Before ‘Godzilla’ There Was ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’

'Godzilla' nabbed the B-movie fears of 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' and elevated them to A-movie terror.

Beast Of 20000 Fathoms
Warner Bros.

Do you remember your first dinosaur? The Jurassic Park T-rex? The titular Brontosaurus from Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend? The Valley of Gwangi‘s eponymous Allosaurus? I can’t name mine. They’ve always been with me. I was born, and they were there, haunting every childish thought that wasn’t devoted to Star Wars. The knowledge that there was a lost race of gargantuan reptiles that rampaged across our planet 243 million years ago (give or take a Wikipedia edit) was as stupendous as much as it was traumatizing.

You’re telling me that there was this gargantuan Argentinosaurus that stumbled about Earth, snacking on trees, and now it’s absolutely, totally, utterly gone? Does that mean humanity could one day be gone? No way! Their extinction hinted at my extinction and my compulsion to memorize every genus was a hope that one day some unknown entity would return the favor to my family and me. Devoting myself to dinosaur literature, comics, and cinema was a pledge to a forgotten society. I was not alone in this endeavor. Dino-fiction is a passion for hundreds of artists, and their work gave me the hope that there would be others to chronicle my legend one day.

A-bomb panic rapidly hatched dozens upon dozens of b movie monsters, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the créme de la mer. Based loosely on the Ray Bradbury short story of the same name (later to be retitled “The Fog Horn”), the basic gist concerns the catastrophic release of a prehistoric fictional Rhedosaurus after a nuclear warhead explodes during a test on the Arctic circle. The beast awakens from a historic hunger ready to feast on fishing boats and lighthouses, making his way to the all-you-can-eat buffet that is New York City. Scientists and soldiers must battle their contradictory philosophies and hash a plan that ends the Rhedosaurus’ berserker frenzy in the middle of an amusement park.

Bradbury championed perpetual childhood. As many of us are, he was enchanted by a world dominated by dinosaurs, and the impossible creatures routinely seeped from his imagination to be anthologized later in collections like Dinosaur Tales. “The Fog Horn” was his answer to a runaway thought: what if some forgotten beast finally bothered to pull itself from the depths of our oceans to meet the siren call of a lighthouse’s fog horn, and when there was no mate to reciprocate the lonely lover’s affection, he tore the whole damn thing down?

The story is more emotion than narrative and required much muddling from Hollywood to extend into an 80-minute feature. “The Fog Horn” speaks to a forsaken existence of a vanished species and the disappointing blight of humanity daring to fill the void left by its majestic absence. Ray Harryhausen, fresh from a special effects assistant gig on Mighty Joe Young, was eager to spearhead a stop-motion production of his own. He brought the Bradbury short to Warner Bros. producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester, who were already in mid-quest to realize a big lizard movie. Harryhausen convinced them that his technical wizardry would separate their products from any other, and the producers eventually dismissed the typical path of enlarging a reptile-actor. While Harryhausen toiled on realizing the Rhedosaurus, Dietz and Chester brought in Jean Renoir collaborator Eugéne Lourié to direct all the non-monster bits.

The film destroyed at the box office, launching the giant monster b movie craze of the 1950s and Harryhausen’s legacy as the master of “Dynamation.” Out of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms came It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and a dozen more. Not to mention the army of filmmaker fanboys that worship at Harryhausen’s altar.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms most celebrated legacy, of course, is its contribution to Godzilla, which would be released in Japan just 16 months later. When Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka failed to convince the Indonesian government to join him on a production detailing Japan’s 1942-1945 occupation of their country, he returned to his base of operations with very few ideas as to where to go next. Toho had already devoted a large chunk of money into the unrealized In the Shadow of Honor and was eager to catch popular attention through exploiting current events. In 1953, the US was in the midst of their Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb testing, which was consuming global public consciousness. While on his return flight from Jakarta, Tanaka considered a severe twist on that terror.

Inspired by the monster mash success of a recent revival of King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Tanaka imagined an easy transition of In the Shadow of Honor‘s budget to a Japanese behemoth extravaganza. The producer understood the appeal of a creature born from the bomb, but he believed that an ordinary dinosaur would never be a match against modern military might. The Japanese monster would have to be extraordinary, and nuclear radiation was the key to explaining a mutated almighty lizard. His Godzilla would not only be birthed from the grotesque realities of a horror first experienced by his nation, but he would be the personification of nature’s wrath towards humanity’s audacity.

Both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla find their terror in our innate fascination with the dinosaurs that came before but also crossbred with the very real threat of absolute destruction. Director Ishirō Honda snatched Tanaka’s idea of a super-dino as a metaphorical warning and leaned in. Godzilla’s path of destruction mimicked the not-too-distant memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with cities engulfed in fire, hospitals bursting with irradiated patients, and children irrevocably scarred. This new fear perverting whatever wonder we once held for the mysterious existence of the tyrannosaurs.

The financial performance demanded sequel after sequel for the big G. The immediate follow-up, Godzilla Raids Again, tried to replicate the horror of the original, but inevitably the franchise became mostly monster-mashes with the occasional regress into allegory (i.e., Godzilla vs. Hedorah). Humans can stuff their terror of the hydrogen bomb, but there’s no shaking our awe for the monsters that originally ruled the planet. We’re all going to go one day. We’ll probably cause our own destruction. Hopefully, we’re cool enough for the monsters that come next to remember us.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.