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A Ray Harryhausen masterpiece



Director: Nathan Juran

Starring: William Hopper and Joan Taylor

Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen


     This movie had its origins in an original story by Ray Harryhausen titled The Giant Ymir and reportedly featured a giant Yeti-like snow creature. As was the case with most of his films Harryhausen developed the initial story idea and outline, then handed it over to someone else to turn it into a filmable script. In this case he turned the story over to his friend Charlotte Knight and together they prepared screenplay. Several studios that considered it overly complicated and too costly turned the script down. Finally, he found a producer in Charles Schneer, who had worked with Harryhausen on his two preceding films -- It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956). The two of them formed a working partnership that lasted for decades, culminating in 1981 with Clash of the Titans.

     The idea of a snow creature was abandoned in favor of a creature from another planet in keeping with the current trend in science fiction. Harryhausen and Schneer decided on a creature from Venus and wrote an opening sequence showing the expedition to the planet and the capture of the beast. Those scenes were never filmed partly because they would have been too expensive and partly because they wanted to center the action more on its earthly setting.

      The film is said to have been set in Italy primarily because Harryhausen had always wanted to vacation there but had never been able to afford the trip. He was able to satisfy that desire when he and Schneer traveled to Rome and shot some footage and background plates for the project – allowing most of the Roman scenes to be filmed in a Hollywood studio. This trip also allowed Harryhausen to make two Hitchcock style on-screen appearances in scenes set at the Rome zoo – one as a man feeding peanuts to an elephant that later battles the Ymir and a second in a crowd fleeing the zoo.

     Upon their return to Hollywood, they hired director Nathan Juran, who had directed The Black Castle (1952), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and the Ronald Reagan/Nancy Davis feature Hellcats of the Navy (1957). Juran had a reputation for bringing in films on time and on budget. His background in art direction also must have seemed to be a perfect fit for a Harryhausen project. Later Juran worked with Harryhausen on The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (considered by many to be Harryhausen's masterpiece) and on First Men on the Moon.

     Harryhausen made several models of the Ymir – which is never actually referred to by that name anywhere in the film. This included a small one for long shots and a larger version for use in close-ups. A still model was created for a scene where the newly hatched and still small creature is picked up by the biologist Dr. Leonardo. A creature glove was made for another scene where the larger Ymir reaches through the bars of its cage to grab at the film's romantic interest. The original design for the creature was a giant cyclops, similar to the one Harryhausen later used in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) but he discarded that idea after making a clay model of it, and eventually settled on the reptilian Ymir


The story:


The film begins with the voice of an off-screen narrator intoning "Great scientific advances are often times sudden accomplished facts before most of us are dimly aware of them. Breathtakingly unexpected, for example, was the searing flash that announced the atomic age. Equally unexpected was the next gigantic stride, when man moved out of his very orbit to a point more than 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH." Following this narration, the opening credits are shown superimposed over a mysterious clouded planet that dissolves to just clouds over the Earth as the actors names appear.

     As the brief credits come to a close the camera closes in on several fishing boats off the coast of Sicily. The camera closes in further on a boat crewed by Verico, Mondello and young Pepe. Pepe is playing with a lasso and telling his shipmates that in Texas, a country across the sea, "near America", one rope can catch a big cow. Pepe's explanation of how things are in Texas is interrupted when Verico calls for silence. A strange sound can be heard all around them, prompts them to look up toward the sky in puzzlement. Then suddenly a gigantic rocket comes hurtling out of the clouds plunging into the sea with a deafening roar. Since the laws of physics apparently don't apply in Sicily; the impact does not result in their boat being swamped.

     After slight hesitation, the fishermen decide to see if anyone is inside and in need of help. As they draw close to the very impressive spacecraft, a huge hole in its hull is revealed. Verico and a reluctant Mondello climb inside the ship and locate two unconscious men in flight suits – not pressure suits but simple cloth coveralls and helmets without faceplates. Carrying the two astronauts back to their boat, they get away just as the giant rocket begins slipping beneath the water. Verico laments the fact that there may have been more people on board the rocket but not enough time to reach them.

     The next scene is an aerial view of the Pentagon, telling us where the action has shifted. General McIntosh, Dr. Yule and a couple of extras are distressed over their loss of contact with the returning USAF rocket to Venus -- so, now we know where that rocket came from. All indications point to it having crashed into the Mediterranean and sunk out of sight. Dr. Yule says he is "sick inside" because the ship was so close to returning home safely from its long and historic voyage.

