In 1953, horror fans watched with glee as a giant, city-stomping reptile arose from the depths of the ocean. And no, its name wasn’t “Godzilla.” This particular brute was called the Rhedosaurus, and it was introduced to the world in one of the most influential science fiction films ever made: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The film was a monster at the box office, too, ushering in the “creature feature” craze that gripped the 1950s. Furthermore, the film heralded the arrival of special effects visionary Ray Harryhausen, whose mesmerizing handiwork changed an entire industry forever. Grab your scuba gear and let’s pay tribute to the colossal classic.
1. THE MOVIE WAS PARTLY BASED ON A RAY BRADBURY STORY.
It all started with a roar. One night, while he was living near Santa Monica Bay, legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was awakened from his sleep by a blaring foghorn. Moved by the mournful bellow, he quickly got to work on a short story about a lovelorn sea monster. Called The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (later retitled The Foghorn), it was published in The Saturday Evening Post on June 23, 1951.
At roughly the same time, Mutual Films was developing a script for a new action-packed monster movie. The finished product would ultimately bear more than a slight resemblance to a certain Saturday Evening Post story. For instance, both of them feature a scene in which a prehistoric titan lays waste to a lighthouse. According to some sources, Mutual had already started working on its marine creature flick when studio co-founder Jack Dietz happened upon Bradbury’s yarn in the Post. Supposedly, he contacted the author without delay and bought the rights to this tale.
But Bradbury’s account of what happened behind the scenes is totally different. The other co-founder of Mutual was one Hal Chester. Late in life, Bradbury claimed that when a preliminary script for what became Beast had been drafted, Chester asked him to read it over. “I pointed out the similarities between it and my short story,” Bradbury said. “Chester’s face paled and his jaw dropped when I told him his monster was my monster. He seemed stunned at my recognition of the fact. He had the look of one caught with his hand in the till.”
In any event, Bradbury received a $2000 check and a shout-out in the movie’s opening credits.
2. JACK DIETZ THOUGHT ABOUT CASTING A LIVE REPTILE.
Coincidentally, the man who handled Beast’s creature effects had been close friends with Bradbury since their teen years. A stop-motion animator by trade, Ray Harryhausen spent most of his early career working on shorts and cartoons. His first taste of feature-length filmmaking came in 1949, when he joined forces with Willis O’Brien—the technical mastermind behind the original King Kong—to animate the simian hero of RKO Pictures’s Mighty Joe Young.
In 1952, Harryhausen caught a life-changing break. Upon learning of Mutual’s plans to release a new sea monster flick, he immediately offered his services to Jack Dietz. Previously, Dietz had thought about using either a man in a costume or a live alligator to portray the creature in Beast. An eager Harryhausen sold him on a different strategy. “I… enthused about the advantages of stop-motion model animation, telling him that anything and everything he wanted could be done in the process,” the effects artist wrote in his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. Impressed, Dietz gave him the tremendous job of putting that titular beast from 20,000 fathoms onto the silver screen.
3. THE BEAST ITSELF WENT THROUGH SEVERAL DIFFERENT DESIGNS.
“I had to create a mythical dinosaur,” Harryhausen recalled. In his early concept art, he fitted the reptile with pointy ears, a sharp beak, and webbed, human-like hands. Another design sported what Harryhausen described as “sort of a round head.” Unhappy with this particular noggin, he replaced it with a new skull modeled after that of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The monster was then given a distinctive, four-legged stance to prevent it from looking like a “typical” carnivorous dinosaur.
By the way, there’s a long-standing fan theory about this fictitious animal. In the film, our villain is dubbed the “Rhedosaurus.” You may notice that the first two letters in its name spell out the animator’s initials. Was this a deliberate homage? Harryhausen thought not. “I don’t know where his name came from,” he told Empire in 2012. “People say it’s based on my initials, but I don’t think it is.”
4. STOCK FOOTAGE FROM SHE (1935) WAS USED DURING THE AVALANCHE SCENE.
The movie opens with an H-Bomb test conducted above the Arctic circle. This experiment has the unfortunate side effect of releasing the Rhedosaurus from a glacier in which it’s been entombed for millions of years. After the blast, the newly awakened beast manages to trigger an avalanche while wandering around in the snow. A few clips from this sequence can be viewed in the trailer posted above. These shots were lifted directly from She, a classic, cold-weather fantasy produced by Merian C. Cooper, the creator of King Kong. An avid fan of the film, Harryhausen later included subtle She references in a pair of his own movies: First Men in the Moon (1964) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).
5. THE CRUMBLING BUILDINGS WERE HARD TO ANIMATE.
Like its literary counterpart, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms features a lighthouse destruction scene, but Dietz’s movie later abandons its source material by having the monster terrorize New York City. Perhaps the highlight of that sequence comes when our Rhedosaurus plows straight through a tower in lower Manhattan. Both of these buildings were miniature models constructed by Harryhausen, and each one was composed of jigsaw-like pieces connected to wires. While animating their destruction, Harryhausen slowly moved every individual chunk of debris down its wire and towards the ground.
