In the Desert of Set > Sermons > Occult Cinema > Gorgo the Irish Feminist Sea-Dragon

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Gorgo the Irish Feminist Sea-Dragon

Gorgo the Irish Feminist Sea-Dragon (with Daughter)

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In Gorgo (1961), two guys named Sam and Joe are traveling the British seas, looking for gold and other precious junk on the ocean floor. Their ship gets damaged during a weird volcanic eruption that happens in the middle of the sea for no apparent reason, and they end up having to stay on an island off the coast of Ireland for a few days. While repairing their ship, Sam and Joe start to notice that the people of this island seem to be hiding something. Well, that something turns out to be a giant bipedal lizard with big floppy fins for ears. Sam and Joe decide to capture the creature, and when they do, the Irish government implores them to give the beast to the University of Dublin for scientific research. Unfortunately, our protagonists decide to bring the reptile to Dorkin’s Circus in London instead, where they make a shit-ton of money off the poor creature. The joke’s on them, though, because they soon learn that “Gorgo” (the name Dorkin gives to the creature, which is taken from the three Gorgons in Greek mythology) is not the only one of its breed. It’s really just a baby, in fact, and its mother—who is significantly larger and meaner—is now on her way to file one hell of a grievance against the entire city of London.

That’s pretty much the entire plot to the film right there, and considering its year of release, we’re dealing with some pretty predictable stuff. For the most part, Gorgo is largely a remake of King Kong (1933), save that its giant monster is of the saurian persuasion. However, there are several things that distinguish this kaiju film from all of its contemporaries. At the most obvious level, it’s not Japanese but British, and it provides some interesting insight into the British sociopolitical situation that existed when it was made. When Sam and Joe arrive at the Irish island with their crew, they seek help from the locals. But the locals will only respond to them in Gaelic, even though it’s clear that they understand English. Sam and Joe also learn that the harbormaster has been salvaging archaeological finds from the ocean, and they bully the dude into giving them all of his loot as payment for capturing Gorgo. Later on, when they decide to sell Gorgo to the London circus, they are effectively giving the Irish government the middle finger. That’s not once but twice in the same film where Ireland gets screwed over by Englishmen, who rob the Irish not only of their history (i.e., the archaeological finds) but of their own real-life dragon as well.

I first saw Gorgo when I was something like five or six years old; I had already seen a lot of giant monster flicks by then, and in most of them, the “ethnic” people are usually people of color. (There are plenty of science fiction and horror films that are made in places like Italy or Spain, but the kaiju subgenre hasn’t received many contributions from either of those countries.) This goes all the way back to King Kong, which unfortunately depicts black people as savages whom the white characters could easily exploit. But this was the first time I ever saw a situation where it was white people being racist against other white people. I didn’t know that much about racism back then; I’m not even sure I was familiar with the term yet, really. I sure as hell didn’t know anything about Hibernophobia or the Troubles of Northern Ireland, either (outside of what little I could understand from my parents’ U2 albums at the time). But seeing these white English dudes mistreat these similarly white Irish dudes gave me an idea of just how ridiculous racism could get. I’m also forever indebted to Gorgo for providing me with my first exposure to Gaelic culture.

But there’s another subtext in this film. So there’s this Irish kid named Sean, and he’s the only character who sympathizes with the monsters. He even becomes a stowaway on Sam and Joe’s ship, hoping to free Gorgo out at sea. The kid gets caught, but what do you think happens after that? Sam and Joe decide to let Sean live with them, that’s what. And yes, I said “with them.” With only a few brief exceptions, these two men spend the entire movie together; and the body language they use around each other at home is most interesting. There’s one scene where Sam and Joe are comforting little Sean while he tries to go to sleep, and Joe sits at the head of the bed in a fatherly pose while Sam sits on the mattress beside Sean. Then there’s another scene where Sam and Joe have a squabble over a carnival worker who’s accidentally killed by Baby Gorgo; Sam’s worried about the guy’s wife and kids, and Joe promises him that he’ll send them some money. There’s even a scene where the two of them are introduced as “Joe Ryan and his partner, Sam Slade”—and while that kind of terminology didn’t have the connotation in 1961 that it has today, it’s hard not to imbue it with contemporary significance. It’s also telling that there isn’t a single girl or woman in the entire cast, and that when one of the adult characters starts to side with Sean about setting Gorgo free, it’s Sam (the “motherly” one). In other words, it’s totally believable to me that Sam and Joe are a couple, that they’ve adopted Sean, and that the three of them have become a same-sex family.

I say that Gorgo has no girls or women in it (aside from a few here or there among the extras), but there is at least one female in the film (if not two), and that’s Mama Gorgo. It’s never specifically mentioned at any point that she’s got two X chromosomes, but I think we can safely assume that this is true; how else can we explain the baby? There are such things as the New Mexico whiptail, a species of lizard that is entirely female and that reproduces through parthenogenesis. It seems likely to me that Baby Gorgo is female as well, given that Dorkins elects to name her after the Gorgons (all of whom are female). Gorgo was also the name of a famous Queen of Sparta who lived and ruled during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, so any way you slice it, it would seem that the giant lizards in Gorgo are the only female characters in the film. This would make sense in light of certain combat myths like the Enuma Elish, for just as Marduk used His masculine strength to slay His saurian mother Tiamat and create the universe from Her corpse, so do Sam and Joe try to create a multimillion dollar empire off of the female Irish sea dragon they’ve captured. But things don’t go quite so well for them as they did for ol’ Marduk, which brings us to the next reason why Gorgo can’t be dismissed as a mere King Kong cash-in.

