Gorgo is truly a rare beast, a British kaiju movie! With its monster-mom mayhem, the 1961 film also happens to be a perfect thematic tie to Mother’s Day (which was earlier this month… dude go call your mom). I initially had low expectations for Gorgo mostly due to jolly ol’ England’s other 1961 creature feature, Konga. While Konga is a surprisingly limp King Kong clone, Gorgo is derivative in much more endearing ways, efficiently and entertainingly leading up to an extremely effective third act. Gorgo actually fits right in with Toho’s monster output too: the beasts are sympathetic creatures with their own motives and the real villains are human greed and hubris. Gorgo sadly never drinks a giant cup of tea or chews on a truckload of crumpets, but the movie still manages to be deliciously British. Pretty much every other line out of these characters’ mouths is a wry, dry Britticism.
So finish your call with your ma’, tell her I said “‘ello guv-nah!” and get ready to Gor-go for Gorgo!
First, give the trailer a look! Like trailers still do today, it gives away all the best parts and spoils the cool plot twist. I get a kick out of how the trailer really desperately wants you to know that this is a very very realistic film about an invincible 200 ft tall dinosaur finding its way to London and butt-fucking the army. Sometimes they have a hilariously back-handed way of bragging about it:
With this being a non-Toho production, I wasn’t familiar with the cast or crew. French director Eugène Lourié basically made a name for himself making movies like Gorgo: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Colossus of New York, and Behemoth the Sea Monster were all Lourié joints that came out in the 50s. Beast from 20,000 Fathoms might ring a bell: it’s stop-motion effects master Ray Harryhausen’s big break, and it’s the movie (besides King Kong) to inspire Toho to create Godzilla. So it’s kind of a big deal.
Gorgo differs from Lourié’s earlier creature features though. His previous work follows the usual western monster film formula: monster is found/created, wreaks havoc because it’s an asshole, is stopped or much more often destroyed. Gorgo breaks that mold with its sympathetic monsters who live happily ever after. Supposedly Lourié’s daughter cried after watching one of his previous monster flicks and yelled at him for “killing the nice beast.” It’s an anecdote anyone who is/was a monster-loving kid can relate to, and it was also likely the inspiration for Gorgo’s Shaun, the precocious kid that stows away and tries to free the baby monster. Food for thought: Gorgo’s Shaun predates Gamera’s infamous “Kenny” by 4 years. Shaun may very well have been the prototypical Kenny.
Gorgo opens with oddly airy, dreamy music over a churning, murky seascape. Our heroes run a salvage ship, and are diving for scrap when a freak, rapid-fire volcano pops out of the ocean and starts spraying water and fire e’rywhere. I love a briskly paced monster movie, and Gorgo moves right along. The miniature ship looks great, and they do a super job cutting between long shots of the model and action shots of the full size ship’s deck. I’d actually argue Gorgo is a little too briskly paced, as we’re confusingly zapped from the ship at mid-storm, to it peacefully parked the next day near a remote island. There are a couple other jumps like this, and they surprised me every time. Usually old school creature features plod along, but Gorgo’s turbo-cuts left me saying:
Our heroes Joe and Sam paddle out to the island to get supplies and see about repairing their ship. On the way in, they see all kinds of crazy dead fish and bizzaro sea creatures floating on the surface, flung out of their deep-sea habitat by the volcano. It’s a great detail that adds a ton of atmosphere, intrigue, and yes, even realism, as rabidly purported by the film’s trailer. It feels like a more grounded take on the reanimated trilobites Dr. Yamane finds in Gojira, and it’s not the last story beat that Gorgo borrows and Britifies from that classic creature feature.
When Joe and Sam got ashore I was totally lost as to where they were supposed to be. Nara Island, with its small stone cottages and gruff local mariners looks way more Lord of the Rings than Gojira. After watching back to back 60s-era Japanese-produced south-sea island adventures (Gamera vs Barugon, Mothra vs Godzilla), it was fun to see the Brit-quivalent to those mysterious be-jungled isles: an isolated fishing village on a tiny, remote (fictional) island off the coast of Ireland.
Nara Island might not sound particularly Irish, but the name makes a little more sense if you take into account that Gorgo’s producers originally planned to set the movie in Japan instead of the UK. “Nara” is a period in Japanese history, a prefecture, and a city in that same prefecture, so Gorgo’s producers were all about tipping their hats hard to Gojira and his homeland. Before settling on Britain, the producers supposedly were considering setting the film in France or Australia. Australia was ruled out quickly as the producers claimed that the land down under didn’t feature enough landmarks for Gorgo to trash and that audiences “wouldn’t care.” Sorry Aussies, that burn was so brutal you could throw another shrimp on it.
