Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms


There’s an interesting history here. Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen are friends (both are still alive!). Ray H. was working on a movie called Monster From the Sea and asked Ray B. if he’d like to do some script doctoring. Bradbury reported back that the studio might have a plagiarism problem, as there was a scene where the monster attacked a lighthouse that was exactly like his story “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” published in The Saturday Evening Post. Not wanting a lawsuit, the studio bought the story and used the title. (It always struck me as too pulpish to be either a Bradbury or Post title, and in fact when Ray re-published it in a story collection he changed the title to “The Fog Horn.”)
Another interesting tidbit: the dinosaur skeleton seen in some scenes was the prop used in Bringing Up Baby, in storage at RKO for fifteen years. They didn’t throw stuff away so easily in those days. (Did you know that the stuff going up in flames for the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind was actually the old sets for the village and giant wall for King Kong?)
I liked this movie a lot when I was seven. I won’t say I was terrified, but I was certainly excited. The SFX are pretty primitive, not up to even King Kong standards—Harryhausen was a student of the great Willis O’Brien, creator of Kong. Ray H. would soon get a lot better, until he became the Dean of stop-motion. But remember, in 1953 all giant monster movies were pretty primitive, judged by today’s standards … but we didn’t know it! It was awesome to see a giant dinosaur raging through New York! I hadn’t even seen King Kong at the time, and I was crazy about dinosaurs. I wanted to be a paleontologist before I could even spell it. And one image from this movie has become iconic: The Rhedosaurus (totally made up) raging through the roller coaster at Coney Island (actually The Pike at Long Beach).
It is said that this is the first movie where a giant beast was awakened or created by nuclear radiation, a theme that was to permeate ‘50s SF movies. At the beginning a bunch of guys are up at the north pole punching holes in the ice with A-bombs. They were lucky they didn’t awaken a giant, radioactive Santa Claus and eight pissed-off reindeer from their seasonal hibernation. But I never understood the 20,000 fathoms part. That’s 120,000 feet, or almost 23 miles. The deepest part of the ocean is only six miles. That critter must have been buried way deep underground.
The film is no longer very exciting, and it’s not really the fault of the cheesy SFX, it’s just not much of a story, badly written and acted. Very much a B-movie—though a very profitable one. But I’m glad I watched it again.