“You keep your shirt on and I'll go get my pants on.” – Mitch MacAfee
This is another of those films I saw in a Sunday evening slot on ITV back in the sixties – others include War of the Worlds and Them. Embarrassing as it is now, to my nine-year-old eyes and sensibilities, this was a cool monster film back then. Over the years, I haven’t forgotten the impression it made but I was anxious to revisit the movie, because I was curious to see how bad it really was – to older eyes which aren’t as starved of a fix of monster movies.
Over the years, I’ve collected various reference books about films and I’ve seen stills of the protagonist of this movie – that is, the creature that the giant claw of the title is attached to, and hoo, boy…. It looks like a monster that a nine-year-old me might have drawn in a daydream driven flight of fancy. The final nudge was reading that my good friend David J. Howe had recently subjected himself to it. It was time to seek, locate, procure and add it to my shelves because as you know, if you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, not only do I hold an obsessive passion for horror and sci-fi movies, but I love the really, really bad ones too. And this qualifies.
We begin with a look at our planet, spinning serenely in space, a curiously cloudless day. Possibly the nicest day the Earth has ever experienced. (Unless you count the day they show us on the Universal Pictures logo.) Earnestly, a narrator tells us how big the world was, and how it got smaller thanks to “science”. Yes, that miracle of the modern age…”science”. As we’re told…
“Once the world was big, and no man in his lifetime could circle it. Through the centuries, science has made man's lifetime bigger, and the world smaller. Now the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton, and time has lost all meaning as man-made devices speed many, many times faster than sound itself.”
(Stirring stuff. It certainly made my chest swell with pride at being human.)
On and on he goes, describing how great we are with “science” and its wonderful military applications that keep us all safe, so we can sleep soundly at night…
“An electronics engineer, a radar officer, a mathematician and systems analyst, a radar operator, a couple of plotters. People doing a job, well, efficiently, serious, having fun, doing a job. Situation: normal. For the moment...”
At the moment? (Uh oh…) But there’s a brave but plucky pilot out there with an alliterative name and a square jaw. Surely, he must be the hero? Nothing bad can happen to Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) this early in the film? Not when he’s doing brave but foolhardy fifties movie hero things like flying perilously low while flirting with “his best gal” mathematician Sally (Mara Corday) Let’s check back with the narrator, who’s still telling us what we can see for ourselves…
“Something, he didn't know what, but something as big as a battleship has just flown over and past him.”
WOW! A big as a BATTLESHIP??? That’s big – right? And just in case you didn’t get that whatever flew over and past Mitch is as big as a battleship, every cast member mentions it over the next couple of minutes of screen time. But – is Mitch going crazy? Nothing showed up on radar, that miracle of the modern age made of “science” we’ve waxed lyrically about only moments ago. UFO’s? Again?
Very soon, other planes go missing – and so do their pilots. But nothing shows up on radar, the pilots (and the camera) see only a vague, indistinct blur.
(Okay, let’s take a moment. Up to now, the film has been a more or less typical fifties sci-fi movie. And if you take away the dramatic narrator, the story is typical of its time, evoking a little mystery, maybe a touch of “red under the bed” paranoia. It’s no Thing from Another World, or Invasion of the Bodysnatchers but it’s doing its job. This is about to change, and we’ll take a sharp turn into absurdity.)
When our heroic military gets a look at what’s menacing the skies of our fair planet, we find that Columbia Pictures in 1957 had already been pre-empted by Toho Studios the previous year with their release of Rodan. Rodan was (and still is) a giant pterodactyl, who flies around at supersonic speeds, which is how he causes most of his property damage. (When he’s not fighting Godzilla or any other member of the Japanese Kaiju stable.)
So – instead of a giant supersonic pterodactyl, the “giant claw” of the title, which has been grabbing at aircraft – is….
THIS (Yes, I’m serious. No, I’m not kidding)
Okay, I’ve done a little digging and I’ve uncovered some fun facts.
Ray Harryhausen was originally going to provide the creature which would’ve been animated with his usual stop motion technique used so effectively in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). It might’ve been that Harryhausen was busy working on 20 Million Miles to Earth when this movie was being made, but ultimately – it never happened. Instead, the producers decided to save practically the entire effects budget and employed an ultra-low budget (that’s polite talk for “cheap”) model maker in Mexico to create a marionette that would “attack” model planes and train sets while being suspended by all too visible wires. The cost of building this space turkey was a reputed…. Fifty dollars.
Plus, dramatic as the Giant Claw is on the release poster – it’s not accurate because the artists had no idea what the finished creature would look like and assumed it’d be in the form of a giant condor or something.
Actually, none of the cast knew either. When headliner Jeff Morrow saw the film in the cinema, he said in an interview that he shrank down in his seat in embarrassment because the audience was laughing. Ultimately, he left the screening early in case anybody recognised him, went home and got drunk,
Big Bird’s screen backstory is a little more exotic than outsourcing your effects to a hacienda over the border. We don’t know where he came from, but we know he travels at supersonic speed (okay, let’s call him Nodan) and is radar invisible because it’s composed of (gasp) anti matter. Well that explains everything.
(Uh, no it doesn’t. If Big Bird is made of anti-matter, wouldn’t he have imploded on contact with our positive matter universe? I mean, I’m no scientist – but isn’t that what generally happens?)
Now then, being composed of anti-matter, and ignoring real science in favour of (narrator voice) “science”, the Space Turkey absorbs the energy from what it attacks, to keep itself sustained. (I’m trying soooooo hard not to succumb to italicised sarcasm and smartassery here). This doesn’t explain how it attacks fighter planes with a standard wing configuration and we see them plummet to the ocean as delta wings, but hey – I’m no scientist.
Interestingly, the sneaky producers lift some panicked crowd shots from Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and some effects shots showing monuments being damaged from Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) to save even more money on the budget. But there’s still a big revelation to be made. Space Turkey is here to lay eggs, so “he” is a “she”. And she’s roosting.
There’s a final climactic battle over the skyline of New York, where Big Bird has damaged both the United Nations Building and (of course) the Empire State Building. It is eventually destroyed by missiles after a “special isotope” created by “science” destroys its anti-matter force field (I’m getting a headache now) and renders it vulnerable.
It crashes out of the sky, to the sea – and out last sight of it is its claw as it slowly sinks into the depths of the ocean – and cult corner.
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