     The phone rings and Gen. McIntosh is informed that the ship was sighted off Sicily, just a few kilometers from a fishing village named Comune di Gerra. After confirming the cooperation of the Italian government, the General and Dr. Yule leave to investigate.

      Meanwhile, back in Sicily, a crowd has gathered on the beach where Verico and Mondello have brought the two crash survivors ashore. Police Commissioner Charra takes charge. Learning that the local physician is away, the Commisioner recalls an "old doctor from Rome, traveling with his American granddaughter" and sends Mondello to fetch him.

      While these events are occurrng, Pepe runs off down the beach after spying something that has washed up on shore. He finds a container marked "U.S.A.F. Project 5" and dumps out the contents to reveal a strange gelatin-like substance within which can be seen the silhouette of something small that looks like an animal of some type. Seeing in this the way for him to get the money to buy a Texas cowboy hat, Pepe wraps the mass in a jacket and sets off to sell it to visiting biologist Dr. Leonardo.

     Dr. Leonardo is also the "old doctor from Rome" that Commissioner Charro sent Mondello to fetch. When Mondello reaches him, he explains that he is a doctor of zoology, not of medicine. Fortunately however, his granddaughter Marisa is a medical student only one year away from finishing her studies. As Marisa gathers her medical gear, Pepe appears rushing down the road and ducks behind Dr. Leonardo's truck as Mondello and Marisa hurriedly pass by on their way to town.

     Dr. Leonardo promptly buys Pepe's discovery from him. When asked where he found it, the boy just says "In the water, Doctor. In the sea," before running off with the price of a cowboy hat. The odd gelatinous mass seems to shake by itself as it sits on Dr. Leonardo's table.

     Back in town, Marisa is caring for the two crash survivors. One guy is still unconscious and apparently dying of some unknown disease but the other, a Colonel Calder, is awake and trying to sit up. Once he is on his feet he begins trying to rouse the other man, who we learn is Dr. Sharmin. Marisa tells him to leave the other man alone and get back in bed and he responds by calling her "nurse". She sternly informs him that she is not a nurse, but a doctor, or almost a doctor. He informs her that he knows what is wrong with Dr. Sharmin and that it is fatal, having already taken the lives of eight of his crew. Finally, in response to his continued efforts Dr. Sharmin comes to and asks about an important "animal specimen" they brought back with them. When Calder tells him that it apparently went down with the wreck he says that its essential it be found. Before much more can be said Sharmin dies. When Marisa asks what the dead man was referring to, Col. Calder says that he cannot tell her.

     That evening, when Marisa returns to the trailer she shares with her grandfather, she find a small, bipedal reptilian creature with a tail that has emerged from the gelatin mass. When she enters the trailer and turns on the light, the creature is momentarily blinded and shields its eyes letting out a cry. Hearing Marisa call out, her grandfather enters and sees the creature. He dons protective gloves and grabs the creature, depositing itin a cage on the back of his truck. "Its so ugly, but it seems so frightened," says Marisa.

      The next morning Leonardo is astounded to find that the creature has grown overnight from the size of a cat to that of a small child. Foreseeing scientific glory in his future, Dr. Leonardo sets off to take the creature to Rome. Apparently unaware that Sicily is an island, he plans to drive there in his truck.

      A seaplane lands offshore delivering Gen. McIntyre and Dr. Yule. Commissioner Charra is on hand to greet the new arrivals, explaining that he has been ordered by the authorities in Rome to cooperate and assist them as much as possible. They climb into a jeep and set off to meet with Col. Calder. Soon after, they are joined by a Senor Contino who has represents the Italian government.

     Gen. McIntosh explains to the Italian official that a meteor shower crippled the spaceship on its way back to Earth from Venus. The atmosphere on Venus, he explains, proved deadly to humans, despite the respiratory equipment they took along. Several crew members died before they realized the danger. Col. Calder and his crew were bringing back a specimen of the dominant animal life form in the hope that scientists could learn by studying this specimen how humans could be prepared to survive on Venus. Such return expeditions were vital because precious minerals were discovered there that would greatly benefit mankind. Contino promises his help and asks what is needed. The General asks for divers who can explore the wreck of the ship and Contino agrees to have them there in the morning. Eventually the Americans learn that their specimen isn't at the bottom of the Mediterranean but is on its way to Rome with Dr. Leonardo.

