April 18, 2009

The Post Traumatic Stress of Glenn Manning

Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Glenn Langan – Lt. Col. Glenn Manning
Cathy Downs – Carol Forest
William Hudson – Dr. Paul Linstrom
Larry Thor – Maj. Eric Coulter, MD

Lt. Col. Glenn Manning, irradiated and towering in overgrown, pale flesh and diaper sarong, made horrible in his infant petulance, is one of the great, iconic images of Atomic Age cinema. Nancy Archer, half drunk, 50 feet tall, and on a murderous rampage after her cheating husband, took her slow strides the same year in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Who hasn’t wanted to hook the two up? After all, they were practically desert neighbors. Perhaps William Hudson, who appeared in both films, might have introduced them (cautiously with his eyes on the exits). Sure, the two may have brought out the worst in one another, as couples so often do. Manning might have followed the beautiful Nancy straight toward the bottom of a bottle, the two careening into Los Angeles in the process. I prefer an alternative reality: the two monstrous personalities finding some solace with one another, perhaps setting up house in a cave in Bronson Canyon (They say on a clear night, if you listen closely, you can hear their laughter and private moments clear to Beverly Hills). Alas, the two missed one another, so we will never know what might have been.

Glenn Langan

It is fun to imagine the sparks, though, for if it is true that opposites attract, the two icons, as well as the two films, were so polar as to be magnetic. Nancy Archer was a fun loving socialite, always dressed to kill with a martini in hand and another being shaken. Lt. Col. Manning was all stiff military and working class – an inflexible core at the center; unwilling or unable to accept variables. The two films follow suit: The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, thanks in large part to the uninhibited performance of Yvette Vickers (Honey Parker), has the feel of a cheap Jazz club – all jukebox and be-bob; whereas The Amazing Colossal Man (TACM) plays like a classified military film – a documental record coming to light only after a specific statute of limitations has expired. TACM simply demands, and will receive, undivided attention.

Our grim story opens with a military caravan snaking its way over a thin road, through the sage and pampas grass of the Nevada desert. The music is oppressive, full of Army trumpets, timpani bass, and drum rolls – a solemn march. An equally oppressive voice, refusing to vary pitch or tone, gives us these details:

“The time is 2:45 am. Two hours and fifteen minutes before Time Zero. At Time Zero, a new type of atomic explosion, a plutonium bomb, will be detonated at Desert Rock, Nevada. These soldiers are to experience the plutonium explosion under simulated combat conditions.”

Holy shit. We are placed in breathless space, waiting for disaster.

We won’t have long to hold our breath. As Lt. Col. Manning and his men, all made alien in oversized, black goggles, hug the lee side of a trench; something goes wrong with the detonation. The “chain reaction has failed to complete the cycle” reports the voice of central command, booming over the black night like the voice of God. Colonel, Sir, can we run like hell now, Sir? wonder his men. Nope, says Manning. Tricky things these plutonium bombs. This is the first one, you know. Could go off at any second. Or it might never go off. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, but for God sakes hug the bomb-side of that trench, boys. Throughout the scene, the bomb tower makes an odd sputnik bleep, like the ticking of a nuclear watch.

Things continue to go the FUBAR way. While the boys are busy crapping their pants in the trench, Manning detects a small, private aircraft in trouble. The craft is forced to make crash landing right in the middle of the test site. His men are clear on their feelings: Good luck, pal. Next time take the bus. Command orders everyone to stay put; to forget the plane and pilot. Our Lt. Col. Is a hero, though, of the “but there’s a man in there” type. He tosses off his protective goggles and dashes out of the trench. As Manning races over a stark, black landscape, silhouetted in spotlight, the voice of command barks orders over a loudspeaker. Suddenly the bleeping of the tower stops, and Manning freezes. The command voice becomes silent, the pounding background music stops – and the moment hangs there as Lt. Col. Glenn Manning is completely and forever screwed. Manning is looking up, up, with an expression that is full of awe, then he covers his face with his arms and is lost in a blaze of white light and the terrible wind of the holocaust. When the light dims enough to see, Manning’s hair and clothes have been blown away, and he stands leaning forward against the blowing radiation. He has been deep fried - a singed, crusted, bald baby.

