JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH
Growing up a half hour away from the Museum of Natural History was a game-changer for my fertile, juvenile mind. I practically haunted the remnants of the prehistoric era, gazing in wonder at the enormous, monstrous fossils. For a time, I wanted to be a paleontologist, until it finally dawned upon me that I’d probably never find live specimens to bring back to civilization that would then end up destroying a major metropolis. Sigh.
For that, I had to partially rely upon literary works such as Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, two paperbacks that quickly became dog-eared from multiple readings. Then, I discovered TV’s Million Dollar Movie, and my world was forever transformed. Dinosaurs leveling key cities became my favorite genre; couldn’t get enough of them. The wonderful thing about Million Dollar Movie was that it paved the way for cheap programming by running one movie twice nightly for a week, and then all weekend long. So, I got to memorize all the dialog from King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and, perhaps the creepiest dino-on-the-loose flick of all time, 1959’s shamefully underrated THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. By the time 1969 rolled around, Warner Bros. sicced THE VALLEY OF GWANGI upon the by-then jaded public; nevertheless, I was, once again hooked. I’m so delighted to announce that both these primo-dino epics are currently available in awesome price-friendly Blu-Ray editions from The Warner Archive Collection. I am, once again, a kid in the candy store.
These movies are not simply vastly entertaining sci-fi extravaganzas (though they are that, in spades), but technical marvels showcasing the artistry of two of the finest SFX magicians in the field, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Indeed, Harryhausen had the good fortune to see O’Brien’s Kong in its original release. It changed his life more than it did mine (obviously). He was determined to devote his subsequent existence to creating similar phantasmagoria on his own turf (originally, in his parents’ garage). Eventually, he met the great O’Brien (nicknamed Obie), who, after some gentle but valid criticism, hired him to assist on his latest project, John Ford’s production of Mighty Joe Young. As it is so convenient to often quote, “the rest is history.” As O’Brien’s star slightly faded, Harryhausen’s rose to new 1950s eye-popping heights (20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and his first Technicolor blockbuster The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad).
Since it’s the dinosaurs that were my first and breathtaking movie love, nothing could give me greater pleasure than discussing and paying homage to these two men via the below praise for their labors and those of the savvy selection crew at Warner Archive. So, here we go.
I first saw THE GIANT BEHEMOTH on the aforementioned Million Dollar Movie. It’s no understatement that, cinematically, the pic was an integral part of my youth. My dad watched it at least a couple of times with me (very unusual for him). It was the middle portion of French director Eugene Lourie’s dino trilogy. His first was Harryhausen’s 1952 Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; his last was 1961’s Gorgo. The former was a grand scale Hollywood monster show, with the title creature simply doing what all prehistoric monsters do. The latter was a modern fable. That left BEHEMOTH – the one that had the most impact on me – the one that took a frightening documentary approach. In graphic black-and-white, this British/U.S. coproduction presents a dire commentary on the penalty we’ll pay for destroying the environment.
At a London conference surrounding the pros and cons of nuclear exploration, American marine biologist Steve Karnes screens films of outbreak-suit-wearing scientists checking the shorelines for doses of radioactivity post-bomb testing. Ostensibly, they conclude, the published accumulation of low levels pronounce it safe for humans to return to swimming, boating and fishing (while this was 1959, the movie is still wary enough to term these findings suspicious…and dangerous). “These are ourselves!,” warns Karnes, who further scolds the committees with horrific tales of polluting the waters with waste. You’re crazy to think that this won’t have an eventual effect on the global eco-structure.
And so it does.
Cornwall is first hit by thousands of dead fish washing up upon its beaches. An elderly fisherman (Henri Vidon), securing his catch, is blinded by a throbbing light, and burnt to a crisp. His final word: “Behemoth.”
Karnes and his British counterpart, a well-connected scientist/politico Professor Bickford (Andre Morell), immediately head for Cornwall, where the dead fish have now washed out on the tide. Radioactivity levels are low, and there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly amiss. Except for the locals exhibiting severe radiation burns on their limbs.
Natch, no one believes the potential environmental disaster that lies beneath. Then a farming community is obliterated, with its human and livestock populace burned to cinders. This time there is more evidence, a mammoth footprint the size of several police cars.
Dr. Sampson, the country’s leading paleontologist is called in (the wonderful Jack MacGowran); he sees the immediate nightmare that the creature brings, yet is eccentrically delighted (“You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me. See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents – well, what can they be?”). He pegs the beast as a paleosaurus, a gargantuan amphibious creature. Unlike the previously mentioned dinos, the paleosaurs (at least this one) is inherently evil. And, as Sampson points out, “It’s electric, like an eel.” But, of course, with something this size, its charge is tantamount to fifty times that of a ride in an electric chair. Coupled with human negligence (exposure to radiation waste), this Jurassic predator is a true horror.
