The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms: I’m Always Rooting for the Dinosaur

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Directed by Eugène Lourié. Screenplay by Fred Freiberger and Louis Morheim, partly based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. Starring Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, and Kenneth Tobey.

Does anybody remember the movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend? It’s a Disney movie that came out in 1985, which is probably when I saw it. It is, by all accounts, absolutely terrible; the description makes it sound pretty racist too. I’m not going to rewatch it. I don’t remember a single thing about it, except that it features a baby Brontosaurus, and as a child I very much wanted to believe there were still baby Brontosauruses out there in the world.

Then came Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time (1988), and that TV show Dinosaurs (1991-1994), and James Gurney’s gorgeous illustrated book Dinotopia (1992) and—look, what I’m trying to say is that by the time Jurassic Park (1996) happened, I and many others of my generation had already decided that when the choice presents itself, we’re siding with the dinosaurs in any human versus dinosaur conflict.

I’m telling you this so you understand the biases I am bringing into the experience of watching this week’s film. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is one of the world’s foundational monster movies, but I was rooting for the monster all the way through.

In the introduction to this column I wrote about Le voyage dans la lune (1902), which is generally considered to be the world’s first science fiction film. After that seminal event in the history of film, it took only three years for humanity to reach another important milestone: the first dinosaur film. That was a 1905 short film called Prehistoric Peeps, which was inspired by the work of artist Edward Tennyson Reed, the man largely responsible for the comical conceptualization of cavemen that we see everywhere from The Flintstones to The Far Side. You can watch a very poor copy of the film on YouTube; the original reel is in the archive at the British Film Institute.

Because the human species occasionally does something right, we’ve kept making dinosaur movies ever since then. Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925), based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, was a tremendous hit; the stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien had everybody oohing and aahing at seeing the dinosaurs come to life. (I’ll talk more about O’Brien when we watch the 1933 version of King Kong later this month.) More dinosaur films followed in the same vein: not monster movies, but tales of explorers stumbling upon an isolated location where dinosaurs have mysteriously survived for millions of years.

There were a lot monster movies being made through the 1940s, but they were mostly of the classic supernatural variety (vampires, wolfmen, a surprisingly large number of cat people). Those with a sci fi flavor were generally about the typical gothic mad scientists. Things began to change a few years after the war ended. As we’ve already seen in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), filmmakers were becoming interested in saying something about scientific progress in general and atomic bombs in particular. At the same time, giant monsters were coming into vogue, in large part thanks to an extremely successful theatrical rerelease of King Kong in 1952.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was not the first atomic-era sci fi monster movie (that honor probably goes to The Thing From Another World (1951), although I could be wrong), but I think it was the first where atomic science leads directly to the monster’s appearance.

And that’s what brings us to a snow-covered military research base somewhere on Baffin Island, just in time for the countdown of Operation Experiment. (I spent entirely too long trying to come up with a joke about the name “Operation Experiment,” but I dare not gild the lily.) Operation Experiment is, unsurprisingly, an atomic weapons test. Nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid, credited under his English-language screen name Paul Christian) makes some vaguely portentous comments about the promise and threat of nuclear science before heading out into the blast area to collect some data. Out there on the frozen wasteland, his buddy is injured after being surprised by the appearance of an extremely grumpy and extremely loud giant lizard. Before Nesbitt can rescue his friend, the giant lizard reappears and causes an avalanche of ice that kills the friend and injures Nesbitt.

While he’s recovering in a New York hospital, Nesbitt tell doctors and military men about the surprise ice dinosaur, but they are understandably a bit skeptical. After Nesbitt hears about a sea serpent attacking a Canadian fishing boat, he does what anybody in his situation would do: he heads over to the nearest university to ask a world-famous paleontologist if dinosaurs can be frozen in ice and awoken by atomic bombs.

Dr. Elson (Cecil Kellaway) dismisses the idea, but his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) is more open to the possibility. There isn’t a whole lot of in-depth characterization in this movie, but I do like what we see of Elson and Hunter’s academic relationship; he likes that she will argue with him, and they both agree that her pushing at his assumptions is good scientific practice. (I also like that their office achieves aesthetic #goals by being in a cavernous room with a Brontosaurus skeleton—a Hollywood-famous (fake) Brontosaurus skeleton, in fact, as it’s the same prop dino that was used in the 1938 Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.)

