Directed by Terry O. Morse and Ishirō Honda
April 4, 1956 (New York City) / April 27, 1956 (United States) / May 29, 1957 (Japan)
This is the edited American version of the classic monster movie that started it all about a giant monster awakened by modern man.
I am only familiar with the American edit and not the original Japanese film which lacks Perry Mason, er, Raymond Burr. So that is what I will be talking about. That was my introduction for better or worse to the character of Godzilla.
Raymond Burr is cast as Steve Martin who is not a wild and crazy guy but rather is a reporter for United World News. Some of you may not be old enough to get that joke. Martin is on his way to Egypt via Japan and decides to spend a two-day layover catching up with old college friend Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) but instead witnesses the destructive first appearance of Godzilla. I am not sure where he was before he arrived in Japan, but I cannot imagine a pitstop in Japan would be along most routes to Egypt. I was left with the impression he was coming from the United States, so he is taking the long scenic route to his next assignment. More importantly, he barely interacts in this film with his “old friend.”
Famously this film is an edited version of the Japanese original for American audiences. Changes to the story and Burr interacting noticeably with body doubles were inserted since foreign films were seen as holding no appeal for American audiences. You can tell the difference. Even when I was a little kid and first saw this, I could tell the difference and I was completely unaware that is what they did. I knew his parts were added later because they do not look the same. The additional story elements feel, well, additional.
What we get with him here is a classic case of unnecessary extra footage that does little if anything to help the film and even at times hampers it. You get taken out of the narrative with the obvious alterations. They are just abrupt moments of exposition that tell the audience what is going on rather than doing a straight redub and preserving the narrative flow.
When the added character of Martin is gone from the story things move much smoother. The pacing is a bit faster, and the acting is better even if it as combination of redubbing and actual performances. More importantly there is a sense of doom in the story as the characters deal with the threat and a love triangle that could have an impact on things. Martin’s “friend” Serizawa is engaged to Dr. Yamane’s (Takashi Shimura) daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) but she has fallen in love with Hideo Ogata (Akira Takarada). Dr. Yamane is the wise scientist that keeps the characters moving towards victory by making leaps in deductive reasoning concerning what is going on. And these leaps feel kind of like he is making shit up until somebody calls him out on it.
Godzilla is not the hero he would become in later films but rather the villain of the story. He is a threat that must be stopped and does not care at all for humans or anything. He is a legendary creature that has been resurrected through the atomic bomb and not the protector he is now.
One thing I had forgotten until this recent viewing was that the oxygen destroying weapon used in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2016) was also used here. Or used here first rather. For some reason Serizawa decided to build a weapon that destroys all the oxygen in the vicinity of its activation. Why? Boredom maybe and he decided to alleviate it in a way that would kill people painfully. They were not the same looking device, but the concept is the same. I did not realize that was a call back to this.
The special effects may look bad by modern standards, but this is a giant monster movie made decades ago so unless you are a total prick you need to forgive this and enjoy it. The film made heavy use of suitmation which is a special effects process where a dude in a suit interacts with miniatures. This film has a lot of imagination and creativity. It is a fun film and deserves its classic status.
This deservedly started a film series that ran for decades and inspired Hollywood to make big budget versions because it is a fun concept with so much potential. I know there are people out there that will not watch this because it is either old or because the special effects are so campy but not only is it a nice piece of comfort food it is a well-crafted film-at least the parts without Raymond Burr. Sorry Ray but your inclusion stopped the story.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters! is a great film from a simpler time. This version certainly has its flaws but it is still a watch it!