WB Archive Collection. 1959. 80 mins. B&W. AR: 1.85:1 Commentary by Special Effects experts Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett. Theatrical trailer. Directed by Douglas Hickox, Eugene Lourie. Screenplay by Lourie and Daniel James. Cinematography by Ken Hodges. Production Design by Lourie, Visual Effects by Willis O'Brien, Pete Peterson, Phil Kellison. With: Gene Evans, Andre Morell, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran,
ROY FRUMKES (David Rosler review to follow, below) It’s 1959 and Eugene Lourie is trying to duplicate his directorial success with 1953’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the first in a decade-long flirtation with giant bugs, lizards, and a stray amphibian – all meant to assuage our fears on a subconscious level of nature striking back in the Atomic Age.
But Lourie didn’t have the same elements in place that he had a decade before. The screenplay lacked balance – it most resembled one of the horror film generated by the British Quatermass ensemble, chock full of their pseudo scientific banter and holding off on the monster for as long as possible. Serious as the BEHEMOTH cast played it, however, the padding was just too excessive. Quatermass doled out all the elements in their proper dosage: low budget energy, documentary-like lighting, and James Bernard‘s creepy music.
And then there’s the effects work. Unfair to compare the Behemoth effects to those of Ray Harryhausen (see David Rosler’s article on Harryhausen in FIR and his review, below), even though his mentor – Willis (KING KONG) O’Brien – was involved in the project. The monster is certainly fun, trudging through London, struggling along as if it were afflicted with severe arthritis. (Incidentally, Pete Peterson, who did most of the stop-motion work, was himself afflicted with MS, which is said to have affected his animation skills.) Not up to Harryhausen, to be sure, but still fun.
But now the time has come to reevaluate THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. The Warner Archives team has sharpened the cinematography admirably, lifting the film from ‘C’ programmer level to at least a ‘B’. The blacks are formidably rich, the grain is reduced, and another five minutes of filler clipped from the running time wouldn’t have hurt, but such surgery, I assume, is nowhere to be found in Warners’ contracts, even though several minutes were excised from the UK release print.
Missing in the US release, however, is a co-directing, first screen credit for Douglas Hickox who went on to bigger and better things, in theaters and on the tube, such as SITTING TARGET (’72). He was also married for a time to the brilliant film editor Anne (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) Coates.
The film’s commentators, brought over from the DVD, are two impressive EFX men in their own right – Phil (STARSHIP TROOOPERS) Tippett and Dennis (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY) Muren. These guys know their visual effects, but foolishly they haven’t prepared properly for this assignment. They aren’t sure what year the film was made, and they don’t know the lead actor’s name. With today’s internet accessibility, they could have totally prepared in, oh…. perhaps ten minutes.
The commentarians do provide oodles of juicy info. Muren even owns the Behemoth puppet, which he found discarded in a garage. (Said puppet reminds me of the friendly sea serpent in a 50s children’s show called Cecil and Beanie. And that’s the best I can say about it.) At one point Tippett comments that it “sounds like someone out of KING KONG screaming.” Muren hastily adds “Actually, those were KING KONG screams.”
They are also fairly critical of the movie. Tippett, I think, notes that there are glass reflections all over the place during the monster’s tour of London. But its the earlier DVD disc they are actually referring to. WB Archives has removed those aberrations, making the film even better than it was in release. Check it out; it has real warmth, and it’s a lot of fun.
I have to admit, I do love this one, deficiencies and all. Its lower budget gives it something THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS did not have, and that's a tinge of a documentary flavor. The actors are, with a few exceptions, sincere and generally pretty good. I won't go into the screenplay because that's Roy's profession and expertise, though I do chuckle at the scene when there is a wrap on the door at 2 AM and Gene Evans and Andre Morrell enter the scene at the door in their bathrobes at the same time. I also have to mention that the Behemoth is referenced by one of the townspeople in the movie as being a “prophecy” from the Bible. Someone should have read the original Book; The Behemoth is not a prophecy, the Behemoth is a creature which God shows to Job as proof of his magnificent powers of creation, it is not a foretelling of doom. But The Giant Behemoth wouldn't be a movie from the 1950's if it did not use the Bible to qualify the sci-fi goings-on as a legit foretelling of doom, now would it? So one strike on the Biblical accuracy.
