Spoiler alert: this article discusses the film in its entirety. If you don’t want to know how it ends, look away!
I’m a big fan of Gorgo – I’ve got the badge and everything – so I’m pleased to make it the fourth instalment of my Kaiju Review series. The Blu-ray release looks stunning, and really allows the special effects to shine. Released in 1961, Gorgo may be viewed as the UK’s attempt to cash in on the success of 1954’s Godzilla, but director Eugène Lourié was responsible for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which came out a year before the big G hit the big screen. That film, plus another Lourié classic, 1959’s Behemoth, the Sea Monster, featured stop-motion animation. Gorgo, however, is a full-on “man in a rubber suit” feature.
It’s also a rather classy production. Some of the crew behind those aforementioned special effects went on to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with actor William Sylvester. Co-star Bill Travers was in Born Free, while child actor Vincent Winter won an honorary Academy Award for his role in The Little Kidnappers and later worked on Superman II, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Color Purple. Cinematographer Freddie Young, meanwhile, later won Academy Awards for his work on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter. Not too shabby, eh? On with the film!
The film begins with the good ship MV Triton, run by Captain Joe Ryan (Travers), off the coast of Ireland as the crew dive to a sunken vessel hoping to salvage “thousands of dollars” worth of treasure (the dollar, of course, being the currency of the time). An underwater volcano erupts, nearly sinking the ship and causing damage to the engine. While repairs are carried out Ryan and his first officer Sam Slade (Sylvester) take a boat to Nara Island to pick up some fresh water. As they enter the harbour they discover the floating carcasses of an unknown species of fish, and speculate that the eruption has stirred up the seabed:
When they land they encounter a boy named Sean (Winter) who takes them to the harbour master’s cottage. Sean lets them know that the harbour master (“McCartin’s his name”) is a “city man”, and a “government man” too – although what that has to do with the plot is anyone’s guess. McCartin’s a bit of an archaeologist, and Sean’s job is to clean up the things McCartin finds. Sean takes them into a room filled with artefacts salvaged from the harbour – Viking swords and shields and other objects. There’s also a ship’s figurehead in the shape of a dragon – “Ogra, the sea spirit,” according to Sean:
Enter McCartin. He dismisses Sean and demands to know what Ryan and Slade want. McCartin tells them that no ships are allowed to stay at the island for more than 24 hours without a permit, and after promising them fresh water tells them to go back to their ship. Although they don’t believe his permit story Ryan and Slade agree to leave. As they sail back to their ship they spot some of the islanders in boats of their own, circling in one spot. They ask if anything’s wrong, but the islanders reply in Gaelic. Luckily the guy piloting their boat speaks Gaelic and makes further enquiries, only to be told “there’s no time for talking to strangers”. Very friendly people.
After further attempts at making conversation it is revealed that two of the islanders went diving but didn’t come back up. They spot one floating face down in the water and help him onto their boat. He subsequently dies, apparently of fright, and gold coins are discovered clutched tight in his hand. Later on that day Ryan and Slade sail back to the island to go diving for themselves, to see what’s going on and hopefully get some gold for themselves. A strange creature confronts them, and they swim back to the boat to have a cigarette:
That evening, as they’re loading water onto the Triton, Sean pops up and says McCartin wants to see them. He also reveals that the permit story is a lie. McCartin accuses them of snooping around, they accuse him of lying about the permit, he tells them to leave, and they say the sooner the better. Gosh, can’t they all just get along? The leaving is swiftly postponed when the strange creature emerges from the sea:
“Ogra,” shouts Sean, and the islanders respond with a volley of harpoons. The creature doesn’t take kindly to this and comes ashore, smashing boats and things as it does. McCartin and his men start firing rifles, but the bullets don’t have much effect on the beast. The villagers, wisely, make a run for it, but not before hurling flaming logs at the creature:
Ogra finally retreats back into the sea with a harpoon still sticking out of its bonce. Poor Sean looks traumatised – not by the strange beast but by the islanders’ response.
The next morning Ryan and Slade watch on smugly as the villagers surround McCartin and demand their wages and the right to leave on the Triton. McCartin denies their request, then invites Ryan and Slade into his cottage to talk. He says the islanders can’t leave because his whole operation would be ruined. Ryan reveals he knows about the gold and suggests a deal: he’ll get rid of the beast if McCartin lets them take some of the salvaged items with them. McCartin isn’t happy with what they choose to take – “That thing’s priceless!” – but they take it anyway, and then set out to capture Ogra. Sean let’s them know that it’s a bad thing, a terrible thing that they’re doing, but they ignore him. While pondering how to kill it (“dynamite, maybe”) Slade considers instead how much it would be worth alive.
