Monsters, Horror Movies, And The Atomic Bomb

The Cold War in the 50s spawned a whole menagerie of fantastic horror movie monsters, the supposed result of wide-spread nuclear testing.

When the first atom bomb was detonated at White Sands in July 1945, no one understood the total effects of a nuclear blast. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few days later, however, not only showed the awesome power of nuclear fission, but left no doubt in anyone's mind about the horrors of radiation poisoning. After the Soviets acquired nuclear capability in 1949, a kind of hysteria gripped America concerning the possibility of nuclear warfare. People built bomb shelters in their back yards and children periodically filtered out into the hallways of their schools to sit with their backs to the wall and put their arm-covered heads between their legs -- "Duck and Cover", they called it. At any moment, America believed, Russian planes would drone overhead and World War III would start.

The arms race was on. Testing of nuclear devices -- the A Bomb and a few years later, the H Bomb -- occurred almost weekly and environmentalists began to wonder what all these mega blasts were doing to Mother Earth. Hollywood, on the other hand, didn't have to wonder. They knew. Dinosaurs were being released from icy prisons. Giant squids were being jostled from their homes in the Pacific Ocean. Over-radiated ants were mutating in the New Mexico desert. And Lieutenant Colonels, unlucky enough to get too close to nuclear tests, were reaching new heights.

The movie industry, never allowing a passing band wagon to go unmounted, jumped on this one quicker than you could say "nuclear fission." A large assortment of monsters struck major population centers of the world. The military was nearly powerless, but they put on a good show just the same. GIs fired their carbines at bodies that a 40mm canon wouldn't penetrate. Tank fire raked scaly hides. When military might failed and the city was in ruins, then science was brought in to ultimately defeat the beast.

Some films were born in the trash can. "The Amazing Colossal Man" was one of the worst. Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Manning, played by Glenn Langan, wanders too close to a nuclear blast during a test. His body grows by the hour. Pretty soon, he's a fifty-foot tall giant with an attitude. His significant other, played by Cathy Downs, wrings her hands in desperation while a brilliant scientist, portrayed by William Hudson, tries to whittle Manning down to size. Director Bert I. Gordon, who helmed a dozen similar epics, tried to be serious. Unhappily, audiences mistook drama for comedy. Besides, how can a person take a monster seriously if you can see through him in most of the scenes?

Not all the films were bad. Nineteen fifty-three gave audiences two pretty good atom-age monster films. Both were produced at Warner Brothers.

The first was "Them!", the saga of mutated ants in the New Mexico desert. The cast was good. James Whitmore played the cop with a mission to avenge his ant-ingested partner. Edmund Gwenn, without his "Miracle on 34th Street" Santa suit, was a delightfully absent-minded professor assigned by the government to investigate mysterious sugar thefts and unexplained pools of formic acid. James Arness played his first major role, a gangly FBI agent forever in need of a match.

The ants looked pretty good. The special effects and settings were adequate, though clearly low budget. The end of the film, in the storm drains under Los Angeles, had some moments of real suspense. All in all, a diverting 80 minutes.

The second Warner Brothers release was "The Beast From 20 Thousand Fathoms". Instead of an atomic mutation, we now had a prehistoric monster who was released from its icy prison by an nuclear bomb detonated at the pole. The script didn't have the style of "Them!", but was fast paced and entertaining. The monster was expertly animated by Ray Harryhausen, who had been chief technician on "Mighty Joe Young" five years before. And the conclusion of the dying monster amid flaming roller coaster ramps added an interesting touch.

A year later, Harryhausen was back. This time, he was animating a giant octopus evicted from its home in a deep Pacific trench by a ill-advised nuclear test. Unfortunately, "It Came From Beneath The Sea" was produced by the notorious penny-pinching producer Sam Katzman, who had budgeted a monster with only six tentacles instead of the normal eight. Harryhausen gritted his teeth and pressed on, creating some credible animation, especially a scene where the enraged mollusk tears down the Golden Gate Bridge. Scientists claim that even a deep sea octopus grows only to 30 feet. This one definitely had too many hormones.

The most famous of all the 1950s atomic monsters, of course, was Godzilla, a 400-foot prehistoric monster that has spawned innumerable sequels and remakes, including a very good American version in 1998. "Godzilla", or "Gojira" in Japanese, was made by Toho, a major Japanese film company, for 62,893,455 yen, or about 900,000 American dollars, and was the most expensive film made in Japan up until that time. It's creator, Eiji Tsuburaya tried to make a serious statement about the dangers of nuclear bombs and the effects of radiation. The result may have been far fetched (a monster that size would have been crushed to death by his own weight as soon as he stepped out of the water), but "Godzilla" was still a remarkably effective indictment of nuclear folly.

When the original film was acquired for American release in 1954, however, the American distributor was certain that audiences would not accept a totally Japanese cast -- World War II was still a fresh memory. So they removed some of the scenes and replaced them with cheaply made shots of actor Raymond Burr playing a newspaperman caught in Tokyo when the big lizard attacks. Although the result watered down the original, the film is still good and subsequent Godzilla films (this time, released without added scenes) did well at the box office.

Movie monsters reflect trends. In the 50s and 60s, they were the result of nuclear testing. Later, genetics got into the act, then computers. But whatever comes next, you can be certain that Hollywood, even with all its technological know-how, will never best the charm of these creaky black and white films of a half century ago, in those legendary days of yore when nuclear bombs could make tiny little ants into ravenous man-eating monsters.

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