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Gorgo - Review

A Review by Mike Bogue

3½ Stars - Very Good

(A King Brothers British production, released in the U.S. by MGM on February 10, 1961.)

Direction: Eugene Lourie

Screenplay: John Loring and Daniel Hyatt

Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino

Special Effects: Tom Howard, Ray Mercer & Company

Producer: Wilfred Eades

Executive Producers: Frank and Maurice King (the King Brothers)

Gorgo Still. "Better than any of the (serious) Japanese films” – so claims Bill Warren in Volume 2 of Keep Watching the Skies!  Such a sentiment is bound to incite disagreement among Japanese SFantasy fans.  Yet it can’t be denied that, despite its British origins, Gorgo remains one of the best kaiju eiga ever made.

The film tells the tale of Joe Ryan and Sam Slade, two down-on-their-luck salvage seamen who discover that a 65-foot prehistoric monster dwells in the sea near Nara Island; the monster was apparently disturbed by a recent underwater volcano.  In short order, Joe and Sam manage to capture the creature and take it to London, where it is put on display at Battersea Park.  At the same time, Joe and Sam “adopt” orphaned Sean, a young Nara Island boy.  The lad is fascinated with the monster, presaging the various kids in later Japanese Gamera movies.

Gorgo’s exhibit earns brisk profits for entrepreneur Dorkin (who built the monster’s enclosure) and for Joe and Sam.  But matters become grave when paleontologists reveal that the imprisoned Gorgo is only a child – its parent would be over two hundred feet tall.

Mama Gorgo takes her cue, arising from the sea at night only to stomp Nara Island flat.  It turns out that Baby Gorgo left a “track” in the ocean as it was being transported on Sam and Joe’s sea vessel, and Mama Gorgo is now in dogged pursuit of her offspring.  En route she destroys a battleship, and once she arrives in London, she proves herself to be every bit as destructive as Godzilla.

Like its Japanese cousins, Mama Gorgo proves invincible to all military weaponry.  She eventually rescues Baby Gorgo, and mother and son take to the Thames River, leaving a chastised London behind.

The story is simple, but works because of its elegance and because of three factors that, at the time, were almost unique:  (1) the absence of any “love interest,” (2) an actual motivation for the monster’s fury, and (3) the survival of the monsters past the film’s ending.

The jettisoning of the usual “romance angle” allows the story to move at a steady clip; indeed, at less than 80 minutes, Gorgo is 100% lean with no filler.  Making Baby Gorgo sympathetic, as when we see the heartless crowds gawking and pointing at the enclosed prehistoric monster, is a nice touch.  This also helps to justify Mama Gorgo’s resolve to rescue her offspring from the clutches of the ant-like humans.  She visits her wrath on London not out of crankiness, but out of righteous indignation.  Having the monsters survive at the end and even escape is a needed touch and the natural ending for such a story.

On a parallel plot structure, during Gorgo’s London rampage, Joe rescues Sean, and at film’s end, Joe and Sam are reunited with Sean just as Mama Gorgo is with her child.   Bill Travers and William Sylvester are effective as the two male leads, and Vincent Winter fares adequately as Sean, the boy who sympathizes with the monster.

Gorgo Still.

Of course, for many giant monster fans, even more important than story and character are (1) the monsters themselves and (2) the amount of urban destruction they cause.  Gorgo excels in both categories.  Though clearly inspired by Godzilla, Gorgo – both mother and son – cut a sharp profile.  The claws tipped with formidable talons, the ridged clusters of jagged white teeth, the hooded red eyes, the therapod body build, the bumpily armored spine, and the flipper-like ears -- Gorgo’s most recognizable feature -- combine to create a distinct and appealingly designed giant monster.  Both Gorgos are also well-photographed, heightening their realism and disguising their shortcomings.

