How did you get mixed up with Bert I. Gordon and Village of the Giants?
My agent introduced me to a man called Bert Gordon who had a story called Village of the Giants and said, "Alan, I want to make this into a picture, but it doesn't seem to work and there's nothing I can do with it. Will you have a crack at it?" So, I had a crack at it and I did write a viable screenplay-I did what I would call a creditable job, bearing in mind the fact that I was inexperienced and didn't really know very much about screenplays. Bert Gordon made it into a picture and was quite successful, but it horrified me when I saw it. I thought it was very amateurishly done-which it was! The nice thing about it was, I got my daughter a part in it: She was four years old, and she got into one of the crowd scenes. I've never spotted her in the movie, but she's in there somewhere as one of the kids.
Village of the Giants did have one good scene-I remember the scene up front where the kids' car got stuck in the mud during a rainstorm and they got out and danced. I put in the script that they were bringing out six-packs of beer, and Bert Gordon said, "Alan, you mustn't use that word in a screenplay. It's gotta be Coke or something." [Laughs] I said, "Okay, who cares, make it Coke. I don't care what they drink!" That was a scene that I liked, but after that it got stupid.
Did somebody rewrite what you wrote?
Nobody else wrote it, I did the writing of the screenplay. But the basic concept was stupid, the concept I had to work with. There's no way you can make a thing like that believable. Today I would have made it very much tongue-in-cheek, made it as a joke. But in those days I didn't have the sense to realize that was the only way it could work. So I just went ahead with it as straight drama, "Something terrible has happened!", and hoped that everybody would buy it.
Did you like working with Gordon?
Yes, he was okay, he was a nice guy. (He gave me one of my first [screenwriting] jobs, so I've got to like him!) I got along well with Bert, no problems there at all. I did ask him what on earth made him buy a pile of crap like this in the first place.
Actually, he gets screen credit for writing the story, so you were talking about his pile of crap.
It was originally based on the novel Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells. Of course, H.G. Wells is one writer and Bert Gordon is another! (You could say the same thing about me, of course!)
Did you visit that set at all?
Yes, I went down. We had Ron Howard in that film, and Beau Bridges as well. It was very interesting: One day, Beau Bridges started telling us a story about an actor in East Africa who had a spear thrown at him during a performance. And I said, "Wait a minute! What the hell goes on here? Where did you hear this story?" He said, "Well, my dad [Lloyd] and I were in London and we met Olivier, and Olivier told us this story." I said, "For God's sake, I was the actor concerned"-and I was. In East Africa, I had my own company and I was producing plays mostly for the British Council and being paid very handsomely. When we did Hamlet, I was producing and directing and of course did the casting, so I obviously gave the best parts to myself, Claudius and the ghost. We had a huge stage, 48 feet wide by 32 feet deep, between two giant baobab trees out on Government House grounds, only a couple of hundred feet away from the surf, from the Indian Ocean. I had something like 600 chairs put in a rope-enclosed circle. On opening night, a group of Masai were walking down the road that ran along the sea, and they saw this light and fun going on-what they would call a fantasia, so they just walked over to the theater and stood in the corner there. The Masai are very, very superstitious people.
I had huge stone blocks painted on a scrim and lit from the front. For one of the scenes where I played the Ghost, I had the front lights dimmed down, and behind I had one green light coming up very slowly where I stood in full uniform as the Ghost, on elevation. You were looking right through the "stone" wall at me. I went into the piece-"I am my father's spirit" and so forth, and there was this awful thud nearby. When the scene was over and I came off, I said to the stage manager, "What the hell was that bloody noise?" and he said, "L-l-l-l-look!" and he pointed and there was a Masai spear.It had gone right through the scrim and missed me by a couple of feet and imbedded itself in the stage[laughs]! And this story got to be told in London, of all places, by Laurence Olivier and repeated to me by Beau Bridges in Hollywood on the set of Village of the Giants [laughs]! Talk about full circle-what an extraordinary thing!
Any other Village of the Giants recollections?
No, not really. It was not the happiest event ever, obviously. I'm very happy when I've got a good show going, but when it's a pile of crap [laughs], you hope nobody's looking!
Did you suspect it was a pile of crap while it was being made, or did you have to see it to find out?
No, I knew there was nothing much anybody could do with it. I'm glad Ron Howard has gone a long way from there-as I have, too, I like to think! I don't know him personally but I'd like to run into him one day and say, "Hey, you played in the first picture I ever wrote. Please forgive me!" [Laughs] Village of the Giants was probably the worst motion picture that anybody ever wrote in his life.