Tragedy after tragedy occurs before the monster rises and destroys a good deal of London. And the task of killing it (before it dies from the massive toxic radioactive jolt it has been exposed to) becomes a tense game of monster and mouse.
This movie is nasty. The gruesome deaths terrified me, and the sarcastic capper didn’t give anyone a sigh of relief (reports of dead fish washing up on Florida shores). My dad snarkily laughed at that, uttering under his breath: “The bastards are destroying our seas.” I thought he meant monsters, not the polluters. Didn’t understand the laugh either, and figured he just didn’t care for Florida (which was probably true).
Lourie, who barely spoke English, early-on worked as Jean Renoir’s production designer (Grand Illusion, Le Bete Humaine, Rules of the Game, etc.). Renoir, given a private screening of 20,000 Fathoms at Warner Bros., exited with tears of joy. “What a magnificent beast!,” he proclaimed to his friend. I’d love to know what he would have thought of this rendering. It’s amazing that with Lourie’s language difficulties, that he could write so chilling and literate a script. Research has provided an answer. The movie was mostly penned by Robert Abel and blacklisted scribe Allen Adler (story) with dialog by Daniel James (who, when credited, only worked under his pseudonym Danny Santiago). Suddenly, it all makes sense.
The cast is realistically sublime. Gene Evans is so believable as a nuclear scientist (effectively and correctly pronouncing and using terminology), that I still have trouble seeing him in the countless westerns he mostly appeared in (usually as henchmen, ranch hands, etc.). Samuel Fuller gave the actor more credibility with turns in The Steel Helmet and Park Row (in fact, I always thought it was a nod to this movie that caused Fuller to cast Evans in Shock Corridor as an insane nuclear physicist). The remainder of the cast is equally impressive, and includes Leonard Sachs, Alastair Hunter, Norman Rossington, and Derren Nesbitt.
The graphic docu-monochrome photography is by Ken Hodges (The Jokers, The Ruling Class and episodes of Secret Agent), and the genuinely goose-bump-raising score is by Edwin Astley.
Of course, it’s the SFX that deliver the mass goods, and they’re mostly achieved by the brilliant Willis O’Brien and his longtime assistant, Pete Peterson, an unsung stop-motion hero. It’s not a stretch to say that the budget for this Allied Artists-released sci-fi was tight; in fact, tight would be an upgrade. Astoundingly, much of the work was done in Peterson’s garage. O’Brien had even copped a reel of audio from RKO, and the victims’ agonizing screams are the same as those heard 26 years earlier in King Kong. Several paleos were created, one just a head and neck (used in a London ferry destruction sequence); on the incorrectly framed TV/16MM rental prints, the full square dimensions reveal a wood block at the creature’s neck. Fortunately, this dazzling Blu-Ray is mastered in the accurate aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (although you can still see the tip of the block).
Three scenes that freak me out to this day don’t rely upon any of the excellent effects: the already discussed opening sequence, a photo lab testing of radiation from local fishing communities, and a creepy excursion on a tug through a mist-filled sea (with just a touch of dragon-spiked neck ducking into the depths with emissions of steam and fire).
In Britain, the move was logically released as simply Behemoth – the Sea Monster (with codirecting credit to Douglas Hickox). For the U.S. debut, AA surmised that Americans wouldn’t know what that meant, so they retitled it THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, kinda like calling it The Rich Millionaire. Never mind.
The Warner Archive Collection has done us BEHEMOTH fans a great service with this Blu-Ray; aside from the excellent transfer, there are a couple of cool extras, including the trailer and audio commentary by contemporary SFX wizards Phil Tippet and Dennis Murren (the latter of whom is in possession of one the BEHEMOTH models!). My dad would love this disc. No better praise than that.
Considered by many to be Ray Harryhausen’s last great masterpiece, 1969’s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is one wizard’s homage to another. Willis O’Brien had a “cowboys vs. dinosaurs” project earmarked on his “to do” list as early as 1917. It evolved into GWANGI during the first half of the 1940s, but the production was abandoned. Abandoned, but never forgotten. O’Brien regaled his new, young assistant (that’s Ray, folks) with his ideas, set pieces and dreams of GWANGI (a partial, budget-constrained 1956 O’Brien CinemaScope undertaking, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, only came alive during the last ten minutes or so). And, so, in the mid-1960s, Harryhausen brought the story – updated with a completely revised and fleshed-out screenplay (by William Bast and, uncredited, Julian More) – to fruition. The picture was shopped to Warner Bros. who approved the UK/U.S. coproduction, to be shot in Spain (covering for Mexico). The time period remained the same as O’Brien’s original concept (1900), and revolves around a struggling but exciting Wild West Show, based just below the Texas border.
