Spare a thought for Robot Monster, or Ro-Man XJ2, as he calls himself. He has been sent to Earth to destroy all of humanity but, by a slight miscalculation, has overlooked eight people. Now the Great Guidance has given him 24 hours to finish the job. What’s worse, all eight humans appear immune to Ro-Man’s deadly Calcinator Beam. And then there is Alice, the professor’s daughter. Ro-Man has already dispatched 3 billion people but when it comes to Alice, he is heartbroken. “I must, but I cannot!”
Robot Monster is a notorious 1953 example of incompetent moviemaking that, along with the more celebrated Plan Nine from Outer Space, has entered into popular mythology. Even if you never heard of the movie, chances are you have glimpsed Ro-Man himself. He is the man in the gorilla suit wearing an old-fashioned diving helmet topped by two TV antennas.
Robot Monster the movie may be bottom of the barrel for cheap special effects, script, acting, editing, and other such incidentals, but Ro-Man the character transcends his part. He is the die-hard wing of the Democratic party contesting the Ohio vote: “A miscalculation in the 22nd category of 16 billionths.” He is the politically correct college administrator complaining about the uncanny persistence of conservative students: “Great Guidance, I do not understand how they survived the deadly Calcinator C-Ray!” He is Howell Raines, Dan Rather, and Michael Moore swelling with power and proud confusion, where would-be seriousness spills over into the haplessly ridiculous.
Humanity faces two basic monsters: those that rampage, devour, and destroy, and those that conquer, enslave, and exact obedience. Ro-Man is a hybrid. He is both beast and robot–and discontent with the bargain. He tells the Great Guidance he would like some individuality and some more positive emotions. “To laugh, feel, want. Why are these things not in the plan?” The Great Guidance, however, tolerates no deviation. He is like one of those Leftists who think Kerry lost because Democrats were too soft and didn’t express their disgust with Bush with sufficient vitriol.
It has been 52 years since Robert Monster was released but Ro-Man’s sudden empathy with those he has mocked is timeless. The Democrat’s post-election awakening to the charms of Christian voters seems every bit as urgent and every bit as doomed to frustration. The Great Guidance–in this case the Moveon.org-style part of the Democratic base–wants none of it.
Ro-Man defies the Great Guidance’s orders by kidnapping rather than killing Alice. Just as he broaches with her the delicate topic of whether Alice might have tender feelings for a genocidal alien in a gorilla suit, the interplanetary phone rings. He tries to tie Alice up but, gorilla suits being what they are, drops the rope to get the phone. As the camera glances back at Alice, she is neatly bound hand and foot.
The rope trick is not just sloppy moviemaking. It is the Democrat’s wishful thinking that its old constituencies, such as Latinos, will magically stay put while the party figures out new appeals. Ro-Man seldom strays far from his “Automatic Billion Bubble Machine,” which through most of the movie inexplicably pours forth soap bubbles. The Great Guidance on the video monitor also has a bubble machine. A more transparent metaphor for the Democrat’s recent campaign seems hard to imagine.
Last spring, after attending my niece’s Swarthmore graduation, I started work on a large canvas depicting the war of robots and dinosaurs. For several years, I’d been painting scenes of robots, mostly modeled on Japanese toy robots of the 1950s. Robots such as Tetsujun 28, Zoomer, X-9, and Thunder Robot seem forever trapped between their aspiration to human-likeness and mechanical stiffness. After 20 years on a university campus, Tetsujin 28 and his fellows somehow seemed familiar.
The Swarthmore graduation added an element: Swarthmore presented itself as a place where the robots had achieved total victory. Not a dinosaur in sight. Without exception, every speech by a faculty member, administrator, student, and honoree offered allegiance to Swarthmore’s version of the Great Guidance. The apex was Swarthmore President Alfred Bloom’s somber warning that the graduates would soon find themselves in a world where they would encounter people who question racial preferences and–referring to gay marriage–advocate for a constitutional amendment that will take away people’s rights. Though their Swarthmore experience made “the rightness of inclusion…self-evident,” the graduates would discover that elsewhere, “higher education defines its mission as imparting to students the knowledge and skills need to find and fill their place in the world.” That, implied President Bloom, was narrow-minded selfishness and he hoped Swarthmore graduates would instead devote themselves to building “a more inclusive world.”
Arguing with graduation-day fodder is as useless as arguing with Ro-Man’s C-ray. Instead I painted the valiant last stand of the dinosaurs surrounded by robots on Swarthmore’s Parrish Lawn. Among the incidental delights of Robot Monster are two moments when the film inexplicably switches to scenes of dinosaurs fighting with each other. It seems obvious to me that one cannot really comprehend the despotic yearnings of robots to impose their world-encompassing ideology of “inclusion,” without some kind of acknowledgement of the old reptilian chaos.
The actor who played Ro-Man was George Barrows (1914-1994) who apparently did well enough in the costume to attract as series of such parts. In 1954, he had the title role in Gorilla at Large, the cast of which included Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr, and Lee Marvin. He suited up again in the 1963 horror flick, Black Zoo. And at last played the gorilla opposite John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Lon Chaney, Jr. in Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). No aspiring actor today could hope to match this record. The success of Dian Fossey’s efforts to change the image of gorillas from tyrannous brutes to gentle, misunderstood souls has ruined the trade.
Robot Monster did leave another legend. It is said that the director, Phil Tucker (1927-1985), responded to sneering reviewers and other indignities by attempting to kill himself. He failed and went on to direct Tia Juana After Midnight, which features strippers and stand-up comics, Baghdad After Midnight–ditto–and The Cape Canaveral Monsters, in which a couple of alien zombies register objections to the U.S. space program.
Tucker will be remembered, however, mostly for Robot Monster. How exactly he so perfectly foretold the future of the Democratic party remains a mystery akin to the actual purpose of the billion-bubble machine. Sooner or later the Democrats will get a better script, but at the moment, they appear like nothing so much as the grandiose Ro-Man, one moment hurling defiance at his doomed enemies and the next pathetically seeking “a new hypothesis.”
–Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.