Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Giant Behemoth

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Giant Behemoth (Allied Artists, 1959) – Directors: Eugene Lourie & Douglas Hickox. Writers: Eugene Lourie & Daniel James (s/p). Robert Abel & Allen Adler (story). Stars: Gene Evans, Andre Morrell, John Turner, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran, Maurice Kaufmann, Henri Vidon, Leonard Sachs, Lloyd Lamble & Alastair Hunter. Black & White,  80 minutes.

And the Lord said: ‘Behold, now, the behemoth!’”

This monster on the loose in this London tale is an entertaining slice of sci-fi. Directed by Eugene Lourie, who co-wrote the script with Daniel James, it is intelligently plotted and well-written, avoiding the corn of lesser productions, with excellent performances from the cast. The only problem lies with the special effects, as there wasn’t enough money in the budget to cover them. This lack of funds affects both the way we see the monster and how it operates.

We open in London at a scientific symposium on atomic weaponry where American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Evans) is warning his colleagues that particles from the many atomic tests have contaminated the oceans and the consequence of this contains the potential for disaster.

The film now cuts to Cornwall, where fisherman Tom Trevethan (Vidon) and his daughter Jean (Madison) are unloading the day’s catch in a nearby cove. When Tom does not come home for dinner Jean goes to the local pub, thinking that was his destination. Fellow fisherman John (Turner) offers to help Jean search for her father, and they return to the cove, where they find Tom lying on the beach covered with burns. His last words to the couple are “From the sea … burning like fire.” When they ask what, he answers, “Behemoth!” before expiring.     

After the funeral, John seeks to comfort Jean and as the couple walk by the cove, they are startled to come upon thousands of dead fish strewn along the beach. Spotting a strange white pulsating mound wedged behind a rock, John reaches to touch it, but when he does he is severely burned.

Back in London a few days later, Steve has made plans to fly back to the States when he catches a news report that has ceased in Cornwall after the discovery of the mound of dead fish. Alarmed, Steve cancels his return trip home and contacts physicist Professor James Bickford (Morrell). Bickford confirms the story and gives Steve the details of Tom's death as well as an additional reported sighting of a sea monster. He invites Steve to accompany him to Cornwall to investigate, where they speak to the local fishermen who are now out of work.

After one fisherman tells them of witnessing a glowing light over the water, John takes them to the local doctor who examined Tom's body. The doctor describes Tom’s unusual burns and admits he did not feel it necessary to conduct a post mortem. Changing the dressing on Tom’s hand, Bickford and Karnes note that the burns are like those caused by radiation. 

Later, John takes the men down to the cove, where the men discover most of the dead fish have been washed out to sea, or burned by the townspeople. Karnes is further puzzled by the absence of radiation readings in the area, but requests samples of fish from all along the British coast. Back in London, he conducts tests on the fish and is surprised when one particular specimen contains a glowing, white object inside it. He also discovers that the fish is thoroughly contaminated by radiation.

Bickford is skeptical, noting that the fish was picked up off the Essex coast, miles away from Cornwall, and doubts that it is related to Tom's death. Karnes insists on investigating further, and with Bickford's assistance, he hires a boat to patrol the waters off Essex. A thorough search finds no indication of radiation, but as Karnes and the boat’s captain begin to return to port, the Geiger detector suddenly reacts and through the fog Steve sees the monster rise up and go back into the water. They try pursuing it, but it moves with astonishing speed and soon loses the pursuing boat.     

Karnes is summoned to port by Bickford, who accompanies him to the remains of an ocean liner on an Essex beach. Examining the wreck, Karnes concurs the ship has suffered extreme radiation damage, but he and Bickford are puzzled by the complete absence of survivors.     

In London, Bickford and Karnes meet with Royal Navy Admiral Summers (Lamble) to discuss the destruction of the ocean liner. Karnes reveals that the white mass found on the contaminated fish has been identified as the stomach lining of an unidentified sea creature and suggests it could be this creature that is responsible for the ship's destruction. When Bickford agrees, the admiral orders that all international navies be placed on alert.

While resting at Bickford’s house, they are interrupted by a constable who hands them a report about the destruction of an entire farming village on the coast. Included with the report is a photo of a giant footprint. To determine what sort of creature would leave a footprint like that, they take the photo to Dr. Sampson (MacGowran), Britain’s most esteemed paleontologist. At first Sampson thinks the footprint is a recent fossil find, but after Karnes and Bickford inform that the creature is very much alive, he identifies it as belonging to a type of prehistoric palaeosaurus. “Of course, you know it's electric,” he adds, informing them that the creature had electrical properties similar to that of the electric eel. When Sampson learns that the creature was seen on the Essex coast, he concludes it is heading toward the fresh water of the Thames River: “They always made for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where their skeletons have been found – some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows that gave them birth.” 

