of destruction, and features a number of surprises.

For those who love Ray Bradbury’s work as much as I do, slow down just a bit.  The official release information states that the film was “suggested” by a story by Ray Bradbury.  In point of fact, the real story is a bit more complicated than that.  Bradbury was negotiating to write the script for the film when “The Fog Horn” appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.  Recognizing that the themes of an undersea dinosaur coming ashore were quite similar, and that they even featured a similar scene with a lighthouse, the producers bought the rights to the story and used it to publicize the film.

Plot Summary (contains spoilers)

Short plot summary:  Boy, a scientist, is in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle where his team is testing an atomic bomb.  Bomb releases a frozen dinosaur, which Boy sees and when he attempts to warn the other scientists of it, is branded as crazy (though in a nice kind of way).  Boy meets Girl, a paleontologist, and her mentor, and embarks on a quest to prove that the monster is real.  He is proven correct as the monster makes its way down the coast towards New York City, where it comes ashore and wreaks havoc.  Boy winds up risking his life in order to destroy the monster, and he and the United States Army are successful when they trap the monster on Coney Island.

Jump to Impressions

Long plot summary:  There really isn’t much point to a long plot summary here, so we’re going to skip it this time.  There are, however, a few plot points that deserve a bit of explanation.

The first thing to note is that this is a big monster, but it’s not a giant monster.  It doesn’t tower over buildings, it walks between them.  It doesn’t breathe fire, and it’s not supernatural.  In short, this is a dinosaur.  All the bomb did was to wake the frozen dinosaur up.

There’s a wrinkle, of course.  It turns out that the blood of the dinosaur carries a fatal disease to which modern humans are very susceptible.  So in order to kill the dinosaur and end the threat to New York, they have to get rid of it without making it bleed…which pretty much eliminates normal weapons.  Now, me, I’d have thought of fire as a way to get rid of it, but our scientist hero is a specialist in radioactive materials.  He makes a special radioactive bullet, which an army sharpshooter fires into the already open wound, in order to finish the monster off.  I thought that was pretty clever…

Impressions

In a way, there’s not much to this film, which we sometimes expect from what amounts to a creature feature.  And yet, the film has something in addition to all its notable firsts which I’m having trouble quantifying.  I think what it boils down to is verisimilitude.  In other words, if you accept that an atomic bomb blast could unfreeze a hibernating dinosaur, then the rest of the events which follow have the feeling of truth.  In that sense, the film represents the triumph of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

When our fictional hero Thomas Nesbitt tells his compatriots that he’s seen a dinosaur, or at least a beast, in the frozen wastes of the arctic, no one believes him.  This is exactly what might happen in real life.  In fact, he’s sent to a hospital for a good long rest…and when he hears about strange incidents at sea, claimed to be caused by sea monsters, he resolves to track down the other witnesses and prove the truth of what he saw.  Adding to the realistic feel of the film, his first witness refuses to have anything to do with him.

The love story feels real, too.  It’s not love at first sight, it’s just mutual attraction, but as our hero and heroine work together, their affection grows.  The loss of her mentor and father-figure seems to indicate a full transfer of affection to a new and equal partner, and in a way this feels real as well.

The effects are extraordinary for the period.  While I would have preferred color, the black and white may have actually contributed to the effectiveness of the monster—there was no chance to mess up the subtle color cues that give the feeling of reality.  One of the keynote scenes, the destruction of the Maine lighthouse by the monster, really plays out nicely.

Some critics see the film as a warning against the perils of atomic power and atomic weaponry.  I think that’s a simplistic interpretation, however, since atomic science giveth and taketh in this film:  the answer to the monster’s destructiveness and its tainted blood comes in the form of radiation.  In other words, the new atomic science got the whole ugly chain of events started, but it also cleaned up the mess.

Many, if not most, of the giant-monster-created-by-radiation films which followed have no such moral amiguity to them, but this film seems to accept the idea that scientific developments have no moral values in and of themselves, but are rather defined by what men do with those developments.

Before I wrap it up, I want to say a word about Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” since the film purports to have been suggested by it.  That story, to me, has always been about loneliness:  the loneliness of a timelost prehistoric dinosaur for the company of its own kind, as well as the loneliness of the lighthouse keeper, isolated from humanity by an important job.  This film is much warmer than that, and human connections are made throughout the film.  This monster, too, is timelost, but the savage trail of death and destruction in its wake precludes feeling sorry for it…

Wrap-up

I have certainly implied that this film is most memorable for all the firsts it brings to the table, and of primarily historical note.  That’s not an entirely fair interpretation of the film, though.  It is a strong film in its own right, with a compelling story with just enough human interest and plot twists to make it more than a monster romp.  The performances are solid, and I particularly liked the leads.

If you have any interest in giant monster movies, and don’t mind black and white, this one is worth watching.  Mark and I both enjoyed it immensely.  Chris, however, does not care for black and white films and I think his enjoyment of the evening may have been limited to the company…

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