'Give us something bird-related for our ornithological issue,' came the missive from Ye Post Editor, in the usual stentorian calligraphy. Sure thing, chief! But what would be an appropriate movie? Lots of films which sound like they might be about birds – The Eagle Has Landed (and indeed The Eagle), Hummingbird, Birdman, The Gay Falcon – actually are not. Fly Away Home? Well, it is about birds, but not really in my wheelhouse. No, if you're looking for a really big bird movie, there is only one sensible option. (Well, maybe not sensible.)
Yes, I speak of The Giant Claw, Fred F. Sears' notorious contribution to the SF monster movie genre, which came out in 1957 and clearly shows an awareness of the classic tropes which had developed over the previous few years. Our hero is hunky, if possibly past his prime, boffin Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), a maverick electronics engineer (oh, heavens) engaged in radar calibration exercises in Alaska. Flying around and indulging in risque byplay with ground-based mathematician Sally (Mara Corday, who's young enough to be his daughter but still old enough to be Playboy's Playmate of the Month for October 1958) must come to an end when Mitch sights a UFO! (It's a sort of vague blurry blob to producers employ to maintain some suspense for the first third of the movie.) When he radios this in to the army, a full-scale Stock Footage Alert is declared, but nothing comes to light. (The movie makes extensive use of urgent voice-over to handle tedious exposition and keep the running-time down to a tolerable 75 minutes or so.)
Mitch is given a sound rollocking from the nearest general, who only casually mentions that one of the interceptors that were scrambled has inexplicably vanished. And then a polar passenger flight disappears. Gee, General, could it perhaps be that something is eating planes over the North Pole? The general is much more interested in giving MacAfee a hard time than in the wider ramifications of the situation. It's a tough life as a maverick electronics engineer sometimes.
Mitch and Sally start flying back to New York but en route something tries to eat their plane in mid-air just after the pilot reports a UFO. (And still no-one stops to wonder whether a pattern may be developing.) Pausing only to get mildly trolleyed with a French Canadian who speaks fluent Franglais, Mitch and Sally hop on a commercial flight the rest of the way home. Here Mitch displays his unreconstructed manly values by slipping Sally some tongue while she's actually asleep, and she displays the fundamental nature of the B-movie love interest by not screaming and actually being rather encouraging about the whole thing.
A film which has been amusingly silly until this point becomes exasperatingly dumb when Mitch grabs a map and plots all the locations at which UFOs have been sighted or planes eaten in mid-air. As Sally correctly points out, there is no discernible pattern to them. Aha! Mitch draws a spiral which intersects all the points neatly. Sally is dumbfounded. I couldn't help thinking you could do the same thing with any collection of random dots, that's sort of how spirals work. Nevertheless Mitch becomes convinced something is flying in a spiral pattern and eating every plane it passes – and, what's more, it's the size of a battleship! A flying battleship!
The scriptwriters of The Giant Claw, for the first part of the film at least, seem to have been sponsored by the Flying Battleship corporation, as the words 'flying battleship' appear much more often than the plot strictly demands, for no apparent reason. If you were to play the 'flying battleship' drinking game during this movie... then I really wouldn't blame you.
Oh well. Mitch's silly spiral convinces everybody, somehow, along with a crash-investigation flight also being eaten. This time the menace is exposed – the terror of the air-lanes is a big bird, the size of a... you can probably guess, actually. A global emergency is declared, with all flights and other travel cancelled, and everyone ordered to keep off the streets and stay at home, although naturally senior advisors to the government can choose to do whatever they feel like. (It has to be said that compared to Godzilla, Gamera, Gorgo, Gyaos, Mothra, the Rhedosaurus, et al, 'the big bird' is really a lousy monster name.) What's more, the giant bird possesses an anti-matter shield which renders it immune to normal weapons and also radar-invisible – this is clearly an attempt to fix a couple of glaring plot holes in a vaguely scientific-sounding way, but the film's a lost cause by this point anyway.
Yes, the moment the giant bird flaps into view, moving with all the speed and grace of Anne Widdicombe on the end of a rope, and we get the first glimpse of its head, the madly boggling eyes, absurdly over-extended neck and wildly tangled hair giving it something of the look of Uma Thurman trying to do comedy – at this moment the film collapses as any kind of remotely serious drama. No matter how many times I see this film, the appearance of the bird – and the actors' reactions to it – never fail to make me laugh out loud. The monster puppet is ridiculous, like something a teenage Terry Gilliam would have drawn for a laugh, and scenes which require it to gobble up parachutists, carry off trains like a string of sausages, and – seemingly – dry-hump the Empire State building (it appears to be attempting this in the post poster) don't help much either.
The utter awfulness of the monster is a shame as the rest of the film shows glimmers of promise. Okay, so a lot of the plot depends on anyone in a position of authority acting like a moron for the first half of the film, at which point the military's utter contempt and disregard for Mitch and his ideas magically turns into enraptured, paternal devotion. But some of the incidental dialogue between Morrow and Corday has a certain charged frisson to it – there's an extended metaphor about baseball which is clearly meant to be racy stuff, but unfortunately the closest I've ever got to understanding baseball is playing rounders and that was in 1987. And, given the pseudoscientific bafflegab which makes up much of the plot – the writers seem to think that just talking about anti-matter and nu-mesons is enough to give the film credibility, regardless of whether they do so remotely accurately – there's a performance from Edgar Barrier as a senior boffin which actually has vestiges of gravitas about it. He battles the cheese to a standstill before retiring with dignity.
Dignity and credibility are not much in evidence anywhere else in The Giant Claw. The old saw about how making a monster movie, for an actor, is a bit like going on a blind date, was never more true than with this film. Jeff Morrow, in an oft-told anecdote, left the film's premiere as soon as it became clear that gales of laughter would meet every appearance by the giant bird, fearing he might be recognised if he left with everyone else. He and his family snuck off home and Morrow allegedly got drunk. The mistake Morrow made was making the movie. The mistake for anyone else would be not doing the drinking before watching the movie, for this is very entertaining stuff if approached in the right spirit.
Editor's Note: If you want to see the movie trailer, here it is.