February 6, 2011

All Monsters Go To Heaven

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)
Directed by Nathan Juran
William Hopper - Col. Robert Calder
Joan Taylor - Marisa Leonardo
Frank Puglia - Dr. Leonardo
John Zaremba - Dr. Judson Uhl
Thomas Browne Henry - Maj. Gen. A.D. McIntosh

Special effects legend, Ray Harryhausen, loved King Kong and the man behind the big ape's stop-motion life, Willis O'Brien. When Harryhausen was a boy, his mother and aunt took him to see King Kong at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. The event was a watershed moment. From that day forward, Harryhausen did little else but pursue a career in movies and the perfection of the model animation (stop-motion animation) process he had seen in Kong. Eventually, Harryhausen would not only fulfill a lifelong dream and apprentice under master O'Brien (on 1949s' Mighty Joe Young), he would eventually become the absolute monarch of the process; keeping model animation viable into the 1980s (Clash of the Titans). Considering this, it is easy to imagine that Harryhausen was at least doffing his cap to O'Brien with his amazing work on 20 Million Miles To Earth.

Off the coast of Sicily

The plot of 20 Million Miles is a basic monster-on-the loose theme - the monster in this case being a bi-pedal reptile (Harryhausen called it "the Ymir" ) brought back in a gelatinous pod from a space expedition to Venus. Once on Earth (via the returning mission crash landing in the waters off the Italian coast), the Venusian creature hatches and grows at an incredible rate (due to the differences in an earthly climate and the environs of its home world). Its growth rate is so fantastic, in fact, that a caged curiosity quickly becomes a city threatening behemoth in very short time.

When our movie opens, we see a US spacecraft returning from Venus slam into the ocean off the coast of Sicily. Most of the fishing boats at work make a run for it, but one brave crew investigates. Before the spaceship sinks like a stone, the fishermen are able to haul two men to safety. One crewman dies in hospital (with a horrible Venusian rash covering his face); but the other, Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper) survives. Meanwhile, a young Italian sprat, Pepe (Bart Braverman), has discovered a canister washed up on shore from the ship's wreckage containing a slimy pod about two footballs long. As Pepe holds it up to the light, we see a long embryo within about the size and shape of an iguana (I feel compelled to add here that Pepe, though designed as innocent and charmingly mischievous, caused me grind my teeth in restraint throughout). Being the enterprising young urchin that he is, Pepe decides to sell his find to a local Zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), so that he may buy an American cowboy hat (insert sound of teeth grinding). Leonardo is living and doing field research from a trailer by the sea with his daughter, Marisa (Joan Allen). Much to the surprise and delight of Dr. Leonardo, the creature hatches. We can virtually see the scientific awards spinning in Dr. Leonardo's eyes, and he quickly cages the newborn creature and hightails to Rome where, presumably, he can officially register his "discovery" and become world famous.

Marisa (Joan Taylor) and Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia)

It is about at this juncture in the movie when Kong similarities begin to surface. These corresponding themes and particulars between King Kong and 20 Million Miles are simple and striking; and it is no stretch to imagine them bringing delight to Harryhausen. Let's consider:

Point 1: A Monster Enslaved

In both movies a creature is abducted from a natural environment, where it thrives both happy and healthy, and is escorted as prisoner to a completely alien world of "civilization." Both Ymir and Kong are thrust into hostile, Lilliputian worlds where everything is tiny and fragile; and the native populations seem capable only of screaming, stampeding like terrified cattle, or - in uniformed gangs - banding together and shooting them with needle-some weapons. Both creatures are enslaved for the rewards they might bring their civilized wardens. In the case of Ymir, the rewards are to come through military research of a Venusian reptile; and in the case of Kong (who is turned into a Broadway show) the motivation is purely financial. Yet, in both cases, the respective creatures are chained, shackled, kidnapped, or otherwise enslaved to improve "our" lot. The monster is for "us," to use as we may see fit, for what we may gain from its life. Kong, a movie of finer nuance, has a sense that this is shameful. In Kong, the captive has his advocates protesting the beast's treatment simply because it is wrong to torture a living thing for money, fame, or glory (even a giant gorilla big enough to squash cars). Ymir, the much more alien of the two creatures, is not so fortunate.

