October 27, 2011

GORGO (1961) - happy 50th birthday!

(1961, UK)

Every country should have its own Godzilla...

UPDATE: March 2013 - GORGO has been released on blu-ray

Released in the UK fifty years ago today, Gorgo remains Britain's closest thing to a kaiju eiga, a giant suitmation monster movie. If vintage dinosaur movies are your thing, or if you love seeing London in even more chaos than usual, this is absolutely for you. It was fantastic to see a clip from the film recently appear in Joe Dante's 3D teen-chiller The Hole (2009). Gorgo lives!

In 1961, Godzilla had yet to appear in colour (in King Kong vs Godzilla the following year). Director Eugene Lourié recycled the
plot of his The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the London setting of Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), but this time used a man in a monster suit rather than stop-motion animation.

Photo-montage with a shadowy demonic monster. Like the Japanese Godzilla, Gorgo doesn't walk around buildings...
In fact it was Lourié's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, together with a re-release of King Kong (1933), that inspired Toho Studios to make the very first Godzilla movie. So I'm reluctant to label Gorgo as a rip-off of Godzilla. Lourié got there earlier, along with Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation and Ray Bradbury's story, of course.

Two salvage experts limp into harbour on a remote Irish island after a volcanic eruption damages their freighter. Before they can make repairs, a dinosaur emerges from the sea
terrifying the local fisherman. They decide to capture the creature, load it onboard and sail it to London to make their fortune. After a few fatal accidents, Gorgo is installed as an attraction in Battersea Funfair (just next to the famous power station).

Hand-tinted lobby card - Tower Bridge is falling down...
But just as it's making a huge splash with London's thrillseekers, a gigantic and angry mother Gorgo emerges from the sea looking for her baby. She heads for London and nothing's going to get in her way, though the army, navy and air force are going to try...

Gorgo attacks a rollercoaster in Battersea Funfair, just like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms at Coney Island
Gorgo is made very like an early Godzilla movie, (a man in a suit amongst detailed miniatures) making it a peculiarly unique British monster film. The modelwork and special effects are from some of the finest technicians of the time, some of whom went onto work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but obviously with a much bigger budget. Gorgo's special effects are hit and miss, but easily on a par with the Japanese monsters of the time. The almost excessive use of Technicolor borders on the surreal, especially when the night sky is lit up with red smoke as London burns. I particularly love this great optical composite of Gorgo stomping through Soho towards (and through) Piccadilly Circus.

Screengrab: Gorgo enjoys a night on the town
The monster suit looks fantastic on film, the creature's actions are suitably 'undercranked' to make it look huge (a technique often underused in the Japanese films), and the modelwork is just as detailed, laid out as a huge cityscape of central London. They even use a fullscale Gorgo to transport around London on a flatbed lorry,  (to publicise the new attraction) with a full-size prop of its claw to smash unwary fishermen in their boats.

The head is quite animated, with a convincing jaw movement, glowing red eyes and wiggling ears! The feet and claws are huge and look lethal. The only weak point of the suit is the belly which looks and acts like wrinkled material. However, unlike the heavy latex Godzilla suits, this allows the stuntman inside to twist dramatically, to pose and move more dynamically. The suit also had to move in the water and not catch fire too easily - pity the poor guys inside, including jockeys-turned-stuntmen Dave Wilding and Mick Dillon.

The story has humans too. The stars are William Sylvester (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Hand of Night) and Bill Travers (Born Free, Ring of Bright Water, The Smallest Show on Earth) as the two greedy bastards who cause all the trouble in the first place. They sort of a adopt a boy from the island, which is rather progressive for the time. He's played by Vincent Winter, an Oscar-winning child star who went on to work as production manager on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple and Superman II.

Gorgo certainly isn't low-budget, with some impressive sets (like the war room and the flooded London Underground) and with extensive crowd work to show London's citizens fleeing in panic. Indeed, cinematographer Freddie Young's next picture would be Lawrence of Arabia. He certainly knew how to make flamethrowers look good.

But it's not high budget either, relying too heavily on a mish-mash of stock footage of destroyers and jets before Gorgo hits London. While the modelwork holds up well during the night-time, the early daytime scenes of the boat in a tidal wave are unconvincing. There was certainly enough to fuel a particularly funny Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K season 10, 1998).

I enthused about Gorgo in an extensive article for G-Fan magazine (issue 49, January 2001). I still think it's entertaining as an action-packed monster movie, or as a far-fetched tale with nutty logic and oldschool special effects. It's also an evocative trip around London in 1960. So I'm annoyed that Gorgo still isn't on DVD in the country where it was made.