Joe and Sam get a pretty cold reception by the locals, and are basically told that without some special, local permits, they have 24 hours to fuck right off regardless of whether their ship is actually seaworthy. Eventually our heroes find out that (part of) the reason everyone are being such buttholes is that two of their divers have gone missing. Joe and Sam decide to help track down the missing dudes, and of course, scoop up whatever fabulous treasure those jokers tried and failed to retrieve. They manage to find one lost diver and get him onto their dinghy (ladies), but he dies almost immediately. Cause of death? FEAR. “You saw him come up… you ask me he died of fright.”
Despite a man being literally spooked to death by something he saw in the murky depths, Joe and Sam decide they’re gonna get rich or die tryin’ and go after the gold below. They catch our first murky glimpse of Gorgo, complete with a great music sting. Our heroes make it out with their lives, only to find some “lovable” scamp from the island has hopped aboard their ship. The kid (Shaun, because of course his name is Shaun) lets Joe and Sam know that the permit stuff is “a heathen lie” (not a good Christian lie, natch), and so Joe and Sam go confront the harbormaster, or something? This part felt pointless, especially in an otherwise very streamlined narrative. I guess the point is to keep them out of harm’s way during the first GORGO ATTACK YEAH!
While our leads are on the mainland, the search party of boats are still combing for the remaining lost diver when a full-sized Gorgo head and hand emerge from the water to munch seamen (heh). They manage to harpoon the beast, and the whole scene looks legit. Like the volcano/storm scene earlier, they do an expert job of quickly cutting between the full-size prop and actors and the miniatures. The Gorgo suit/props are kind of a mixed bag. It looks great from certain angles and kinda wonky from others, but the overall effect is solid. Gorgo’s eyes light up red, and he makes lion+elephant roar sounds, which are nicely enhanced by some spooky reverb.
Gorgo makes short work of the sailors and makes landfall on Nara Island, and there is a ridiculously good composite shot of the monster walking up the beach while tiny live actors flee in terror. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that shot on Google image search, but when you do a GIS for “gorgo” it does pull up pictures of a topless action figure somebody made of the lady from 300, because we live in a nightmare dimension.
The townspeople manage to shoo away Gorgo with torches, but being the ever-enterprising sleazeballs, Joe and Sam let the harbormaster know that they’d be happy to take care of their Gorgo problem… for the right price. Though Joe initially figures they’ll just smoke the monster and peace out, Shaun and Sam clue him in to the fact that, you know, a living dino-monster is kind of a big deal, so they all agree to capture the creature alive and turn an even bigger profit. Joe and Sam decide this calls for some bathysphere shenanigans:
That’s a publicity still up above (if the black and whiteness of it didn’t give that away), because unfortunately the full monster reveal under water is so murky you can barely tell what’s happening. That might have been due to a bad transfer on the version I watched. Some of the other darker scenes were hard to make out, but the rest of the movie looked great, including the nighttime finale.
Thanks to their excellent bathyspheresmanship and net-throwing abilities, Joe, Sam, and the rest manage to capture Gorgo and bring him onboard. They initially agree to sell the specimen to an Irish university for further research, but they’re offered a better deal by a circus so they shadily go with them instead, setting sail for London before the eggheads at the college can find out. Shaun stows away on the ship and tries to free Gorgo, but Joe and Sam manage to haul the beast to jolly ol’ England with just a couple casualties. They keep Gorgo drugged up and parade his passed-out ass around town on a truck bed under a tarp:
It’s a great image and a perfect way to drive home the scale of the monster. It’s such a good gag, it looks like Gamera the Brave cribbed from it a few decades later:
We’re treated to news blurbs and TV coverage of the monster’s humiliating entrance into the “civilized” world, and it smacks of King Kong homage without being exactly on the nose. This is where the script gets even more British, with a dry, wise-cracking news anchor wondering loudly why the creature is named Gorgo. The circus’ CEO and hype-man Mr. Dorkin (ha, yep) explains that the kaiju is named for the classic beast from Greek myth, the Gorgon. He leaves out the part where a gorgon is this:
And not, you know, a fin-eared dino-beast. If anything I guess that makes the movie a little more real since circuses aren’t renowned for, you know, treating living things awesomely. There’s some great sound design for the sleeping creature, and a cool shot of another full-size Gorgo prop getting lowered into its pen. Those are followed by another insanely good composite shot when a photographer that never saw King Kong spooks Gorgo with his big stupid flash bulb. The models and miniatures are excellent too, and go a long way to lending credibility to a monster suit that looks great in some shots, and wonky in others.
