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Kaiju Classics - Gorgo (1961) Review

Updated on May 2, 2013

The giant monster movie phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s was leading to the creation of more over-the-top or outrageous creatures in an attempt to draw crowds in. From the giant, fire-breathing, flying turtle Gamera to the mutated extraterrestrial spore creature Guilala, the monsters that began to appear and the stories involving them began to stretch credulity for even this genre. However, one of the first of the "Godzilla" clones of this era proved that it didn't take overly flashy effects or absurd plots to make a good movie, as long as you have a simple, but effective story.

This movie is the 1961 British monster movie Gorgo, and it shows that less can most certainly be more.

The Backstory

The movie Gorgo was developed from a screenplay written by Daniel Hyatt and John Loring, and was directed by French screenwriter and director Eugène Lourié. Lourié, most well known for having brought the 1953 monster movie "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" to life, retired from directing following Gorgo, feeling that, while it was a successful movie, he didn't like the idea of being typecast as a science fiction director.

Though the movie's location is predominantly set around Ireland and London, England, initial ideas for its setting included Japan and France. Australia was also considered a location at one point, but due to the continent's lack of recognizable landmarks at the time, the writers and producers felt that audiences wouldn't care about a giant monster attacking it.

Like many of its contemporaries at the time, the monster effects were brought to life primarily through suitmation, whereupon a stuntperson would wear a large suit and filmed interacting with models and miniatures. To give a sense of scale to the creature, scenes involving the monster were filmed using slow motion cameras, which were very expensive for the early 60's, but managed to convey weight to it.

The Cast of Gorgo

Sam Slade - William Sylvester

Captain Joe Ryan - Bill Travers

Sean - Vincent Winters

Mr. Dorkin - Martin Benson

McCartin - Christopher Rhodes

Prof. Flaherty - Bruce Seton

Prof. Hendricks - Joseph O'Conor

Gorgo - Mick Dillon

The Plot

The crew of a salvage ship off the coast of Ireland is growing restless as the water ahead of them is churning and foaming. The ship's captain, Joe Ryan, insists that his first officer, Sam Slade, come up from his dive immediately, but Sam, not wanting to give up thousands of dollars worth of gold from a sunken ship below them, convinces him to let him go back down for ten minutes. As he comes back up after spending nearly half an hour in the water, a volcano breaks the surface of the water and erupts, sending large waves out that damage and nearly capsize the ship.

Sam, after surveying the damage, informs Joe that that it'd take around three to four days to repair the ship, but their water supply is nearly depleted. Joe decides that the two of them should head ashore to the village on nearby Nara Island to see if they could obtain some supplies. Heading to the harbor master's house, they are greeted by a young boy, Sean, who tells the two that he is the harbor master's assistant, who is an archaeologist by trade. Sean takes Joe and Sam to a back room in the house and shows them all the finds that have been made, revealing a treasure of Viking swords and shields. Sam then notices a carved boat figurehead up on the wall of a serpent-like creature, which Sean tells them represents the water spirit Ogra, who protects those waters as she had for thousands of years.

The harbor master, McCartin, arrives, and tells them that because of the treasures he's found, no ship is allowed in those waters for over 24 hours with a permit, but offers them the fresh water they need. Joe and Sam, not believing the story of the permit, head out to find out what's actually bothering McCartin. Heading back to the ship, they come across several of McCartin's men who are searching the surface of the water, revealing that two divers hadn't come up yet and they fear they're gone. One of them manages to surface, but soon after Joe and Sam pull him into their boat, he passed away, and Sam speculates that it was due to fright.

The two decide to dive down where the dead diver had been found after discovering gold coins on his person; Joe believing that McCartin's insistence that they leave immediately was to hide the existence of the gold from them. As the two swim further down, they suddenly see a large, dinosaur-like creature slowly swimming nearby, and the two quickly surface again.

The monster appears on Nara Island.
The monster appears on Nara Island.

That night, McCartin tells them that he knows they were snooping around and tells them that once their water supply has been loaded on board, the ship is to leave. However, as McCartin's men continue to search for the other diver, the monster Joe and Sam saw earlier surfaces and quickly destroys several of the boats before coming ashore. Despite protests by Sean not to hurt it, the creature is eventually driven away with torches being thrown by Sam, Joe, and the villagers.

The next morning, Joe and Sam go to see McCartin, blackmailing him into giving them some of his treasures in order for them to get rid of the monster. Deciding that a creature like it would be worth even more to them alive than dead, Joe goes down in the Triton's diving bell to lure the creature with its lights so it could be caught in the ship's nets. Their wait for the monster isn't very long, as it quickly attacks the diving bell, but is eventually ensnared by the nets and brought on board. News of its capture quickly spreads around the world, and two Irish paleontologists arrive to examine the creature, now believed to have been released from caverns below the ocean by the vocano. The scientists instruct Joe to take the monster to Ireland so that it can be received by the University of Dublin, and also instruct him that the creature's skin should be kept wet with streams of water at all times.

Joe, however, having been in contact with Dorkins Circus of London, feels the deal that they're offering is far more profitable, and tells Sam to make ready for England. That night, Sean, who had stowed away on the ship, attempts to set the monster free, but is stopped by Joe before he could undo the nets. After taking the boy to a bunk rather than returning him to Nara, they notice a phosphorescent glow in the water from the runoff from the creature.

The next morning, the Triton reaches England. The Irish scientists quickly berate Joe and Sam for having stolen the creature, since it rightfully belonged to Ireland, and for having not considered the health and safety hazards of bringing it to London. Mr. Dorkin, owner of Dorkins Circus, tells the scientists that they will have an opportunity to study the monster once it is brought to Battersea Park, where it is to be exhibited.