Point 2: A Monster Innocent and Feared

Both Kong and Ymir are feared on sight because of their great size and "otherness;" yet of the two, Kong is recognizable. He is a mammoth gorilla - therefore never hideous, only terrifying. Ymir, in contrast, is completely devoid of any familiarity; his taut, scaly musculature sparking nothing with but memories primal and horrid. With is powerful, human torso, massive lizard head, and long snake tail; Ymir appears when born ready to perch on Satan's shoulder. As he grows during the course of the movie, his place in Satan's hierarchy appears to advance in proportion to his size. To make matters worse, his only communication is an open-mawed, toothy screech. In short, no one speaks for the Ymir.

Neither creature is treated well, certainly. Kong is chained in his captivity, first bound by chains onboard the ship which takes him from Skull Island to New York; and later he is chained and shackled to the stage on Broadway - being the main attraction on the Great White Way. Yet, he is of financial value; so his physical health must be maintained. The great ape is well fed, kept warm, etc.; so that he may maintain his great ape appearance for the paying customers. Ymir, our test baby from Venus, is of value only as a research subject - and a subject of military research at that - so his treatment is as harrowing as his worth suggests: When he has grown so large that caging is no longer viable, an electric net is flown in and dropped. Ymir is jolted, amid a convulsion of horrid spasms and screeches, into unconsciousness (Ymir, being from Venus, is helpfully but inexplicably extra susceptible to electricity). Ymir, now the size of a dinosaur, is taken to the zoo in Rome and secured to a vast platform with steel clamps. Electricity is sent perpetually coursing thorough his system, which keeps him unconscious so that military doctors may perform their "research."

Yet both creatures are, in essence, innocent of everything save their vast potential for mayhem. Even the dogged Col. Calder acknowledges this when, in the best scene in the movie, they have the Ymir, who has grown to the size of a man, trapped in a barn. As the creature looks down from a hay loft, flicking his tail like a wary cat, Col. Calder and a research scientist, Dr. Uhl (John zaremba), discuss how they may capture the creature alive. "Actually," explains Calder, "they're not ferocious unless provoked." Naturally, before the Ymir can escape the barn, he is attacked by a dog, prodded with a pruning shear, stabbed with a pitchfork, beaten with a shovel, and shot. Just as Col. Calder has promised, thus provoked, the creature exits the barn quite ferocious (prior to the barn, we have seen the Ymir walk through the farm grounds, looking at lambs and horses with only a gentle curiosity. He is after all, at this point in our story, a lost orphan perhaps three days old).

Both Kong and Ymir receive nothing but violent provocation throughout their respective stories.

Point 3: A Monster Seeks the High Ground

What is it with bad guys and heights? Think of Mad Dog Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra, struggling upward through the jagged rock of the Sierra Nevadas; or of Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), the horrid momma's boy of White Heat, standing atop the oil rig, laughing like some god caught in a blissful orgasm of death. Certainly, the instinct is to dominate, to get above and over all enemies; yet surely as well there is another force at play: The need to rise, to ascend that height where there are less things and more space. To climb until the air is pure, where all things are purified. Heaven.

The Ymir on high, struggling for purchase

Kong's 1933 ascent of the Empire State Building in New York City is certainly one of the most iconic sequences in the history of film. The images may, in fact, have entered some untouchable place of shared, international memory - a planet-wide memory snapshot of Kong scaling the building into the clouds. When I lived in New York, I often walked streets near the Empire State Building (I had a buddy that tended bar in Midtown). I was never able to pass near the towering, art-deco skyscraper without looking up and imagining Kong with hand-like feet clasped to the upper pinnacles. I could nearly hear the distant insect buzzing of the biplanes that floated around him, way up there.