Gorgo’s shit-flipping is immediately met with dudes wielding flamethrowers, because Great Britain survived getting bombed by Nazis and they just aren’t going to take any more horseshit, not even from rampaging super-dinos. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us giggling little assholes in the audience) this just makes everything an even bigger clusterfuck, because Gorgo freaks out even worse and starts doing murder before those brave souls can even rev up their flamethrowers. Eventually the survivors are able to wrangle our distressed dino, and then we’re bounced into a herp-a-derp cicrus/carnival montage replete with wacky adventure music.
Of course the main attraction at Dorkin’s (heh) Circus is Gorgo! We see a huge crowd pushing to get in to see the incredible monster, and they’re corralled by an expert carnie barker. I was fine with all of his patter, except one line. He only says it once, so I imagine it was a case of throw it in, but at one point the carnie calls Gorgo “the eighth wonder of the world” which rapidly elicited a loud “FOOK YOU MAN” from me. Look I like Gorgo, I do, but there’s only one 8th wonder:
We get another terrific composite shot, this time of Gorgo in an ugly, deep, concrete moat, surrounded by bleachers filled with douchebags laughing in his sad face and stuffing their big stupid maws with popping corns and cottoned candies. Even Sam is spending their triumphant opening night slogging back booze and sulking in his trailer with Shaun. He knows this operation was fucked from the get-go: good friends of theirs died bringing this beast to London, and the fat paycheck isn’t doing anything to ease his conscience.
As if Sam wasn’t feeling “awesome” enough about opening night, one of the professors from the Irish university they stole Gorgo from calls them up with dire news they have to hear in person. Joe and Sam arrive in the professor’s office, who closes a comically gigantic book to drop the scientific bombshell: Gorgo is a fucking baby.
While Joe and Sam get the bad news, Shaun watches over Gorgo after hours. We find out that Gorgo is velociraptor-smart, as he spends his downtime testing the electric fence for weaknesses. This whole “come see an ancient kill-monster at the circus” seems to be a straight-up shitshow on its own, but then Gorgo’s mom Ogra rolls onto Nara Island looking for her precious babby and naturally is all 7 flavors of pissed off.
Unfortunately Ogra’s attack on Nara Island was too murky for me to completely make out on the version I watched. Judging by the rest of this movie though, I’m willing to bet I missed at least one top-notch composite shot, and probably some solid miniature work. After three days of radio silence from Nara Island, the British government scrambles some jets to figure out what the fuck is going on over there. We find out in a boardroom scene that Nara Island has been utterly annihilated.
Shortly after that, we do get to see Ogra tear ass in broad daylight. When Joe and Sam transported sweet babby Gorgo to London, they had to hose him down regularly to keep him from dying. After flattening Nara, Ogra picked up Gorgo’s trail thanks to the run-off from his daily whore’s baths. Ogra of course is greeted by fighter jets and battleships, which she shreds in the beautiful light of day.
We get one more scene with our human leads (“heroes” seems a little disingenuous at this point) before the Ogra-sized shit hits the London-shaped fan. Sam, full-on shithoused and hating himself for all the mayhem and death that’s happened, decides to make a run at letting Gorgo out. Even Shaun, the kid who tried to cut the monster loose early in the movie realizes that’s an awful idea and desperately tries to stop him with help from a frantic Joe. One pissed off monster going H.A.M on London is plenty, Sam.
Ogra rightfully blasts right through the nets the navy set up and looks awesome wading ashore through a small bay. In a plan that only made sense in a pre-energy crisis/who gives a moldy dick about the environment world, the army pumps a zillion gallons of gasoline into the bay and sets it on fire, hoping to kill off Ogra like they’re a bunch of English Mr. Blondes. They accidentally fry some poor greaser who was watching from the sidelines! The collateral damage only gets crazier from here.
