Directed by Phil Tucker
George Nadar – Roy
Claudia Barrett – Alice
Selena Royle – Mother
John Mylong - The Professor
Gregory Moffett – Johnny
George Borrows – Ro-Man
John Brown – Voice: Ro-Man and Great Guidance
If there is a just God in Heaven, Phil Tucker, Director of 1953’s Robot Monster, will one day receive his due. At the least, I think a biopic is in order along the lines of 1994’s Ed Wood. Hell, Wood’s tortured struggle for cinematic recognition is one of star-studded success when compared to Phil Tucker’s tale of gritty, blind devotion and determination.
Concerning Robot Monster, Tucker once said, “For the budget, and for the time, I felt I had achieved greatness.” This declarative sentence, blunt and to the point, indicates the very reason for the filmmaker’s enduring place in celluloid history: With only toothpicks at his disposal, he set out to build the Taj Mahal. His reach did indeed exceed his grasp without any hope of Heaven (to paraphrase Browning). To put it another way, Phil Tucker was as a man cast into the middle of the ocean during a typhoon that, after bobbing to the surface, begins to swim for shore with actual hope in his stubborn heart.
Part of Tucker’s greatness lays in the fact that he never, ever, ever quit on the industry that scorned him, ridiculed him, nearly drove him to suicide, and clearly detested the sight of him. It would not be fair to say the film industry quit on Phil Tucker, it never really looked his way with any real love in the first place. Simple unrequited love, no matter how endless, is not enough for greatness, however, which brings us to Robot Monster. And yes, with this badly flawed, shoestring production, Tucker swung his broken twig and smashed one out of park.
First let me express my utter contempt for all reviewers of this film that have taken the “it’s so bad it’s good” or “full of unintentional humor” tact. I can see them grinning like flea-ridden hyenas now, saying “God, I just love it! It’s such a hoot!” I spit on these reviewers and their ilk. One must also spit on revolting cruelties such as the Golden Turkey Awards, which ridicule filmmakers, and the blatantly ugly Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, both of which mention Robot Monster (for a critical but completely un-condescending view of Robot Monster, see Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Film of the Fifties! McFarland Classics, 1982-1986).
Having said that, let’s get to the movie and do the unpleasant work that has to be done.
The plot, which involves alien invasion and the destruction of life on earth, is straightforward enough. An alien from the planet Ro-Man (named, oddly, Ro-Man) has come to earth and destroyed all life, save for a very small group, by using a Calcinator Death Ray. Ingeniously, the aliens have designed the Calcinator’s effects to resemble the destruction caused by an atomic bomb, thereby masking an alien presence. The small group has survived because the patriarch doctor, played by veteran Viennese actor, John Mylong, has developed an antibacterial serum that somehow negates the effects of Calcinator. The alien, Ro-Man, is played by actor George Burrows, dressed, famously, in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet with antennae. Its base of operations is a cave in the Bronson Canyons, where he communicates with his leader, the “Great One” or “Great Guidance”, via a barely modified television set. Also in the mouth of the cave is an “individual energizer” which gives the creature its power. This energizer is, as the credits have told us, a bubble machine; an “Automatic Billion Bubble Machine” provided by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products.
So, we have a hulking actor in a gorilla suit and diving helmet, reduced to a great deal of hand gestures to indicate speech and emotion, talking to a television set in the mouth of a cave; while beside him bubbles are churning from a machine about the size of a washing machine. Get the picture? Much of the film also consists of the unfortunate Burrows lumbering around the scrappy hills and valleys of Bronson Canyon in California, seen in long shot, while a doom-laden musical score (by Elmer Bernstein, no less) lumbers along as well.
The script was provided by Wyott Ordung, who was an atomic age triple threat, having directed Monster From the Ocean Floor (1954), acted in Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951), and scripted Robot Monster and (partially) Target Earth (1954). To call the script of Robot Monster “bizarre”, as so many have, does not give it full credit. Avant-Garde would be closer to the mark. My favorite Ordung moment comes when our two principal survivors, Alice and Roy (Claudia Barrett and Roy Nadar), having just barely escaped Ro-Man, fall into a clinch and, apropos of absolutely nothing, engage in an extended, wordless “pantomime of love” involving expressive hand and body moments – a kind of wordless, stationary dance; which culminates in Alice reclining on her back in the rough Pampas grass of Bronson Canyon and camera fade. “Were you and Roy playing house?” asks young Clara, the little girl amongst the survivors, upon their return. Yes, indeed! says Roy’s grin and Alice’s bashful expression.
Naturally, at world’s end a wedding is in order, which leads to another Ordung moment of high concept, done with the principals kneeling. The head doctor performs the ceremony, a pompous mixture of ceremony and wordy plea to God regarding their plight, in which the groom has remove his shirt. The witnesses stand with heads bowed, as during a funeral oration, looking profoundly grief stricken. There won’t be any rice thrown this day.
