Video Q&A: Ray Harryhausen on Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

On April 23, 2006, Ray Harryhausen attended a screening of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California. The screening, courtesy of the American Cinematheque, was billed as “The Two Rays,” because Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury was scheduled to attend. Harryhausen, of course, provided the stop-motion special effects that brought the prehistoric beast to life; Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” was the source of inspiration for the screenplay. Unfortunately, Bradbury had to drop out due to illness, leaving Harryhausen to regale an appreciative audience with behind the scenes tales of making the film, which you can hear in this video, originally posted at Hollywood Gothique.

Celebrating Ray Bradbury's 90th Birthday: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:28.1

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August 22, 2010 represented fantasy author Ray Bradbury’s 90th birthday. In celebration of that event, this week’s Post-Mortem podcast examines his career, including the many film and television adaptations of his work: FARENHEIT 451, THE BEAST FROM 20000 FATHOMS, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, etc. Plus, correspondent Lawrence French fills us in on the details of the celebration in Los Angeles, which declared August 22-28 to be “Ray Bradbury Week.”


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Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The Grand-Daddy of Giant Radioactive Prehistoric Monster Movies.

Ray Harryhausen’s first solo opportunity to supervise special effects (after apprenticing under Willis O’Brien, the technician behind 1933’s KING KONG) is the archetypal model for dozens of sci-fi monster flicks that followed, during the 1950s, and beyond. The story begins with an H-Bomb test, which awakens a predatory dinosaur from a multi-million-year sleep, frozen in icy tundra. A nuclear scientist (Paul Christian) who saw the creature tries to warn the military (in the form of Kenneth Tobey), but no one listens to his story until several boats are sunken, the survivors telling tales of sea serpents. A sympathetic paleontologist (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful assistant (Paula Raymond) identify the beast as a rhedosaurus and deduce that its path of destruction is taking it toward New York, where it goes on a rampage. The Beast carries unknown disease that preclude blasting it to pieces (which would only spread the germs), so the nuclear scientist devises a radioactive isotope that will kill the monsters and the bacteria it carries. The lethal antidote is fired (by Lee Van Cleef, later to be a gunslinger in Italian Westerns opposite Clint Eastwood) from atop a roller coaster when the Beast attacks Coney Island, for a fiery and spectacular conclusion.The story of BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is derivative of KING KONG and, more particularly, O’Brien’s 1925 silent effort THE LOST WORLD (which was based on the novel by Sherlock Holmes-creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Like those earlier works, BEAST features a prehistoric monster let loose on a modern city. But those stories had been more or less adventure-fantasies that unearthed their monsters in unexplored, exotic territory. BEAST, with its use of the H-Bomb, added a modern science-fiction edge, coming at a time when audiences really did fear the Bomb, which had the potential, for the first time in recorded history, to bring about the end of recorded history.
Thus, the BEAST becomes a walking metaphor for real fears, a sort of fantasy mirror into which audiences can gaze at something to horrible to contemplate directly. The effect is somewhat muted by the fact that the film ultimately assures us that radiation is okay (a radioactive isotope is used to kill the beast). In this regard, at least, the BEAST’S Japanese clone GOJIRA is considerably more powerful. Nevertheless, BEAST is an effective template from which many other subsequent films were fashioned (including Sony’s misnamed 1998 effort GODZILLA, which far more resembles this film than its namesake).
Unlike many of the movies that worked from its blue print, BEAST has a decent script. The story movies along nicely, with a minimum of downtime (even the obligatory romantic subplot fits in smoothly and unobtrusively). The writers appear to have done their homework, as the scientific jargon rings true and there are few obvious factual howlers. The dialogue is reasonably terse and even displays some clever wit. (At one point, Kellaway chides Tobey for not believing in flying saucers – reminding viewers that Tobey starred in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which featured a flying saucer that brought an alien invader to Earth.)
The cast is made up of competent character actors who bring a decent level of conviction to their roles, spouting off paleontology terms like “Cretaceous” and “Jurassic” as if they know what they are talking about. There is little or none of the flat, cardboard feeling you get from similar films from the era, which tended to be filled with squared jawed heroes and fainting women.
A former production designer, director Eugene Lourie gets everything possible out of his limited resources, using lighting and camera placement to disguise the low-budget. The film looks atmospheric and moody, not cheap, and the judicious use of stock footage adds a sense of scope to the proceedings.
But of course the real star of the film is the special effects. Harryhausen used stop-motion to bring the titular character to life, but instead of creating a KONG-like fantasy world with the use of glass paintings and miniatures, Harryhausen kept the budget down by relying on “plate photography” of actual locations. (In other words, footage of New York streets, etc., was shot and then projected behind the tabletop miniature where Harryhausen animated the armature puppet of the Beast, one frame at a time.)
Being a dinosaur, the Beast cannot win our hearts in the same way that Kong could. But Harryhausen does invest some personality into the creature. Although fearsome and destructive, the rhedosaurus does not seem malignant; he’s just a creature lost in time, returning to the only home he ever knew. He manages to inspire a certain amount of awe, and you’re actually sorry to see the creature collapse and die at the end.
BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS admirably stands the test of time. Despite its financial restrictions, it is a solid effort that works on all levels. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but definitely a classic of its genre – and vastly better than the 1998 GODZILLA.