     The scene then alternates between Dr. Leonardo and Marisa on the road to Messina and Calder and company in pursuit. Dr. Leonardo stops the truck when the tarp covering the Ymir’s cage comes loose. While he and Marisa are securing the tarp the Ymir’s arm reaches through the bars of the cage and grabs Marisa. She gets loose with her grandfathers help, then they watch in amazement as the Ymir, now the size of a man, breaks loose from the cage and escapes into the woods. 

     Calder arrives soon after and Leonardo tells him that a strange animal has escaped. He also tells them how quickly the Ymir grew in size and Dr. Yule asks Calder if that is the normal growth rate for the species. Calder says he isn't sure. He and his men go after the creature. 

      The Ymir, meanwhile, has come across a farm and makes its way toward the buildings, disturbing numerous farm animals that all run in fear, except for a lamb that walks up to the Ymir. The Ymir just looks at it and walks on, not at all interested in harming the small creature. It goes into a barn causing panic in the horses there, but it isn't interested in livestock. Instead, it is some large bags of sulfur that have drawn its attention. What do Sicilian farmers use all this sulfur for anyway? The Ymir rips open one of the bags and begins to eat the sulfur. While it is feeding, a dog enters the barn and attacks it. The Ymir wins its fight with the dog but the commotion attracts the attention of the farmer. The farmer finds the dog injured but still alive and begins to back out of the barn when a hand suddenly grabs his shoulder.

     The hand belongs to Colonel Calder, who tells the farmer not to move. Both men see the Ymir up in the hayloft and they back out quietly. Calder says that they need to take the creature alive. He even says that the species is not ferocious unless they are provoked. They make plans to capture the Ymir and seem to be succeeding at first. But the creature gets free and makes a break for the door. The farmer, in a panic, takes a pitchfork and stabs the creature in the back as it passes by him. Enraged, the Ymir throws him to the ground, clawing and biting him. Col. Calder hits it with a shovel and when that has no effect he grabs a rifle from one of the local cops and shoots the creature. When the creature advances towards the men, they flee from the barn and close the door. The Ymir crashes through the wall and runs off into the night.

     Knowing that the staple of the creature's diet is sulfur and that there are large sulfur deposits on Sicily near the base of Mount Aetna. Calder proposes that they search that area in hopes of finding the Ymir, Leonardo offers the use of the Zoological Institute in Rome to study the creature once it is recaptured. But Charra announces that he has decided that the beast must be killed. It has already gravely injured one man and may kill others, he says. Contino, on behalf of the national government, supports Charra.

      Calder, explaining that on Venus they learned that these creatures were extremely susceptible to electric charges, suggests the use of two helicopters to drop an electrically charged net onto the beast. Contino says that if this plan can be successfully executed before any Human lives are lost, the Italian government will support it. So now it is a race between two forces chasing the Ymir, one to kill it and the other to capture it. Charra's team gets close but Calder and Yule succeed in capturing the Ymir in some effective action sequences.
     An establishing shot of Rome tells the audience where the remainder of the movie will be set. A press conference at the American Embassy This gives the viewer a review of the basic situation just in case they missed something and informs us that the Ymir is now being held at the Rome zoo for study. The reporters are told to select three of their number to visit the site and see the creature.

     Next scene is at the zoo, where the reporters are being escorted by Colonel Calder. He takes them into a building where the Ymir, now about twenty feet tall, is chained up and unconscious on a large platform. Calder explains that the scientists believe Earth's atmosphere has upset its metabolic rate resulting in its growth to gigantic size. It now takes a steady current of 1800 volts of electricity per minute to keep the Ymir sedated. The reporters are introduced to various scientists while Col. Calder and Marisa flirt.

     A piece of equipment is being lifted onto the platform via a crane when the predictable disaster occurs. The device being lifted is smashed into some of the equipment resulting in a power outage. At once the Ymir awakens and begins screaming. The sound effect of the Ymir's calls is actually elephant calls played back at a higher speed, which is rather ironic given what happens in the next scene. The giant beast tears loose from its restraints as the humans flee in a panic.