The creature, given the name Gorgo after the Greek myth of the Gorgons, is brought to Battersea Park, but awakens before it can be moved into its enclosure. With flamethrowers, Gorgo is driven down into the enclosure, but not before killing one of the Triton's crew, Mike.

Gorgo quickly becomes a household name, appearing on billboards and the sides of buses all over London, and the publicity for Dorkins Circus is at an all-time high. Joe is reveling in his new wealth and fame, but Sam, feeling guilty over Mike's death and his uneasiness over how the other animals of the circus are taking to Gorgo, feels that something terrible is on the horizon. The two are called in by the paleontologists, who have made the startling discovery that Gorgo is an infant, and that an adult of the species, which would be nearly 200 feet tall, is somewhere out there.

Going to the Royal Navy, the scientists warn of the parent's existence and that the offspring was found off the shore of Nara Island, which has been out of radio contact for three days. A number of ships and planes are sent to the area to investigate, and find the mother making her way towards London. The monster is barraged with cannon fire from the battleships and sinks into the ocean, but resurfaces near one of the ships, the Royal Oak, and destroys it. Joe and Sam are brought in to see Admiral Brooks, informing them of the phosphorescent trail and that it might have been a beacon for the mother. Sam insists that Gorgo be returned to its mother, but Joe, not wanting to give up his fame, insists that there should be some way to destroy a creature like that.

Ogra breaks through the Thames fire wall.
Ogra breaks through the Thames fire wall.

NATO ships are launched into the Atlantic to intercept Ogra before she reaches landfall. However, despite repeated attacks from cannons, depth charges, and torpedoes, the monster is unfazed and quickly breaks through the naval line. In hopes of driving her back, fuel is dumped into the waters of the River Thames along the harbor and set aflame, but unlike her child, she shows no aversion to the fire as she makes her way through it.

A state of emergency is issued for all London areas within three miles of the Thames as a battalion of tanks and other heavy artillery vehicles are sent in to stop Ogra before she reaches land. The army proves ineffective though as she shrugs off their attacks before demolishing the London Bridge. Making her way on land, the creature slowly arrives at Big Ben before being assaulted by missile batteries, though they do little more than bounce off her thick hide as she topples the clock tower.

Ogra topples Big Ben
Ogra topples Big Ben

The population is in a frenzy as they try to escape the advancing monster: climbing over each other, trampling fallen people under their feet, even jumping from buildings several stories off the ground. A squadron of jets is sent in as a last ditch effort to halt Ogra's advances, but their missile fire do little to affect her. Amidst the panic, Joe and Sean are forced into the sewers, but they and Sam manage to make it back to Battersea Park as the military set up electric lines able to generate four million volts of electricity around it.

The mother is undeterred in her quest to find her child, and tears through the electric lines surrounding Gorgo's enclosure. Breaking down one of the walls with her foot, Ogra frees her child and then turns towards the river with Gorgo following behind, choosing to return home with her offspring rather than continue with her rampage.

The Effects and Music

The effects for Gorgo are probably some of the best for this time period. The monster suit designs help give them a unique feel that is still familiar at the same time; it's able to maintain some similarities with other monsters of the same genre and time period, while still being its own. I was, however, not a very big fan of the large hands the two had. Because of how they were designed, it's clear that there wasn't any real way of articulating the fingers, so the hands weren't able to grab onto objects so much as just swat at them to knock them down.

The sets and miniatures were also very well done. Given the night setting that Ogra's attack takes place, the structures, most notably the London Bridge and Big Ben, seem to have been reproduced faithfully, and their destruction is rather convincing. Most of the military's attacks utilized actually wartime stock footage spliced with reactions from Ogra, so I can't comment on their quality since it's authentic footage of actual naval ships and air force jets. However, the Triton's near capsizing at the beginning of the movie and the destroyer that Ogra sank were produced through miniature ships. The two ships, unfortunately, looked quite like model boats, but Eugène Lourié wisely made sure that they weren't in shots for more than a few seconds.

If there was one glaring issue I had with the special effects, it'd be the scenes involving green screen shots. Green screen shots of this time period were generally hit and miss, with some looking very convincing and others showing their flaws, and Gorgo fell into that second one. During daytime shots, the characters would have a prominent black outline that made them look like cardboard cutouts against the background. The outline was less visible in shots meant to be taking place at night, but there were issues with the lighting of the character in comparison to the scenery. In some scenes, the shadows wouldn't look right on the actor, and during others the colors on the actor as a whole were off.

The music was probably one of the weaker points in the movie. Only a few scenes had any real accompaniment to them and, apart from the scene with Sean looking on as Ogra and Gorgo return home, most of it doesn't really do anything for the scenes. The music does help to convey the feeling of the scenes that it appears in, but it's so subtle and uninspired that I feel it could have been left out entirely and the movie not suffer.

Final Thoughts

I feel this is probably one of the stronger entries of the 50's and 60's giant monster movie genre. Rather than go for something over the top or overly comical, Gorgo is a straight forward and serious movie, with an ending very original for its time. I like that, despite being a giant dinosaur, Ogra's behavior is very human, that she'd face such odds and tear a city apart in order to find her child that was taken from her. She isn't destroying London because she enjoys it, but because she's got a goal in mind that she won't let anyone or anything interfere with.

The human element is there, but is wisely kept on the back burner to help showcase Gorgo and Ogra. After all, the entire reason to see the movie is to see the monsters, and fortunately we're able to see them both early and frequently. Sam, Joe, and Sean are the catalysts for what happens for the rest of the movie, and then fall into a supporting cast position once Ogra makes her appearance, which I think is the right way to do any kind of monster movie, especially one like this.

I would highly recommend this to all giant monster movie fans. It's not bogged down with long, slow build-ups, and offers a movie that, despite it being about a two hundred foot prehistoric creature, we can relate to.

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