I have always felt that the original 1933 King Kong is horrific for a Pagan to watch, because it’s about people committing acts of animal cruelty and not having to pay any real consequences for doing so. While many viewers sympathize with the giant ape, there is no indication in the film itself that we’re supposed to; Kong is presented as being just a big dumb animal who has to die so the damsel in distress can live to marry the dashing male hero. None of the characters mourn for Kong, and no one acknowledges that removing him from his natural environment and exploiting him was wrong (or at least, not until the remakes). This was the attitude audiences had toward giant monsters until 1954, when Ishiro Honda gave us the original Godzilla. The monster in that film also had to die, but its death is treated like a funeral; the audience is actively encouraged to sympathize with it and to consider the aftermath of all that happens in the film. Gorgo, in contrast, is the first kaiju film in which the monsters are not only sympathetic, but victorious. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing Mama and Baby Gorgo swimming back home to Ireland at the end of the film, and it wasn’t long after their victory that Mothra, Godzilla, King Kong and the giant turtle Gamera were all re-imagined as superheroes (in 1961’s Mothra, 1964’s Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster, 1966’s Gamera vs. Barugon, and 1967’s King Kong Escapes). In other words, the era of the heroic kaiju films really begins with Gorgo.

Now returning to my previous point, the conflict in this film exists between (1) a single mother and her little girl (i.e., the Gorgos) and (2) an all-male same-sex family (i.e., Sam, Joe and Sean). Neither of these two families is “normal” according to “traditional” patriarchal standards, and yet the film never tries to “punish” them for this. As mentioned earlier, the Gorgos are reunited and get to go home; but even the all-male family turns out okay in the end. They also share a collective character arc; at first it’s just Sam and Joe, and all they care about is money. Then they adopt Sean, the little Irish animist who sees the giant lizards as people. Over time, Sean’s “motherly” adoptive father—Sam—starts sympathizing with the big beasties as well, and he starts to agree that reuniting Baby Gorgo with her mother is more important than getting rich. Joe—the “fatherly” dad—remains an asshole for most of the story, refusing to set Baby Gorgo free. (He’s also abusive; he beats the shit out of Sam when he tries to free Baby Gorgo after drinking too much, and he growls at Sean a few times to suggest that he’s not above hitting children either.) Yet Joe redeems himself during Mama Gorgo’s attack on London by protecting Sean amidst all the destruction and the rioting. Based on how he behaves earlier in the film, you’d expect him to save his own skin and leave the kid to die (and then die himself, as characters of his ilk usually do in films of this sort); but Joe chooses the kid over his own self-preservation, and I think that’s pretty damn neat.

Some folks might say that making one of the two dads an abusive asshole is indicative of homophobia, but I beg to differ. First of all, I doubt the screenwriter actually intended for Sam and Joe to come across as romantic partners. Secondly, all families have their problems, and sadly, abuse is often one of them. It would be one thing if Joe told Sean to fuck off during the climax, then tried to save himself and died. If that happened, I would read his apparent homosexuality as an intended “mark” against his character (on top of fucking over the Irish, exploiting a baby animal, and being a selfish prick). But Joe survives and does the right thing; then he and his partner and his kid are happily reunited at the end. What the hell does that tell you? Well, it tells me that Sam and Joe’s sexual orientation has nothing whatsoever to do with the poor decisions they make earlier in the film. They’re flawed humans who just happen to be gay; that’s all there is to it, and I can’t think of anything more progressive toward the LGBTQ community than that (especially in 1961). Now I’m sure there’s someone out there reading this who’s wondering, “Why would it be necessary for these characters to be gay?” Well, why not? Was it necessary for George Romero to cast a black man as the hero in Night of the Living Dead (1968), even though the role was written for a white man? No—but it sure was cool that he did. And if I’m right that William Sylvester and Bill Travers chose to play Sam and Joe as gay men, well I think that’s cool too.

Gorgo does have its flaws, though most of them are the kind that I tend to overlook. For example, the writing isn’t as sharp as it could have been; most of the character development is restricted to the first two acts (which tends to bore the hell out of most viewers), while most of the action occurs during the final act (which causes the film to forget about its human characters almost entirely by that point). These things don’t really bother me, though, because I think most everything else about the film works. The only serious criticism I have when it comes to Gorgo is the fact that during its final 18 minutes, it suddenly introduces a news reporter character who narrates every single detail about Mama Gorgo’s parade through London. This segment is so glaringly unnecessary that it’s virtually impossible to ignore it. The first 60 minutes of the story are easy enough to follow, so why the hell did anyone think the last 18 needed a narrator?

Anyway, most of the films that I review on this site are what I call “Set movies,” but Gorgo makes me think more about Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth and the constellation Draco. (Taweret is just one of Set’s lady friends in Kemetic mythology, so Gorgo still makes me think about Him too—but in a more indirect way.) The thing I love about Taweret is that She’s like a benign chaos dragon; instead of being killed to save (or create) the world, She kills other monsters that threaten children and unborn babies (who represent the future of the world). Bearing this in mind, Mama Gorgo is a perfect cinematic avatar for Taweret, and watching this film is like watching the Great Female crush the racist capitalist patriarchy beneath Her cute, stubby toes. I defy anyone who’s Pagan and who loves animals (especially gigantic saurian animals with wiggly ears) to watch Gorgo and not enjoy it.

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