The Ymir crashes through the wall of the building and right into an elephant pen. Calder shouts to get the elephant out of there and a zookeeper tries to lead the elephant away, but its territorial instincts have been aroused and they begin to fight. When the Ymir pushes the elephant over, it falls on the zookeeper and a photographer.The battle between the two large beasts continues into the streets of Rome with plenty of scenes of people running in terror. Finally the Ymir is able to defeat the elephant, which collapses to the ground, but the filmmakers make certain that we see that the elephant is still breathing.

      A chase through the streets of Rome follows, with the Ymir doing a King Kong style job of trashing the neighborhood and terrifying the populace. It finally disappears into the Tiber River. Calder informs Gen. McIntosh who suggests hand grenades be used to force it out of the river. The military units converge on the area and begin tossing grenades into the water. Calder is on the radio with McIntosh when the grenade blasts drive the Ymir up out of the water and through a bridge after which it flees again. The General and Contino arrive in a car and Calder jumps in saying that the beast is heading towards the Coliseum.

     The Ymir reaches the Coliseum and begins climbing the walls as pursuing tanks and soldiers pour into the area. By the time the car carrying Calder, McIntosh and Contino arrives, the Coliseum has been surrounded by tanks and artillery. Calder rushes into the coliseum with a bunch of soldiers, but despite its giant size, the creature has somehow managed to disappear. When it reappears Calder grabs a bazooka and heads up some stairs. Once he and the soldiers are on the same level as the Ymir, with the beast between them, they open fire with their bazookas.

     Wounded, the Ymir climbs higher up the Coliseum walls, with more bazooka fire directed toward it as it goes. Once it is at the very top of the walls the creature picks up a large stone and hurls it at a group of soldiers who were aiming a bazooka at it. The tanks and artillery in the streets all open fire and again the Ymir is noticeably wounded.

     Calder fires the bazooka and it hits the Ymir solidly in the gut. The beast grabs its abdomen and falls to its knees, then as it struggles to rise, slips over the edge. Briefly it barely hangs on with both its hands, but a couple of more shots from a tank or cannon destroys the masonry around the beast and it comes hurtling down to the street.

     People start gathering around it like the crowd around King Kong at the end of that movie. But this time it was not beauty that killed the beast. Dr. Yule has the last word, asking, "Why is it always . . . always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?" A final crane shot shows the gathered crowd, with Calder and Marisa walking off in the distance.


In Conclusion


      William Hopper (better known as detective Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV show) is the nominal star in the role of Col. Robert Calder. But the real star is the Ymir. Harryhausen's animation of the creature is nothing short of brilliant. We are set up from his first appearance to sympathize with the poor displaced creature. Right after the scene of its birth we see it reacting to the sudden brightness when Marisa switches the lights on. The way it rubs its eyes looks so human and its small size makes it appear so vulnerable that you can't help but empathize with it. And at the end, when it struggles desperately, clinging to the edge of the Coliseum wall before plunging to its death could ring sympathy from even the stoney heart of a right-wing Republican.

      Hopper's performance has been criticized by some for being cold and wooden, but I feel that it was well-suited to the material. A more intense performance would only have distracted from the special effects that are what a Harryhausen film is all about.

      While the Ymir may well be Harryhausen's masterpiece, it wasn't the centerpiece of all the impressive special effects in this film. The scene of the rocket crashing into the sea and of the huge craft floating nose down in the Mediterranean look rather lame by today's standards but both seemed very impressive back in 1957 when none of us had seen a real spacecraft -- it actually looks rather like a bigger, shinier V-2 rocket, which was the closest to a spaceship any of us had seen then. On the other hand, the physical effects of the rocket interior are rather ludicrous. Beginning with a stairway leading down into an upside down rocket, an interior that looks nothing like a rocket, and flight seats that don't appear to be fastened to the deck, the spaceship interior is as unimpressive as the exterior seemed impressive.

     Like a lot of science fiction films to this day the science in this film is mostly ridiculous while the scientists are generally depicted as untrustworthy. From Dr. Leonardo's foundationless theorizing about the Ymir's origins and hunger for fame to the foolishness of keeping the giant creature in a busy zoo in the heart of a major city and the ease with which the creature escaped, the scientists in this film are a poor simulacra of real scientists.