Hunter becomes even more convinced of Nesbitt’s story when a second Canadian fishing boat is attacked by a mysterious creature. She wants to help Nesbitt identify exactly which dinosaur might be responsible. (I don’t know about you, but I think there should be more dinosaur mugshot scenes in movies.) And, again, the characters in this movie are pretty thin, but Raymond and Hubschmid are both plenty charming, so their flirtation over the lineup of dinosaur suspects is pretty cute.

If the dino mugshots look familiar, it’s probably not because one of them mugged you in an alley last weekend. More likely you’ve seen those pictures way back in the depths of your dinosaur-obsessed childhood. Recall, if you will, one of the world’s most beloved images of impending dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence: the mural of a Tyrannosaurus picking a fight with a Triceratops that is on the walls at Chicago’s Field Museum. That painting is the work of artist Charles Knight, as are so many of the classic dinosaur illustrations that have been ingrained in the public consciousness for about a century. The drawings that Hunter shows to Nesbitt in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms are also Knight’s work—except the drawing of the culprit, because the dinosaur that Nesbitt identifies, Rhedosaurus, is made up.

Now that they have a suspect, Nesbitt and Hunter attempt to get a surviving Canadian sea captain to corroborate the identification. That man won’t help—like Nesbitt, he’s been accused of being crazy—but they find another fisherman who will. The detectives of Law & Order: Special Dinosaur Unit take their eyewitness accounts to a military guy (Kenneth Tobey), who is still not willing to believe there is a dinosaur on the loose, but he does ask a Coast Guard guy (Donald Woods) to let him know if anything weird happens.

The trope of the lone truth-teller trying to convince all the disbelieving skeptics of impending danger is deeply entrenched in disaster movies. It’s such a familiar element that it’s curious to see how it’s used here, in one of the films that defined the genre and the trope, because it doesn’t really look much like what we’re familiar with. There is almost no antagonism between the characters. Even when they are talking about the very serious potential consequences of a nuclear scientist working with the Atomic Energy Commission being unhinged or fully out of his mind, they do so in a jovial and friendly manner. Everybody is reasonable, rational, and polite. And, most of all, they share a common standard of proof that wins over the skeptics one by one.

This is not great storytelling. It saps the story of a lot of tension and stakes, and it keeps the characters from developing very much. But I find it interesting as an example of a thematic choice that we see in a lot of atomic-era sci fi: the idea that science will solve the problems caused by science. But The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms doesn’t grapple with that theme in any depth; unlike The Day the Earth Stood Still, it doesn’t really suggest that maybe we shouldn’t be making atomic bombs, and it certainly doesn’t push us to reconsider the aspects of our society that lead to the development of atomic bombs in the first place. It’s a movie that uses the social and political atmosphere of the postwar without interrogating it. Instead, it feels like an example of how Hollywood was defining a false image of the 1950s in America while they were happening, the repercussions of which we’re still dealing with today in many regrettable ways.

Back to the film: It’s finally time to give Canadian fishermen a break, because our dino friend has moved south to attack a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. The two men manning the lighthouse are not Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, but they should be, although I regret to inform you that I’ve already checked and that crossover doesn’t exist on AO3.

The lighthouse scene is the only part of the film that’s obviously inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” The story is just about a dinosaur from the deep sea attacking a lighthouse, nothing else, which is why there is that vague “Suggested by” credit on the film. Bradbury’s story was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1951, and very shortly thereafter the brand-new production company Mutual Films announced a movie about a monster from the sea. The order of events with regard to inspiration and acknowledgment is not entirely clear. According to Harryhausen, producer Jack Dietz showed him a copy of the illustration for the story, so obviously somebody knew about the connection, but that wasn’t official until the movie was already underway. Bradbury and Harryhausen were lifelong friends; when Harryhausen was working on the film, Bradbury pointed out the similarities to his story. That’s when the production company bought the film rights and adopted the short story’s original title.

The attack on the lighthouse and corroboration of Nesbitt’s dinosaur lineup ID convinces our revered paleontologist Dr. Elson that the dinosaur must be real, and somehow he convinces the U.S. military to take him down in a diving bell to search for the creature. The good news is that he’s very excited to get to see a dinosaur up close and personal. The bad news is the Rhedosaurus eats the diving bell and kills Elson.

But nobody has much time to mourn, because the dino then shows up in New York City. He eats an NYPD cop and rampages down Wall Street, but honestly I was rooting for him long before that point. I just feel bad for the big guy, you know? He was awoken from a very long nap by somebody setting off an atomic bomb over his head. I can’t blame him for being in a bad mood.