There will be, however, a rather seedy honeymoon, in which Roy and Alice toddle off again into the sun baked hills immediately following the ceremony (well, actress Claudia Barrett sort of delicately picks her way over the hard, pebbly ground, due to the heels she never takes off during the entire picture).
The dialogue and direction have equal moments that would have made Beckett nod his head in amused simpatico. When young Johnny (who deserves a good throttling throughout) bluntly asks Ro-Man what he has against him, Ro-Man explains: “Your people were getting too intelligent. We could not wait until you were smart enough to attack us. We had to attack you first.” Well, thanks. That explains it, I suppose. As for the direction, one has only to watch the much-beleaguered George Burrows as Ro-Man, swatting at flies and bubbles in his discomfort, or stumbling around under what must have terrible heat in the gorilla suit, to get the gist.
Ro-Man is initially defeated, as most beasts are, by lust for an earthly woman. In this case I can’t say I blame him as the scenes where Ro-Man paws Claudia Barrett, asking if she could ever think of him as a man, are disturbingly erotic. She defends herself in rather passive gestures (she has flirted shamelessly with Ro-Man to discover the secret of his great strength) until Ro-Man, deciding enough is enough, simply tears her dress half off, ties her up, and then knocks her unconscious. The professor picks this moment to dial for a conversation. “Call back later,” snaps Ro-Man peevishly, fairly shaking in frustration.
So, we have a travesty of details. Why do I feel in my heart this is a great film? Well, as I say, it’s a mess when seen in detail, and Phil Tucker can't be called a technical master of any of them.
But dissecting details is never the way to approach art. Art is remembered by the visceral impact it makes as an entire experience. When taken as a whole, something greater than a simple sum emerges. With Robot Monster, it is the layer upon layer of scenes, twisted into a shocking, freakish reality, that somehow leaves the viewer overwhelmed and defeated to any resistance: The “pantomime of love” merges into a “stone age wedding," into another rambling speech in a Viennese accent by a doctor driven insane with optimism (he has, after all, scolded his wife, played with great conviction by Selena Royle, for expressing grief over the bodies of not one by two of her children. “Ve must continue!” he commands more than once, sounding more like a Prussian officer barking orders than a sage leader of a new civilization).
It is, of course, the vision of Ro-Man, the new God of the Earth, struggling to make his way over a small crest of ground, shaking his fists at young Johnny, who has the ability to run. It is also the numbing brutality and bleak doom of the film, which has Ro-Man killing the children with his hands, as his trusty Calcinator Death Ray will not work on them. “A simple matter of strangulation,” he explains to the Great Guidance, making numerous, savage hand gestures, none of which mimic actual strangulation. Of all the invasion pictures of the era, this is the one in which humanity loses, and loses in grinding, savage fashion.
It is the whole experience of Robot Monster that leaves its very memorable mark. After all, the film is still discussed decades after its release, and will still be watched and loved decades after you read these words. That counts, friends and neighbors.
Like most folks, I have memories of pieces of films which I saw when young, tiny black and white dreams that, now and then, present themselves. These short scenes and pictures have come to represent specific words, themselves denoting entire moods. For instance, I remember the scene in Night of the Hunter, when the children have escaped madman preacher, Robert Mitchum, and are seen floating down a moon-shrouded river; I hear Mitchum singing his sweet gospel and see the raft and moon-rippled water and think “Safety.” Likewise, I can still bring to mind the scene in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where James Stewart, shaking, wet and exhausted on the bridge, begs God for help as he contemplates suicide; I see Stewart’s, pale, black-eyed face and think the word, “Despair.”
In the final scene of Robot Monster we learn that, contrary to what we have been led to believe, all the proceeding has not been a dream. It represents horrible reality. The children are really dead, killed in their tears and childish pleas by the brutal hands of Ro-Man. The couple is dead, the doctor and wife, everyone; the earth has been ravaged, ripe for domination, as reptilian demons have been loosed up the Earth. We see, in a grainy film loop as through a prism shattered, Ro-man after Ro-man after Ro-Man emerging from the cave entrance with extended arms. Over and over they keep coming from the black, depthless pit.
I see it now, sitting in the basement of the house where I grew up, on a television set as big as a piece of furniture . . . there comes this memory: There are these beasts with metallic heads but no faces, massive bodies covered in black hair and shiny patches of skin, walking through crackling lightening and shadow; a harsh, endless march with extended, thick fingers ever reaching, while some screeching wind fills the air like the ravaged cries of the infant Damned. Yes, they will, in their endless procession, cover the Earth; a land that is human no more.
In my mind, forever stamped, is the word “Apocalypse.”
A bit of final trivia to chew on: actress Selena Royle, so heartbreaking here as the mother, knew heartbreak well. Her career was destroyed by the House of Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s when she refused to give testimoney before the committee. She was black-listed as a communist for her troubles. This for an actress that had played Elizabeth Taylor's mom in Courage of Lassie; as well as having founded and organized the Stage Door Canteen - an institution that gave free meals to soldiers in WWII passing through New York. Robot Monster was Royle's last film.
See it for yourself. You will never forget it. How else might we measure greatness?