Imagined in those vast heights, I could feel the immense size of Kong. In the foggy drizzle of a rainy afternoon, the distances seemed gray and terrifying, nearly beyond comprehension. In white summer sunlight, the heated concrete had a smell somehow intimidating and unknowable, as though we had built our cities too high - too hard - for the soft flesh of man. On these days, looking up, I could smell Kong's fur mixed with concrete dust, heated along the expanse of his wide back, as he climbed to the top of the world. How magnificent was the city because of these daydreams. How clear was my own place in time, having these shared dreams of Kong.

Like Kong, the Ymir will also have his ascension. Having escaped the brutal torture of the zoo, he rampages the streets of Rome; eventually seeking an escape through height. The Ymir finds his Empire State Building in the ancient ruins of the Roman Coliseum.

Yet with the case of Ymir, the motivation for ascension is wholly different than Kong. The great ape, in climbing ever higher into the air of New York, clearly sought dominance over his domain, the vantage point of a lord over this new "stone jungle." With the Ymir, his climb atop the ruins of the coliseum is simply an act of desperation. Despite his huge size and monstrous appearance, Ymir is a child blindly, frantically, trying to escape torment. When the Kong succumbs to man and gravity, his fall is that of a king. We feel like bowing our heads. When Ymir looses his grip and plummets, we want to turn our faces.

The Ymir, falling

Now to the Good Stuff!

The Good Stuff Part I: Harryhausen

Yes. Of course. Harryhausen.

Harryhausen dominates this film. At this point in his career, indeed throughout much of his career, Harryhausen went severely unaccredited for many of his contributions to a film, insisting only on his name above "Special Effects." In 20 Million Miles, for example, Harryhausen thought of the story, drew all the storyboards and conceptual drawings (in fact was able to sell the film on the strength of his beautiful artwork. Harryhausen has never gotten full acknowledgement for his draftsmanship), created and animated all the models, worked closely with the actors; and created the exterior and interiors for the crashed space ship (as well as effects for same).

His effects in 20 Million Miles were simply revolutionary - light years ahead of their time. In this film, as well as others from the same period, he created monsters and effects of a smooth, seamless quality no one had ever seen before. The Ymir moves with a reality that is enthralling, has expression and weight. When his peers where figuring imaginative ways to hide their screen monsters in shadow and action, Harryhausen brought his creations walking, slithering, striding into the full light of day - made them move without camouflage. A Harryhausen monster was beyond real. To quote the man himself:

"Fantasy is essentially a dream world, an imaginative world, and I don't think you want it quit real. You want an interpretation. And stop motion (animation), to me, gives that added value of a dream world that you can't catch if you try to make it too real. And that is the essence of fantasy, isn't' it? To transform reality into the imagination." - from The Harryhausen Chronicles

Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper) and Marisa Leonardo (Joan Taylor)

The Good Stuff Part II: Professionals At Work

Harryhausen loved working on B-movies, seemed to prefer it to working on big budget productions, for two reasons. First, a small budget picture always had less overlords and producers patting his back, allowing him to work without interference (thank heavens a producer like, say, Selzinck never footed his bills). Second reason: the actors in B-pictures were a re-occurring cast of pros that could hit the mark all day long and got it right on the first take every goddamn time. Harryhausen always spoke of these actors with true affection. In interviews, actor William Hopper is always "Bill," and Director Nathan Juran is "Jerry." Harryhausen only worked with "Hollywood Stars" once in his career: 1981s' Clash of Titans. Harryhausen is always . . . polite, when remembering the experience.

William Hopper is a television immortal for his excellent work on Perry Mason, where his pitch-perfect take on the rakish private eye, Paul Drake, was the correct counterbalance to Raymond Burr's black-eyed intensity. He was an actor capable of projecting an easy, confident sincerity (no small gift for an actor) with just the right amount of charisma. He certainly gracefully earns his pay here, particularly in his romantic scenes with the Dr. Leonardo's daughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor).

Joan Taylor made two films with Harryhausen: 20 Million and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, and she talks about the experience as though she were allowed on the greatest carnival ride in the world. In both films, she is pretty without any lens frosting; and has smarts enough to be more than fluff.

