On the occasion of his 88th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Affectionately known as “Mr. B.I.G.,” Bert I. Gordon directed, produced, co-wrote, and/or created the special effects for more than a dozen SF, horror and fantasy films. While he was active through the 1980s, the films for which he will be most fondly remembered epitomized the monster movies of the ’50s, and featured oversized fauna of the two-, four-, six-, and eight-legged varieties.
Born on September 24, 1922, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Gordon was a producer of television commercials who broke into filmmaking as the producer and cinematographer of the adventure yarn Serpent Island (1954). His wife, Flora M. Gordon, assisted him in various capacities—most notably with the special effects—on many films, and he cast their daughter Susan in four of his productions.
Gordon came into his own with King Dinosaur (1955), scripted by Serpent Island director Tom Gries from a story by Gordon and co-producer Al Zimbalist. When the planet Nova enters our solar system, four scientists are sent to explore it, encountering “dinosaurs” (i.e., stock footage and photographically enlarged lizards) and other giant critters, which they destroy with an atomic bomb.
Even more typical of Gordon’s work was The Beginning of the End (1957), as the late Peter Graves (see “Goodbye, Mr. Phelps”), the stalwart hero of SF films before he landed his iconic role on Mission: Impossible, faced a more terrestrial but no less gigantic threat. Accidentally created by agricultural experiments, irradiated locusts menace Chicago, until Graves lures them to a watery death with their mating call.
In The Cyclops (1957), Gloria Talbott is understandably shocked to learn that radioactive ore in a Mexican valley has turned her fiancé into a twenty-five-foot giant with a deformed face, played by Duncan (aka Dean) Parkin. Continuing a busy year, Gordon’s association with American International Pictures began with his signature film, which was inspired by the success of Jack Arnold’s masterpiece.
“Universal-International had just issued The Incredible Shrinking Man , and we decided to turn the binoculars the other direction, building a story around a pitiful character who experienced the world’s most terrifying growth spurt,” recalled AIP’s co-founder, Samuel Z. Arkoff, in his memoir Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants. What resulted was Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).
Trying to rescue the pilot of a downed plane, Colonel Glenn Manning (Glen Langan) endures the blast of a plutonium bomb, and miraculously survives—but begins growing eight to ten feet per day, ending up as a seventy-foot giant who is blown off of Boulder Dam with a bazooka. With poetic justice, co-writer Mark Hanna then created a carbon copy of the distaff kind in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).
Gordon clearly continued to be “inspired” by The Incredible Shrinking Man (adapted for the screen by its original author, Richard Matheson) with his next film, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), as lonely, widowed doll-maker Franz (John Hoyt) shrinks people to puppet-size just to keep him company. In an audacious bit of self-promotion, Bob Westley (John Agar) proposes to Sally Reynolds (June Kenny) while they watch The Amazing Colossal Man at the drive-in!
Col. Manning was sufficiently popular to warrant a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast (1958), although somewhat the worse for wear, with one eye blasted out by the bazooka. Looking like The Cyclops (and now played by the same actor), he steals trucks for food in the Mexican mountains, but after he is brought back to L.A., his damaged brain recovers long enough for Glenn to electrocute himself.
Rounding out the ’50s was Earth vs. the Spider (1958), which bore a suspicious resemblance to another Arnold film, Tarantula (1955). One of Gordon’s numerous collaborations with George Worthing Yates (who scripted with László Görög), it concerns an outsized arachnid that is presumed dead after a dose of DDT, displayed in a high school gym, and then revived by…a band rehearsal.
Never afraid of beating something to death, Gordon incorporated a cinema showing Puppet People as well as Colossal Man. He then gave the big bugs a break in a children’s fantasy, The Boy and the Pirates; a ghost story, Tormented (both 1960); and one of his most polished productions, The Magic Sword (1962), as St. George (Gary Lockwood) braves seven curses to rescue the fair princess.
Now ready to return to his favorite theme of gigantism, Gordon went straight to the source in Village of the Giants (1965), an alleged adaptation of The Food of the Gods. It’s unlikely that H.G. Wells would recognize—or at least acknowledge—his novel as the inspiration for this teen-fest, although it admittedly concerns “goo” that makes things grow, thanks to boy genius “Ronny” Howard.
Another hiatus ensued, encompassing the supernatural stories Picture Mommy Dead (1966) and Necromancy (1972), the presumably self-explanatory How to Succeed with Sex (1970), and the police thriller The Mad Bomber (1973). But then Gordon returned to the Wells well with back-to-back adaptations, for AIP, of The Food of the Gods (1976)—again—and Empire of the Ants (1977).
A veteran of Necromancy, Pamela Franklin starred in the former, with Ida Lupino as the wife of a farmer, who thinks that the strange substance bubbling up from the ground on an isolated island is Heaven-sent. She begins to believe otherwise when it results in giant rats that eat her husband, as well as worms, wasps, and chickens; only a detonated dam saves the besieged survivors from the rats.
Empire is a far cry from Wells’s story, which was closer to Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants,” memorably filmed by Byron Haskin as The Naked Jungle (1954). Here, Joan Collins and Robert Lansing are embroiled in a plot to staff a sugar refinery with people whose minds have been dominated by pheromones from a queen ant, rendered gigantic by, you guessed it, radioactive waste.
Gordon segued into witches with Burned at the Stake (1981) and Satan’s Princess (1990), and the fertile field of sex comedies with Let’s Do It! (1982) and The Big Bet (1985). But for a generation of viewers, his name was synonymous with a monster movie’s unique charms, and no matter how silly the stories or threadbare the rear-projected special effects, they provided entertainment, pure and simple.