The sexed-up Monarch novelisation
So far, the DVD and laserdisc releases have been disappointing because of the quality of their source materials - a lot of visible film damage and washed-out colours. The DVD compression has also struggled with the grain, darkness, sea spray and smoke. I've seen it look far better, with vivid technicolor on British TV, transferred from a clean print with a sharp image. That's the version that I'd like to see represent Gorgo worldwide.

The more recent Japanese DVD (pictured) appears to be a close duplicate of the American VCI DVD and has the same extras. The quality of the film transfer is again slightly soft and the edges of block colours are blurry. It's accurately presented in 1.66 aspect, non-anamorphic.

Director Eugene Lourié later provided the extensive special effects for Crack In The World which recently warranted a Blu-ray release. Gorgo is jealous!

Here's a faded trailer for Gorgo...

Happily, a short sequel was made recently, Waiting For Gorgo. Here's the trailer...

(This is a hugely expanded rewrite of my earlier review from 2009.)


  1. I remember that G-Fan article Mark, great stuff.

    Like you its a shame that Gorgo isn't available in the UK, and that the current overseas DVDs are less than stellar - it needs someone like Classic Media to do it right.

    What I loved about Gorgo was that, unlike the US monster movies, the Gorgo's are not defeated and portrayed as a creatures acting on instinct rather than evil.

    So good that Toho borrowed the plot for Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla!

  2. I recently made a pilgrimage to the old neighborhood, walking from my home to the Encino Theatre on the very Saturday morning marking the 50th Anniversary of when I first saw it, so that shows you what a huge fan of that film I am. The theatre is long-since gone but the wonderful memories remain; what a fine film!

  3. Great article, Mark.

    I had to laugh when I saw the Monarch novelisation.

    I came across one of these for Reptilicus several years ago. I hadn't seen the film yet and was a bit taken aback when I started reading.

    I thought "those Danes must have a pretty liberal film rating system!".

    Finally saw the film a year or two ago--much tamer than the book. ;)

  4. For years, the novel and the GORGO comics were the only collectables out there.

    You're right, Dan. Monarch sexed up this story as well, introducing the character of the harbourmaster's daughter on Nara Island and her various love triangle complications...

    You've also reminded me that I need to add my GORGO action figures from Japan to this page...

  5. haha...never heard of this character. totally agree that every culture/country should have its own godzilla.

  6. Thank you for remembering GORGO! As a small boy (like Sean)I saw the film during it's premiere run in the USA and I loved it so much I begged my Aunt to sit through it twice with me - and she did! She tells me I said "This is the greatest movie ever made!" Now at 56 years of age I do have to begrudgingly admit that there are greater films, but GORGO still remains - will always remain - one of the greatest giant monster movies of the sci-fi / fantasy genre. Every time I watch it - and like Harryhausen with his beloved KING KONG I have screened it innumerable times - it brings tears to my eyes as Sean watches from the London library steps as the gigantic mother monster comes to retrieve her lost child. He smiles for poor Gorgo even though he probably knows, as an orphan, that his mother will never come for him. The effects (miniatures), the plot, script, cast, acting and especially the monster suit and score are magnificent examples of the filmmaker's craft. It truly is a sin on the part of studio leadership that this masterpiece still remains abandoned and ignored. So much crap is getting remastered and released while this beautiful gem of genre cinema languishes. We fans must complain ever more frequently, insistently, and intensely. Write the studio people! One last note: I had heard that an early 1960s issue of American Cinematographer featured a full-length article on the making of GORGO. Anybody have any info on this rumor? - John Bender

  7. I'm glad GORGO has fans in the US as well. I thought it was just a London thing. I even went to the site of the now defunct Battersea Funfair to research an article about the movie.

    As for the American cinematographer - I'll definitely check that out - only last week I bought some 1960s back issues...

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  9. There's a partial reprint of the article here on the Classic Horror Film Board. looks like there was an American Cinematogrpaher article in December 1959...


  10. the irish scemes at the start of the movie were filmed near my home in dalky south dublin in the irish republic, you can clearley see dalky island and the harbour. great old movie from my childhood

  11. Shinto, you've answered a question for me about where those scenes were shot. I thought it was somewhere remote!

    Have you any recent photos of the area that we might recognise from the film? And I can't see Dalky Island on the map anywhere. Was it a location, or do you see it in the distance in the movie?

  12. i will send you some pics, ill take them over the next few days, dalky island is a very small island with a martello tower on it,it can be seen in the backround during the boat scenes, the harbour scenes were shot at coliemore harbour and bullock harbour on the main land, the tower on dalky island can be seen as the heros land at the harbour, ill send you some pics soon


  13. shintokamikaze
    Any luck with those photos of GORGO island?

  14. Sorry i forgot about this, i was their yesterday and was thinking about the flick, so ill get right on it,a vid and some pics, sorry about the long delay.

  15. Did you see that GORGO is now on blu-ray?