***** SPECIAL NOTE FOR TOBOR the Robot FANS *******
Tobor wasn't limited to this movie!
Apparently, years later Guild Films made a TV pilot featuring Tobor (and a kid named Tommy). The series was to be called: "Here Comes Tobor", and the pilot was called: "Tobor and the Atomic Submarine". There are many citations about this TV show on the Internet, even Amazon, so check it out if you are a Tobor fan!
Movie: Tobor the Great Review
When I was 8 years old, I saw "Tobor the Great" at summer camp. To my 8 year old mind in the 1950's, the idea of robots was the most exciting thing I could imagine. So I was thrilled with "Tobor the Great", seeing it as a child did in those days, days in which we had dial telephones, B&W small screen TVs, comic books, and "Leave it to Beaver" attitudes.
Tobor looked magnificent!
It is probably hard for anyone in the 21st Century to look at this film with such eyes, so much has been developed since this movie came out. It is important to remember that the iconic "Robby the Robot" of "Forbidden Planet" would not appear for several years, and when he did, the budget was much higher!
For its time, and especially for its budget and studio, "Tobor the Great" was actually groundbreaking on a number of levels, visual style, and characterization. This is what to look for in the film. When looked at in comparison with other films of the time put out by Republic, it is possible to understand this.
And this is why I recommend this film -- to see a change in approach to sci-fi that had only once before been attempted, in "The Day The Earth Stood Still."
The biggest problem with Tobor is of course the clumsiness of the script in so many places. Republic had been used to producing serial adventure pictures where action overshadowed any kind of thought provoking meaningful dialog, action, or situations.
Any viewer of this movie should keep this in consideration, as that approach is carried over -- in part -- into this film. So we have the expected cardboard good guys vs bad guys. In this case, the bad guys are "communist agents" - popular villains of the time -- ruthlessly and somehwat comically, trying to get the secrets of Tobor from his creator. The good guys are the "responsible scientists" who create Tobor to help save lives in the space race. Their idea is to send robots into space as explorers and fact finders before risking human life on the endeavor.
This turned out to be prophetic, for it is exactly what NASA has done with Voyager and the Mars rovers -- though none of them are as endearing as Tobor. I doubt that anyone credits this film with its prophetic value in this regard.
The movie has some very redeeming qualities besides its prophetic quality, and these are what to look for when viewing the film. Here are a few things:
1. Gadge - The 11 year old grandson of Professor Arnold Nordstrom. The use of kids in movies was nothing new, not even in sci-fi. But this kid, a "whiz kid", serves to help us view Tobor through the eyes of a child, with all the wonder and innocence that a kid of the time would have when facing a complex 7 foot tall robot.
Gadge at one point says "Gosh Tobor, you're beautiful." His admiration, his awe, his love of the technology is unmistakable. This is a touching innocence, and a crucial part of the plot because Tobor responds to the love of this kid. Gadge is likeable, and not terribly annoying, even if he is a bit silly at times. His enthusiasm and eagerness to be involved with Tobor are completely understandable. As a kid, I identified with the character, envied him for his magnificent opportunity of having his very own robot!
2. Professor Nordstrom - Creator of Tobor. Here we have a Frankenstein allusion. The professor sees Tobor as a machine, a tool to help benefit mankind -- much as Victor Frankenstein saw his creature as the start of a new race of super-men that would benefit mankind (you have to read the novel to understand this).
But unlike Victor Frankenstein, Professor Nordstrom has no rejection of his creation. He treats it consistently as what it was designed to be, a tool for the benefit of mankind. Even when Tobor (under Gadge's influence) accidentally trashes the house, Nordstrom looks upon the incident kindly, not judging Tobor or Gadge.
This is a kindly Victor Franklenstein - and that kindness pays off in the end. His dialog is consistent on the matter, and as a character he never waivers. This is remarkable coming from a movie company known for uneven characters.
3. Tobor - He's the main character and has a lot of screen time, considering how complex and fragile his costume is.
A design note here is important. Prior to Tobor, Republic's robots were clunky and laughable "water boiler" robots, basically metal cans with an operator inside. They were well known to the audience of the time.
But Tobor was a remarkable departure. For one thing, inside his strange acrylic helmet, he has a face. That face, upon close inspection, does not appear at all friendly (it seems to frown), but that belies Tobor's character.
Tobor also lights up (who can resist a robot that lights up?) and has complex armatures and apparatus to work his arms and legs. He also has a developed and articulated body, not dependent on "Dryer hoses for arms and legs" that were the hallmark of earlier robots from Republic, and a characteristic of the robots in the movie "Target Earth".