For those who like Trivia, by the way, the camera operator on Behemoth, Desmond Davis, 20 years later went on to direct the $20 million Harryhausen opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS which used the same special effects techniques by the man - Harryhausen - for whom the Behemoth's special effects was the mentor.
Regarding the visual effects, I have found them often in many ways excellent. For Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin and Irving Block to be taking bows, however, especially putting their names in front of that of Willis O'Brien, who was the leading force behind the visual effects – and firmly in charge he was – of the original King Kong, well, that's just a total disgrace, pure and simple. Lou, Jack and Irving created minor bits of cartoon-animation radiation and such while O'Brien was responsible for the title character who takes up about 99% of the time visual effects are seen on the screen.
There are some unsung wonderful – indeed rather amazing - shots for that era, such as an extreme wide shot of the long-necked creature, in the distance, striding entirely convincingly at dusk among high tension wires, then turning and walking toward us taking down the towers, a brilliantly effective shot that holds up today were it not marred by Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin and Irving Block's cartoon electricity. Another shot has the Behemoth rising up out of the Thames on a cloudy afternoon and the actual animation, by O'Brien animator Pete Peterson, is almost unbelievably good.
I disagree with FIR Editor (and my friend) Roy Frumkes very strongly about the animation – it is, such as in the case, above, among the best stop motion animation ever done – slow, smooth, ponderous, with a gigantically effective sense of actual weight to the movement; Peterson was by far at his best when doing huge creatures, and this shot is one of his finest moments, vast and yet intricately complex in the necessities of the staging. Another aspect of this shot never discussed is the almost impossible matching of the miniature in terms of photographic texture to the live action. There is no sense of a miniature cutaway at all. When we see some people looking concerned in the damp, cloudy atmosphere that is so often London (a city I love), when the scene cuts to the warehouses and girders along the docks, it's rather amazing to see the Behemoth rise up and stride slow and purposefully toward the camera, turning the steel and iron framework into convincing twisted shambles. The TEXTURE of the photographic matching is pure old-school camera artistry at its absolute finest; Willis O'Brien may have had his artistic faults here and there on a budget, but he was no chump with a camera. While the Behemoth effects are undeniably uneven to say the least, the skill of the actual special effects photography is sometimes stunning.
Here are some of the night shots provided by a Warner Archives' preview for the DVD release from 2011. The image quality on the new Blu-ray is superb, but this gives you a sense of what O'Brien was able to pull off on a meager budget in 1959: incredible:
Last but not least, I'd like to offer a bit of indignant vitriol for current effects “luminaries” Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett for their disgraceful commentary track for Behemoth. These are guys who claimed to have been inspired by O'Brien and Harryhausen proportionately almost to the exclusion of most else in their youth. They are now big names in the effects industry and have won many Oscars using computers and the rest of today's amazing technology. I was incensed, therefore, that as professionals with advantages of which O'Brien could never have dreamed, that those two could not be big enough as people to speak graciously about O'Brien's 1959 special effects work, made at a time when O'Brien was at a low ebb in his career. Instead, Tippett and Muren sit around for 90 minutes like two obnoxious grade-school-aged brats picking apart every minute flaw and chuckling with condescending superiority. Their defenders might say they were being relaxed (doubtless they were, unfortunately), or that they were loving every flaw the way a painting appreciator embraces every brush stroke. But the commentary doesn't play like that. It plays like two superior-minded jerks who think they are all that and a bag of chips because they can see the reflection in special effects glass shots and chuckling with dripping sarcasm about it like it's something worthy of true mockery when by their own past admissions the work of O'Brien was one of the seminal influences in their youth.