In making Village of the Giants, Bert I. Gordon merely extracts the germinal idea of giganticism from Wells's novel and uses it to devise his own story addressed to a teenage audience. A child prodigy invents a growth Food. A group of rebellious teenagers steal the food, expecting to use it to take over the village. However, the boy-scientist concocts an antidote, a smoke which counters giganticism. He releases the fumes near the gang of giants. They shrink back to normal size and are run out of town, humiliated.
Part of the story's sterility comes from reducing Wells's multiple conflicts (Stasis versus Progress, Beneficial Science versus Harmful Science, Imagination versus Fixed Idea, etc.) to a single simple conflict of Teenager versus authority (especially Adult Authority). The conflict is represented by two teenage factions, the eight Rebels led by Fred (Beau Bridges) and the Village Teens led by Mike (Tommy Kirk). Their rivalry is established in the early scenes and reinforced throughout the film in a series of altercations.
The Redwood and Bensington characters are replaced with a precocious ten-year-old chemist named Genius (Ron Howard), who invents the "Goo"(13) that increases growth. The boy-figure reduces the scientist to a puerile level, which suggests his work is child's play and contributes to the farcical tone of the story.
When Genius first appears, he emerges from the basement and enters his parents' living room where he interrupts his sister Nancy (Charla Doherty) necking with Mike on the couch. He carries a beaker of smoking liquid, rattles off the names of several obscure chemicals, and declares his surprise: "They're not compatible. This stuff is supposed to blow up." Nancy chases him away: "You and I aren't going to be very compatible either, Genius, if you don't get out of here." Compatibility becomes the main issue of the film, particularly in the way the two teenage factions respond to authority (the "establishment," the adults).
After Genius leaves, the two lovers resume their kissing. Seconds later, an explosion from the basement interrupts them. They run down into the smoking lab where the young scientist emerges from behind a table, his glasses coated with red film: "I put an electric charge to that stuff I was mixing, and then Bam! the whole place blew up." The electric charge acts as a catalyst upsetting the balance of a potentially volatile mixture. In the same way, the Rebels are an alien force which enters Hainesville and disrupts the stable situation existing between adults and teenagers.
The Village Teens are compatible with adults. When the Sheriff (Joseph Turkel) eventually confronts the giant Rebels, Mike stands alongside him, supporting his position as the lawful adult authority. Yet the Village Teens are not totally submissive. Nancy's parents are spending the night in Los Angeles because a mudslide has blocked the road into town. While the two lovers neck on the couch, soft music plays on the phonograph and they talk of doing what many normal teens might do with such an opportunity. Still, this seems innocent and tolerable when contrasted with the initial appearance of the Rebels.
The first shot of the film is a close-up of a smashed road barrier, its "CLOSED" sign broken in half. The camera tracks along the muddy ground, showing raindrops plopping in the puddles and an automobile tire lying on the ground. Then it tracks up to the tail-end of a blue Thunderbird crashed into an embankment, a telephone pole angled across its hood. A cut to the passenger side of the car shows the door suddenly flung open. A girl, Merrie (Joy Harmon), pokes out her head, screams, then opens her mouth to catch raindrops on her tongue. She strokes her hair and face and steps out into the rain. The other passengers follow her out. With the car radio blaring rock music ("Woman" by the Beau Brummels), all begin dancing wildly, frenetically in the rain and mud, finally ending in a mud-wrestling orgy. They find a fallen sign, "Hainesville, 3 miles," and decide to go there to see what trouble they might cause.
The broken "closed" sign and road barrier signify the Rebels' penchant for disobedience, their defiance of authority, and their willful trespassing of restricted areas (they move into the village's abandoned theater and then try to take over the town). In contrast, Genius' lab door and walls are covered with warning and off-limit signs. He can expect them to be obeyed because local mores have fostered an attitude in the Village Teens that respects the voice of authority.
The loud raucous music fueling the Rebels' frenzied dancing contrasts the romantic guitar music heard during the lovers' quiet interlude. Both are examples of rock music, teen music, but the former seems a flagrant rejection of adult sensibility, while the latter appears a compromise with it. Complementing this, the Rebels' car, a Thunderbird, signifies their motto, "thunderbirds"-who plan to make a big noise in the small town. At the same time, their casual concern for their own wrecked vehicle indicates the unlikelihood that they will respect the propety of others.
