The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is perhaps film animator Ray Harryhausen's most influential film. Though not one of his greatest works, it is his masterpiece in the original sense of the word; the film proved he was no longer merely the apprentice and protégé of Willis 'Obie' O'Brien, but a master filmmaker in his own right.
In Baffin Bay in the Arctic, a top secret atomic bomb test is conducted, codenamed Operation Experiment. One of the scientists involved is killed following a mysterious avalanche and another, Professor Thomas Nesbitt, is found injured, raving about having seen a dinosaur. He is flown to New York's Hartley Hospital where he makes a complete recovery, although his sanity is heavily doubted.
Yet soon other witnesses describe seeing sea monsters similar to those that Nesbitt experienced. The fishing ketch Fortune is attacked off Nova Scotia, a lighthouse is destroyed in Maine and coastal houses in Massachusetts are attacked by an unseen force. These, and other incidents, leave a trail from the Arctic heading straight to New York. The only people willing to consider Nesbitt's theory are Dr Thurgood Elson, the Dean of Palaeontology at a New York university and widely considered the world's foremost dinosaur expert, and his assistant, Miss Lee Hunter.
Soon New York itself faces attack by the deadly plague-carrying 100 million–year-old creature1. The last prehistoric survivor, the bullet-proof Rhedosaurus, is also known as 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms'. Any attempt to kill the creature will spread the prehistoric virus throughout New York. Only a single radioactive bullet can possibly save the city.
|Professor Tom Nesbitt||Paul Christian|
|Miss Lee Hunter||Paula Raymond|
|Professor Thurgood Elson||Cecil Kellaway|
|Colonel Jack Evans||Kenneth Tobey|
|Captain Phil Jackson||Donald Woods|
|Corporal Stone||Lee Van Cleef|
Making the Beast
In early 1952, producers Hal Chester and Jack Dietz of a small, independent film production company named Mutual Films wrote a brief script outline entitled The Monster From Under The Sea. In this, a terrifying monster was unleashed from the North Pole by an atomic bomb, and would swim to menace Manhattan. Inspired by the recent runaway success of King Kong's re-release, they wanted to make something similar.
This story was very much a work in progress, and the producers had not yet decided on exactly what this monster would be, nor how they would afford to make the special effects, as the whole film needed to be made cheaply. Initial ideas included using puppets, men in monster costumes or filming living animals such as lizards in ways that made them look larger than they really were. They also considered making the monster an aquatic animal like a large shark, octopus or whale. In other words, they needed guidance on the special effects. They were fortunate enough to find the perfect man for the job; Ray Harryhausen.
In 1952, a young Ray Harryhausen was at the beginning of his career, the highlight of which to date was doing most of the animation for his mentor, Willis O'Brien, in Mighty Joe Young (1949). A mutual friend then informed him that producer Jack Dietz was looking for someone capable of designing a convincing creature for a film. Ray was determined to work in films again. Temporarily abandoning his home project of making a series of short fairy tales, he pitched a proposal to the producers, the director Eugène Lourié and Bernard Burton, the editor. He was accepted on condition that the effects be completed by September 1952. He became a key part of the team, contributing to the story as well as defining the Beast's appearance. For the special effects work, Ray was paid $15,000 and given the necessary equipment such as the projector and stop-motion camera to complete the work. He later said,
I was so inexperienced in film production finances that I undersold myself. The result was that on several occasions I had to dig deep into my own pocket as the project was realised. In a curious twist of fate, after a number of years the fairy tales made more money for me than 'The Beast' ever did.
He produced all the animation himself, working on his own day after day, completing it all within five months.
As the film's budget was $150,000, ensuring the film was made cheaply was a foremost concern. The director, Eugène Lourié, had started his career in France and was Jean Renoir's principal designer in the 1930s, before he had fled to Hollywood during the war. As he had a set design background, he was able to use his talents to keep the cost down, teaching Harryhausen tricks he would use later in his career. As the film was made in Hollywood but set in New York, he filmed New York landmarks to use as still rear projections so that the cast did not have to fly to New York. He also hired a separate camera crew in New York to avoid the expense of flying anyone else over.