Excited by the possibility of coming in contact with an oversized, long-extinct creature, Sampson insists on joining the investigation. Karnes and Bickford return to Summers to explain how the creature's natural electrical capacities allow it to project the radiation that has contaminated it. With the assistance of the military, Sampson tracks the creature by helicopter, but is attacked and destroyed by the beast.     

The beast surfaces in the Thames to destroy a ferry, killing several passengers. As the army oversees the evacuation of families along the Thames, Karnes and Bickford meet with Summers to discuss the best plan of destroying the creature. They warn the admiral that should it be blown up, its radiated body parts could be strewn across the city, contaminating it. Karnes suggests that the solution could lie in speeding up the creature's own radiation poisoning. To do this they would need a torpedo armed with a warhead of pure radium. This would allow them to bury the carcass safely. 

As they discuss this plan the creature comes ashore and rampages through the city. After a couple of trips ashore, the creature stomps on the London docks, which collapse and plunge the beast back into the river.

The torpedo is loaded aboard a midget submarine, and Karnes and a crewman venture out to eliminate the creature. After a tense chase, the torpedo is successfully launched and the creature is dispatched (similar to the ending of 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea, although handled with far more tension and suspense). After returning to port, Karnes joins a relieved Bickford in time for the men to hear a report of several hundred dead fish washing up on the shores of America.   


The film’s initial working title was simply "The Behemoth,” and it was released in Britain as Behemoth the Sea Monster. In America it was released as The Giant Behemoth, which is a sort of misnomer, as “Giant” and “Behemoth” basically mean the same thing.     

As originally conceived it was meant to be a story about a huge amorphous blob of radiation, which was consistent with the many sci-fi films of the period that played on fears of nuclear power.

Director Eugene Lourie agreed to helm the film after the producers changed the concept of the monster from a radioactive mass to a physical creature. His previous sci-fi film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), about a prehistoric monster turned loose from the Arctic by a nuclear blast, inspired a plethora of similar films from a giant prehistoric dinosaur (Godzilla, 1954, which itself was an attempt to cash in on the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in Japan.) to giant ants (Them!, 1954) to living vampiric brains created by atomically assisted thought patterns (Fiend Without a Face, 1959). 

Unimpressed by the drafts given to him, he brought Daniel James, the writer of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to work with him on writing a new script. The result was a virtual remake of The Beast, only in this case being about a prehistoric creature disturbed by the dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean. Like Godzilla, the creature is irradiated and made even more lethal.      

In later interviews Lourie said he intended the script to be simply "a pro forma document to be used only to sign the producers' contract." His expectation was that it would be changed drastically once work began in England, but there were never any rewrites. In truth he was not happy with this copy of his earlier work, although he did concede that a physical beast was much better visually than a mere radioactive mass would have been.

However, what really bothered the director Lourie was that the stop-motion animated monster model effects were poorly executed. The effects, created in a Los Angeles studio and later integrated with the British live-action footage shot in England (including London). The animation was under the supervision of master technician Willis O'Brien, most famous for perfecting the technique on King Kong (1933). O'Brien's assistant Pete Peterson did most of the hands-on task, a remarkable feat considering he was suffering from multiple sclerosis at the time.

To Lourie’s dismay, O'Brien wasn't allowed to oversee all the effects work. Instead, the producers contracted out much of the effects work, leaving O'Brien and Lourie with little or no control over the result. Because of these budget shortcuts, the monster is left without facial expressions; becoming sort of a puppet. In the scene where the monster tips over the ferry, the board on which the head of the monster has been screwed can be briefly glimpsed, and a scene of the creature stomping on a car is repeated twice. In addition, sound bites from King Kong were placed in the film. The creature’s roar is lifted from a brontosaurus’ roar in Kong, and screams from the movie are transplanted to scenes where the creature attacks the ferry and when it invades London. 

However, it must be noted that the appearance of the monster in this science fiction film is disappointing, for we have built the creature up in our imagination and it always falls far short of what we anticipate.

As mentioned earlier, the strength of The Giant Behemoth is its script and its characterizations. Right from the beginning the script builds a strong element of tension and danger, with the first half of the film devoted to the science behind the monster as Karnes and Bickford investigate the tragedies in Cornwall and search for further evidence.

I must admit that it’s very nice – and surprising – to see a ‘50s science fiction movie where the scientists actually practice science. Most other films of the era feature their scientists as either background figures or as a combination of scientist and adventurer. When Karnes and Bickford begin their investigation in Cornwall, they proceed in exactly the manner one would expect of a real marine biologist. They collect witness testimony from witnesses, examine the scene of the event, take water samples and arrange to have specimens from the area sent to their laboratory.     