Like the novel's wasps, rats, and pond beetles, various creatures eat Genius's Goo. A cat laps up the food and grows giant-sized, giving Mike the money-making idea to feed the formula to livestock to increase the food supply. He succeeds in trying out the Goo on two ducks (substitutes for Bensington's chickens). He intends to keep his plan a secret, but the ducks escape and end up dancing among the teenagers at a no-liquor night club.(14) Like Winkles, Redwood's family doctor, the Rebels become curious and want to learn about the growth food for selfish purposes.
While feeding the ducks, Mike had dropped some of the Goo on the ground. Genius's dog Wolf eats it and becomes giant-sized.(15) Mike tells Genius to make some more Goo, a task which becomes the film's running joke. Brief scenes showing his exploding mistakes and grotesque results from faulty concoctions are inserted intermittently into the main story.
A fourth giant creature, a spider, appears in the basement when Mike and Nancy return to hide the secret formula. Mike eletrocutes it by bursting a water pipe and throwing a live light-bulb socket onto the floor. In a paltry special effect, the spider glows red, turns into a black silhouette, and sinks out of sight below the bottom of the frame.
Seconds later, Mike and Nancy leave the house. The Rebel Pete (Tom Rooney) sneaks into the lab through the basement window. As he snoops around looking for the food, the floor appears dry and no dead spider is evident. Like the cat, which ran out the door when Genius's dog barked at it, the spider's remains disappear from the story without explanation. Pete has no idea what the Goo looks like, yet after a brief search, he goes directly to the cabinet where Mike has hidden the formula and brings it to the waiting rebels outside.
Although a few of the Rebels, including Fred, are reluctant to eat the Goo, all take it on a dare, accusing each other of cowardice if anyone refuses. The episode suggests how peer pressure forces individuals to take drugs (which the Goo is) if they are to remain a part of the group. In this, a parallel exists with the novel's message concerning conformity. Wells's common folk, like any social group such as the Rebels, expect conformity and condemn those (the Giants) who deviate from their strictures. Ironically, taking the Goo also means rebellion against the adult standards, in a similar way to Wells's Giants in that taking the Goo represents both an act of conformity (within a group) and nonconformity (with "The Establishment").
After becoming giants, the Rebels kidnap the Sheriff's young daughter to insure their protection and strengthen their demand that all the guns be confiscated. Mike leads one bungled attempt to capture Fred as a reciprocal hostage, and in the melee Nancy becomes a prisoner of the Rebels.
In the second plan, Horsey (Johnny Crawford) leads two others into the theater to rescue the girls, while Mike, outside, distracts the Rebels by attacking them. He hurls stones from a sling.(16) Each missile sails directly across the screen, arching left to right instead of towards the giants, and they bend backward in a delayed, slow-motion reaction (the stone having already disappeared out of the frame).
Fred effeminately throws a makeshift spear at Mike. Several missed tosses force Mike to retreat toward the steps of city hall. He becomes trapped on the landing (although the front door is open and he could have run inside), and Fred threatens to club him with a light-post (Caddles' mace?). Meanwhile, Genius has discovered the antidote. He ties the fuming mixture on the back of his bicycle, races to city hall, and weaves between and around the feet of the giants until the cloud of smoke engulfs them. They shrink. Mike struts stiffly down the steps and punches Fred to the ground. The Rebels, their over-sized clothes draped around their bodies,(17) retreat to the taunts of the crowd ("Well, back down to size, huh?" "Who's your tailor, Freddy?").
The Rebels return to their wrecked T-bird, taking the story full circle. Fred leads them forward and past the car on their hike to the next town. Suddenly, they halt, interrupted by the deep bass voice of a man off-camera." I beg your pardon. Are you people coming from Hainesville?"
In a bored echo, Fred answers the unseen gentleman: "Yes, we're coming from Hainesville."
"Is that the place where they have the Goo?"
"Yes, that's the place where they have the Goo."
A dwarf (the deep-voiced speaker) enters the frame and passes in front of Fred and the other Rebels, followed by a single-file parade of short people who wend their way into the background toward Hainesville. Fred and the Rebels, disinterested and unsurprised,(18) exit the frame, left, as the title "The End" appears over the scene.
The dwarfs' interest in the Goo reopens the closed circle, creating a parallel with Wells's undetermined conclusion. In this case, however, the ambiguous "End" emphasizes the farce rather than some meaningful, thought-provoking implication.