FAVORITE SCENES

The paleontologist who wants to preserve capture and preserve the rhedosaurus descends in a diving bell to search for the creature. When he makes visual comment, his enthusiasm for his discovery blinds him to any danger. He enthusiastically describes the variations between what he expected from fossils and what he is actually seeing (“the dorsal spine is singular, not bi-lateral as we thought”). His final words are “But the most amazing thing is…” – just before the dinosaur’s open mouth lunges for the diving bell.
A New York cop, obviously not one to let monsters rampage through his neighborhood unopposed, walks down the middle of the street like a gunslinger, firing six shots from his revolver into the rampaging Rhedosaurus. Stopping to reload, he looks down at his gun – the hungry dinosaur reaches down and lifts him up in his mouth, flipping his body like a cat swallowing a minnow.

TRIVIA

The inspiration for the screenplay is credited to Ray Bradbury, but it appears that the script was not actually based on his short story. When he was offered the chance to do the effects, Ray Harryhausen showed the script to his old friend Bradbury, who noted that the scene wherein the Beast attacks a lighthouse was similar to his story “The Foghorn.” The rights to the story were purchased in order to avoid any legal problems. Since then, Bradbury has speculated that the screenwriters had read the story and incorporated the scene, whether consciously or not. Harryhausen provided a slightly different version of events at a 2006 screening of the film, stating that, after the script was written, the film’s producer came in with a copy of the Saturday Evening Post (which had published the story) and insisted that the lighthouse scene should be added.
This was the directorial debut of Eugene Lourie, who went on to direct two other movies about reawakened rampaging reptiles: 1959’s THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (a.k.a. THE BEHEMOTH, which, ironically, featured special effects by Harryhausen’s one-time mentor, Willis O’Brien) and 1961’s GORGO.
Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was, according to legend, inspired by THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. After a co-production deal fell through to make a large-scale war movie, he conceived of a Japanese version of BEAST. The result was 1954’s GOJIRA, which was released in the U.S. two years later as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. However, it remains unclear whether the late Tanaka had actually seen BEAST or had merely heard about it.

The prehistoric monster roars at the modern surroundings.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. (1953). Directed by Eugene Lourie. Written by Fred Freiberger and Louis Morheim, “inspired” by the short story “The Foghorn” by Ray Bradbury. Cast: Paul Christian (a.k.a. Paul Hubschmid), Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donalds Woods, Lee Van Cleef.

Sons of Moby Dick: Melville's White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters

Moby Dick may seem an odd choice for inclusion in Cinefantastique. After all, if one were to categorize the novel, the obvious label would be Adventure – specifically, a high-seas adventure about whale hunting. However,  Herman Melville’s tale is awash with allegory and symbolism, much of it relevant to the horror genre. The book is too vast in its implications to be fully analyzed here; for our purposes it is enough to point out that its chief mystery is whether the White Whale is simply a dumb beast acting from instinct or, as Captain Ahab believes, an intelligent being acting from malevolence. In effect, Ahab’s quest for vengeance is propelled by the conviction that he is pursuing an evil monster, and one question raised by the book is: does evil actually exist, or do human beings mistakenly perceive evil when random events bring about misfortune? This question underlies many horror films, most notably THE EXORCIST. In that case, the debate is weighted in favor of the existence of evil because the phenomenon is preternatural; Moby-Dick, on the other hand, can be seen as the prototype for countless films wherein natural phenomena appear to act with deliberate malice (witness THE BIRDS or the opening of TWISTER, in which a tornado seems almost like an angry god plucking away a family’s helpless father for no good reason). More specifically, the White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters that have bedeviled ocean-going humans almost since the beginning of cinema.
Unfortunately, most of these descendants occupy a low rung on the pop-culture ladder, borrowing little of Melville’s metaphysics and reducing what is borrowed to the level of a simple plot device. To wit: no matter how fearsome and threatening a large animal may be to a lone victim, an organized group with the right weapons would have no problem exterminating the beast, unless it were somehow capable of avoiding their modern firepower; therefore, tales of monstrous sharks, orcas, and even snakes almost inevitably imbue the animals with at least a rudimentary intelligence that enables them to outwit their human opponents. The philosophical implications of this are seldom explored; it is enough that intelligence makes the beasts more threatening and therefore more in need of being destroyed.


The first two on-screen descendants of Moby-Dick were loose adaptations starring John Barrymore: both THE SEA BEAST (1926) and its sound remake MOBY DICK (1930) abandoned much of the novel in favor of adding a love story. Over two decades later, John Huston directed a more faithful, though still condensed, version. His MOBY DICK (1956) is notable for trying to use the visual medium, especially color, to convey the essence of Melville; but Gregory Pecks performance as Ahab has come under fire, even from the actor, who considered himself miscast (he thought Huston should have cast him as Starbuck and played Ahab himself).
Meanwhile, the science-fiction genre was getting into the act in the early ‘50s. Prior to Huston’s adaptation, two Ray Harryhausen films featured sea monsters dredged up from the depths by atomic bomb testing. In both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1954), complex considerations of the problem of evil are abandoned in favor of a simple metaphor: the monsters are living embodiments of the dangers of nuclear power. Still, BEAST gave credit for its inspiration to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” and something about the prehistoric reptile rising from the depths was evocative enough for John Huston to have Bradbury collaborate with him on the script for MOBY DICK.
One possible (albeit a simple) interpretation of Melville’s novel is that Moby Dick is not a monster at all but simply an innocent animal relentlessly pursued by a madman projecting his own mania onto a living tabula rasa. In fact, before the Pequod encounters the White Whale, previous accounts of Moby Dick have him swimming with others of his kind, implying that his previous “attacks” on whaling vessels may have actually been attempts to defend his species against human aggressors. This sympathetic interpretation of nature, versus the wickedness of humanity, is not pushed very far in the Harryhausen films: whatever set them off in the first place, the rhedosaur and the octopus are lone beasts that inspire little or no sympathy. That changed with GORGO (1960).

The materanl sea beast rises from the waves to seek her off-spring.

In this film, the sea beast comes to represent an archetypal force guaranteed to evoke human sympathy: mother love. The point is emphasized by the fact that there are no important female characters in the story (outside of the mammoth maternal monster that destroys half of London to save her offspring). The humans, like the crew of the Pequod, are men apparently cut off from the society of women. Interestingly, the lead character (played by Bill Travers) unofficially adopts an orphaned boy, much as Ahab took Pip under his wing. Assuming this feminine role of surrogate mother ultimately redeems the character when he abandons his greedy, masculine hopes of exploiting the beast for profit and instead risks his life to rescue the boy. (The maternal instinct of prehistoric monsters was later exploited by Steven Spielberg in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, but the effect was considerably diminished.)
The theme of the giant sea beast that represents nature’s revenge was developed further in the Godzilla films. The series started off fairly closely modeled after BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, before mutating into juvenile camp. However, when the franchise re-booted in 1985, the sequels re-imagined the conception, changing Godzilla from a malevolent monster (as in his 1954 debut) to something resembling an implacable natural disaster. There was a twist, however, because Godzilla, unlike Moby Dick, is not a force of nature per se; rather, he once was a natural animal, but now he has been mutated by human science. Therefore,  it makes little sense to adopt an Ahab-like vendetta against the creature, who is, ultimately, a living embodiment of man-made catastrophe, like the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl.
Beginning with GODZILLA 1985, several films delt with this theme, featuring revenge-crazed characters seeking retribution against the radioactive reptile in response to the death of a friend or a comrade in arms: GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRAS (2001), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (2002). Like Ahab, the humans tended to fail in their attempts to destroy the beast, but they sometimes learned the error of their ways, realizing that personal vengeance was pointless when mankind was ultimately to blame for Godzilla. As interesting as the concept is, it was seldom if ever developed to its full potential. Godzilla is certain awesome and mysterious enough to fill in for Moby Dick, but none of the human characters attained anything close to the stature of a Captain Ahab.
Sticking a little closer to Melville, Peter Benchley launched a whole subgenre with the publication of Jaws, which led to the blockbuster film and countless rip-offs (TENTACLES, CLAWS, GREAT WHITE, etc). Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) is clearly intended as a pop riff on Moby Dick (with a little of An Enemy of the People thrown in). The Melville connection is even clearer in the book, wherein shark hunter Quint is dragged to his death, like Ahab, by a harpoon line attached to the swimming menace, but in both book and film the shark’s predations defy the instinctive behavior expected from the species, leaving one to wonder if something more than an unconscious killing machine is at work.