So Ryan descends in a diving bell, hoping the light will attract Ogra. Sure enough, Ogra takes the bait and, after shaking the bell about, is captured in a net and pulled aboard the Triton and secured to the deck:
The capture makes headlines around the world and soon two professors from the University of Dublin visit the Triton to request that Ogra be delivered to them for scientific research. Ryan agrees to this, but instead makes a deal to deliver the creature to Dorkin’s Circus in Battersea in exchange for £30,000 plus a share of the gate receipts. The swine!
As they sail to London Sean pops up again. He’s an orphan, so I suppose he goes where he pleases. He cuts the ropes holding one of Ogra’s arms but gets caught, and a guard is put in place. In the middle of the night Ogra attempts to break free, killing the guard, but the crew are quick to re-secure Ogra’s arm. Ryan, understandably, isn’t very happy with Sean.
Eventually they arrive in London where a band is playing and a marquee announcing “Gorgo” (as Dorkin has decided to name the creature) is in place for the world’s press to get a good look at Dorkin’s new attraction. The Dublin professors are also there, and unhappy – not only because Ryan reneged on their deal, but because Gorgo could be carrying disease-bearing parasites or unknown bacteria. Ryan concedes that they should be allowed to make their study, as long as it doesn’t interfere with business, and Dorkin happily announces that once Gorgo is installed in Battersea Park the professors will have every opportunity to observe it.
And so it’s time to transport Gorgo from the Thames to Battersea Park, and it’s taken on a nice sightseeing tour of London. Well, Gorgo’s tranquillised, but we still get to see the sights, which is nice (very clever promotion here, filmed on a Sunday morning when traffic was quiet):
Gorgo is heralded as the “Eigth [sic] wonder of the world” at another press conference as Dorkin announces how they’ve built a special enclosure. He also says they “rushed the job through”, which isn’t very reassuring. When asked about the Irish government taking legal action to obtain Gorgo, Dorkin replies that, yes, it is true, so people should come and see the creature as soon as possible in case the courts find in Ireland’s favour. He also reveals that the name Gorgo was chosen because of “the monster in Greek mythology, the Gorgon – a creature so terrifying the mere sight of it would turn a man to stone.”
Gorgo is lowered into position at the entrance to the enclosure, but as the restraints are cut loose a press photographer runs up and takes a snap. The flash stirs Gorgo from its tranquillised state and it wakes up, now free from the ropes and chains that held it. There’s panic at the circus and people start running as Gorgo kicks over a truck. Ryan calls for flamethrowers and Gorgo is forced into its enclosure, but not before killing an elephant with a swipe of its tail:
It’s the next morning, and the promotional campaign is in full effect. Piccadilly Circus and London’s buses are swathed in adverts exhorting people to come and see Gorgo:
Later that day there are fireworks and fairground rides, balloons and candy floss, in the build up to the big event. Gorgo, Dorkin reveals, is 65 feet high and weighs the same as six elephants. The crowd laugh and point as the beast looks around in bewilderment. Ice cream, peanut and popcorn sellers do a brisk trade. Sean feels sorry for Gorgo, but Ryan and Dorkin are just thinking about the money they’re raking in.
Ryan and Slade are summoned by the professors, who have found something out about Gorgo – it’s not an adult but is, they believe, in rather early infancy. They have a diagram and everything:
The adult, they reckon, is around 200 feet tall. The professors think the authorities should be warned. Ryan, thinking only of his bank balance, says “nuts to that”, but the professors tell him the decision is no longer in his hands. Back at the enclosure, Sean watches on sadly while Gorgo paces around the enclosure, occasionally getting shocks from touching the electrified perimeter fence.
Back at Nara Island McCartin is examining some of the salvaged coins when another creature emerges from the sea. A much bigger creature. Yes, it’s Gorgo’s mother, who shall henceforth be known as Ogra. McCartin tries to run for it, but Ogra stomps on his cottage, killing him under a pile of rubble. Ogra then smashes up the rest of the island before setting off in search of Gorgo.
When news reaches London that contact with Nara Island has been lost an aircraft carrier is sent to investigate. Even though it’s supposed to be a British vessel, US jets are seen taking off on reconnaissance missions. Why not use a little stock footage here and there? Ogra is sighted and the big guns are brought into play. When Ogra disappears from sight the navy conclude the assault has been successful.