Well, I have news for them: they could not have done what O'Brien did with what he had to work with in a million years. When O'Brien was tested under the worst of conditions, he, aided by Peterson, managed to crank out some amazing work on Behemoth. When Muren was similarly tested approximately ten years later, with advantages that ten years brings, he turned out a movie so bad it would make Ed Wood hang his head in shame, a drooling little number called EQUINOX (Stop motion fans, don't tell me how wonderful it is; Dave Allen's design for the blue ape creature is excellent but the model is not, the photography of which is terrible, and a couple of forced perspective shots are terrific as is a Danforth matte painting, and that's it, the film isn't a fraction of what the visual effects are in THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, much of which was shot in a garage, and EQUINOX, which Muren “directed”, positively stinks, and I mean it really stinks. As a movie, it's laughably terrible.).
And as for Tippett, and this will seem like a low blow, but he was basically brutally mocking O'Brien to the entire world in the commentaries that will go on forever on DVD and Blu-ray, so what the heck: the first time I was in Ray Harryhausen's home, he gave me a tour and, in the dining room, showed me the huge, four or five-foot bronze of a T-Rex Tippett had made and sent to Ray him in appreciation, and Ray smiled at me and chuckled and said, “It looks constipated.”
So next time you guys do a commentary track, Muren and Tippett, try to be gentlemen abut it. O'Brien was one of a few men who changed your lives for the very much better, in all probability, and Ray Harryhausen, for contrasting example, had the right idea – so gracious was he that he gave O'Brien's widow a place to live in his first home for the rest of her life! Don't make O'Brien's work look foolish to the world at-large while you sit fat and happy because you got lucky. That's gross beyond further description. And if you guys want to call me out on what I can do, I forged this place almost single-handedly www.roslerstudios.com – also with very little money - and I almost single-handedly created the ORBITER concept trailer (and I did do all of the FX shots), demonstrated in this comparison for my studio in which my mere ORBITER concept trailer, in a few weeks, on no money, and everyone agrees that it stands toe-to-toe against $100 million, 7-time Oscar winning, $700 million dollar-grossing “Gravity”. The point being by way of example that that I would never sarcastically nitpick O'Brien's work in a million years, especially regarding a real cornerstone of his later career. You guys try to go up against Gravity on your little own lonesome sometime before you rake another pioneering genius over the coals in front of the world.
To those who think I may be gushing a bit too much over a flawed little movie from the 1950's, if you want to know how influential The Giant Behemoth has been on a few generations, check this out: there have been at least three contemporary plastic model kits manufactured in honor of this movie in just the last few years, one of which is shown at the left. That is influential!
In my opinion FIR Editor Roy Frumkes is absolutely right in his overall conclusion about THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. It's wonderful, occasionally suspenseful fun on every level. Don't take these things seriously? You don't have to – it's an interesting movie and a neat step back into time. Animation your thing? You'll dig it. Film history buff? Can't afford to miss it. Stop motion special effects practitioner/appreciator? You've already seen it but you'll want to see it in its new, super-sharp form. If you haven't seen it, ever, RUSH to Warner Archives to get the Blu-ray.
One last word to my O'Brien/Harryhausen monster-kid-from-the-day brothers and sisters out there. Roy Frumkes told me an interesting story. He asked a guy at Warner Archives why they took the trouble to fix all the FX in THE GIANT BEHEMOTH – the glass reflections, occasionally studdering rear projections, etc, and the man told Roy, “Because that's where the money is. It makes it possible for us to restore lesser-known films.” “Lesser-known!” You know what this means, my stop-motion brothers and sisters? It means YOU, in your devotion to Ray and O'Bie, and your carrying on of their name and work, are making it possible for less fortunate films to survive for future generations, just by doing what you love. You have great taste, a great spirit, and it is paying dividends to others without you even being aware of it. You should be proud of yourselves, I am proud to be among you, and the world should appreciate you all the more for the unseen good that you are doing for others. Truly, God bless you. Now get the Blu-ray and see it in its best form by far! To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection https://www.wbshop.com/collections/warner-archive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.