Two weeks ago, I helped to run a conference entitled Animating Antiquity on the interplay between the Classical tradition and the films of Ray Harryhausen. In order to get myself in the right mood beforehand, I watched or rewatched a couple of his films in the days before the conference. 20 Million Miles to Earth was one I hadn’t seen before, but was recommended to me by a couple of people on the grounds that it features an enormous alien creature on the rampage in Rome. Fantastic!
In basic terms, it’s a ‘monster on the loose’ film, of which Harryhausen had already done a few – e.g. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea. He clearly enjoyed them, as they gave him the chance both to pay tribute to one of his major inspirations, the 1933 King Kong, and to indulge a passion for destroying things in spectacular fashion on-screen which he often talks about in his interviews. But this one developed in a new direction by using a European setting – something which Tony Keen has rightly pointed out to me was clearly very popular in this period, and apparently also a reflection of Harryhausen’s growing personal interest in the European film industry, cemented by a move to the UK in 1960.
The ‘monster’ in this particular case is from Venus, and gets a very sympathetic treatment, entirely in line with Harryhausen’s consistent statement that he actually thinks of his models as ‘creatures’ rather than ‘monsters’. It has been brought to Earth against its will from Venus (hence the ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ of the title), only becomes ‘monstrous’ (in the sense of incredibly large) because of the effects of Earth’s atmosphere on its physiology, and is portrayed as merely curious about its surroundings and trying to survive amongst them until it is provoked into violence by people attacking it. Much as with King Kong, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for it, and this makes the whole film a great deal more captivating than it would otherwise have been.
Nonetheless, by the end of the film the creature has grown to something like 30 feet tall, is thoroughly enraged, and is having a jolly good rampage around the city of Rome. Here, Harryhausen’s love of destruction comes into full play, as we watch it fighting an elephant, causing havoc in the Tiber, knocking down temples in the forum and finally climbing up to the top of the Colosseum, where it is eventually shot and falls dead to the ground. My absolute favourite moment in all this was the Tiber sequence, which showed the creature breaking through the middle of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, followed directly by a shot of it standing in front of the Ponte Rotto:
This struck me as a very good example of how clever Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins always was – something I also noticed and commented on regarding Medusa’s temple in my review of Clash of the Titans. Already in 1957 he was doing exactly the same thing I’d spotted in 1981 – using ruins for their value as ruins, rather than trying to hide their brokenness. The genuinely ruined Ponte Rotto comes into its own by playing the ‘after’ role in the bridge destruction scene, helping to add to the magic by looking like a real bridge which actually has been destroyed, and saving Harryhausen the trouble of having to model the destroyed Ponte Sant’Angelo into the bargain. You’d have to know the topography of Rome fairly well to make that kind of connection, and it’s abundantly clear that Harryhausen did – as I could also see from the generally very logical path followed by the creature through the city from the Giardino Zoologico to the Castel Sant-Angelo and onwards to the Forum and Colosseum. The final scenes in the last two settings are absolutely infused with the same love of ruinous structures, too, either in their real-life guises or (when they’re being torn down by the creature) lovingly modelled in miniature form.
Meanwhile, the European setting and largely American main cast throw up some contrasts which reveal a lot about American self-perception in this period. The echoes of the Second World War resonate pretty strongly in the final sequences, what with Rome’s iconic monuments being attacked and American tanks and military cars racing around the city to liberate them once again. The American characters, and particularly the heroic leading man, are also cast throughout as dynamic, brave, intelligent and scientifically competent, against Italian characters who come across as useless, corrupt and foolish. It’s an Italian kid after a few lire who sets the creature free in the first place, and Italian farmers, police authorities and soldiers who variously enrage it by attacking it with pitch-forks, guns and flame-throwers. Meanwhile, the all-American hero insists on trying to capture the creature alive so that it can be studied for the Advancement of Science!, has the technical know-how to do so by stunning it with an electric shock, and leads a successful capture operation that rests on radio communications, helicopters and smooth teamwork. Interestingly, there is also one Japanese scientist amongst the Americans, showing that the image of the Japanese as masters of technology was already well-established. And Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart might have been pleased to know that amongst all the sciencey-science stuff, we actually get an on-screen explanation of why the creature is immune to bullets – apparently because it breathes via a network of tubes throughout its whole body, rather than a heart and lungs which might be fatally damaged by the bullets.
As for the male-female dynamics, they are much what you would expect for the period. There is one full-developed female character, with other women appearing only occasionally in crowd-scenes, and not generally getting any dialogue. To be fair, two of the crowd-scene women are professionals working as journalists, and indeed the main female character herself is training to be a doctor, and gets some fairly snappy, sassy dialogue which makes it clear that she has a real intelligence of her own. But for all that, her main role as the plot unfolds is to become a love-interest for the all-American hero, who rushes straight forward to ‘claim’ her as his well-deserved prize once he has defeated the creature. I’d love to be able to say, “Ah, but that was the 1950s – things are better for women now”, but sadly this is still all too common – and that reflects rather more poorly on us than it does this film.