At the Admiralty Ryan and Slade are briefed on the destruction of Ogra by Admiral Brooks. He explains there were at least two direct hits, and that the area has been saturated with depth charges. “It’s certainly been killed,” he says. With those words the film cuts to Ogra surfacing and capsizing a destroyer:
Cutting swiftly back to the Admiralty and we see Admiral Brooks on the telephone. “Capsized…” he says, “Sunk with every man aboard.” Well, that’s what happens when you speak too soon. “This is terrible,” says one of the professors, and he’s right. Slade thinks they should turn Gorgo loose to return to the sea while they’ve still got a chance. Ryan disagrees – “This is the twentieth century,” he says, “There must be some way of handling an overgrown animal?” Admiral Brooks agrees, and says he’ll be in touch if he needs them again.
A news report reveals that the Admiralty has deployed major forces of the NATO fleet off the mouth of the Thames Estuary in an attempt to locate and destroy Ogra before she reaches the coastal defences. Cue more stock footage of boats and sailors doing important things. Eventually Ogra is spotted and another heavy bombardment takes place. It is, of course, to no avail, and so the submarine nets are closed. Also, of course, to no avail.
Petrol is poured into the Thames in an attempt to burn Ogra, but instead some poor bystanders get incinerated. Army headquarters are contacted, who state that atomic weapons are out of the question “in any built-up area.” Quite right too. Tanks, however, are fine, and as a state of emergency is declared the heavy artillery gets moved into central London. The public are ordered to evacuate, bringing chaos and confusion to the streets. The police try to help, urging those without shelter to head to the nearest Underground station. There’s a great use of extras here, bringing a real sense of panic to the screen as the army take charge.
A unit take their positions on Tower Bridge as Ogra continues her journey up the Thames, but it all ends badly as she rips through the bridge:
Mobile missile units are moved into place as Ogra approaches the Houses of Parliament, but even they have little effect as she knocks down the clock tower containing Big Ben:
Back at the circus and Gorgo clearly knows mother is on the way. Sean decides to make a run for it, hitching a lift on a passing army wagon. Ryan and Slade drive off after him. The police urge residents to stay in their homes, then decide that they should actually leave and head west. Perhaps the sight of Ogra smashing a path through every building in her way inspired this change of heart:
The loss of life is enormous as people are crushed by falling masonry. Ryan and Slade are forced to abandon their vehicle and split up to look for Sean. I’m not sure why they’re after him. I guess they feel responsible for him, but wouldn’t he be safer with the army? Clearly not, as in the next scene he’s alone, cowering on some steps as Ogra crashes her way through an entire row of townhouses. Some scenes of destruction are played more than once, which is always a nice touch in these movies.
More scenes of panicked people making their escape follow, including this sequence where a man in his home seems oblivious to the pandemonium outside, only for his house to come crashing down on him seconds later. Poor fellow:
Ryan grabs Sean and as Ogra gets near they make their way to an Underground station. Even that’s not safe as Ogra’s foot comes crashing through the ceiling, causing water to flood in. Ryan and Sean make their way through the tunnel and find a ladder to the surface. Ogra, meanwhile, is devastating Piccadilly Circus:
“Piccadilly Circus? There’s no way of telling where this thing will turn next”, says the Admiral, which probably alludes to Ogra’s rather circuitous route. He thinks that now might be a good time to phone the Prime Minister:
RAF jets are shown preparing for take off, but then we cut again to stock footage of US jets flying around. A pity, then, that Ogra is in London at night while the jets are over not-London in the day:
The jets fire missile after missile but, inevitably, Ogra just carries on her march to Gorgo. As the crowds continue to run about a man with a “Repent the end is nigh” sandwich board is proved right as he gets trampled to death:
The professors turn up to inform the Admiral that Ogra is heading for Battersea Park. The Admiral ponders how much electricity would be required to stop her. “Two million, three million volts. It’s really a guess. There’s not much precedent to go on, sir,” is the response. Battersea Power Station is called to ensure enough supply is available for this attempt to stop Ogra, and a series of towers are erected ridiculously quickly in the park, surrounding Gorgo’s enclosure with electrified cabling.
Finally, as the daytime jets continue their assault, the night-time Ogra reaches Battersea Park. She smashes up the rollercoaster, which is surely a nod to a similar scene from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and, as Gorgo roars its encouragement, breaks through the electrified barrier without even flinching and then smashes the enclosure open for Gorgo to escape.
Sean looks delighted. He’s had a soft spot for Gorgo right from the beginning. Like Toshio in 1965’s Gamera the Giant Monster (which was my first Kaiju Review) he’s got no problem with all the death and destruction as long as the ferocious beast is fine. Kids, eh. Their priorities are all wrong.
As London burns in the background Ryan, Slade and the heartless Sean (grinning like an idiot) watch Ogra lead Gorgo back in to the Thames to begin the long journey home. The end.
27 October 1961.
King Brothers Productions.