The Archivist Volume XX: Giant Monsters Eatin’ People! — With Ray Harryhausen

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Archivateers, a week from now, there will be, for better or worse, a new Jurassic Park movie in theaters. To prep for what we can only hope will be a rousing two hours of screaming and stomping, I dug into the Warner back catalogue in search of a few dinosaur flicks from the pre-digital era. Semi-eureka! … as I have (in predictable Archivist fashion) found a dud, and a delight. From the height of the American radioactive monster era comes, The Giant Behemoth, and from the twilight of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects career comes, The Valley Of Gwangi. Both films keep you in suspense of their giant antagonists’ tremendous countenance, but only one is worth the wait.


In 1959, a joint venture between American and British filmmakers began as a story about a blob of radiation challenging the survival of the human race, and resulted in a shameless rip-off of the far superior The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Nearly a clone of that 1953 predecessor, Behemoth opens with an unseen monster rising from the ocean and spewing radiation at a small fishing village. Along the way, his torso gets a lot of screen time (that is apparently the centralized radiation emitter), as does his pathetically stiff neck and head, and the classic stop-motion effects which got us into the theater (or into our underwear in the home office, in our case) don’t arrive until the third act. At that moment, when the monster finally comes to life, so the does the film, but it’s too little, too late.

We are doomed to spend most of our time with a cast of uncharismatic scientist characters, who are allotted seemingly endless amounts of time in which to explain EVERYTHING about radioactivity. That’s all somewhat interesting, but a brief sequence featuring the top half of the monster idly bumping into, and sinking, a toy ferry, looking more like a duck hunter’s decoy than a mutated terror, wasn’t quite enough to get us through another 15 minutes of meaningless “blah blah blah”. It is meaningless, too, leaving every ounce of subtext and symbolism found in Godzilla, and the films it influenced, in a cinematic mushroom cloud of triviality. Not every creature feature from the nuclear age was meant to stand the test of time, and even on four legs, this one can’t stand the test of 80 minutes.


Between Behemoth and Gwangi, there are many noteworthy connections, but none so intriguing as that of the great Willis O’Brien. Let me count the ways: Ray Harryhausen finished The Valley of Gwangi for O’Bien, his mentor. The film is, in many ways, a pastiche of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), two films upon which O’Brien built his career. Behemoth’s special effects shots were begrudgingly contracted to Willis O’Brien for a pittance, and the project was given to his assistant who was suffering from M.S. at the time. It’s amazing the animation looked so good.

Aside from The Willis O’Brien Connection, Ray Harryhausen’s jaunty cowboys Vs. dinosaurs tale also profoundly influenced Jurassic Park, and its first sequel. You can actually see the structure of Spielberg’s Lost World taking root in Harryhausen’s picture: two parties with opposing objectives venture into a secret valley ruled by long-extinct creatures, and are forced to band together in order to survive. Sure, they are all a bunch of cowboys involved in a Wild West show instead of corporate mercenaries and eco-terrorists/paleontologists, but they even come up with the same terrible idea of bringing a T. Rex back to civilization for a new, one-of-a-kind act.

It won’t blow your mind, and even compared to the other lesser-known works of the late stop-motion wizard, Gwangi isn’t anything super special. However, following The Giant Behemoth, it does make for a fine reminder of how to make quality adventure cinema. The characters are exciting and colorful. They are skilled performers, fast-talkers, and provide for a much-needed jocularity, considering the silly premise. It’s a shame, though, the whole movie couldn’t be great, because Ray Harryhausen always shows up for work, no matter what the project is. He does some truly extraordinary work, and instills that magical touch of character only he can, in every creature on the screen. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite keep his pace, but the insane, weirdly metaphorical climax (it could be saying the Christian faith can’t stand up to the existence of dinosaurs — I don’t want to say too much), and plenty of other fun moments, make this a film worth tracking down.

If you’re gearing up to see Jurassic World, pick up Gwangi, and maybe The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but maybe leave the Behemoth at the bottom of the sea.

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