Bert I. Gordon’s aesthetically-linked giant man trilogy of The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and its sequel, War of the Colossal Beast (1958), contain all the spectacle one hopes to enjoy from ‘50s science-fiction monster pictures. Radiation, overgrown monsters and their awesome destructive powers are all key ingredients. While The Cyclops and War of the Colossal Beast are entertaining pictures that sometimes come close to interesting ideas about the loss of identity, it is The Amazing Colossal Man that explores that theme most cogently.
The film’s dissection of mankind’s changed position in a post-nuclear world affords it a striking maturity that may surprise viewers who’ve come for the ballyhoo offered by American International Pictures. Obviously, such ballyhoo is integral to these films’ cultural longevity, but there is much more that lies beneath the fabulous tagline of, “Growing…! To a giant…! To a monster…! To a behemoth…!”
The Amazing Colossal Man opens with the testing of a new weapon: a plutonium bomb. After the bomb is triggered but fails to detonate, Colonel Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan) sees a civilian plane crash into the testing ground. Despite orders to stay put, Glenn runs out of his trench shelter to try and help the pilot. As he approaches, the plutonium bomb finally explodes. Manning is almost burned to death but miraculously survives. The morning after his admittance to hospital, his skin has somehow healed with no scarring whatsoever. In the following days, Manning starts growing by six to ten feet per day. Eventually, his mind begins to deteriorate as he struggles to adjust to his new scale.
The loss of self is the film’s key exploration. Glenn Manning outgrows his world and all that was familiar to him becomes alien and incomprehensible. In a particularly poignant moment, his fiancé, Carol (Cathy Downs), recalls times they spent together. Glenn struggles to remember and laments that, “time’s lost all perspective, it’s been a lifetime since that explosion. Everything that happened before seems…another world, another life.”
At first, Glenn processes his situation with spiralling despair before turning cynical, and then aggressive. Reacting to a newspaper headline that reads “Man Lives Through Plutonium Blast”, Glenn laughs and asks, “they call this living?”, with an uncomfortably sharp edge. The rot of his decency grows until he shouts at Carol, ordering her to leave him alone. The flashbacks to the beginning of his relationship with Carol make clear the difference in personality that his growth has caused. Glenn lashes out at a world turned strange and small, and his former caring side is no more.
Viewing this through a more spiritual lens – aware of the Christian beliefs inherent to the contemporary American culture in which this film was produced – gives us a possible reading of what The Amazing Colossal Man has to say about mankind and identity loss in the atomic age.
Put yourself in the position of someone like Glenn Manning. We can presume that for the majority of your life, you’ve been told (by and in every facet of your culture) that that there is an almighty and that God is above you. Instilled in you by your parents, teachers, peers, and media is the belief that mankind is below or at least separate from God. You know that God has an immense power; power to create, but also to destroy.
Suddenly, in the middle of the 20th century, you find that your world has changed. Mankind now possesses the power to kill itself. In an instant, millions can be vaporised and cities can be flattened; lives destroyed, species made extinct. You are dealing with an idea that is, as Susan Sontag put it, “unsupportable psychologically.”
It is certainly unsupportable by a culture that has made clear the elevation of God above Man. You, as humanity, now hold a tremendous power, something understood in apocalyptic, biblical terms. You now possess weaponry so powerful that the sacred distinction between Man and God is fragile. Your command over the world around you has become immeasurable – one might say God-like. This change in status is horrifying because if you now have that sort of power (that for your entire life you’ve believed is reserved for the almighty), does that mean you’re on God’s proverbial level? If so, is there anything beyond or better than mankind? If there isn’t, do the limits of power (as we understand them) lie with the fallible human race? The questions begin tumbling, and the fixture of one’s cultural and individual identity cracks. You’re a giant in a smaller world. “Everything that happened before seems…another world, another life.”
In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon (codenamed Joe-1 by the United States) and the nuclear arms race was thrust into motion. Psychologically and culturally, you’ve gone from being the big fish in the small pond to just one of many ants waiting for the light of the magnifying glass. You’re simultaneously imposing but also vulnerable. Glenn’s size and aggression similarly belie the fear and anxiety swelling within. He is giant and powerful but becomes more isolated each day, as much a result of his own volition as well as his physical reality.
The Amazing Colossal Man articulates the cultural and psychological development of a post-atomic world. That Glenn laughs and asks, “they call this living?”, is interesting. If a perpetual fear of collective extinction looms over us, are we really living?
Glenn’s continuous growth also speaks to the grotesque nature of the arms race itself. Unable to prevent what’s consuming him, Glenn is powerless before the atomic carnage happening within his cells. Similarly, the world could only watch and wonder as atomic testing turned into hydrogen testing, and aircraft-delivered bombs were replaced with ballistic missiles. The despair with which Glenn meets his condition speaks to the dreadful helplessness one feels at the scale of the weapons we now possess.
There is no salvation for Glenn in his first film (if we ignore his scarred return in War of the Colossal Beast). He grows without halt until he is cornered and shot, falling from atop the Boulder Dam near Las Vegas. If we are to use Glenn as a proxy for the United States and its cultural perception, then his grim end marks a bleak outlook – one that is unconvinced of an ending in the nuclear world that doesn’t see mankind destroyed, or at least the American idea of mankind. The film therefore posits the idea that any nation or people with such power to annihilate cannot exist under the weight of the moral implications. To exist as a technological terror towering tall above all invariably separates you from those below. It is a fragmented existence. With weapons to destroy humanity, have you forfeit your own?
Even if one doesn’t read the film with such lofty implications, The Amazing Colossal Man still approaches its concepts with a maturity at odds with the expectations placed on it by decades of derision toward low-budget genre cinema. The films of American International Pictures in particular have garnered a reputation for being purely exploitation fare – and therefore undeserving of further consideration. Indeed, exploitation was the modus operandi of James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (AIP’s founders), but this knowledge has arguably snubbed their filmography of a deeper consideration. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) is another of their stable that certainly offers more than just its bold title. Give a second thought the Colossal Man and to what it means to outgrow one’s world.