I’m sort of shocked it’s taken me this long to get to Gorgo in this series. I guess I felt a little guilty about having nine of the first 25 ICHFs be about kaiju (five from the Godzilla series alone!), and poor Gorgo got shoved aside in the name of diversity. But now it’s his time to shine!
Gorgo (the movie) is more than the sum of its parts. On paper, it seems like yet another disposable monster movie from the 60’s – one of a slew of Godzilla/King Kong ripoffs made in the 1960’s, with plot points and scenes taken point for point from its predecessors and stitched together into a formulaic Frankenstein of a script. A natural disaster awakens a long lost prehistoric horror, it gets captured and put on display, and eventually the whole mess ends in a giant monster rampaging through a major city full of landmarks to the narration of a panicked and melodramatic reporter. Ho hum, right? And yet, in a sea of imitators, Gorgo forges its own identity.
That identity is in many ways forged by its titular monster. At first Gorgo seems fairly standard – a great big, red eyed, alligator-skinned dinosaur with creature of the black lagoon hands that eats sea life and, eventually, curious sailors as it wanders through the coast of Nara Island. There are some interesting little quirks added to him of course: his finned ears flap in an endearing way, and his roar sounds more like a distressed scream than a declaration of fury. In fact, in many of his interactions with humanity, Gorgo seems almost fearful of the tiny creatures.
Which makes sense when the third act of the story reveals that Gorgo is a baby monster.
It’s a revelation that changes your perspective on everything that’s come before. Gorgo isn’t some malicious maneater that was hunting humans in his nightly raids. He’s a lost child in a world he doesn’t recognize, desperately searching for home. His rampage on Nara island that precedes his capture? The equivalent of a four year old stepping on a hornet’s nest and freaking out when swarms of tiny creatures start stinging him. His violent escape attempts? A panicked child trying to break free. That trumpeting roar? The wail of a scared little kid.
Gorgo essentially takes a stock monster plot – one that predates movies – and flips the characters around. Instead of a human child getting lost in the dark woods and encountering a supernatural predator, this movie has a scared little monster stumble into the strange and foreign jungle that is human civilization, with humanity playing the big bad wolf. Or hell, given that the movie gives more than a few nods to Celtic folklore, it could be seen as a strange take on old school fairy stories, with humanity luring Gorgo from home like will-o-wisps and whisking him off to the terrible faerie land that is civilization.
The human character certainly aren’t presented in the most sympathetic light to contrast our poor monster child. Almost every one of them, including the two treasure hunters that serve as our story’s (human) protagonists, is driven by greed to exploit Gorgo. Some want to display him in a circus to rake in big money, others want to claim him for their scientific research so they can claim and all discoveries made in the process, and none seem to consider the constant state of distress and panic the poor animal is in. Only one human looks at the monster with sympathy – a young boy who believes Gorgo is a sea spirit that needs to be set free. I think it’s significant that the closest these two creatures – Gorgo’s species and humanity – ever come to understanding each other is through the eyes of their young. It takes a kid to understand a kid.
The kid’s right, too, as trouble quickly follows the captive Gorgo. The same scientists who reveal that Gorgo is a baby speculate that an adult – one ten times the 65 foot tall monster’s size – may be on its way, and sure enough Gorgo’s mama emerges from the coast of Nara Island to find her son. She tears the island apart, with the movie specifically showing the archaeologist who contributed to Gorgo’s capture dying the rampage. Then she heads to London.
Gorgo’s mom goes through a gauntlet of weapons that were thrown at Godzilla across different movies (like I said, this script is a Frankenstein of previous kaiju flicks): depth charges, jets, soldiers, even electric shocks. She shrugs them off with all the unstoppable fury of her Japanese counterpart, and then proceeds to demolish Big Ben and parliament during a nighttime raid (much as Godzilla destroys the Diet building and Tokyo Tower in his own nighttime rampage). All the while she keeps calling out, her roar a pitched down version of Gorgo’s own plaintive wail.
Elsewhere in the city, trapped in a man-made pit at the circus, Gorgo wails back.
Juxtaposed with this is another tense search scene: one of our human treasure hunters tries to find the young boy, who has gotten lost in the frenzied mob of panicked people trapped in the rampage of Gorgo’s mother. Or, in other words, the once greedy protagonist finally lives up to his better nature and risks everything to save his child from immeasurable odds. The juxtaposition of these scenes is important – it forces the audience, who theoretically is inclined to sympathize with humans over monsters, to see that the rampage of Gorgo’s mother is no different than what we humans would do for our own offspring. In times of strife and disaster, the movie posits, what matters is the natural drive to protect our own, rather than the artificial and manmade drives of materialistic greed.
This may be why Gorgo is one of the few monster movies that ends with the monster winning. Gorgo’s mother finds and rescues her baby, then heads right back to the sea and out of humanity’s domain. There’s no vengeful rampage, no threat of return, no question mark after “The End.” Instead the music turns from your typical 60’s monster movie theme to a sweet little folk song, and even the reporter that grimly narrated the rampage notes the change in tone as the mother goes back to the sea with her young. Yes, the monster wins and, as far as the movie is concerned, this is a good thing. The monster winning is the happy ending. There are very few horror stories that end like that.
There are some other interesting things in Gorgo that make me wish it got a proper sequel. For example, when telling the treasure hunters about Nara Island’s monster legends, the little boy mentions that a sea spirit named Ogra (which many fans think might actually be Gorgo’s mom) saved the island from Viking invaders once. It could be just a nod to/rip off of the sea monster backstory given Godzilla (specifically Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which phrases the legend in a way that’s very in line with European dragon myths), but it would be interesting if Gorgo and his mother really were sea spirits, and at the very least it’d be fun to see Ogra’s fight with the Vikings. But part of me is also glad we never continued the story – Gorgo deserves his happy ending. Too few monsters get to swim off into the sunset, and fewer still do it with a loving family member by their side.