Although Godzilla is more famous and still stars in the occasional movie, another prehistoric peril beat him to the punch.
Warner Bros. released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on June 13, 1953. Gojira would not debut in Japan until November 1954, with the American version not following until 1956.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was “suggested by” a story by Ray Bradbury. That characterization is generous. Bradbury’s story “The Fog Horn” is an elegant, elegiac meditation on love and loneliness, themes barely present in the film.
But 70 years later, there’s still lots to like about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
1. Ray Harryhausen’s Beast is a beauty.
Sure, computers can render more “realistic” monsters today. But the Beast special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen brought to life through stop animation and rear projection is a triumph of artistic imagination and skill.
This film was “the first movie where Ray Harryhausen was personally in charge of the special effects,” writes Janne Wass. And Harryhausen’s loving attention to detail is on display in every frame featuring the Beast. The thing even flicks its tongue as it stomps down Wall Street!
Ironically, Harryhausen’s Beast seems more convincing than the shark and squid seen fighting in real-life stock footage. Even in this age of Avatar, Harryhausen’s work holds up. It’s not photorealistic, but it’s fantastic, in every sense of the word.
2. Dr. Thurgood Elson gets a full character arc.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is not rich psychological drama. Most of its characters are as flat as that lighthouse after the Beast is through with it. Nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid, billed here as “Paul Christian”) and paleontologist Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) are likable, though their “romance” never casts any convincing sparks.
But Dr. Thurgood Elson, Cecil Kellaway gets to play a character with a complete,satisfying arc.
When we and Nesbitt meet him, he is bored with paleontology, concerned only with the “extended holiday” he’s been waiting 30 years to take. He dismisses Nesbitt’s report of a prehistoric creature, stating he can’t risk his job or reputation by entertaining it.
He changes his mind when a second survivor of the Beast’s attacks identifies it, as Nesbit did, as a Rhedosaurus (a fictional variety of dinosaur, alas). Elson mounts the expedition he earlier said he couldn’t, staking not only his reputation but also his life to find the creature.
Though Elson dies, he died beholding the Beast with his own eyes, in wonder—a kind of scientific Simeon, able to depart in peace. The quest for knowledge and discovery reinvigorated him.
3. The movie poses questions about humanity’s power.
Atomic bomb testing in the Arctic awakens the Rhedosaur from its slumber. But Nesbitt is an expert in the “curative power of the radioactive isotope.”
The Beast’s blood—spilled because it has been wounded by the military—unleashes an “ancient germ” into the air, threatening to cause a devastating, airborne pandemic (and giving the movie some uncanny relevance today). Nesbitt formulates a plan to shoot just an isotope into the Beast to “destroy all that diseased flesh.” It appears the motive for curing the Beast is only so the military can kill it without unleashing a plague.
The movie contains no commentary or reflection on the Beast’s demise, or on how much responsibility the human race bears for having awakened it.
But maybe The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is stronger for its lack of a clear moral. It neither uncritically attacks nor celebrates our scientific efforts. It shows the scientific endeavor can involve both great reward and great risk.
It’s up to viewers to decide—as Nesbitt and a colleague wonder briefly near the movie’s beginning—whether we are writing the first chapter of a new Genesis, or the last chapter of the old one.