Home Video Reviews
The story: Salvage boat operators Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) are exploring off the coast of Nara Island in Ireland when the eruption of an undersea volcano disrupts their work and damages their vessel. More strange events follow: peculiar fish are found floating in the water and a diver dies of fright. That night, an enormous Tyrannosaurus-like dinosaur appears and advances on the village until driven away by torches. Joe and Sam manage to capture the beast the next day using their salvage equipment. Scientists want the creature for study, but Joe and Sam instead accept a lucrative offer from circus operator Dorkin (Martin Benson). They take Gorgo, as the creature is dubbed, back to England against the objections of Sean (Vincent Winter), a young orphan they befriended on Nara. The boy stows away on their boat and makes an unsuccessful attempt to free the dinosaur. In London Gorgo is put on display before packed audiences. Scientists then come to Joe and Sam with disturbing news: Gorgo is a mere infant. The mother, estimated to be over 200 feet tall, will undoubtedly go looking for her child. Mother Gorgo is soon spotted in the sea on a course for London, and all the might of the British military is unable to stop her. As the towering prehistoric terror rampages through the city searching for her offspring, Joe and Sam must try to locate Sean amidst the panicking throngs.
Gorgo was produced by King Brothers Productions, headed by Frank and Maurice King. The two had broken into producing with low-budget programmers for Monogram and PRC, including When Strangers Marry (1944), an early effort from future horror director William Castle. They gradually worked their way up to larger budgets and distribution with the major studios, turning out films like Gun Crazy (1949) and The Brave One (1957), which won an Oscar® for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. According to Bill Warren's indispensable Keep Watching the Skies!, King Brothers made a handsome profit distributing the Toho monster movie Rodan in the United States, and Gorgo was originally planned as a U.S-Japanese co-production. The story was to be set in Japan, and the Kings were presumably planning to use Toho's experienced staff to create the effects. When Japanese financing fell through they announced the film would be set in Paris. Finally, London and the fictional Irish island of Nara were settled upon as the locations.
The script by Robert L. Richards and Daniel James (writing under the names John Loring and Daniel Hyatt, respectively) avoids many of the tired cliches of the giant monster film. Gorgo is not created by an atomic blast and isn't radioactive. There's no series of mysterious deaths being investigated by experts. There's no romance with a brilliant female scientist who becomes a helpless screaming ninny when the monster shows up. There's no team of scientists racing to discover a weakness that can be exploited. (Indeed, scientists, military men and reporters, usually the lead characters in a giant monster film, are reduced to supporting players.) Instead of the same old formula and a bunch of eggheads spouting pseudoscientific nonsense, Gorgo delivers a refreshingly simple, straightforward story centered on a pair of working class characters. Unlike most heroes of giant monster movies, Joe and Sam even get character arcs in the script, albeit rather simple ones: they start out fairly mercenary, but when forced to look after Sean they reconnect with their emotions and learn to care for others. The characters are still a bit underdeveloped, but the likeable performances by Travers and Sylvester compensate. There is an ecological theme running through the script, with Mother Gorgo meting out retribution for the crass exploitation of nature's wonders, but it's soft-peddled, especially in comparison with the more overt symbolism used in some of Toho's monster films.
The script does have some weaknesses. Aside from the underdeveloped characters, there's a subplot with a greedy archeologist on Nara Island who's hoarding Viking artifacts that goes nowhere. More significantly, the integration of Sean into the story is never entirely satisfactory. Kids are always a drag in monster movies, usually shoehorned into the story because the writer or producer figures children in the audience will identify with the child character. Fortunately Sean isn't made insufferably cute or smarter than all the adults, but he still feels like a plot device, someone to protest the taking of Gorgo to civilization and later be put into peril so the heroes have someone to rescue. There's a parallel between little Gorgo being separated from his mother and Sean being an orphan, but whereas the dinosaur gets a happy ending, Sean loses the only caretaker he has known (the archeologist). Typically in a movie if a bachelor meets a cute orphan, you can count on an ending in which the hero marries his girlfriend and the two adopt the orphan forming an instant family. In Gorgo there isn't a girlfriend in sight, and Sean is left in the custody of two seafaring men who can't provide a stable home or an education. All things considered, Sean might be better off asking Mama Gorgo if she has a spare room and can afford another mouth to feed.