We move to a hospital where Manning, horribly burned and unconscious, is being attended by Army doctor, Paul Linstrom (William Hudson). The doctor is placing sterilized swaths of bandages over his face, going through the motions, but expectations are very low. A nurse, fetching another unit of blood, merely shakes her head when Manning’s fiancé, Carol (Cathy Downs), asks about his condition. A beat reporter covering the accident shows up, tapping his steno pad. Reporter Dumbass explains things in brutal fashion (not realizing Carol is Manning’s fiancé – but wait, just who does our journalist think she is? Just an accident groupie?): “Yeah, they don’t hold much hope for him. He was quite a mess when they got to him. Couldn’t even find the plane or the pilot he was trying to save.” Thanks so much, shit-for-brains; maybe you can describe the bubbling wounds while your at it.

Our erstwhile member of the fourth estate is a callus, stupid, son-of-a-bitch, but he’s right. Manning is in a coma and not expected to return to consciousness. He has third degree burns over nearly 100% of his body, and medical opinion cannot understand why he is still breathing. Still, they try and keep him comfortable with moisture-packed bandages. Manning has no skin left and has lost enough bodily fluids to be fatal (the movie is gripping in its detail). Dr. Linstrom tells his staff that Manning should die of shock and infection by morning.

“is he going to be alright, Doctor?” asks the fiancé as the doctor comes out of surgery. Dr. Linstrom pauses. He just stares at her. “Are you Carol?” he asks gently. She nods. “Your name is the only word he spoke.” Says the doc flatly. Any questions, Carol?

Miraculously, though, manning doesn’t die by morning. Quite the reverse, in fact. The stunned doctors find that Manning’s skin has completely regenerated. They cut away the wrappings to find healthy, fresh skin, moist and nearly glowing in a kind of icky sheen. How can this be? They quickly call in a “Mr. Kingman” who, we are told, helped develop the plutonium bomb. Mr. Kingman sits like a witness on trial, clearly upset by the merest suggestion that exposure to an atomic blast could cause anything unnatural. The doctors have two reasonable questions for this nuclear physicist. A) How does a fellow dressed in only a cotton uniform survive an atomic bomb detonation; and B) How does the dying victim of an atomic bomb detonation grow back 100% healthy, new skin overnight? Mr. Kingman can barely sit still, he’s so agitated with these pedestrian inquires. “What possible connection could there be to the bomb?” he says, peevishly. “A man survives an explosion, a plutonium explosion, and then for some reason or another his skin heals more rapidly than usual. What is the mystery, gentlemen?” Are we sure this is Mr. Kingman - “Atomic Scientist”? Perhaps Dr. Linstrom’s secretary has set up a meeting with Mr. Kingman, “The Imbecile” by mistake. The two are one after the other in the Las Vegas phone book, you know.

Scott Peters and Glenn Langan

Well, our doctors press on, despite Mr. Kingman’s brilliant analysis, with the hypothesis that somehow Manning’s condition might have at least something to do with his standing in the middle of a nuclear furnace, the first such chain reaction involving plutonium. I mean, if a bath of atomic radiation, given in enough doses to incinerate all clothing and hair, might somehow cause skin cell regeneration; well, I’m smelling Noble Prize right along with all that seared flesh!

What is soon revealed is that, imagine that, the radiation from the blast has caused Manning’s cell growth to go haywire – he is growing cells at an accelerated rate, while his old cells refuse to die; that is: (yuck) live skin is growing in layers over dead skin, like the rings of a tree, resulting in a rate of growth overall of eight to ten feet a day. Manning has been sequestered away to a secret research facility, far out in the desert, outfitted with an expandable sarong, and left to sit in a huge army tent while doctors try to find a cure. A complication develops when the doctors realize that Manning’s heart isn’t keeping pace with his growth, thereby leading to oxygen deprivation to his brain; which in turn is driving him into a dangerous madness, heart failure, or both. This fascinating plot device hinges on some rather dodgy science, to say the least. As Dr. Linstrom explains to blonde Cathy, in layman’s terms so that she may best understand; the heart, unlike other organs of the body which consist of many cells, is (ahem) one large cell. Thus its growth lags behind the rest of Manning’s body. You see, honey? That wasn’t so difficult to understand now, was it?