Other principal methods used to keep costs low were: casting relative unknowns and minor actors in the film, and to avoid paying for extras, the producers would appear in background roles - for instance Hal Chester played an Arctic scientist. Stock footage was extensively used, not only of the Arctic, atomic bomb test and Dakota aircraft, but also of the diving bell sequence and the shark versus octopus fight. In order to make this fight last longer, it quite noticeably contains reversed footage. Perhaps the cleverest use of stock footage was the sequence in which the Beast walks across an ice cliff, only for its weight to cause an avalanche. Only the animation of the Beast walking was made for this film; the ice cliff and avalanche came from She (1935). Props, too, were recycled from earlier films - for instance the Brontosaurus2 skeleton seen in the Dean of Palaeontology's office was originally in Bringing Up Baby (1938). In order to avoid the expense of making everything, some miniature models such as cars were bought from toyshops.
Although an early outline was written by GJ Schnitzer, the early drafts were by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger. The initial draft's ending lacked drama, and so Harryhausen suggested that the Beast die trapped within the Coney Island roller coaster, which the directors and writers felt was an unusual and eye-catching visual landmark.
Ray Bradbury's The Fog Horn
While the story was being developed, producer Jack Dietz showed the team a copy of the Saturday Evening Post, which featured a popular short story written by Ray Bradbury, an old friend of Ray Harryhausen's since 1938. Both Rays had been members of The Los Angeles Science Fiction League.
Although Bradbury had written the story under the name The Fog Horn, a title subsequent publications would use, the Saturday Evening Post publishers changed the name to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Dietz was inspired by the story and wished to incorporate story elements into the film, paying Ray Bradbury $2,000 for the film rights and purchasing the name The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from the Saturday Evening Post. This was how the story The Monster From Under The Sea became The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, even though the Beast itself was actually from the surface of the Arctic. 'Lizard from the Blizzard' would have been a more accurate title
Ray Bradbury had been inspired to write the story the night after a walk along Venice Pier, when he heard a foghorn coming from Santa Monica Bay. This inspired him to write the tale of a dinosaur that mistook the foghorn for a prehistoric mating call, only to attack the foghorn in anger once the mistake is realised. This short story was the beginning of Bradbury's writing career and led to him being approached by John Huston to write the screenplay for Moby Dick (1956).
The story in the Saturday Evening Post had been accompanied by a glorious full-colour picture of the dinosaur attacking it in bright daylight. The lighthouse sequence in the finished film was quite different from either this illustration or the short story. Rather than taking place during a foggy day, the film shows the lighthouse at night, shot in silhouette to be menacing and atmospheric. The effect combined a model lighthouse and stock footage of the sea crashing over rocks as well as the attacking dinosaur, and is one of the highlights of the film before the climax in New York.
Creating the Creature
Harryhausen was determined that the creature would be a dinosaur, as dinosaurs were one of his life-long passions. As a Brontosaurus had featured in The Lost World terrorising London's streets and a Tyrannosaurus rex had appeared in King Kong, he wanted to create something that had not been seen before. It had to be large enough to still feel menacing inside the large streets of New York, where the tall buildings would seem like natural canyons, and it took a while for Harryhausen to find an appearance that he and the producers were all happy with. It took three models before the final look was settled on.
The Beast was named the 'Rhedosaurus', possibly by the writers or more likely producer Hal Chester. Many have speculated that it was named after Ray Harryhausen himself, as the first two letters are his initials and the first syllable is pronounced 'Ray'.
The stop-motion animation approach that Willis O'Brien had perfected in The Lost World, King Kong and Mighty Joe Young involved sandwiching models between detailed glass paintings to create the illusion of depth and place the model inside a 3-dimensional environment. This was not only highly effective but also highly expensive, far too costly for the small studio's microscopic budget. For The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Harryhausen developed a much cheaper method later named 'Dynamation'. This involved rear-projecting a live-action filmed sequence behind the model frame-by-frame, while the Beast model was animated in front of it. A system that included the use of matte lines3 was used to split the screen into foreground and background. This ensured that the model appeared to be in front of the film's background but allowed other objects in the film (such as people running away) to be seen in front of the model. The result was the convincing effect that the Beast was actually in the film, not merely in front of it.
