Bert I. Gordon: The King of the Giant Monster Movie

Bert I. Gordon wrote, produced and directed a dozen films about giant lizards, locusts, spiders, ants, rats and teenagers . . .

In the mid-1950s, American theaters were awash in giant monster pictures, fueled by our fear of the A-bomb and the as-yet-unknown side effects of radiation exposure. All we knew for sure about radiation at that point was that it made things really, really big.  People were itching to see mass destruction take on a comprehensible, mythical form; a form which, no matter how gigantic, could by film’s end be contained and destroyed leaving us all safe once again.

There were masters of the genre at work at the time: Ray Harryhausen (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), Jack Arnold (Tarantula) and Inoshiro Honda (Gojira). Along with the thrills and the special effects, their films had an intelligence, a meditative, philosophical quality when it came to confronting man’s relationship with science and nature.

Of them all, the true king of the giant monster picture was Bert I. Gordon, who wrote, produced and directed a dozen films about giant lizards, locusts, spiders, ants, rats and teenagers. He did this with almost no money at all and didn’t bother himself much with meditation or philosophical questions.

Born and raised in Kenosha, WI (sharing a hometown with Orson Welles, who would later star in Gordon’s 1972 film Necromancy), Gordon began making home movies at the age of nine. Twenty-four years later in 1955, following the huge success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and the earlier King Kong, Gordon entered the movie business for real by jumping on the giant monster bandwagon with his no-budget independent feature, King Dinosaur.

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When a new planet, appropriately dubbed “Nova,” suddenly appears in the solar system in an orbit apparently somewhere between the Earth and the moon, a frantic race is on to be the first nation to get a crew of astronauts up there to see what’s what. The two couples who make up the American team get there first of course and discover Nova to be a perfectly habitable and lush planet (bearing an uncanny resemblance to LA’s Griffith Park), complete with birds and trees and water and chimpanzees, just like home. The only fly in the ointment is that dinosaur over on the island in the middle of the lake.

Given that he didn’t have major studio money behind him, Gordon was forced to rely on his own ingenuity and sheer chutzpah to pull off a film whose script obviously called for elaborate effects including spaceships, alien planets and live dinosaurs. The first third of the film is composed of stock footage and the scenes on Nova were filmed in, yes, Griffith Park (which explains the resemblance).

When it came time for the titular dinosaur to finally make an appearance toward the end of the film, Gordon knew stop motion was out of the question. It cost a lot of money, it took a lot of time and he had neither.  But why waste time with models when he could just shoot a series of close ups of a Gila monster and use rear projection to convey the illusion of mammoth size? Gila monsters were just little dinosaurs anyway, right? And they move more realistically than those models Harryhausen used.  There was nothing new in rear projection itself, but using rear-projected close-ups of real animals to transform them into gigantic monsters was still a fairly new move. In the previous year’s Killers From Space, W. Lee Wilder used the process to create a few giant spiders and lizards of his own. With no money on hand, it was a cheap and effective tool. Effective enough, anyway.

Dinosaur aside, the film had other issues. There were pacing problems (which is to say any pacing at all would’ve been nice) and the script left something to be desired. Never have I seen four less scientific scientists in a science fiction film. They arrive on an alien planet full of wildlife and vegetation and what do they do? Do they test samples or explore? No, they adopt a chimp and have a picnic. They treat the whole thing like a camping trip. And when they do encounter something remarkable and unexpected in the form of a dinosaur (which they grossly misidentify as a T. Rex) what do they do? They blow it up with an atom bomb they happened to be carrying with them. So not only did they make a large portion of a lush and earthlike planet uninhabitable, in simple sci-fi terms they may have destroyed one giant monster but released the radiation that’ll create a thousand more to take its place.

But it’s best not to dwell on things like that when you’re trying to enjoy a damn movie.

Gordon may not have been the first to use rear-projected animals, but few used the technique so extensively or to such great effect. With Gordon, the technique would become a career trademark, prompting Forry Ackermann to dub him “Mr. B.I.G.”

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King Dinosaur may not have been  a very good film, but it was made at the right time. It was also made with such confidence, given that there was so little on screen, that you have to admire it. The people at AIP did and signed Gordon up. He didn’t disappoint, returning in 1957 with a trifecta of giant monster pictures, one of which would come to be considered a classic of the genre.

Despite its less than glowing reputation, Beginning of the End was in many ways a huge leap forward for Gordon. When a small town near Decatur, IL, is mysteriously demolished and all 150 residents vanish without a trace, an intrepid photojournalist’s investigation brings her to a USDA research facility. Alone except for his deaf mute assistant, chief scientist Peter Graves is using radiation to grow bigger vegetables. Well, in hints of Gordon’s Food of the Gods some 20 years down the line, it seems some locusts got into the radioactive plant food and you can pretty much guess what happens after that. Now the army of giant grasshoppers, having wiped out all the vegetation around Decatur, is heading straight for Chicago.

The writing and performances are much better this time around (Graves was always at his best as a sci fi scientist) and there’s much more to the plot than we’d seen in King Dinosaur. Strangely enough, though, while the film as a whole is a vast improvement, the special effects took a bit of a nosedive. The rear projected giant locusts are washed out and rarely in focus. Unlike even King Dinosaur, here it actually feels like we’re watching Peter Graves and a battalion of soldiers facing down a junior high nature film. Worse still, when the locusts finally do reach Chicago, instead of shelling out for a few model buildings the locusts could “attack,” Gordon simply shot them crawling around on a picture postcard of Chicago’s Loop (the kicker comes when one of the locusts falls off the postcard). Still, though, he was making strides.