The nuclear question is addressed early in Ogra’s rampage. “Atomic weapons are out of the question in any built-up area!” That’s right citizens of Manningtree, be glad Ogra didn’t make a bee-line for you, because your armed forces would not have hesitated to nuke your quaint little nuts off.
Amid blaring air raid sirens and stampedes of frantic, terrified people, Ogra confronts her first famous landmark,
London Tower Bridge. She takes the hailstorm of bullets and shells like a champ and just tears. That. Shit. Down.
As with most of the effects shots in this movie, the miniature bridge looks great, and the monster suit does a fabulous job of crashing through it. There’s some dramatic lighting that amps up the scale and atmosphere. Some deft edits too: seeing full-size debris falling onto real tanks and jeeps goes a long way to selling the chaos. The one exception is the wacky-looking doll-men we briefly glimpse plunging to their doom. I think this is Gorgo’s only attempt at using miniatures of people, and it’s easy to see why they avoided them. Gorgo’s in good company though: King Kong and plenty of lavish Toho productions (and surely a metric assload of lesser B-movies) featured hilarious mini-men.
As Ogra continues across the city, the throngs of civilians running for their lives get more and more manic and every enclosed space becomes suffocatingly claustrophobic. People start getting trampled by one another and crushed by falling debris. They even start jumping (or getting accidentally pushed) out of buildings. That’s all before the subway tunnels start collapsing in on terrified refugees. There’s even a guy in a sandwich board screaming at everyone to repent because the end is nigh. All told, Gorgo’s final act hits the reality-horror button almost as hard as Gojira did. The movie does give us breaks from the chaotic nightmare of people stampeding over one another in a crumbling, fiery city, in the form of some fantastic special effects set pieces. First, and maybe my favorite in the film, is Ogra vs. the army vs. Big Ben.
But the next one is the best, and definitely the most meta. When Gorgo first got driven around town like some kind of tarp-clad monster-Pope, they made sure to cruise around London’s famous Picadilly Circus for some sweet, 60s-style viral marketing. Once Gorgo’s set up as a circus freak, we see a huge flashy billboard advertising him in Picadilly. Naturally, Ogra is not a fan, and she lets Dorkin’s PR department know exactly how she feels.
That is some killer miniature/compositing work. Just like Ogra, Gorgo’s special effects team fucking crushed it. With Ogra finally closing in on her baby, the army throws together a last-ditch attempt to fry her with electrical lines. Ogra continues to be a total boss and give precisely zero fucks, trashing a roller coaster under a blood red sky and pimp-strutting through the power lines to get to her kid.
Ogra lays the groundwork for Mothra by founding the bad-ass single mom monster (momster?) club. Both creatures made their big screen debuts the same year, but we didn’t see Mothra’s mom-powers activate until she fought Godzilla in 1964. With one last impressive composite shot, mother and child wade into the ocean, leaving the world of modern man in big, shitty, deserved shambles. A spazzy reporter soapboxes frantically as they depart, and Shaun gives them the longest, most loving look I’ve ever seen a person give a pair of rampaging dino-monsters. It borders on upsetting.
So that’s Gorgo! It’s good! While it didn’t leave a massive impact on pop culture like King Kong or Godzilla did, it was a modest success, and naturally was a favorite in the UK. Who doesn’t love rooting for the home
team monster? And it certainly wasn’t forgotten: Gorgo got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment and still shows up pretty regularly in the background of other movies and TV shows. Gorgo never got a bevvy of sequels and remakes like some other monsters, but he was popular enough to live on in comics for a several years:
He has fans today too! A quick search will reveal a whole slew of art by fans, you just gotta pick through stills from the movie and pictures of the lady from 300 (both in human and sex-action figure form). I liked one piece so much I bought it at G-Fest in 2013 and framed it:
I only saw this film recently and I totally agree with you about its Britishness! It took me right back to childhood films like Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Mary Poppins. Surprisingly well-produced too, the scenes where mummy Gorgo stomps through London were as good, if not better than, the monster fare that was coming out of Japan at the same time.
A bit like Gojira alluding to Tokyo’s bombing during WW2, the monster attack in Gorgo is reminiscent of imagery of the London Blitz. Also a bit of morality in the form of greed causing catastrophe. The only bad point I’d say is the two interesting main characters getting sidelined at the end.
A very good film and a very good review too!
Thanks for reading! Agreed on Sam and Joe getting shuffled out of the movie at the end. I was so caught up in the excitement of the monster attack I didn’t really notice that they (unfortunately) got pushed aside.