A tribe of gypsies, steeped in superstition, fear the wrath of Gwangi, a mythical creature supposedly guarding a forbidden valley. Yet, when Carlos, one of the band (now working for the show), along with his brother discover a living, breathing eohippus (that’s tiny prehistoric horse to you), he and his employers plan to astound the world with a mini-rodeo.
So far this is more kiddie cute than anything else (and, indeed, the sequences with the eohippus are quite charming). But then Carlos’ sib turns up clawed to death, coinciding with the return of Tuck, a former shady member of the show. Tuck wants to pick up where he left off, and that includes romancing the gorgeous co-owner T.J. An equally unscrupulous British paleontologist (in his way as shifty as Tuck), too, sets up shop – intending to use the tiny horse as bait to the valley’s entrance. And, from then on, its SFX nirvana with some of the best Harryhausen dino-confrontations ever unleashed on the screen. Of course, the humans, obsessed by greed (they never learn), decide to capture the fearsome Gwangi (actually, a perennially hungry Allosaurus), thereby, truly having the greatest show on Earth. Uh-oh. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong, causing much destruction, fatalities, Jurassic gnoshing and more. The finale in a mammoth Spanish cathedral is one of the finest endings of any sci-fi monster show.
GWANGI, aside from the eohippus, Allosaurus, pterodactyls, triceratops and others had a fine homo sapien cast. Leading the throng was James Franciscus, supported by Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Freda Jackson, and Gustavo Rojo (as Carlos); must say that as much as I despise children in these kind of movies, Curtis Arden is actually pretty good and non-offensive. As T.J., the romantic interest, Israeli model-turned-actress Gila Golan does an decent job, despite terrible Jay Ward-esque “Texas belle” dubbing (why they couldn’t have made the character part-Latina and let the woman speak with her accent is a head-scratcher, but, as I oft say, WTF do I know?).
GWANGI is directed in rousing fashion by Jim O’Connoly, and lavishly photographed in Technicolor by Erwin Hillier. I should mention that the first time I met Ray Harryhausen, he told me that in the back of his mind was always the dream of having his effects accompanied by great movie music (he abhorred the cheap, stock Columbia themes Sam Katzman provided for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea). This finally came to pass in 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, where Harryhausen began his remarkable association with Bernard Herrmann (the maestro composed four pics for Harryhausen, some among his best scores). When Harryhausen & Co. could no longer afford Herrmann, they went with such musical luminaries as Laurie Johnson (First Men in the Moon) and Miklos Rozsa (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). For GWANGI, they were fortunate to secure the talents of Jerome Moross, whose superb soundtrack perfectly matches the thrills and magic on the screen.
For all of this good stuff, GWANGI had some bad luck when it came to release time. Warner Bros., having been sold to Seven Arts and then being handled by The Kinney Company, absolutely hated the picture. Furthermore, they brought in an army of accountants and efficiency experts to save what they perceived as the hemorrhaging distribution curse of movie-making. They officially ended Warner double-features at nabe theaters, only sending out single pics, under the banner Warner Showcase, literally cutting many Americans’ weekend movie fun in half. GWANGI, notwithstanding the generally positive reviews, like its title star, thus, quickly became extinct. The pic briefly re-surfaced a couple of years later when Warners’ When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth hit various grindhouse circuits, before finally going to television, where, in full-framed compromised editions, it remained until a DVD resurrection.
There were some other caveats that hindered the initial (and later video) GWANGI rollout. One, a backhanded compliment to Harryhausen, was outrage by animal rights activists when an elephant is abused during a battle with the Allosaurus (none of the shots in this sequence involved a real pachyderm). Another, funnier blow came in 1995 when the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification Video Game Rating System) refused to give the movie a general “U” certificate due to one exchange between the two leads. In the pic, Golan asks what Franciscus has been up to since he left the show. Remember, his character’s name is Tuck. “Just Tucking around,” he replies. The line was misinterpreted by hard-of-hearing, disgusted film censors.
The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a stunner. The locations look great in widescreen 1080p High Definition, as do many of the multiple Harryhausen SFX (only occasionally leaning a bit on the grainy side). The mono track, with that glorious Moross score, sounds just swell, as do the snapping jaws of them nasty meat-eating leviathans. There are some incredibly cool extras as well, including Return to the Valley, a vintage documentary of the making of GWANGI, featuring Harryhausen. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to Tuck around.
THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Allied Artists/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000736911. SRP: $21.99.
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000639564. SRP: $21.99.
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.