As for Gorgo’s scenes of mass destruction, they equal and perhaps surpass anything Toho did during the fifties and sixties.  Exquisitely crafted miniatures of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, and assorted hapless high-rises crumble beneath Mama Gorgo’s London attack.  Not only are the miniatures on a par with those of Eiji Tsuburaya, but they are also so ingeniously lit that they often appear completely convincing.  Indeed, Freddie (F.A.)Young’s cinematography is superb.

Due to expert use of horizontal and vertical split screens and slow-motion photography, you really believe Gorgo is smashing through a row of apartment buildings as shattered masonry falls on frenzied crowds fleeing the monster’s rampage.  The London miniatures slowly crumble apart in plausible detail.  And not since Godzilla, King of the Monsters had Western eyes seen a monster movie featuring such a wealth -- indeed, a virtual symphony -- of city-smashing set pieces.  We often see hapless humans fleeing in the foreground, and the mating of the London models with fleeing extras is generally flawless.

Indeed, the crowd scenes are downright harrowing.  These crowds seem terrified, the whole lot of them, and there’s a real sense of panic and frenzy as they rush head-long out of Gorgo’s path.  In a quick scene of dark irony, a man wearing a sandwich board declaring “The end is night” finds himself trampled by the fleeing crowds he is striving to warn.

Of course, as is so often the case with British SF/monster films of the fifties and sixties, Gorgo is grimmer than most of its American and Japanese counterparts.  For example, a group of young men watching the Thames River set on fire stand too close to the water’s edge and find themselves ablaze.  We also clearly see soldiers being killed.  After Gorgo demolishes Tower Bridge, on which dozens of military men had been stationed, we see two tiny soldiers fall from a piece of bridge debris Gorgo holds in her hand.

Mama Gorgo’s confrontations with the military provide plenty of fodder for the special effects mill.  Her sinking of a battleship, though brief, is highly effective.  Later, in London, Gorgo swats Big Ben, and the famous landmark topples earthward, burying a squad of soldiers in an avalanche of debris.  This scene is atmospherically lit, with red-tinged smoke slowly drifting in the background.  The sound effects are also imaginative – we hear Big Ben gonging drunkenly as Gorgo bashes into it.

In addition to the film’s opulent spectacle, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s music score offers an evocative main theme, a gentle melody played to full effect during the movie’s poignant finale.

Of course, Gorgo is not without its flaws.  One of the biggest is the decision to let a reporter narrate Mama Gorgo’s obliteration of London.  The reporter chatters incessantly into his microphone, gratuitously describing the visuals we are already looking at as though the film is being broadcast on radio.  His narration is often heavy-handed as well, and somewhat damages the final sequence in which Mama Gorgo frees Baby Gorgo and the two monsters lumber into the Thames.

Gorgo Still.

In addition, Tom Howard’s special effects -- which I’ve lavished with praise -- may be mostly first-rate, but some of his matte work is occasionally flawed.  Gorgo’s jaws also flap a bit too loosely at times.

Trivia:  As most monster fans know, Gorgo director Eugene Lourie also directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Colossus of New York (1958), and The Giant Behemoth (1959).  Gorgo’s executive producers, Frank and Maurice King, known as the King Brothers, were responsible for bringing Rodan to the West in 1957.  And William Sylvester, who plays Sam, went on to appear in one of the true science fiction masterpieces of the twentieth century – 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

More trivia:  Given that Gorgo features such elaborate and detailed devastation, it’s ironic that director Lourie originally conceived the film without any scenes of mass destruction whatsoever!  Instead, Lourie wanted Gorgo to be poetic, a different kind of monster movie.  The more commercially minded King Brothers won out, and the Gorgo we have today was the result.

Easily one of the best giant monster movies of the fifties and sixties, Gorgo receives praise even in most current video and DVD books.  Leonard Maltin’s tome gives it three stars, while the popular Video Movie Guide awards it three and a half.  Available in widescreen on both video and DVD, the latter also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer as well as a behind-the-scenes short written by genre scholar Tom Weaver.

For any fan of kaiju eiga, Gorgo is must-see viewing – and keeping.

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