When Ray Harryhausen saw King Kong on the screen in 1933, he was thirteen and the picture blew him away. He saw it many times, marvelling at the animation work of Willis O’Brien. Eventually, he spoke to his idol and asked for a job. O’Brien told him what art-courses to take and eventually hired him to assist in the special effects for Mighty Joe Young in 1949. Basically, Harryhausen did the grunt-work—taking one shot, moving the model of the creature a fraction of an inch, then taking another shot—while O’Brien did the thinking and designing. One could work all day for a split-second of film. Dynamation, as it was later called, sounds dynamic, but it was hardly that. Still, he learned, and eventually Warner Brothers gave him his own film to work on—The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
When I first saw this film, which debuted in 1953, I was eight, and it blew me away. I knew everything there was to know about dinosaurs, much of it wrong it turns out, and I had never heard of a Rhedosaurus, which was supposed to be a quadruped carnivore with plates like a Stegosaurus on its back that could live in the depths of the sea. Actually, it reminded me of Alley Oop’s pet dinosaur in the cartoon strips. But I didn’t care; it moved, and it was alive, and it ate policemen, and I loved it. Not until Jurassic Park—when I was 48 going on nine--was I as impressed. This was a hell of a coming out for Ray Harryhausen. Incidentally, Godzilla was copied from 20,000 Fathoms and made cheaply with a man in a rubber suit, and Harryhausen hated it all his life.
Above the arctic circle, a nuclear bomb test awakens a 200-foot dinosaur from frozen suspended animation after millions of years. Physicist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is the only witness, and nobody believes him. The dinosaur makes its way down the North American East Coast, sinking a fishing boat off the Grand Banks, destroying another in Canada, wrecking a lighthouse in Maine, and destroying buildings in Massachusetts.
Nesbitt consults paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his attractive assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) after a surviving fisherman identifies the drawing of a Rhedosaurus. Professor Elson thinks it is heading for spawning grounds in the Hudson River Canyon. Elson goes down in a diving bell to see the creature and is killed. The Beast comes up onto the New York City docks and rampages through the streets.
Troops led by Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) try to stop it with electrified fences and a bazooka, driving it back into the sea. Unfortunately, its spilled blood contains a virulent prehistoric virus which infects the populace. It is decided to shoot a radioactive isotope into the creature’s neck-wound, which might kill the contagion. The Beast comes ashore into the Coney Island Amusement Park. Sharpshooter Corporal Stone (Lee Van Cleef) climbs onto the roller coaster with a powerful rifle and rides to the top to be on a level with the Rhedosaurus. He shoots the isotope into its neck wound, causing it to thrash about and crash the roller coaster, setting the wooden ride on fire. Stone escapes, but the Beast dies in the flames.
One scene in the movie was taken from Ray Bradbury’s short story The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The movie was to be called the Monster from Beneath the Sea, but the studio quickly bought the rights from Bradbury and changed the title, for the prestige of Bradbury’s name. Bradbury met Ray Harryhausen and they became lifelong friends. The studio could not get Max Steiner, who had written the music for King Kong, but they hired David Butolph, who wrote a powerful score that has been copied a lot. The Beast was to belch flames like a dragon in the beginning, but this proved difficult to do, though Godzilla went down that route 16 months later.
Professor Elson described the Beast as Paleolithic when he should have said Mesozoic. And nowhere is the ocean 20,000 fathoms deep. Merv Griffin appeared in the trailer and his voice is heard in the movie. The elderly couple in the opera audience are Franklyn Farnum and Bess Flowers, who have appeared in thousands of films. The Arctic interior set is the same as in The Thing from Another World. The Rhedosaurus swallows the cop like a real dog or cat would. It stomps on a car and bats it aside as a cat might, then drags it off beneath its tail, in a scene more complex than it needed to be. One wonders how many extra days of work it took to do that one shot.