However much I am rooting for the dinosaur, however, his trip to New York is doomed to end poorly. People keep shooting at him, and he’s spreading his prehistoric germs around, and eventually the military corners him at Coney Island. Nesbitt thinks the only way to kill the dinosaur without spreading his dino germs through the city is to shoot him with a radioactive isotope. And that requires riding a rollercoaster with a military sharpshooter. In the film the rollercoaster is the Coney Island Cyclone, because they are at Coney Island. But those scenes were all filmed in Long Beach, California, and the rollercoaster featured is the Cyclone Racer. The Coney Island Cyclone is still operational, but the Cyclone Racer was dismantled in 1968. As far as I know a dinosaur was not to blame for its demise.

Everybody in the movie is lucky that this is among the very first atomic-era monster films, because if it had come out any later, shooting a dinosaur with radiation would definitely result in an angry radioactive dinosaur. Alas, this is not that kind of film, because that kind of film didn’t exist until after this film happened, so the shot works and the dinosaur dies amidst the flaming wreckage of a rollercoaster. That is the very abrupt end of the movie.

Here’s the thing about The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms: It’s fine. It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It is often is very silly, but it also has some charming and exciting moments. But there are a couple of reasons it hasn’t been largely forgotten in the dust of cinematic history with so many other ’50s monster films.

The first is that it sits in a very curious place in film history, one where it provides an important blueprint for so many monster movies and disaster movies. Maybe blueprint is the wrong word; in some ways it feels more like a rough draft of film genres that would explode into popularity after its release. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was very successful and popular on its own, there’s no doubt about that, but an even bigger portion of its legacy comes from the fact that it led directly to Godzilla, and so much of Godzilla’s impact still rules the film world.

The second reason, of course, is that this is a film featuring the work of legendary special effects master Ray Harryhausen. It was, in fact, only Harryhausen’s second feature film. He had gotten his start a few years before as an assistant to Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949); Harryhausen had specifically sought to meet O’Brien because he was so inspired and enthralled by The Lost World. Harryhausen did most of the stop-motion animation on Mighty Joe Young, and with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms he was given full control over the technical effects.

That’s when he began developing his iconic “Dynamation” technique, which is a way of filming stop-motion animation that allows the animated elements to appear to interact with the live action. Dynamation involves filming each scene in layers, with the background and foreground split apart and the animation model between them. It’s a process that’s hard to explain in words but really cool when you see it visually, so here is a very good video essay that shows it well: “How Ray Harryhausen Combined Stop-Motion and Live Action.”

It’s fairly obvious that The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was an early attempt at a new technique. The combination of stop-motion and live action isn’t always very clean. Sometimes the dinosaur looks like it’s moving through the scene; sometimes it looks like it’s moving behind a set. There are some weird scale inconsistencies, which is a very common problem with giant monster movies. Our grumpy Rhedosaurus is impressive, to be sure, but certainly not as astonishing as Harryhausen’s later work, such as that incredible stop-motion skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) that is rightly regarded as one of the most incredible special effects scenes ever made.

Harryhausen spent his career dedicated to the goal of making monsters real. There are tons of ways to do that, from actors tromping around in the jankiest costumes to the most convincingly beautiful CGI. Blending stop-motion animation with live action filming is just one approach, and it’s always been a somewhat niche one because of the time and effort involved. It hasn’t entirely disappeared, but these days it’s used for a particular aesthetic effect rather than the realism Harryhausen was going for.

I like that about this movie. I enjoying seeing the imperfections, because it’s like looking at the early works of a great painter or architect and spotting elements of what’s to come. Because Harryhausen’s work is so very singular, and because he designed, built, and animated his creations himself, it’s a much more personal evolution than we normally get a chance to see in special effects in film.

It’s a reminder, I think, of all the different layers of artistry that go into making a movie, and how the best route to the final film is not always going to be the fastest, cheapest, or easiest one. Movies are commercial products that are intended to make money, yes, but they are also works of art, and as with any work of art, sometimes taking the long way around is the better way to go.

What do you think about The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms? Was anybody else constantly noting the points at which the plot foreshadowed disaster movie staples to come? Where would you rampage if you were a dinosaur rudely awoken from a very long nap and set loose in New York City? Is anybody going to write that crossover with The Lighthouse for me?

Next week: We’re going to embrace the obvious and follow this up with Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954). Watch it on Max, Roku, Criterion, Tubi, Amazon, Vudu, Apple, and more. icon-paragraph-end

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