Monster Movie Monday: Gorgo (1961)
Matthew Turner | On 01, Jun 2020
Director: Eugène Lourié
Cast: Bill Travers, William Sylvester, Vincent Winter, Christopher Rhodes, Joseph O’Conor, Bruce Seton
Watch Gorgo online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
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At first glance, Gorgo looks like a British knock-off of Godzilla (1954), which, to be fair, is exactly what it is. However, it has some serious monster movie pedigree behind it – director Eugène Lourié previously made The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 creature feature that was one of the early atomic monster movies and directly inspired Godzilla. In fact, Gorgo was Lourié’s third dinosaur picture, following Behemoth, the Sea Monster (aka The Giant Behemoth) in 1959, so he knew a thing or two about giant scaly creatures destroying cities.
The plot follows the standard monster movie template, only with one essential twist. A couple of greedy sailors (Bill Travers and William Sylvester) capture a giant dinosaur-like creature off the coast of Ireland and take it to London, where they sell it to the circus. The circus master (Martin Benson) names the creature Gorgo (after the mythical Gorgon) and exhibits it in Battersea Park. However, it transpires that Gorgo is actually a newborn creature and soon its angry mother, Ogra (200 feet tall, compared to Gorgo’s mere 65) arrives, stomping through London until she finds her child.
Rightly revered among monster movie aficionados, the creature design is superb. The filmmakers took the basic T-Rex body and added glaring red eyes, huge claws, a massive mouth and giant flappy fins that look like ears. The effect is augmented with some genuinely stunning sound design work for Gorgo’s roaring sounds – reputedly so disturbing that neighbouring offices came round to complain about the noise when the film screened at the BBFC.
Giant monster movies stand or fall on their creature designs and their destruction-based special effects and Gorgo scores highly on both counts. The film’s effects were achieved by a combination of suitmation (as man-in-a-suit monsters go, you can barely tell) and miniaturisation, a technique pioneered in the Godzilla films, as well as some slow-motion camera work. The result is genuinely impressive – Lourié captures real terror in the fleeing crowds and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the human cost of the destruction, with multiple people getting crushed by falling masonry and the like, even if Ogra never actually eats anyone.
Needless to say, from a 2020 perspective there’s a perverse satisfaction to be had in watching Ogra stomp all over London, especially when she lays into Big Ben (and, by extension, the Houses of Parliament). Indeed, the sequence where Ogra destroys Tower Bridge is one of the best of its type, achieved with some spectacular model work.
There are a number of other highlights in the film too, from the parading of Gorgo through 1960s Piccadilly Circus (sedated and strapped to the back of a truck) to the thrilling sequence where an angry Gorgo wakes up and has to be subdued with flame throwers.
As with so many creature features, Gorgo is a lot less interested in its human characters, though there is a nominal storyline whereby Sylvester’s character (Sam Slade) grows a conscience over their exploitation of Gorgo for financial gain, starts drinking and tries to set Gorgo free. There’s also a half-hearted subplot involving Sean (Vincent Winter), an orphaned Irish (but clearly Scottish) kid who stows away with the sailors when they take Gorgo to London, though that never goes anywhere, even though it’s an obvious opportunity for some emotional string-pulling. It’s also significant (especially given the monster mother-and-child theme) that there are no female characters at all in the cast, making it look as if Ogra is teaching them all a lesson about the maternal instinct.
The final shot of Gorgo provides the film with perhaps its best moment, notably and deliberately kicking against monster movie convention. (Let’s just brush over the fact that the size difference between Ogra and Gorgo varies wildly from scene to scene.)
Gorgo (1961) is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.