Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Gorgo (1961) * * ½

Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) is salvaging for treasure off the coast of Ireland when a volcano erupts and nearly sinks his ship. Ryan and his first officer Sam Slade (William Sylvester) take the ship to Nara Island for repairs. As they enter the harbor, they discover the floating carcasses of marine animals, the first hint that something dangerous was awoken by the volcano eruption.

Ryan and Slade land on Nara Island and consult the shady harbor master McMartin (Christopher Rhodes), who has archeological pretensions and is in no mood for anybody snooping about in his work, despite the fact that several island divers have gone missing following the undersea disturbance, and one died of fear. He has been salvaging a Viking longship in the harbor. After dark, a monstrous creature surfaces, attacks a group of fishermen, then comes ashore to wreak havoc on the island. This dinosaur-like creature is about 65 feet tall, and the people on the island manage to drive it away.

Ryan and his crew capture the monster, haul it aboard their ship, and tie it to the deck. Soon scientists arrive on Nara, hoping to collect the monster for study, but Ryan has been offered a better deal by the owner of a circus in London. Ignoring the pleas of the Edinburgh Museum, the ship takes off for London, with young orphan Sean (Vincent Winter) stowing away. When the ship arrives in London, the circus owner Dorkin (Martin Benson) names it "Gorgo", after the Gorgons of classical mythology. It is exhibited to the public as a carnival attraction at Dorkin's Circus in Battersea Park, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Sean comes to pity Gorgo and says, "It's a bad thing ye're doin'! A teddible bad thing!"

The scientists examine Gorgo, and conclude that he is not yet an adult, and that his mother must be nearly 200 feet tall. On that note, the film cuts to Nara Island as Gorgo's mother Ogra attacks. Ogra trashes the island, sinks a Royal Navy destroyer, and resists attack from other warships. Later, Ogra comes ashore in London, still looking for her son, and destroys Tower Bridge and Big Ben, despite being bombarded by tanks and infantry. Royal Air Force jets attack Ogra with no effect. Having demolished much of London, Ogra rescues Gorgo, and both mother and son return to the sea. The film is sometimes praised for its innovative ending, which has an environmental moral. Unusual for such films, the monsters, which are presented as innocent victims of human interference, survive and prevail. This idea came from Lourié's daughter, who was upset when he killed off the monsters at the end of his previous pictures. His new monster is as sympathetic as possible--and it wins in the end!

GORGO is a British science fiction rip-off of Godzilla with hints of King Kong. Director Eugène Lourié recycled the plots of his earlier BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and the London setting of BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER (1959) but this time used a man in a rubber costume rather than stop-motion animation. Lourié tried to secure the talents of Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen for GORGO (he had worked with them previously), but neither was available. Gorgo attacks a rollercoaster in Battersea Funfair, like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms did in Coney Island. Although GORGO is made like a Godzilla movie, it is a peculiarly unique British monster film. The modelwork and special effects are from some of the finest technicians of the time, who later went on to work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), but with a much bigger budget. Gorgo's special effects are sometimes hit and miss, but easily on a par with the Japanese monster flicks of the time, though crude by contemporary standards. The monster suit looks fantastic on film, the creature's actions make it look huge, and the modelwork is detailed and large scale. There is even a full scale Gorgo transported around London on a flatbed lorry, and a full-size prop of its claw to interact with unwary sailors. Acting is above par, there is no dubbing of voices, and the music score is also quite good.

Britain's answer to the popular Godzilla movies was originally set to take place in Japan, then France, and then finally changed to the UK. Australia was also considered. The location where Gorgo first appears, the fictional Nara Island, is likely a tribute to the Godzilla series: Nara being a city in southern Honshu, Japan. Scenes where Gorgo is driven through the streets of London were shot on a Sunday morning when there was no traffic. The film studio wanted Gorgo to fight the military despite Lourié's objections. Later, Lourié acquired a print of the film and removed the footage. A novelization of the film was released in paperback at the time of its original release ("Gorgo" by Carson Bingham). The film was also given a comic book series, published by Charlton Comics and included work by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, from 1961 to 1965 for 23 issues. Another series, titled "Return of Gorgo" was published for 2 issues in 1963/64, as well as a one-shot "Gorgo's Revenge" in 1962.

The villains are a bit harder to point out in GORGO than in the Japanese monster films. Joe, Sam, McMartin, and the Dorkin Circus people are all garishly portrayed as greedy bastards with never a tinge of remorse over their money-grubbing indiscretion. However, GORGO is a cute little film, a pleasant diversion on a lazy Saturday afternoon that will appeal to fans of Godzilla and Japanese monster movies.

The cast also includes: Joseph O'Conor (Professor Hendricks), Bruce Seton (Professor Flaherty), Maurice Kaufmann (Radio Reporter), Basil Dignam (Admiral Brooks), Barry Keegan (Mate), Tommy Duggan (First Naval Officer), Howard Lang (First Colonel), Dervis Ward (Bosun), John Breslin (Soldier), Nigel Green (Bulletin Announcer), and Harvey Hall (Squadron Leader). Angelo Francesco Lavagnino composed the original music. Robert L. Richards and Daniel James wrote the screenplay. Eugène Lourié directed. GORGO was his final directorial credit, and he returned to production design, art direction, set dressing, and special effects.

Fans of the film will welcome the new DVD release from VCI. It is definitely an improvement over the previous laserdisc release that was generally murky. Transferred from an original source print and presented in a widescreen aspect ratio, this time the picture looks significantly better than its large-format predecessor. It's no full-on restoration effort, however, despite the back cover copy proclaiming it as a digital remaster. The image is much brighter and sharper, showing a great deal more detail. Some bits are too sharp, looking slightly over-processed. The colors look OK but are generally muted and detail level is not as crisp as it could be. Since much of the picture is set in underwater sequences, there's a considerable amount of murkiness. But it's better than what you may have seen before. The audio is presented in a serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. The few extras include a new documentary from fan/film historian Tom Weaver, some bio notes on Lourié and the actors, a photo gallery of film stills and poster art, and an overdramatic theatrical trailer: "The Most Astonishing Event in Our Lifetime!"

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