Saturday, July 16, 2011


Size obsessed science fiction filmmakers during the 1950s. They measured everything by bulk. Aliens, animals, humans, and robots either increased or decreased in mass. Actually, the first sci-fi film to explore the possibilities of people reduced in stature was Todd Browning’s “The Devil Doll” (1936) about a vengeful scientist who used humans that he had reduced in size to do his dirty work. Gordon Douglas' "Them!" (1954)qualified as the first major movie about small things being enlarged by radiation. “Them!” concerned huge irradiated ants. Inevitably, just as Hollywood had shrunk humans, they would also endeavor to enlarge them. Indeed, director Bert I. Gordon tried out this concept in 1957 with “The Cyclops” about a mutated 25-foot tall human in South America, anticipating Gordon’s own 1958 outing “War of the Colossal Beast.” When you compare the release dates of “The Amazing Colossal Man” (** OUT OF ****) with “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” it looks as if American International Pictures must have rushed former into release to exploit the latter film about a diminutive dude. The problem with director Gordon’s film is that it never generates either the suspense and/or tension that Jack Arnold’s seminal sci-fi classic mustered. Once our hero looms to 60 feet in height in “The Amazing Colossal Man,” nothing can challenge him in the same way that a house cat or a spider did the protagonist of “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

“The Amazing Colossal Man” opens with a convoy of military vehicles—crossing the screen from left to right—traveling along an asphalt road through the desert as a narrator establishes the setting. “The time is two forty-five A.M., two hours and fifteen minutes before time zero. At time zero, a new type of atomic explosion--a plutonium bomb--will be detonated at Desert Rock, Nevada. These soldiers are to experience the plutonium explosion under simulated combat conditions.” The next sight that we see is several soldiers crouched in a trench in combat gear with helmets and special goggles as the bomb site officer at a distant command post (William Hughes of “Geronimo”) keeps the troops posted about the impending detonation. “Attention! Attention! All personnel. The time is zero minus thirty seconds. The plutonium explosion will take place at time zero. I repeat, the plutonium explosion will take place at time zero.” Dramatically, the officer commences the countdown. When he finishes it, the technician at the command center—a staff sergeant—clicks the mechanism to trigger the detonation. However, nothing happens. The command post officer cautions the troops: “Do not leave your positions. I repeat, do not leave your positions. The plutonium bomb has been triggered and will explode at any moment. The chain reaction did not complete its cycle as calculated. Keep your dark glasses on and stay where you are.” One of the troops asks Colonel Manning (Glenn Langan of “The Snake Pit”) what will happen. He warns them that the bomb could explode at any minute, but he allows them to smoke cigarettes to calm their nerves. About this time, they hear the sound of an engine and Manning spots a light civilian propeller-driven aircraft descend through the clouds. The command post orders the unseen pilot to alter his course, but the plane crashes. The plutonium bomb has still not detonated so a heroic Colonel Manning sheds his helmet and goggles and charges out into the open towards the plane to rescue the pilot. The command post orders him to stop. The plutonium bomb detonates and it catches Manning in a torrential blast that shreds the clothes off his body. Later, the Army doctors have little hope for him since third degree burns cover most of his body.

Manning’s fiancee, Carol Forrest (Cathy Downs of “My Darling Clementine”), visits him at the hospital. Later, the Army spirits Manning away to a secret military facility and forbids to give Carol any information. Obstinately, Carol refuses to be kept away from Manning. The doctors relent and allow Carol to spend time with him. During this interval, Gordon gives us a glimpse of their life together before he participated in the Desert Rock maneuver. Miraculously, despite the third degree burns, Manning survives the ordeal, and a new layer of skin grows to replaces the charred dermis. One tragic side effect is that the Army colonel grows eight to ten feet a day and eventually has to be housed in a circus tent. He has to drink out of a barrel and he eats an entire turkey. Dr. Paul Linstrom (William Hudson of “Mister Roberts”) and Major Eric Coulter, MD (Larry Thor of “Machine Gun Kelly”) both struggle without success to find a cure for his condition. Nevertheless, Manning continues to grow until he towers 60 feet tall. Carol spends time with Manning, but he grows even more depressed about his acute condition and sees no hope for a bright future.

Some forty-five minutes into the action, Manning decides to leave the army base and vanishes into the desert. How does a 60 foot gent avoid detection from the military in the desert? Before long the Army receives reports about slaughtered cattle and two guys in a car with a bottle of liquor encounter Manning at night on the highway. “I’ll never drink again,” the passenger (Hank Patterson of “Green Acres”) assures his companion. Colonel Halleck (James Seay of “Vera Cruz”) warns Linstrom and Coulter that he is prepared to take action against Manning if Manning becomes dangerous. When they finally locate Manning, Manning has wandered into Las Vegas wearing only a sarong. He uproots a palm tree and hurls it at the Las Vegas police after they take rifle shots at it. Manning tromps off to Hoover Dam. Before he gets there, Linstrom and Coulter fly in a huge syringe in a helicopter and administer an injection of a drug which they had succeeded in reducing the size of circus animals. The injection fails and and Manning grabs Carol like King Kong did Fay Wray and walks off with her. Only after he sets Carol down does the military cut loose with a barrage of fire, and Manning topples into the spillway waters and vanishes into the Colorado River.

The only genuinely violent moment occurs near the end when the enraged Manning skewers Coulter with the giant needle and kills him. The scene when he thumbs through the Holy Bible is about as heavy as this fish-out-of-water yarn gets. The ultimate irony that set the first half apart is the idea that Manning sacrificed him in an act of good citizenship to help the pilot who crashed. Gordon, who doubled as the special effects coordinator, does a credible job of developing the unfortunate plight that Manning suffers. While he is under the supervision of the military, Manning emerges as a sympathetic character, but later “The Amazing Colossal Man” turns into a shallow side show freak, as the film apes "King Kong." Gordon's inferior sequel "War of the Colossal Beast" (1958) recycles "Mr. Cyclops. The Disney movie "Honey I Blew Up the Kid" (1992) and "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009) pay tribute to "The Amazing Colossal Man." Gordon revisited the theme of giant humans in "Village of the Giants" (1965).

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