Puny Humans

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through — an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

18 Responses to “Puny Humans”

  1. How do you stand on Cloverfield ?

  2. I enjoyed it OK. Probably wouldn’t watch twice. The kids were rather bland but then I don’t think that’s necessarily altogether unrealistic. But it would’ve been a better movie if they were slightly more interesting. They mostly looked kind of similar, sounded similar…

    But I still prefer them to ’50s movie scientists.

    I wrote about Cloverfield here:
    And I still get foot fetishists coming to the site just because of the title I chose.

  3. I remember that Hammer film Creatures The World Forgot that unfortunately laboured under the misapprehension that audiences were more interested in cavemen than dinosaurs (wasn’t it dubbed the Creatures That The Film Forgot by some critics?! )

  4. One character type which provides human interest in a monster movie is “Crusty Old Professor.” Edmund Gwenn in “Them!” is the first one to come to mind, although you could also talk about — be still my heart! — Andrew Keir in “Quatermass and the Pit.”

    (Speaking of “Them!” … I rather like Peter Biskind’s theory that it’s a film about fear/resentment of powerful females … the Queen Ant and, by extension, Joan Weldon)

    There’s also what might be called “The Nemo Figure” — namely, the commander of the enemy forces who achieves a tragic end. Mason in “Twenty Thousand Leagues,” Jeff Morrow in “This Island Earth,” Vincent Price in “Master of the World” …

    Oh, yes, and “The Quisling Figure” — the figure who attempts, out of good motives or bad, to “make nice” with the enemy That would mean Robert Cornthwaite in ‘The Thing,” Lewis Martin as the priest in the Haskin “War of the Worlds,” etc. etc.

  5. Yes, even though the Hawksian team of good guys in The Thing From Another World are quite appealing, I was always more sympathetic to the Quisling scientist!

    Lionel Jeffries in The First Men in the Moon gets to turn that character into the effective hero of the piece.

    Quatermass rocks, and Keir (a Scot!) was the best. Andre Morrell, who played the role very well on TV, is one of the leads in Behemoth but he can do nothing with the leaden script.

    MacGowran is sort of the crusty old prof, even though he’s clearly younger than Morrell,

    Creatures the World Forgot comes from the death throes of Hammer, when Michael Carreras was producing and writing, despite having no story sense. The movie begins with the protagonists being born. Then we watch them grow up. Half an hour in, once they’re mature, the story begins…

    There are undoubtedly lots of producers who can write, sometimes brilliantly. The trouble is, even if they can’t, there’s no way to stop them doing it…

  6. I love Tremors. The other great exception is The Host. No shortage of characterisation through action there.

    My favorite scene in Jurassic Park has always been the weirdly touching bit where Richard Attenborough’s tycoon talks about his flea circus. “I see the fleas, mummy! Can’t you see the fleas?”

  7. The Host is a very fine monster movie indeed.

    I still resent the fact that they don’t kill Attenborough in JP. Crichton’s book follows a nasty old-testament justice approach, killing everyone in any way responsible for the park, and Attenborough is of course the MOST responsible.

    In the bok, Attenborough’s first genetic experiment is a miniature elephant the size of a small dog. I would LOVE to have seen that!

  8. I think it was Norman Mailer who said that Truman Capote was physically quite strong.

  9. Well, he did beat the crap out of Humphrey Bogart in a fight.

    I don’t get the impression he was that fit later on though.

  10. I’m sure he and Bogie were thumb-wrestling.

  11. I think Capote jumped on Bogie’s back, drove him to the ground, then banged his head off it repeatedly. Bogie was laughing too hard to defend himself.

    Gore Vidal seems to have aquitted himself quite well against Norman Mailer. “I pushed him back and he staggered across the room, colliding, to our mutual surprise, with the inventor of the Xerox machine.”

    Now I want to see Chevy Chase wrestle John Updike.

  12. “Quatermass” does, indeed, rock. As does Andrew Keir.

    Thought that this would be a good place, in any case, to mention a really good science-fiction novel by a *Scottish* author, one that I’ve been reading that has just confirmed my suspicions of its author’s dealing in “Quatermass”-iana. The author is Iain M. Banks, famous for his”The Wasp Factory,” and the title in question is “Matter”.


    This particular review doesn’t go into detail, but Banks’ plot *does* involve excavations that unearth — if that’s the appropriate term on a non-Terran planet — a large artifact of untold age which doesn’t respond to picks or any other sort of tool. The workmen grumble of mysterious happenings around the site of the dig. Should one believe them? Hmm …

    The novel is to be recommended.

  13. Cool. I’ve seen Banks talk at the book fest here. He lives just across the Forth bridge (as seen in The Thirty Nine Steps) and his girlfriend runs our esteemed Dead By Dawn horror festival. The only one of his books I’ve read, alas, is Complicity, which I didn’t much care for, but I know many people who swear by his SF work. Filmmaker Steve Mahone came over from Texas for the Film Fest with his movie Radiant, and was pleased to be able to see his hero talk at the Book Fest on the same trip.

    Alas, such synergy is now impossible as the Film Festival has moved earlier, but that also means it’s not competing for attention with the biggest arts festival in the world.

  14. […] with Hemingway and then goes a-wandering. Lourie also tackled THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, which I reviewed here, and GORGO, a favourite from my childhood but not, I repeat not, in any way, an actual good […]

  15. whats up with this GIANT and BEHEMOTH?
    Could there be a MIDGET BEHEMOTH?
    How about THE SMALL MIDGET?
    I liked 20,000 fathoms better-even if 23 miles is just a tad deep for a monster underwater-in fact there isnt any place that deep in our ocean
    Lourie also directed a classic yet to ever see VHS, Laserdisc, or DVD
    Intelligent, great spfx
    PARAMOUNT get this out on disc now!

  16. 20,000 Fathoms has a number of nice sequences, and even some good lines. But when I read Bradbury’s The Fog Horn and compare the two, I felt kind of cheated. There’s no reason why the movie couldn’t have had some of that richness and feeling.

  17. No question Jack MacGowran lights up the screen for the few minutes he’s in this turkey. But FYI, as Jack’s biographer I can tell you he stopped drinking in 1960–your KING LEAR comment has no basis in fact, in addition to being a particularly unkind assessment. (I myself think it’s his best film performance, along with VK, though he’s also great in CUL-DE-SAC).

  18. I’m glad to hear he’d quit the drink. The remark that he didn’t actually know what he was saying derives from Brian Cox’s The Lear Diaries. Cox, who greatly admired MacGowran’s work in King Lear, was able to discuss the film with director Peter Brook (Cox was in a relationship with Brook’s daughter Irina at the time) and reports that this was Brook’s assessment. Both seemed to have been in agreement that MacGowran was nevertheless brilliant in the film. I don’t like Brook’s interpretation of the play at all, but as always found MacGowran fascinating and powerful. I do find his line readings a little hard to follow, not due to bad diction but due I think to a certain unsureness as to the sense in MacGowran’s perf.

    Still, as I say, an amazing performer, and I’m happy to correct the error suggesting he was under the influence of drink.

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