The author also includes notes in regards to certain sections. Above, you may have seen some numbers in parenthesis, such as "(14)." You will find their corresponding notes below:
13. The term "Goo" replaces Wells's "Food." This suits Gordon's attempt to use juvenile jargon to differentiate the two teenage groups. Words and phrases like "groovy" and "dig that nitty-gritty" become associated more with the Rebels than with the Village Teens, who tend to talk with less slang and appear in greater harmony with the adults. Despite this meaningful consideration of language, however, most of it is trite, collapsing into numerous cliches ("turn the tables," "back to the drawing board," "we'll just have to live with it"). The extravagant repetition of the word "just" is a good barometer of fatuous dialogue.
14. This scene exemplified several of the faults of the film. In a matte shot, the ducks appear gigantic, dancing side-by-side with the teens. However, at times, their tails, when crossing the matte border, appear truncated, and the strings, which force them to bounce in time with the music, are visible. Using the ducks as puppets is a cruel, inhumane act, the more so considering the senselessness of it.
This scene, like many others, becomes too drawn out, belaboring a joke that was not funny to begin with. At the same time, the camera cuts repeatedly to close-ups of the women's shaking breasts, hips, and derrieres, a pointless sexual exploitation which recurs throughout the film.
15. Already noted, Redwood's Herakleophorbia works only on creatures whose growing cycle is not over. Genius's Goo works on any animal who takes it.
16. Mike plays David trying to get the better of the Goliaths. (In this way, he vaguely corresponds to Wells's Caterham, who was dubbed "Jack the Giant-Killer.") In retaliation, Freddy throws a spear at Mike. He says to Merrie, "I'm gonna give you his head on a silver platter." The Rebel Harry (Kevin O'Neal) smiles, "That was Samson and Delilah." Actually, it was Herod and Salome, but even if corrected, the allusion is irrelevant.
17. When the Rebels first grow to giant-size, their bodies rip through their clothes. In a parody of Adam and Eve suddenly finding themselves naked, they use the theater's props and curtains to hide behind. Now, after shrinking, the Rebels' clothes should be extremely large. Instead, they are just a bit baggy, not an accurate rendering of the proper relative scale.
18. Under-reaction is an important comic device for Gordon, who uses it frequently in The Village. People show little or no response to unusual events, as when first seeing the giants (except in the case of the spider, which is downplayed by feeble, meaningless dialogue after Mike kills it). The ducks' appearance at the night-club provokes no more than mild amusement from the teens, who continue to dance. The giant cat is simply chased away by Genius's dog. And Genius is never surprised by the amazing odd results of his several failed experiments to recreate the Goo.
These incongruous lackadaisical responses to unusual situations become mere silliness, not humor. However, one scene does come off as genuinely funny, when the giant Rebels first appear at the teen dance in the park. The Sheriff drives up to tell the youngsters to stop making so much noise. The deputy, having spotted the giants, finally gets the Sheriff to look upward. With hardly more than a dry, crotchety reaction to an inconvenient prank, the Sheriff remarks, "For crying out loud, now what's this?" After an awkwardly drawn-out pause, he adds, "Listen, I don't pretend to know what's going on around here, but it's just been brought to my attention that the theater's been broken into last night and I've got a pretty good idea who did it. Now I want you to go back to the theater and wait there."
For all the times this device is used, it has to succeed at least once.
Village of the Giants
Producer: Bert I. Gordon
Writer: Alan Caillou
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Embassy: 80 minutes
Cast: Tommy Kirk, Johnny Crawford, Beau Bridges, Ronny Howard, Joy Harmon, Bob Random, Tisha Sterling, Charla Doherty
A wild teen picture, based loosely on H. G. Wells's Food of the Gods. It's the story of teen couples who eat a special food which turns them into giants. They take over and terrorize the town, consumed with greed, until an antidote is found and they're run out of town. From the Journal of Independent Film trade magazine: "Interesting combo in Village of the Giants, one with an almost certain appeal to teeners. The film unites the elements of science-fiction with teen themes to come up with a musical view of rebellion against the adult world. Youngsters will go for the idea of taking over a town for themselves and living to the rhythm of today's 'big beat,' but will also fall in line with the town's right-minded teeners that after all, right is right. Special effects soup up the fun, especially with a Watusi done by overgrown ducks, and if their variety doesn't complete the bill as the spice of life, the young lovelies shown in a variety of costumes will." Many recognizable faces here, as well as many famous Hollywood offspring: Beau Bridges was the son of Lloyd; Tom Rooney the son of Mickey; and Tisha Sterling the daughter of Robert Sterling and Ann Southern. Also includes the Beau Brummels, Freddy Cannon, Mike Clifford, and music by Phil Spector arranger Jack Nitzsche. Toni Basil is the choreographer and also has a small acting role. Filmed in "Perceptovision." A novelty.