It's a 1950s atomic dinosaur movie. In fact, it's the first one. This means that it's, to be kind, a period piece that's bearing almost no resemblance to drama as we know it. However it made a fortune at the box office and spawned an entire genre, so it perhaps shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.
Firstly, some background. In 1952, a re-release of King Kong out-grossed pretty much all that year's first-run films. Unsurprisingly Hollywood immediately sent lots of giant monster movies into production, of which this film was one of the first to make it into cinemas. It took five million worldwide on a budget of 210,000. The 1950s thus saw lots more atomic dinosaur movies, not to mention atomic bug movies in the wake of Them! (1954) and of course alien invasions were still all the rage too. Furthermore it also inspired the ultimate monster movie, Godzilla
, which spawned a Japanese cinema franchise that hasn't stopped churning them out ever since.
However this film is also rubbish. It's fascinating that it took so much money. The characters are wooden and not even particularly important to the story, in a manner which is sufficiently odd and alien to modern eyes that it's worth spending some time on why. You see, I'm not exaggerating when I say the characters don't matter. It's not a movie about individuals triumphing over adversity, but instead society as a whole. Dramatically, the film doesn't work unless you regard its protagonist as the nation of America.
We begin with nuclear tests in the Arctic. A bunch of scientists and military people are involved in this and they're essentially faceless. This awakens a frozen dinosaur, the Rhedosaurus, whereupon the film belatedly decides that it needs a hero and has Paul Hubschmid see the thing before it goes swimming off. All that was the best bit of the film. However things now get dull and annoying, as Hubschmid tries in vain to convince his superiors of what he saw... for half the movie. I repeat. Half the movie. This will convince you that the American authorities in 1953 were morons, but what's interesting is that these scenes have an unusual emphasis. Hubschmid isn't an iconoclast. He's a good military scientist and he does things by the book. He's working within the system to prove himself right, not outside it, and it doesn't occur to him to break any rules or circumvent any authority when he's brushed aside like a gnat. Society is the film's protagonist, remember? Even when you're right and the world is wrong, the road to victory lies in playing by the rules and collecting more evidence to present respectfully to your superiors.
There's a bit of romance en route, but the film seemed to be as uninterested in that as I was and so dumped Hubschmid and his girl as soon as the army had woken up to the situation. From then on, it's military engagement time. There's an enemy attacking us and it's in New York! The movie ends about two seconds after they kill the monster.
Given the historical period, though, I can see how that might play to contemporary audiences. This was less than a decade after World War Two, which itself had started only twenty years after World War One. People were used to massive collective effort against a terrifying enemy. They'd been living with that for years. Their sons and husbands had died fighting the Nazis. Of course they were going to respond to a movie in which exactly the same thing happened and, in the end, good triumphed.
There's subtext about scientists and the nuclear age. It's probably accidental and thus not as clear as in Godzilla
, or even Them!, but even so it's still interesting. Scientists' nuclear tests are what unleash the Rhedosaurus. (These tests are so generic that they're called Operation Experiment.) After that the scientists become ostensibly the heroes, but note what happens to the Nice Bumbling Scientist who doesn't want the military to kill the dinosaur but instead wants to capture it alive and study it, saying things like "the benefit to science." Yup, that's right. Forget the boffins, men! The only solution to a problem like this is to shoot it with bazookas until it's dead!
The best example of dichotomy involves the Rhedosaurus's germ warfare. Late in the film, soldiers sent after the wounded dinosaur start falling sick. "Aha!" I thought. "They broke it out of the ice with nukes! It's radioactive!" This is a mildly cool twist and something similar happens in Cloverfield, but I was wrong about the details. Instead it's just some kind of super-germ that's been frozen with the Rhedosaurus for the same 100 million years and is at once dangerous to mankind and yet of no concern after you've killed the beast (eh?), which is achieved by shooting a radioactive isotope into its neck. Yes, that's right. Despite everything, nuclear power is what kills the beast.
All this is fascinating. It's also silly non-science with themes that have only surfaced at random, but they're still here and I wonder if they didn't play a part in the film's success. Unintentional themes can resonate too, even with an audience that's not consciously aware of them.
I've been unkind about this film, but it has strong points. The most important is that it looks awesome. Ray Harryhausen's special effects look like a million dollars, with enough detail in the stop-motion animation that it looks impressive even to a modern CGI audience. Look at the way it flicks its tongue, bobs its head and looks around. You can see the muscles moving in its throat. I've never really been a Harryhausen fanboy, but he's the star of this film without a shadow of a doubt and he's taking it to another level. He turns it into a blockbuster, not just some cheap B-movie. Note also the beautiful model work in the diving bell scene. However on the downside, there's an underwater shark-octopus fight that I didn't enjoy watching, since I suspect it was done simply by putting an octopus in a shark's tank.
Then there's Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson. I've said that the cast aren't very important, but Kellaway's so adorable that he pulls in your affection anyway.
The film's "suggested" by a Ray Bradbury story. What this means is that Bradbury was visiting his friend Harryhausen on the set and someone asked him if he might do some rewriting on the script. His comment after reading it was that its "monster destroys the lighthouse" scene was reminiscent of something in one of his own stories. The next day, Bradbury received a telegram offering to buy the film rights to that story, from which they took its lurid title. Mind you, Bradbury then changed the title of the original story to "The Fog Horn" when it was reprinted years later.
In summary, this is a top-flight production of a surreal museum piece of a story. Trust the 1950s to come up with even a dated dramatic structure. When those two soldiers risk their necks climbing up on the roller-coaster at the end to kill the Rhedosaurus, do we even know their names? The film works if you're: (a) a child, or (b) watching it a few years after a World War. However on the upside it looks amazing, with the opening sequence and those Arctic nuclear tests in particular being almost mesmerising. That's real mushroom cloud footage we're looking at. That might give you a shiver down your spine. It's a lavish-looking production all round, in fact, with a famous musical score from David Buttolph and even surprisingly good acting. Paul Hubschmid's being inconsistent with his character's foreign accent, mind you, which is ironic since he himself wasn't a native speaker (he came from Switzerland) and so wasn't just putting it on.
The film's still rubbish, but it's a better class of rubbish than a lot of its successors. You can see why it was a hit. For a modern audience, I see two reasons to watch it: (a) the wrinkled subtext, and (b) Harryhausen.