The plot and characters were even more complex in The Cyclops, released a few months later. After a young man disappears in the wilds of the Mexican mountains, his girlfriend is determined to go looking for him. Knowing the area is rich in uranium, she gets corporate backing for the expedition on the condition she bring a couple company flaks along (including Lon Chaney, Jr.) to stake a claim. Well, as these things happen, their single engine plane crashes in a radioactive valley inhabited by mutated giant creatures of all sorts, including a malformed human with one eye. Much activity ensues.

It was a good if not great picture (thanks especially to Chaney), but in the end Gordon’s first experiment with giant people was merely a stepping stone to what may well be his masterpiece.

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Released the same year as Jack Arnold’s thoughtful and profound The Incredible Shrinking Man, Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man stars Glenn Langan  as Glenn Manning, an Army colonel who miraculously survives the blast of a nuclear test. Unfortunately for Manning, after absorbing all that radiation he also begins to grow at an astonishing rate. In a surprisingly nuanced performance for such a role, Langan portrays a man quickly coming to recognize his own freakishness and isolation before losing his mind completely and rampaging through Vegas (a scenario far too familiar to some of us) before a final confrontation at Boulder Dam.

In the two short years since King Dinosaur, Gordon had already established a style and mastered a technique, finally bringing them together to tell a wholly believable story. Although he’s using the same rear projection he always had, the effects are much more fluid and convincing here, the story telling is more character-based and the film as a whole has a professional sheen about it. It may not have been as mind blowing as Arnold’s Shrinking Man, but he didn’t have Universal money or a Richard Matheson script backing him up, either.

The following year saw another three films, including a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man (War of the Colossal Beast, which owed quite a bit to The Cyclops), the flipside of a giant monster picture (Attack of the Puppet People) and Earth vs. The Spider, perhaps among the best of the giant tarantula films. Rarely had Gordon used the rear-projection technique so well or with such frightening results as he did in Spider. What’s more, it remains the only movie ever made in which a dead giant tarantula is brought back to life by the music of a high school rock ‘n roll band.

I sometimes have to wonder if he ever saw himself in competition with  Arnold, given that many of their films seem to echo each other, albeit on different budget levels. Even if Gordon himself didn’t see it as a competition, there’s no doubt Nicholson and Arkoff at AIP did, handing Mr. B.I.G. titles that clearly hinted at a recent Arnold success.

Likely as a reaction to changing audience tastes, in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Gordon made a sharp break from giant monster pictures, trying his hand instead at human-scale adventure films, fantasies, thrillers and sex comedies. For the most part the films weren’t as popular or memorable as the ones that earned him his nickname.  The only nod to his early career was 1965’s Village of the Giants (with Beau Bridges and a young Ronnie Howard), mostly played for drive-in laughs as a group of teenagers try to deal with hormones, adults and unexpected gigantism. The film’s final lesson seems to be that teenagers should never, ever be given any power of any kind, as they’re all just a bunch of Nazis at heart.

One of the standouts of Gordon’s more adult films was 1973’s The Mad Bomber, in which Chuck Conners plays against type as a tightly-wound ultraconservative seeking revenge against a liberal world he blames for his daughter’s overdose. He blows up women’s lib meetings, university buildings and abortion clinics with homemade bombs, while sending threatening tapes to the police demanding basic changes in human behavior. While he’s terrorizing the city as The Mad Bomber, Neville Brand is simultaneously terrorizing the city as a Mad Rapist. In one remarkable scene, Brand is masturbating furiously to home movies of his German wife stripping as, through a window, we watch Conners deliver the bomb that will kill him. It’s a strange and funny film that may have you unwittingly sympathizing with Conners by the end.

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Although he was still working with microscopic budgets at this point, over the years Gordon found a way to do quite a lot with nothing, using cameras and locations in interesting ways.

In the mid-70s, perhaps recognizing what audiences really wanted from him (or perhaps merely recognizing another shift in public taste), Gordon returned to the genre that created him with a double bill of giant (or at least big) monsters pitted against all-star casts.

By 1976 the threat was no longer the atomic bomb so much, but technology and pollution as three Hollywood greats; Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker and Marjoe Gortner, find themselves confronted with giant chickens, wasps, mealworms and rats who’d all stumbled their way into an experimental feed. Very, very loosely based on an H. G. Wells story (and returning to a premise Gordon visited in a couple of his earlier films), Food of the Gods was both a technical and commercial success and marked the pinnacle of Gordon’s career. The film was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International Du Paris Fantastique 1977 and was also declared an instant classic in schoolyards across the US. Watching it now it still contains a number of surprises, as well as Marjoe Gortner’s finest performance, as a football player who saves the day. You kinda have to feel bad for Ida Lupino, though, ending a career like hers by being eaten by giant mealworms here and melting in The Devil’s Rain. Ralph Meeker well, he was drunk anyway and probably didn’t notice much of what was going on. But that giant chicken is still really something.

Riding on the success of Food of the Gods, Gordon returned to H.G. Wells the following year with Empire of the Ants, in which a colony of giant, super intelligent ants, in search of slave labor, absolutely destroy corrupt real estate developer Joan Collins’ plans to turn a small island into a resort community. Gordon’s effects had never been better and the film was another big hit during a summer that found it pitted against the likes of The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Car, Viva Knievel and Star Wars and that’s saying something.

Empire of the Ants marked the end for Gordon and giant monsters. For the next ten years he mostly made sex comedies, but his legacy had been well-established.

Gordon, now 90,  made his films simply, quickly and cheaply and he gave audiences what they wanted. There was no time to waste on fake profundities; once the monster was dead, the film was over and you rolled the closing credits.

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If his films are at best considered “unsophisticated” and “really stupid” by critics, mocked repeatedly on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and ignored completely by film historians, images from these films, even the titles themselves, remain an indelible part of the American cultural landscape. So who gets the last laugh?

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