6. THE LEADING LADY WAS RELATED TO ONE OF BRADBURY’S ASSOCIATES.
Paula Raymond stars as Lee Hunter, a paleontologist who falls in love with our main hero, nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (played by Paul Christian). Interestingly, Raymond was the niece of Farnsworth Wright. A significant figure in the history of modern science fiction and fantasy, he’s best remembered for having spent 15 years editing the popular short story magazine Weird Tales. During his tenure, pieces written by such greats as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith often graced the publication. Shortly before Wright’s retirement in 1940, Bradbury had approached him with some ideas for new yarns. Although the editor respectfully turned these pitches down, his successor, Dorothy McIlwraith, would help Bradbury become one of Weird Tales’s regular contributors.
7. RAY HARRYHAUSEN DEVISED THE FILM’S CLIMAX.
In the grand finale, the Rhedosaurus starts attacking a roller coaster on Coney Island. Armed with a special gun capable of firing dangerous radioactive isotopes, Professor Nesbitt ascends to the top of this ride. Accompanying him is a brave NYPD officer played by The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s Lee van Cleef. Using their weapon, the duo slays the beast, which dies as the amusement park goes up in a blazing inferno. While the film was still in pre-production, it was Harryhausen who came up with this spectacular ending. He then helped flesh out the scene along with director Eugene Lourie and the screenwriters. “Eugene… said that I always made my monsters die like a tenor in an opera,” Harryhausen remarks in The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster, a 2003 DVD documentary. “Hollywood is noted for glamourizing the actors and I tried to glamourize the dinosaur as well.”
8. THE ORIGINAL SCORE WAS DELETED.
Warner Bros. bought Beast from Mutual for the competitive sum of $400,000. Before releasing it, though, the big studio decided to overhaul the film’s musical accompaniment. The original soundtrack was penned by veteran composer Michael Michelet, who used what Harryhausen described as “light classical music” throughout the movie. Feeling that this wouldn’t do, Warner Bros. scrapped his material entirely. David Buttolph, who’d later write the catchy Lone Ranger theme, was hired to create 39 minutes of replacement music. Using a 50-piece orchestra, Buttolph conjured up a brassier and more bombastic score that garnered widespread critical praise, although Harryhausen himself preferred Michelet’s offering. In the animator’s view, Buttolph’s work, while passable, “slowed the picture down.”
9. NO PART OF ANY OCEAN IS 20,000 FATHOMS DEEP IN REAL LIFE.
The deepest locale on the surface of planet Earth is known as the Challenger Deep. Located inside the Pacific Mariana Trench, this spot sits an incredible 6033 fathoms (or 36,201 feet) beneath the waves. Incidentally, Harryhausen’s breakout movie was originally going to be called The Monster From Beneath the Sea, but when Warner Bros. purchased the film, it was renamed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms after Bradbury’s original story.
10. THE DIRECTOR’S KID ABSOLUTELY HATED THE ENDING.
Released on June 13, 1953, Beast grossed more than $5 million, enough to make it one of the year’s biggest hits. However, the surprise smash was not without its critics. One day, Lourie took his 6-year-old daughter to a matinee screening. To his shock, she broke down in tears after they left the theater. “You are bad, Daddy!” she sobbed. “You killed the big nice Beast!” Little did the girl know that her feelings would have a big impact on one of Lourie’s future projects. In the wake left by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the filmmaker was pigeonholed into directing more monster movies. Beast, he once lamented, became “an albatross around my neck.” Lourie’s next picture, 1959’s The Giant Behemoth, more or less recycled the same plot.
Subsequently, producers Frank and Maurice King asked if he could create another sea monster film. Along with Daniel Hyatt, Lourie wrote a script that became 1961’s Gorgo. Set in the British Isles, it tells the story of a big-eared leviathan who’s captured near Ireland and taken to a London circus. Unlike Beast or Behemoth, however, this movie came with a happy ending in which the creature is rescued by its 200-foot mother and escorted back into the sea. Lourie’s daughter must’ve been delighted
11. IT INSPIRED THE GODZILLA SERIES.
Japan’s saurian superstar made his cinematic debut one year after The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms hit the silver screen. On November 3, 1954, Toho Studios unleashed Gojira, a dark, gritty picture that serves as an allegory about the horrors of nuclear warfare. Later called Godzilla in the U.S., the movie did surprisingly well and ended up giving birth to some 29 sequels (so far). The original Godzilla film was produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was heavily influenced by a certain Ray Harryhausen movie. In fact, for a time, the picture’s working title was Big Monster From 20,000 Miles Beneath The Sea. Moreover, one scene that was conceived but never filmed would’ve called for Godzilla attacking … wait for it … a lighthouse.