The White Shark rises from the depths.

This idea is taken a step further (to amusing but ridiculous extremes) in JAWS IV: THE REVENGE (1987), in which a new Great White seems to be taking personal revenge against the family of the man who killed the sharks in the first two films. The revenge theme was also present in ORCA (1977), although here the implication is that the Richard Harris character may deserve to be persecuted by the mate of a killer whale he harpooned. It is interesting to note that both JAWS IV and ORCA reverse the MOBY DICK formula, casting the sea creature as the instrument of vengeance.

A rather silly but well-photographed TV movie emerged in 1978, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. The telefilm bares a passing resemblance to Moby Dick, in its tale of a humongous sea turtle responsible for the mysterious shipwrecks in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle.” The whole thing is boring as hell, but the Gamera-wannabe is a hoot, and Carl Weathers winds up dragged to his death, tangled in a harpoon line, just like Ahab and Quint before him. (This seems to be the only film to use the death described by Melville: Quint is swallowed by the shark in the JAWS film; and both Huston’s adaptation and the recent USA Cable mini-series of MOBY DICK have Ahab meeting his demise while lashed to the side of the whale.)
From turtles to snakes: SPASMS (1983) and ANACONDA (1997) may not seem related to Moby Dick, but there is a connection. Both feature serpents that are big, but neither one is so unnaturally large as to be a “monster.” So the question is: why cannot the characters just capture the damned thing and put it in a zoo? This is where the Moby-Dick syndrome comes in: to make them more threatening, the snakes are portrayed as if capable of strategizing, and there is a lot of supernatural hooey about their serpent gods. In the end both are dispatched by conventional means such as guns and explosives (although that was not enough to prevent a sequel title ANACONDAS, which seemed to overlook that the first film had already contained more than one anaconda).
Benchley returned to sea monsters with Beast and White Shark, which were adapted into mini-series entitled THE BEAST (1996) and CREATURE (1998). Interestingly, these works refute the apparent evil of the shark in JAWS, which is dismissed as an inaccurate piece of Hollywood nonsense. In THE BEAST, Will Dalton (William Petersen) argues that people have no right to hunt the giant squid, because it is the fishing industry’s depopulation of the seas that has driven the Beast from its usual hunting grounds and into contact with humans. White Shark, meanwhile, contains a Great White that is presented as a dangerous but endangered species that out to be preserved, not hunted to extinction.
This sub-genre came full circle with the 1998 TV version of MOBY DICK. What perhaps is most interesting about this mini-series is how easy it is to view the White Whale sympathetically today. Metaphysical implications take a backseat to the very real slaughter perpetrated against these animals; in this context, Moby Dick is less a symbol of a random universe that may only appear malevolent, than of poetic (perhaps even divine) vengeance against heartless harpooners pursuing a magnificent species nearly to extinction – an interpretation emphasized by Patrick Stewart’s public service announcements, at the end of each episode, on behalf of saving the whale. It’s less deeply disturbing than the ideas conjured up by the novel, but it does follow the course swum by many of Moby Dick’s descendants.
RELATED ARTICLES: Science-Fiction Author Ray Bradbury on Adapting “Moby Dick.”