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10 May, 2008

A Fond Look Back at the Man who Brought Dinosaurs to Life



When I was young, two of the most popular things with boys my age were astronauts and dinosaurs. Astronauts I understood; growing up a hundred miles from Cape Canaveral, fascinated by space and everything connected to it, a confirmed Star Trek fan by the age of three, astronauts were the stuff of my imagination, and my childhood heroes. Dinosaurs were fun, but I never got into them the way I did astronauts until I was older. Two movies were instrumental in firing my interest in dinosaurs, and, though they couldn’t be more different, they shared a common bond that insured their superiority: A man named Ray Harryhausen.

The first dinosaur movie that I was captured by was a twenty-year old classic by the time it hit the Summer “Kiddie-Show” circuit where I first saw it. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released in 1953, was Harryhausen’s first major solo effort in Stop-Motion Animation. A protégé of Willis O’Brien, the man who breathed life into King Kong, Harryhausen would go on to exceed even his mentor’s genius, with films such as EARTH vs. THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

But THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS was where it began, and for Horror fans it was easy to see that the young effects artist was bound for greatness. I’ve reviewed this movie below here, so I’ll not go into detail about the film itself. Suffice it to say that, to a nine or ten-year old boy, already used to a steady diet of Japanese Kaijû, the idea of a real (well, real enough…) dinosaur rampaging through city streets was tailor-made to satisfy. Previously, the few dino-movies I had seen were all set in prehistoric times, with tribes of cave-men doing battle with photographically enlarged lizards masquerading as Dinosaurs. Even in my youthful innocence, I could recognize crap when it was before my eyes.

But BEAST… was different, as different in its way as my beloved Kaijû were. And for the first time, I was convinced that dinosaurs could be… frightening.

The second movie was one that I had seen as a young child, but that took on a different quality when I saw it as a teen-ager. That movie was ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., and that “…different quality…” was a twenty-six year old Raquel Welch, in a tight-fitting bearskin bikini.

Though a few of the creatures that rumbled through that prehistoric world were the result of bad-looking trick photography, most were all Ray’s… from the giant sea turtle to the Pterodactyls that battled over Raquel's luscious form. Harryhausen was at this point at the height of his success, with the on-going SINBAD series of films and the critical acclaim that he received for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. His talent was also at its peak, and the effects work in this film is nearly as beautiful as its star.

ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. still stands as Hammer Films’ highest-grossing movie, no doubt due in large part to Ms. Welch’s large parts. But I can’t help but believe that Ray’s excellent animation played some role in the film’s appeal.

Ray Harryhausen will soon celebrate his 88th birthday. He’s been retired for more than 25 years now, since his final film, CLASH OF THE TITANS, was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences, too jaded to appreciate the artistry of his work. He’s now, much like Forry Ackerman and Bob Burns, an elder statesman of the genre, a reminder of past glories and yes, past heartaches. But like his friends, he is still with us, and we have the opportunity to say thank you for all he’s done for the genre, and all he’s meant to us. Thank you for the Martians and the Minotaur, for the ferocious Kraken and the battling skeletons, Cerberus and Medusa.
But most of all thank you for a “Beast” of a Rhedosaurus, that showed a nine-year old boy that dinosaurs could be frightening as well as fun, and for me, that was always the key to entertainment.






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