One of the first Atomic Bomb-related Kaiju films
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a ground-breaking film. It was one of the first to link atomic bombs to giant monsters appearing and destroying cities. In this 1953 black and white classic, The Beast wreaks most of its havoc on New York City (which will always deserve destruction more than Tokyo).
Unlike the Godzilla franchise that would start the following year, all the creature effects in 20,000 Fathoms were done with stop-motion animation by Academy Award winner Ray Harryhausen. Although stop-motion animation tends to show its age when compared to the CGI we know and love (or loath), it is blended very well within the film. There are only a couple of scenes where things don’t work.
The Plot of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
The film opens with a number of scientists working above the Arctic Circle as part of (hold onto your hats) Operation Experiment. That’s right, Operation Experiment. The screenplay was penned by veteran writers Fred Freiberger, Eugène Lourié, Louis Morheim, and Robert Smith (not of The Cure). You would think that they could come up with something better than Operation Experiment FFS.
The Operation, or Experiment, or both, involves the detonation of an A-Bomb in the Arctic. Why? That’s never explained. If we look at history we can see both the Americans and the (then) Soviets, like to blow shit up with nuclear weapons “as tests.”
The bomb detonation leads to the release of a giant monster trapped in the ice. Scientist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is the only survivor to see the monster – a 200 foot long dinosaur-like creature. Found unconscious he is transferred to a hospital in New York to recover. Amazingly, the long plane trip didn’t kill Dr. Nesbitt (why didn’t they stop at a hospital in Canada? Or Alaska? That would seem more plausible).
Of course, no one believes Nesbitt and his tale of the giant dinosaur. He is frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the army and his colleagues. Eventually, he convinces world-renowned paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway ) and his attractive assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) to believe him. In looking over a mountain of sketches of dinosaurs he finds the creature he has seen. Hunter tells him it’s a Rhedosaurus (no, that’s not a real dinosaur). The only known fossil of a Rhedosaurus was found in the Hudson River, believed to be the fictional species breeding ground.
Meanwhile, in the Atlantic Ocean, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, starts to make its way towards New York. destroying fishing boats and a lighthouse. Nesbitt, his love interest, and the paleontologist plot the creature’s course using the location of the attacks and convince the army something untoward is afoot. Edlson goes deep down in the Hudson River in a diving bell to look for evidence of The Beast. Surprise! It’s already there and Edison is eaten, the diving bell and all.
The Rhedosaurus comes ashore at the docks in NYC and mass chaos ensues. Unlike Godzilla, The Beast has no problem gobbling up pesky humans. The police try to shoot it, people run helter-skelter, buildings are destroyed – you know, all that fun stuff. A newspaper headline says, “180 known dead, 1500 injured, damage estimates $300 million” Not much of a kill streak but when adjusted for inflation the Rhedosaurus did $3 billion in damage during its first trip to NYC.
Enter the army. They lockdown the city and eventually locate The Beast. (How a 200-foot dinosaur can hide requires some suspension of disbelief.) They shoot at it with a big gun, and it has no effect. The lovely Lee estimates the creature’s skull must be eight-inches thick. Enter the soldiers armed with Bazookas.
While this is happening a clinic in another part of the city is filled with sick and dying people, suffering from an unknown illness. One has a fever of 105 degrees. Yikes.
The bazooka boys managed to wound the misunderstood beast who quickly retreats, leaving pools of blood behind. The platoon of soldiers following all fall ill with a mysterious illness. It is deduced that the Rhedosaurus is carrying some sort of deadly pathogen, complicating how they will kill it. They don’t want to spread the plague all over New York (Although I would argue, that might be the best thing for New York).
Dr. Nesbitt believes the best way to kill it is with a radioactive isotope shot directly into its open wound. That will burn the bacteria, or virus, or whatever, and kill the monster. I love the repeated use of the term “radioactive isotope.” It seems painfully obvious the writers had heard the term but had no idea what it was, to the point they couldn’t even give it a name.
Our good friend the Rhedosaurus comes ashore at an amusement park. Nesbitt and an army sniper armed with a rifle grenade full of “radioactive isotope” confront the beast. To get a clear shot they are ferried to the top of a rollercoaster. Rhedosaurus is hit, wails like a banshee, and inadvertently sets the rollercoaster ablaze. It flails about before succumbing to the “radioactive isotope.”
Nesbitt and Hunter embrace.
Say adieu to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – there were no sequels.
Interesting Facts from 20,000 Fathoms
- It is based on the short story, The Fog Horn, by Ray Bradbury. He received the credit “Suggested by the Saturday Evening Post Story by Ray Bradbury.”
- The film’s budget was $200,000 – that $2 million in 2021dollars. Damn!
- It grossed $5 million at the box office – $50 million in 2021dollars.
- 20,000 Fathoms was one of the highest-grossing films of 1953.
- During pre-production, it was called The Monster from Beneath the Sea.
- Some of the original concepts had the monster with a shelled head or beak.
- One concept including the creature shooting flames from its nose.
- 20,000 Fathoms was said to have been one of the inspirations for Tomoyuki Tanaka to make the original Godzilla which hit theatres the following year.
- The Rhedosaurus makes a cameo appearance in the Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)
Who stars in 20,000 Fathoms?
|Paul Hubschmid||…||Prof. Tom Nesbitt (as Paul Christian)|
|Paula Raymond||…||Lee Hunter|
|Cecil Kellaway||…||Prof. Thurgood Elson|
|Kenneth Tobey||…||Col. Jack Evans|
|Donald Woods||…||Capt. Phil Jackson|
|Lee Van Cleef||…||Corp. Stone|
|Steve Brodie||…||Sgt. Loomis|
|Ross Elliott||…||George Ritchie|
Should I see The Beast from 20K Fathoms?
YES. This is the first of the atomic-theme kaiju films. If you’re a fan of the genre this is a must-see.
That aside, it is shot remarkably well, has interesting characters, and (almost) believable effects. It’s a fun 80 minutes.