Thomas Browne Henry, with his hawk profile and authorative style; played the sympathetic man in uniform several times in his long career (The Beginning of the End, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, etc). Likewise, Frank Puglia and John Zaremba (who both had faces you could swear you've seen a thousand times) always made any fan of atomic age sci-fi feel right at home.

Gen. A.D. McIntosh (Thomas Browne Henry) and Dr. Judson Uhl (John Zaremba)

Harryhausen genuinely loved these guys. They were all fine actors, easy to work with, and not a one of them ever needed "motivation" to do their jobs. All were immensely at ease in front of a camera and never blinked under the searing heat of movie lights (which right there makes them Harryhausen gold). None had the dreaded star's ego, and wasn't that a good thing, too - because, like his mentor Willis O'Brien, if Harryhausen created a creature for a movie, the creature was the star. An actor could struggle against that or not. Actors that lacked a sense of humor about themselves or (worse) were foolish enough to imagine themselves the star, always looked terribly unhappy and defeated. Think of the easy smile of William Hopper. Now picture the glowering (always glowering) visage of Clash of the Titans "star," Sir Laurence Olivier.

One can imagine Harryhausen saying, gently, "Let's call Bill."


  1. A favorite memory of mine in this movie is where Pepe has the baby monster and the General wants it, and knows Pepe wants a horse, and plans to make a trade.

    The General says "I've gotta see a man about a horse."

    I don't know if that's regional in my city or if everyone says it, but we always say that when we need to take a leak.

  2. KW: Thanks for that bit of regional color, amigo! (where I come from, it's "I gotta see a man about a dog." Same meaning.

  3. Always thought the elephant fight in this was better paced than the one in "Valley of Gwangi." My favorite scene is in the barn where Harryhausen has his actors press on a cage door and then are flung back by the force of a creature that wouldn't be added until many months later. Of course, you don't realize that as a kid. You're too busy believing what you're seeing. Always wished Harryhausen would have done just one more 'monster on the loose' pictures.

  4. Love the color stills you selected for this post, Mykal. Did Turner colorize this at one point ? I have only seen the b & w version.

    where I am from, the expression should be: "20 million miles to drop some kids off at the pool."

  5. Tim: the elephant fight is awesome. I love it then the elephant squashes a the car.

    Lysdexicuss: The color was added only recently, for the release of the 50th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2007. Normally, I am cautious about colorized versions, but this one is so good. Harryhausen supervised the process himself, was crazy about the results, and said often how he felt it made the film better.

    That 50th Anniversary Edition is well worth getting for the commentary track alone, which features Harryhausen and fellow special effects artists, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, and Arnold Kunert. Just an amazing release.

  6. Thanx for the heads up about the 50th anniversary release. I will seek it out on eBay~!

  7. Never heard of this one, but I like the way you concentrate on how the monster is treated by the humans: "innocent of everything save their vast potential for mayhem" is a very good point. I've always admired Kong but never really enjoyed it; I really do find it too harrowing to see the poor bastard chained up, and to contemplate how it would never have occurred to the people doing it how terrible it was to take a wild animal from its home and treat it in this terrifying way. Of course both films are fantasies but were Kong or this little green fella to have really existed I'm pretty sure they would have got exactly the treatment they receive in their movies. (Hopefully they wouldn't any more, in the West at least.) That's why I've always had a soft spot for Gorgo: the one where the monster gets a happy ending.
    I love stop-motion animation too, one of the many great fields of special effects to have been so glibly abandoned in the rush to embrace CGI. (Even sadder is the death of animatronics, which I think was just on the threshold of its golden age when the mouse-clickers turned up.) Harryhausen is always worth watching, and the Roman setting appeals to me here, too.
    An excelently written piece as always, with much to think about.

    Incidentally, it's 'man about a dog' in England, too. Though I like this variation: 'going out to turn the bike around'. A nice French one is 'shed a tear for Napoleon'.