Only one model of the Rhedosaurus was made, which was all that could be afforded, with its skin inspired by alligators. A 7-inch hand puppet of the head and neck was also made, which Harryhausen did not feel was very realistic. It is seen only briefly in the boat and lighthouse sequences. For the sequence in which the Beast eats a New York policeman, Harryhausen copied the way his dog ate large pieces of food by throwing his head back. The first half of the sequence had an actor raised on a wire, with the Beast animated to match his movements, and then the policeman was replaced by a 1½ inch model inside the Beast's mouth.
For the death scene, Harryhausen was influenced by the death of King Kong, and wanted the audience to feel the Rhedosaurus was an innocent creature finding himself in a man's world while simply trying to make a home. Lourié described the death scene as resembling the death throes of an opera singer.
Harryhausen also designed the miniatures for the lighthouse, harbour landing and Coney Island rollercoaster, which were all built by Willis Cook. Much of the Coney Island sequence was filmed at the Long Beach amusement park. Two roller coaster miniature models were constructed by Cook. One, 20 feet long by 5 feet tall, was built to collapse in a controlled manner, and was coated with a liquid rubber cement that gave off a small flame to create a burning effect for the film. The second model was used when animating the Beast. Harryhausen and Cook worked so well together that they collaborated on later films.
After the film was finished, American cinema was becoming dominated by its rivalry with television. Films were now released in glorious Technicolor or even 3D, and cinemas experimented with all imaginable formats and screen sizes to tempt audiences away from their home television set. Producer Jack Dietz felt that The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, being a black and white, standard-ratio film that had no star names, could not possibly compete in an era dominated by new cinematic experiences with exotic names such as Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd-AO and VistaVision4. He then sold the film, which had cost $210,000 to make, to Warner Brothers for $400,000.
Warner Brothers spent $200,000 on advertising the film. In order to make it seem less old-fashioned, they tinted the film brown, except the underwater scenes that were instead dyed green, and marketed the film as being in 'Sepiatone'. Their publicity campaign included using eye-catching 10-foot tall lobby displays. These were state-of-the art illuminated and motorised posters that showed the Beast attacking New York in glorious colour. The Beast's eyes and tongue moved, a soundtrack LP played roars and the Beast even, through the use of dry ice, exhaled smoke. In another eye-catching campaign, cinemas were encouraged to paint a series of Beast-sized footprints leading to their cinemas.
When The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was released in June 1953, it became the biggest sleeper hit of the year, making over $5 million. It also changed and influenced cinema worldwide. Yet none of the success gave the producer, Jack Dietz, a chance to capitalise on it. After the film's release Dietz was keen to work with Harryhausen again on a project named The Elementals, but he was unable to find a backer.
The film's success inevitably led to a host of copying monster-rampage B Movies, about creatures created or released by radiation or grown to enormous size. These include Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1956), The Black Scorpion5 (1957), Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) and so on.
The film did not just influence American horror creature features. Even the British film industry took a break from the kitchen sink to create Behemoth, the Sea Monster also known as The Giant Behemoth (1959), which featured a very similar radioactive Palaeosaurus running amok through London, a city that was again invaded by prehistoric monsters the following year in Gorgo (1960). Both were directed by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' Eugène Lourié.
Perhaps the country that paid the closest attention was Japan. The only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack took The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to heart and created their own version, Godzilla (1955). Thus a national icon was born.
In the short run, the film's success typecast the sort of films that Harryhausen and the medium of stop-motion animation could make. The next few projects he was involved in were creature features made with the same style of documentary narration, in which something attacks a city. In It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) a giant octopus attacks San Francisco, in Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) aliens attack Washington DC and in 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) an Ymir attacks Rome. It was not until The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) that Harryhausen was able to break the mould.
Planet of Dinosaurs (1978), a low-budget stop-motion dinosaur film, includes a small Rhedosaurus as a tribute to Ray Harryhausen. Steven Spielberg and creature supervisor Phil Tippet have both said that the action of the Tyrannosaurus rex swallowing the lawyer on the toilet in Jurassic Park (1993) was based on the Rhedosaurus eating the policeman. The disappointing Godzilla (1998) remake, in which Godzilla attacks New York, features many scenes almost identical to those in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and in the 21st Century the influence is still visible in films such as Cloverfield (2008), Avatar (2009) and Godzilla (2014).