Godzilla has been a household name in North America almost for as long as he has been in Japan. Over the course of the last few years, most of his recent films have been appearing here in all their unedited, widescreen, subtitled glory. But the film that started it all was never properly seen here theatrically until last year, and only now is available on DVD for the first time, but it was worth the wait.
When producers Harold Ross and Richard Kay picked up Gojira (1954) for American distribution, th…y couldn’t let the original work stand as it was. The climate was not right for something quite so grim and politically pointed (more on this in a bit). So Terry Morse was brought in to direct new scenes, inserting an Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin to bring an American perspective to all the chaos and destruction. The result was Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Enough of the original movie was left, at least in terms of the special effects, to preserve some of the majesty and poignancy, but there is no question that director Ishiro Honda’s movie was butchered. The original ran 98 minutes. Even with half an hour of Burr footage added, the new film only ran 80.
For the longest time, the only way to see the original film was through bootleg VHS. Then, a restored print toured Canada and the States last year. Now, finally, comes Classic Media’s two-disc set, featuring both the original and King of the Monsters. This is an essential purchase: there are excellent commentaries, featurettes, and an extensive booklet. Even the packaging is gorgeous. The print of Gojira is not in perfect condition – there is damage and grain, but all things considered, it is more than acceptable. If I have one quibble, it’s that a scene that takes place in a train car is missing some crucial subtitling, as a woman has some dialogue here referring to the fact that she is a survivor of Nagasaki. Given the overt parallels between Godzilla and the Bomb, this is a very unfortunate oversight.
Viewers coming to the original film for the first time are in for a bit of a shock. We’re a long, long way from the bouncy superhero of the sixties and seventies, and not even the grimmest of the recent films (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Atttack) comes close to the overwhelming sense of tragedy and despair that permeates this film. The rampage, shot in low-key black-and-white, boasts a sense of apocalypse that, rubber suit or no rubber suit, remains unchallenged by any giant monster flick before or since. Nor has any other film in the genre deal with the aftermath of the destruction. Tokyo is completely devastated – the shots of the entire cityscape in flames no doubt acting as an uncomfortable reminder to contemporary Japanese audiences of the firebombing of Tokyo during the war, and the scenes of the wreckage afterwards might as well have been newsreel footage of post-nuke Hiroshima. Following the destruction (which takes place about halfway through the film), we are treated to the sight of bodies spilling into hospital corridors, doctors shaking their heads in resignation as they examine irradiated little children, a little girl wailing over the corpse of her mother, and so on. Later, a memorial service for the entire city is held. Grim stuff indeed. And when the monster is finally defeated at the end of the film, there is no rejoicing. There is more mourning over the lost, grim speculation about more horrors to come, and the same music that we heard during the memorial service brings the film to a close. There is no triumph in the film, only a compounding of tragedies.
None of this sounds like fun, and nor should it. But it is breathtaking, and it is bracing. Along with the original King Kong, this is far and away the most resonant giant monster movie ever made, and without doubt the most serious. No other film has so rigorously examined the consequences of such a being (clearly presented as symbolic of every imaginable disaster, man-made or otherwise) attacking a city. No other film is likely to do so again. But now, home viewers can finally see the one film that did, and did it right.