Gorgo, 1961. 9/10

Gorgo does everything right. As much as I like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, I think Gorgo is a bit better. All of the stock devices are in play: the initial isolated setting with taciturn locals, some quasi-geological explanation for the monster’s appearance, its subsequent emergence (in this case abduction) to the nearest big city, fighting the navy and then the army (well, that’s the mother Gorgo’s job), a last ditch attempt to kill the monster(s) after it leaves a swath of wreckage, and then an unresolved exit by the monsters.

All of which happens at a nice pace. The most interesting plot aspect was the fact that the two main characters (Bill Travers and William Sylvester) aren’t exactly good guys. Their angle is completely commercial; along with the impresario Dorkin (Martin Benson) they go into the freak show business with the baby Gorgo. They get their comeuppance when the gigantic adult Gorgo shows up. The problem is, their selfishness can’t be undone, as London is shaken up pretty bad. Makes you wonder how they were allowed to take charge of the thing in the first place–as though it were just another zoo animal. That’s emblematic of an unsolvable problem in movies of this type: the main characters would naturally be brushed aside in a real-world scenario. Since, in that case, we would just have a documentary from the authorities’ point of view, we’d lose all sense of drama. Only in a movie that doesn’t shift from an isolated setting can we believe that there’s no ‘authorities’.

The fact that there’s really no good guys here (except for the kid) helps explain the smuggled baby Gorgo. To keep our disbelief suspended, it might’ve been better had this been completely secret. The seamy undercurrent was established by the village plunderer/salvager McCartin (Christopher Rhodes) who has a nice collection of Viking artifacts– among them, a Gorgo-like dragon’s head, presumably a ship’s bow decoration. There’s maybe a bit too much of McCartin; but his cache subtly hints at Gorgos mythic nature. Why give the monster a Roman-derived name, since we’re dealing with Nordic stuff here? In any case, the little Gorgo gets into action at the 13 minute mark, so things pick up quickly.

It’s a good device having a second, more menacing monster. This allows the plot to ‘reboot’, so to speak, as events take a darker turn, and the stakes are raised. The warship attack brings up another good device: the false ending–as the admiral is convinced that “no living thing could survive.” Of course it does, though. The naval action is well done; despite the noted use of stock footage, it seems to blend in. Then we have the cool monster-comes-ashore bit. The fire in the harbor doesn’t do much, which is good; we want multiple types of attack to keep things interesting. Then the predictable–but no less exciting–panic, evacuation, trampled-doll-in-the-street stuff. The payoff in this genre is the hapless city’s destruction. No disappointment here, either. Big Gorgo does a job on notable landmarks and stuff in between.

The modelling is as good if not better than in Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and the Godzilla-themed movies. Some folks think that the monster itself looks catoon-ish or too phony. It’s not quite as good as the Beast (From 20,000…) but decently menacing. The Admiral was quite correct that conventional weapons would destroy such a monster, but that would be too easy…In any case, the army units put on a good, believable show. One thing that could be cleaned up is the uselessness of small arms fire. I guess they have to give all he extras something to do; but if the naval weapons haven’t stopped it, anything less than heavy weapons (tanks, missles, etc.) is absurd. The best scene with the big Gorgo comes just as it’s about to test the electrical trap. It’s lurking against the night sky, the lights from fires giving it an eerie glow, the carefree atmosphere of the carnival violated by its presence–very macabre–a moment of horror.

Sort of unusually, the ultimate weapon (4000 volts) isn’t exotic, and also doesn’t work. Another false ending; in fact that is the ending. By this time the newscaster has sort of taken over as narrator; another good move, as we’re summing up and giving a broader view. Civilization is ok, but just ok–we’ve got a reprieve, and that’s all. It is weird that there’s no female characters; in fact, no one really stands out amongst the guys either. Not weak performances, very even actually. This is a case of the story being more important than any particular character. Since the vast majority of sci-fi movies from this era (not to mention in other 50s and 60s movie genres) had female characters only as ornaments for the lead guys, it was probably better to not have romance subplots (i.e., with women) in a movie that isn’t character-driven anyway.

Another glossed-over issue was the usual bunch of scientists huddling up to figure out the monster, and getting in the way of its destruction. The scientists here are less important than the get-rich-quick guys. I think, for the most part, the different emphases given to some elements helps to distinguish Gorgo from other contemporary monster movies. Despite some missteps, Gorgo does so many things well–both predictably and unexpectedly–that it remains a very entertaining experience. 9/10.

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