Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

*. Outside of Japan this was the first Godzilla movie, though it came out after both Gojira and its Japanese sequel Godzilla Raids Again. So it might be the third Godzilla movie if you see it as a separate entry in the franchise.
*. I think we do have to look at it as a different movie and not just an English-language version of Gojira. In fact, in creating something sui generis they retained less than an hour of footage from Gojira and added a lot of extra footage that didn’t change the story at all but helped the movie find an American audience. What this mainly meant was having Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin duly observe the events of Gojira while much of the political message was cut.
*. Yes, Steve Martin. Which is a generic enough American name, but in such a movie as this it couldn’t help but make me think of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The way Burr is introduced into Gojira here, with lots of edits and actors dressed like the original cast but only seen from behind addressing Burr (while not always looking directly at him), is similar to the role played by the other Steve Martin in the later movie.
*. There is a point to this comparison. In both movies I think the introduction of a new character into an old movie is done pretty well. I was even slightly impressed at how well it’s handled here. It’s certainly a much better Americanization than what they did to the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. But it still seems ludicrous. And it’s even sillier here because Burr has no role whatsoever to serve in the plot. He is strictly an observer, smoking a pipe, or stroking his chin, or just sweating — a lot — while Gojira (the movie) plays out in front of him.
*. It must have been a difficult job playing against nothing — perhaps analogous to today’s stars acting against a green screen — but even so Burr underwhelms. Danny Peary: “His emoting is so nonexistent that at times it’s hard to believe he knows he’s making a horror film.” I think Burr claimed he only worked on the movie for a day but apparently it was three or four. However, while he leant the project some credibility I think all the cutaways, with Burr showing the same lack of expression and solemn delivery in every situation, are ridiculous. In Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid Steve Martin really acted a part, and the silliness was part of the joke.
*. J. Hoberman: “Burr is an insert — but then so is the monster. Sharing space with Godzilla is inconceivable — as opposed to King Kong, who was made to interact with humans and even fall in love.” I don’t think this is quite right. The monster isn’t an insert but the movie’s star and whole reason for being. But Burr does fit in, as the role of people in a Godzilla movie is primarily to provide reaction shots to what’s going on. They are effectively a surrogate audience. That’s even more the case here, as Burr, a reporter who is “a little rusty” in his Japanese, has to have all the important information translated and explained to him.
*. The new English dialogue is very bad, with the ironic feel of being a translation. Beginning with the opening voiceover: ” I was headed for an assignment in Cairo, when I stopped off in Tokyo for a social call, but it turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world.”
*. The other point worth mentioning here is that the nuclear theme — the Monster as the Bomb — is mostly trimmed. Some have seen this as a way of playing to the American audience by not forcing them to consider the destruction of Hiroshima of Nagasaki. I think the cuts most definitely were a way of catering the American market, but not because of the politics. The simple fact was that Americans weren’t much interested in such matters. As distributor Richard Kay put it, “We weren’t interested in politics, believe me. We only wanted to make a movie we could sell.” And politics doesn’t sell, then or now. What sells are even bigger monsters, which may in turn help to explain the dramatic inflation of Godzilla’s reported size.
*. Gojira director Ishiro Honda found the question of its Americanization amusing, since his movie had been made in imitation of American monster movies like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In a way Godzilla was going home, just as Kurosawa’s Westerns would be remade by Leone.
*. In their DVD commentary Godzilla authorities Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski conclude by giving Godzilla, King of the Monsters! credit for bringing the monster to an American audience and thus putting Godzilla on the map, ensuring Toho would continue with the franchise. It seems likely however that Toho was going to keep making these movies regardless, since box office was good and there had already been one sequel. Still, despite its obvious inferiority to Gojira and overall silliness this is the movie that introduced Godzilla into the North American consciousness, and it’s a remarkable job of adaptation in its own right.

3 thoughts on “Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s great stuff. This is the full intro:

      This is Tokyo. Once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of Man’s imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could’ve told of what they saw… now there are only a few. My name is Steve Martin. I’m a foreign correspondent for United World News. I was headed for an assignment in Cairo, when I stopped off in Tokyo for a social call, but it turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world.

      Reply

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