  8. Matthew: Funny you should mention Gorgo, which I have never seen but just purchased. Soon! I am glad to hear that the seeing a man about a dog is how it's done in England as well! The French saying, well, only the french can be charming and gross at once. Thanks for commenting, as always!

  9. Mykal, I don't know why I have not visited your site sooner -- I adore these movies, and Ray Harryhausen is a genius, plain and simple. I belong to the CMBA too, and I'm happy to find your blog.

    20 Million Miles to Earth is such a favorite -- I bet I've seen it 100 times! The Ymir is one of my favorite Harryhausen creatures as well. I think the eeriest scene takes place in the barn, which I agree is the best. For a moment, the camera looks straight on at the Ymir as it advances toward the people. The scene is dimly lit and the Ymir is really frightening. When I saw it as a kid, that moment stuck with me, and I still love it.

    Excellent review, Mykal!

  10. Becky: Thanks for dropping by. That scene you mention, with the Ymir advancing, is so great. It was a perfect example of what made Harryhausen so remarkable. In that scene, you really got A Monster. Not shadowy effects, not blurry angles and with sound effects carrying the weight, but a real, living monster full frame!

  11. Good friggin post. Interesting that you chose the color version for screen caps.

    Ordinarily, I view colorization as vandalism, but the color on the Harryhausens is actually pretty good. It's no worse than a relatively old color print of a movie made in color. It was particularly good in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

  12. Dr. Morbius: Thanks for the kind words. Usually, I prefer the B&W version on principal, too, as often a film-maker takes such pains to use B&W, etc. But in this case, Harryhausen really commented over and over in the special feature commentary track how much he loved the color version and even thought it made the film better. In this one case, I went color.

  13. Morbius: P.S. thanks for the tip about Earth Vs. Flying Saucers. I have picked up Harryhausen's It Came From Beneath The Sea with new color and well review it before long; but was not aware that Earth Vs. had gotten the color treatment. I just ordered it from Amazon. The "colorization" process has advanced so far from the abominations seen in the 1980's. Plus, if nothing else, Harryausen’s commentary tracks are always worth a purchase.

  14. I used to say that I had to go "drain the lizard". These days I prefer "release the kraken" to initate a good whiz.

    Not egotism mind you!

    The change was suggested by the younger gal I was seeing when we watched the remake of Clash of the Titans last year.

    By the way, this is another favorite old film of mine.

  15. Chuck: From this day forth, I am going to use "release the Kraken!"

  16. I have been looking forward to seeing this one for years, and now that I have THEM and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS under my belt, it must be time!

  17. Carl: I think you would really love this film! I am posting about THEM! next (actually, THEM was my very first post, but I didn't do it justice. In a day or so, I give that great film a complete re-do!

  18. Mykal: Thanks for another great article. You can tell you really are an aficionado by the effort you put into these posts, and I certainly appreciate it. I was recently planning on buying some of the newer releases of Harryhausen's films, and I will definitely make sure I am getting copies with his commentary!

    I love his monsters to death, but I also love when he would animate regular critters (in colossal proportions), as he did in Mysterious Island and Gulliver.

    I seem to remember an article where Harryhausen explained that he never let his characters speak, because it would feel like he was playing god...which is why Kalibak had an actor in makeup delivering dialogue in close-up in Clash of the Titans. Did you ever hear that?

  19. Doug: Thanks for commenting and the kind words. Yeah, I love these films.

    I have been re-purchasing all the Harryhausen stuff as if becomes available in color with new commentary track. That man is such a pleasure to listen to.

    I have heard that about not wanting to play God, but it certainly sounds like something he would say.

    Have you ever scene his drawing on storyboards and concept drawings? I have just purchased The Art of Ray Harryhausen. He was a fantastic draftsman and artist.

  20. I knew he designed his monsters, but I don't think I've actually seen his drawings, now that you mention it. Another book I'll have to purchase!

  21. I'll try to send you a scan to whet you apatite.

  22. This was one of the first movies of its type I saw as a kid when TV stations used to frequently air these kinds of things with regularity.