Many giant monster movies of the period ended up mostly concealing their low-budget beasties, but Gorgo delivers plenty of thrilling monster action and features perhaps the best destruction scenes ever created using the "man in a monster suit" technique. The effects are credited to Tom Howard, a veteran of such films as Knights of the Round Table (1953) and Tom Thumb (1958) who would go on to contribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Sticklers for scientific accuracy may gripe-therapods are not believed to have been amphibious, and Gorgo's hands look uncharacteristically large-but for a movie monster the creature is well designed. The Gorgo suit (the infant and adult are identical) is for the most part well-executed, although the jaw tends to flop open and the glowing red eyes, meant to look menacing, always look like electric light bulbs and not an organic feature. The thickness of the neck, needed to run wires and controls to the head, means Gorgo can never turn her head, but first-time viewers are unlikely to notice. In addition to the suit, a full-size head, arm and tail of infant Gorgo were constructed and skillfully integrated into some scenes. The miniature effects are excellent. Whereas miniature buildings in Japanese monster movies often fly apart, betraying their light weight, the structures in Gorgo crumble with a convincing sense of weight and a lot of dust and debris. The optical compositing, vital in selling the illusion, is superb. The suit, the miniatures and the opticals all work together to make Gorgo's rampage through London an exciting, unforgettable sequence. There's a shot in the film of Sean watching the mass destruction with wide-eyed glee, and one can imagine kids in the audience reacting in the same manner.
Also contributing significantly to the success of the film is the color photography of Freddie Young, who would soon collaborate with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962); unfortunately, no video transfer of Gorgo has yet done justice to his work. Particularly memorable is the use of bright colors, especially reds, to accent Gorgo's nighttime attack. Angelo Lavagnino's score is worthy of mention as one of the finest created for the genre, featuring a lyrical main theme in addition to the more bombastic monster music one expects. (A suite is available on the CD More Monstrous Movie Music.) Hammer veteran Eric Boyd-Perkins was the editor, and sharp-eyed viewers will note that the film shows signs of significant post-production tampering, possibly to extend the running time. In the opening scene, footage is rearranged to make one dive sequence look like two. Bits of action are sometimes repeated, such as Joe punching Sam. Early in Gorgo's attack, gasoline is poured into the Thames and set ablaze. The ruins of Tower Bridge can be seen behind the monster, even though Gorgo doesn't demolish it until several minutes later. Shots of a radio reporter describing the carnage use crudely executed blue screen, suggesting that it was a hasty afterthought. In spite of the padding and rearranging of footage, the film's pacing remains brisk, only flagging slightly during a couple of overlong montages of military stock footage.
Like their recent reissue of Blood and Black Lace, VCI's new "widescreen destruction edition" of Gorgo is an exercise in frustration. On the positive side, the image is significantly brighter than the old disc, which, although from 35mm source materials, often looked dark and murky. For example, on the old DVD, infant Gorgo was barely visible when it first came ashore on Nara Island; on the new disc the creature can be clearly seen. Color, sharpness and detail are also slightly improved, although the color still looks slightly flat. On the negative side, the new transfer is still not 16 x 9 enhanced, and has inexplicably been letterboxed at 1.85:1 instead of the proper 1.66:1. Worse still, a lot of edge enhancement has been applied to the image, leading to some white fringing around characters and objects; this is particularly noticeable in some of the early scenes. The image also exhibits excessive grain. Finally, the transfer has apparently been converted from a PAL source and suffers from PAL speedup. VCI's old disc ran approximately 75 minutes and 43 seconds; the new one, in spite of having a few brief seconds of footage restored, clocks in at 73 minutes and 33 seconds.
The audio on the new DVD is much clearer, with a lot of noise cleaned up, but it has been given a gimmicky 5.1 mix with artificial directional effects and some new Foley. The new mix also alters the balance of music and effects in some scenes, such as the reunion between Mother Gorgo and her child. Couldn't we have just gotten a cleaned-up mono track? The extras are essentially the same as for the original DVD: a trailer; text bios of Lourie, Travers and Sylvester; and a featurette consisting of a narrator reading liner notes written by Tom Weaver over clips and a few stills. The printed liner notes included with the first disc have been dropped, and a stills gallery has been reworked into a video montage. Trailers for other VCI releases are also included.
In spite of its flaws, the disc is recommended because the film is so good, and it is unlikely that a better DVD edition of Gorgo will appear anytime soon. Since it was distributed theatrically in the U.S. by MGM, the original film elements are probably with Warner Bros. (owners of the pre-1986 MGM library), but the original distribution agreement may have expired, or may not have covered home video. Even if they have the rights, the film's apparent public domain status may discourage the studio from giving it a proper release. An unfortunate fate for one of the best giant monster movies ever made.
For more information about Gorgo, visit VCI Entertainment. To order Gorgo, go to TCM Shopping.
by Gary Teetzel