The tests that Karnes and his associates conduct on the specimens stand out for their authenticity in detecting what sort of phenomena they are seeking. When the hunt takes Karnes and Bickford outside their areas of expertise, they turn to experts in the relevant fields, such as when they bring the photo of the footprint to Dr. Sampson, and when Sampson first sees the photograph of the monster’s footprint, his first reaction is that these are newly discovered fossils. He is stunned when Karnes and Bickford inform him that the prints come from a living animal. This is something we can easily visualize happening in real life. This is not something I would expect from a low-budget science fiction film. The only other ‘50s science fiction film that comes close is Them!, but the details of the science here goes beyond that film.

The movie’s attitude toward science is even extended to the monster. Palaeosaurus was a real animal, and further, its fossils were first found near Bristol, England, which makes it a very British monster. The notion of making it electric is something from the imagination of the writers, for there is no evidence that palaeosaurus possessed this feature. However, the use of its electric discharge for either defense or as a navigational aid in the water, is exactly what happens with real animals.     

Besides the emphasis on science, another element of this movie that I especially like is the complete absence of any sort of romance. Watching the scenes in Cornwall, it might seem that Jean Trevethan and her boyfriend John are going to be the movie’s love interest (or that Jean might fall in love with Steve Karnes later in the movie), especially in the scene where the burns on John’s hand are examined by Karnes and Bickford and Bickford tells the doctor to send John to London for further examination. Instead, both Jean and John disappear from the film right after the scenes in Cornwall. In other low-budget films of this genre the love interest is usually another scientist or a character the hero scientist meets early on in the film. But looking at the narrative objectively, there is no reason for a fisherman’s daughter and her boyfriend to become a part of the quest to find the creature, even if she did lose her father to the beast. The decision to forgo any romance only strengthens the film, as it takes away much of the corn that accompanies such a romance.

The film has a marvelous score, written by Edwin Astley, whose daughter Karen was married to musician Pete Townshend of The Who from 1968 to 2000. His most memorable score is the distinctive theme music for the British TV series The Saint.

In the final analysis, The Giant Behemoth is an entertaining film handicapped by the cheapness of its special effects. Its recycles elements of plot from earlier films, most notably Lourie’s own The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. (For instance, the dispatch of the monster from a radioactive torpedo, is virtually lifted from Lourie’s earlier film.) But the movie gets most of what it recycles far more right than a great many of its contemporaries, and his emphasis on the science of chasing the creature sets it apart from a many of its contemporaries. And this is not only what makes it an interesting 80 minutes, but also a movie to catch, a great popcorn movie. 


Due of the blacklist, James was credited as Daniel Hyatt, which was a pseudonym he used when he was not foregoing credit altogether. He wrote only one more screenplay after this for yet another Lourie monster picture, Gorgo (1961). The Writers Guild of America restored James’ credit on The Giant Behemoth in 1998.     

Although U.S. prints did not list him in the credits, Douglas Hickox was credited as co-director with Lourie in the UK release. Hickox made his directorial debut with this film after several years of second-unit work. He went on to direct Theater of Blood (1973), the John Wayne London-based police drama Brannigan (1975), and Zulu Dawn (1979), among others.

For Willis O’Brien, this was the end off the road. Except for short bits in the climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, this was the last time that his designs and animation would be seen by the public. He worked on one more monster movie, Irwin Allen’s remake of The Lost World. Creating and working on stop-motion dinosaurs in a remake of the 1925 silent film that shot him to fame and lead to his most famous creation, King Kong, was the project he was hoping would be the capper to his distinguished career. However, in an effort to compensate for the bloated and over-budgeted Cleopatra, 20th Century Fox slashed the budget of numerous other films, including The Lost World, which led Allen to substitute lizards with fins for the work O’Brien had sketched for the production.


There are a few Beatles connections in this movie. Jessie Robbins, who played Aunt Jessie in Magical Mystery Tour, is in a queue at a tea and coffee truck while the radio reports about the monster are airing. Norm Rossington, who played Norm in A Hard Day's Night, is one of the men killed trying to steal a car when the Beast picks it up and tosses it into the Thames. And in the scenes showing a deserted London, on one of the streets is the block of flats the Beatles live in at the start of Help.

Quotable Quotes

Dr. Sampson: Oh, it's heading for the Thames. They always made for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where their skeletons have been found – some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows that gave them birth. You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me. See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents – well, what can they be?...The tall, graceful neck of palaeosaurus. He can stay underneath the surface for an age, and now he comes to the top.

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