So the movie then becomes a race. Which will come first? Manning’s decent into madness and monsterdom, or the doctor’s ultimate cure? Well, the posters for this Atomic Age gem, featuring a rather muscular, diapered Glenn Manning, swatting at planes while tanks and artillery take pot shots, sort of give it away. Monster madness rules the day! Manning (rather poorly double projected) makes a last, confused dash to Las Vegas; and is chased until cornered along the rim of the Hoover Dam. At finale, the army simply blows him away into the raging falls below. The End. Well, not quit. The success of TACM brought Manning back to life a year later in War of the Colossal Beast, with Manning being more insane and terribly disfigured by the fall into the rocks around the Hoover.

Cathy Downs

But let’s stay focused and get to the good stuff.

Good Stuff Pt. I: Getting Atomic Age Night Sweats

I saw this film first as a young boy, on television, and it left a tremendous impression. I don’t remember being frightened, exactly. I remember rather an odd feeling of oppression; of tragic, uncomfortable doom. A sense of sorrow for Manning. Certainly the stock footage of the Trinity detonation left its mark. A ton of fun also was the somehow thrilling, once-classified footage of test buildings being blown to dust in an atomic firestorm (the army set up mock buildings and towns at atomic test sites in the desert, complete with dressed manikins, in an effort to calculate the damage a nuclear strike might cause on Main Street, USA. The results were rather conclusive: Main Street, and all manikins within, will be returned to the atomic dust from whence they came).

It isn’t the violent nature of the imagery alone that does the trick (like the cool scene where Manning harpoons a doctor with an enormous syringe). Rather, the film is a dark, bleak, fevered dream – full of black corners, cold sweat, and sickening pain - a hidden noir in the silly science. The brief shots of a radiated Glenn Manning, lying on the surgical table covered in the remnents of hairless, pustulant flesh, might have come straight from the Hiroshima documents. Terribly effective are the sequences of corpulent, waxy Manning, bathed in sweat and lying nearly nude on his bed/structure - gurgling oddly with hot nightmare as the layers of live tissue slather over the rotting dead, as his bones thrust ever-outward. The scenes where Carol is running through the forbidden, stark corridors of the secret research facility, heels echoing over the perfect shine of the floor as she searches for a husband the military has decided is off limits, also do their work; The booming, fateful score by Albert Glasser doesn’t do any harm, either. All become the elements for moments that are bookmarked in memory and stay put.

Good Stuff, Pt. II: Lt. Col. Manning and the Korean War

Manning is a combat veteran of the Korean War, that swept-under-the-rug dress rehearsal for the downward spiral of Vietnam. We know this by his hateful dreams. As Manning’s body is re-animating itself after the blast, and his mind and soul struggle up from the depths of a death coma, the Colonel has to bubble up through nightmares. He does not dream, however, of the blast - that moment when his body was skinned and torched, as one might expect. No. His nightmares are of shooting a man in the face in Korea; of a hissing knife thunking into the spine of a foxhole friend during the “conflict.”

Throughout the film, Manning does not take his situation particularly well. God knows, he has been given a tough row to hoe, but still. He gives up hope easily, and seems forever poised on the brink of an ugly, cruel bitterness. His actions often seem childish, full of petulance and temper. “I don’t want to grow anymore!” he says, his voice that of an angry boy. “I don’t want to grow anymore!”