I have looked for a creature designer credit and it is missing in the film, which is too bad. This robot is a design advancement from anything that came before.
Wikipedia has an entry on Tobor that claims he was designed by Robert Kinoshita, who also designed "Robby the Robot" from "Forbidden Planet". There is no citation in the Wikipedia article to verify this claim however, and the stylistic differences between Tobor and Robby would seem to indicate that this credit is erroneous.
A more believable citation (which is authenticated) is made by Fred Barton Productions (builders of replica celebrity robots) and John Rigg (of The Robot Hut). According to Fred Barton's website (where you can see a replica of Tobor), Tobor was DESIGNED by Gabriel Sognamillo, and was FABRICATED and BUILT by Mel Arnold (who also built GORT from "The Day The Earth Stood Still").
So don't believe Wikipedia on the matter of Tobor's origins.
Not that there aren't flaws. For one thing, he is disproportional. His head is huge, his body and arms are too long and his legs are short. He looks top heavy (as did the later "Robby the Robot" of "Forbidden Planet").
Regardless, it seems like Tobor was a very expensive costume to create and maintain (and the costume still exists today in the home of a collector) and the designers should get much more credit than they do.
As a character, Tobor has some throwbacks to the 1930's Frankenstein monster of Boris Karloff. Like the Karloff character, Tobor is unable to speak. He is potentially very dangerous (as when he accidentally trashes the house). He must express himself through some electronic tones and head tilts as well as some body motion.
Watch how Tobor interacts with Gadge at the end of the meteor-shower scene, and you'll see that in spite of the rigid costume, the actor does evoke an emotional response and express, although in a limited fashion, emotions. At the end of this scene, we know that Tobor knows that Gadge loves him and appreciates it. We get the feeling (later revealed) that Tobor will do anything to protect and save him.
Now why would a robot exhibit emotions?
This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the film. Tobor is no mere robot. Yes, he has a controller, he can be manipulated like an automaton, but he also has an "independence circuit" based on "ESP". As Nordstrom explains, Tobor has sentience! He is able to understand human emotion and respond to it. In fact this is essential to his experiences in space.
For a sci-fi film of the early 1950's to introduce the concept of a robot with sentience, with emotions and intelligence (prior to the very droll "Robby the Robot" even) and for that film to come from a studio like Republic, is remarkable. It deserves credit it rarely gets.
Watch the movie for these aspects of Tobor, and you'll see a very different film than the surface film of the plot and script. You'll see what many reviewers completely miss.
An interesting note about Tobor is that when Prof. Norstrom and Gadge are captured by the bad guys, Nordstrom manages to send a call for help to Tobor. The robot leaves the basement laboratory (also designed extremely well and much better than what had come before) and eventually gets into a jeep and drives off! A robot being able to drive? How did he learn that skill? What did Professor Nordstrom teach him? Also, it is amusing to watch a 7-foot robot attempt to drive a jeep!
The character of Tobor is not a monster, although a movie poster suggests this when it shows him carrying the limp body of a female, but rather that of a hero because in the end, he saves the Professor and Gadge in true super-hero style. This is a robot to be admired! And in that scene, when Tobor almost lovingly picks up Gadge in his arms and carries him to safety, we know there is a wonderful bond between the two.
Sadly, however, they end the film in typical cardboard style. Tobor, by virtue of the rescue, has proven he is capable of full independent thought and can therefore fly a rocket ship. So we see Tobor in the ship taking off for parts unknown while Gadge says "Goodby Tobor, and Good Luck."
They could have developed the relationship between Gadge and Tobor a little more before this scene. But perhaps, they were running out of time. It just seemed impossible for Gadge to give up his new pal so easily.
Or perhaps, since Republic was known for serials, they planned a return of Tobor, a sequel?
Tobor the Great is in my opinion an under rated movie. Yes, the plot is somewhat silly at times, and uses cliche and cardboard characters as a framework.
But hidden within this are some more thought provoking and more deeply thought out concept and characters worth a second look.
Look at this movie with two sets of eyes.
Try and have the wonder of an 8 year old of the 1950's, living in a 1950's world and you'll see why Tobor the robot spelled backwards, is so amazing and exciting.
Try and look at it from a 21st Century perspective and compare it to what was around at the time. Look at the history of robots in cinema, the old Republic serials and then look at some of the groundbreaking and prophetic concepts of this film.
While much of the dialog is silly, and some of the characters are total cardboard, if you can see past them, you may see that Republic Pictures, not known for great art, made a major breakthrough with Tobor the Great.
It's a hidden gem.