The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953 USA)

As the 50s started with a fascination for science fiction, Ray Harryhausen soon got his first chance to prove his talents in a solo effort when he was hired to do the special effects for Eugène Lourié’s new film, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”. This sci-fi epic about a resurrected dinosaur fitted Harryhausen’s animation like a glove and gave him the opportunity to show his amazing skills. After this now-legendary motion picture, the sky itself became the only limit for the animator’s career. It would be very easy to dismiss “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” because of its nowadays clichéd plot (in fact, it’s idea would be improved the following year with Ishirô Honda’s very superior “Gojira”), however, one has to remember that this was among the first (if not the very first) films to tell this kind of story. 

“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” begins with a group of American scientists lead by Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid), as they carry a series of nuclear experiments in the North Pole. After a particularly strong explosion, a mysterious prehistoric beast trapped on the arctic ice is resurrected and begins to make his way to the South. Unfortunately, Nesbitt is the only witness of the beast’s appearance and so nobody thinks he is being serious about it. However, the disappearance of several boats near Canada makes Nesbitt to realize that the beast he saw was real, so he decides to consult experienced paleontologists Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond), in order to unveil the truth.

The scientists get alarmed when they discover that the beast Nesbitt saw is in fact the extinct Rhedosaurus, a gigantic carnivore that used to dwell in New York’s coast. And it is going back home. Written by Eugène Lourié himself and a team of writers, the basic story is probably a cliché nowadays but this film is in fact the very first movie about a giant creature awakened by Nuclear energy. This subtle yet paranoid awareness of the dangers of Nuclear Energy would become the standard of many films across the 50s, making “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” a very influential film in aspects beyond its revolutionary special effects.

Another element that makes this better than most of its imitations, is the way the characters are developed through the film and it’s really interesting to see the characters’ relationships with their respective professions and the consequences of their actions. The film has a very fast pace that never gets boring or tiresome, and Lourié balances very well the drama scenes and the special effects action. While Lourié really makes a good job, the real star is Ray Harryhausen’s amazing work in the special effects department, as it is his monster what gives the movie its heart. There was probably no better film than this for Harryhausen to start, as he makes sure to pay homage to his master Willis O’Brien’s two most famous works (“King Kong” and “The Lost World”) while at the same time creating iconic images of great beauty.

Paul Hubschmid as Tom Nesbitt does a very effective job carrying the film, and really manages to avoid being overshadowed by the special effects. While far from perfect, he makes a competent lead character and a nice counterpart to the beautiful Paula Raymond, who also delivers a very good performance as Prof. Elson’s young and bright assistant. Actor Cecil Kellaway adds his experience to the cast and delivers a terrific job as the charming Prof. Elson, stealing every scene he is with his lovable wit and his effective touch for comedy.

Finally, Kenneth Tobey completes the cast as he appears in a supporting role that at times reminds viewers of his role in “The Thing from Another World”. OK, the whole production looks really old by today’s technology, but it has a heart and magic that make the effects seem alive and real. It’s really unfair to say this film is a joke, as it was conceived as an intelligent sci-fi thriller about mankind facing the consequences of their acts. This without a doubt a classic film of the 50s that still carries a frightening and far from outdated message beneath Mr Harryhausen’s wonderful effects. It is really gripping, and it was only the beginning… 🙂

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Comments

  1. Brilliant review! This film is a Harryhausen classic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a fellow animator I thought you’d be a fan of his. 🙂

    Like

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