Manning, despite his stiff, military discipline and bearing, has been made delicate and brittle by his war experiences – able to hold things together as long as his life follows a program – a routine. In short, he is primed for breakage. He simply doesn’t have the equipment any longer to deal with the, admittedly, catastrophic situation that now confronts him. He is sent hurdling over the edge into complete despair, madness, and disorientation. He becomes a terrible infant, stamping his feet, a monster long before his broken, tiny heart ruins his mind. As Manning walks through the parking lot of a supermarket in Las Vegas, there is a beauiful moment of pause when things become clear - Manning is no longer one of us; and he is forever lost as he stares down at the “people.”

Glenn Langan

Friends, this is one piece of Atomic Age debris that holds up well. It was directed by drive-in maestro, Bert I. Gordon (The Cyclops, Earth Vs. the Spider), and may be the brilliant, money-grubber’s best. With each new generation of viewers, the live cells replace the dead ones. – Radiation Cinema!


  1. I want to see this movie now! Thanks!

  2. Rob: I found it a little tough to find in DVD. I found my copy at a Ghost House Productions http://www.aghosthouseproduction.com/. Thanks for the comments and keep up the good work on your own blog at Big Monster Cinema! -- Mykal

  3. Awesome! Thanks, i'll check it out. And thanks for listing me! I appreciate the support! I've listed you on my site as well.

    Looking forward to your next post!


  4. I wonder what Bert I. Gordon had in mind as he was writing the screen play. There are hints of a number of nuclear fears. In 1954 had been the Castle Bravo test which didn't go quite as planned and accidentally irradiated a Japanese fishing vessel; it's plausible that Gordon had just that in mind. The images of Col. Manning after the accident, swathed in bandages by doctors who are essentially waiting for him to die horrible deaths, recalls the criticality accidents that killed physicists Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, and the stories of the aggressive but futile treatment they received as they sank and died. Slotin's story had been novelized after a fashion in a 1955 book, The Accident. It's a plausible influence as well.

  5. Monoceros: Thank you for all your recent comments.

    Certainly, this is one of Bert Gordon's best and most thought provoking films; and his dialogue was never better, with the possible exception of Beginning of the End. Also, the scene where Col. Manning is nearly burned alive in the wind from the blast is terribly effective.

    As to which specific incident or event Gordon had in mind, I suspect, like many film-makers, he had seen the films resulting from the government's 1955 Operation Cue; which was a study done by the government to test the effects of an atomic blast on a typical town (a facsimile of a town was constructed, complete with lifelike mannequins in the houses). In these dramatic government films, buildings where simply blown to bits first by the horrible shock wave from the detonation, then quickly incinerated. Gordon’s depiction of the terrific, charring blast bears significant similarities to action government footage of Operation Cue.

    There was one film maker, tough, that was certainly influenced directly by the Castle Bravo testing you mention: Ishiro Honda, who depicted the fate of the unfortunate crew of the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, in his magnificent 1954 film Gojira.

    As for those influenced by this film, I must believe that a young Stan Lee of Marvel Comics saw this film as a young man; as his creation, The Incredible Hulk, was "born" when Dr. Bruce Banner become irradiated in nearly the exact same way as did Col. Glenn Manning. -- Mykal

  6. IIRC, Stan Lee once said, in an interview, something to the effect of, "There had been a lot of sci-fi horror movies about radiation exposure turning people into monsters." The similarities between the Hulk and TACM are obvious. I also wonder if the Fantastic Four's origin was influenced by The Quatermass Experiment or First Man into Space.

  7. It's easy to imagine both Lee and Kirby loving those great sci-fi movies that were playing around them as young men.

  8. I saw this on its FIRST RELEASE (!!!) with my Dad in the small town where I grew up in the UK. I was 7 (yeah, yeah, do the math). Caught up with it again from time to time on UK and US tv (I seem to remember it on Turner's 100% Weird show back in the 1990s) and once, even, at Cambridge University (UK) in the late 1960s at a screening for the University Film Society; I recall on that occasion it was projected on a hanging sheet (I kid you not). The movie has been like a loyal friend thru the decades; once seen, instantly loved, and never forgotten.

  9. Iain: Like you, I remember this one from childhood. As you say, never forgotten! Thanks for commenting.