Movies We Like: 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters' (1956)

So, when it came time for our little girl to watch her first grown-up movie, I was torn between Saving Private Ryan and a film I have loved since I was a kid, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Now, Private Ryan teaches important, practical lessons that every American should learn, like how to maneuver your infantry company across a beachhead under fire to wipe out a Nazi crew-served weapons bunker. On the other hand, Godzilla has a hideous dragon with radioactive breath. Tough call, but we decided to save Private Ryan for when she’s six – better late than never.

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What is the enduring fascination with a 55-year old flick that stars a fake Japanese reptile stomping Toyko into matchsticks? The first thing is that Godzilla is a truly entertaining movie. Actually, it’s two movies. The version most Americans have seen on TV is the 1956 re-cut version of the 98-minute original Japanese movie, Gojira. Some American producers decided it could make them a bundle, but it needed a bit of familiarization before the American audience would accept it. They hired a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr to film some awkward footage as American reporter “Steve Martin,” cut out a lot of draggy filler, and shipped the slimmed down 80-minute final product to drive-ins all over the fruited plain.

Gojira is pretty cool on its own and is available in an awesome DVD collector’s edition (which also includes Godzilla, King of the Monsters). Gojira is very dark, both literally and figuratively. Black and white is really the only way to see Godzilla in action, and most of the monster attacks conveniently take place at night. In the shadows and the flickering flames of the shattered city, you almost forget that it’s a dude in a dinosaur suit.

Under the capable, steady direction of Ishirô Honda, Gojira forgoes subtlety and is a pretty straightforward nuclear weapons allegory. Godzilla represents the Japanese perception of what they saw as an uncaring, unstoppable and undeserved alien force of remorseless destruction wreaking havoc on their homeland, sort of like the rain of fire that descended upon Japan from American B-29s less than a decade before.

Accordingly, the central visual theme of the film is flame. It surrounds Godzilla as he smashes through the city, it frames him on the horizon and it literally comes from within him, evoking both the pika don of the A-bomb detonations but also the even more destructive night fire bombing campaign of General Curtis LeMay. There’s more going on here than just a monster movie – and post-WW2 Americans could not have cared less.

Of course, you don’t need to let this self-pitying revisionism get in the way of your enjoyment of the film. I had two grandfathers bobbing out in the Pacific waiting to go in with the invasion the A-bombs ensured never happened. I also served for nearly two decades in the 40th Infantry Division, which was scheduled to be the first to hit the beaches and probably would have been wiped out on the sand. Accordingly, my sympathy for the just consequences the Japanese suffered as a result of treacherously starting their brutal, savage war of conquest is distinctly limited.

But the film does provide an interesting insight into the attitude of willful indifference to the facts regarding the war that persists in Japan to this day. For example, visiting the A-bomb museum in Nagasaki, one must search through the myriad, elaborate displays of destruction and suffering to find the most important thing any such museum might provide to its visitors – context.

Literally squirreled away near the back of the museum, I stumbled upon a small display of pictures. They were not clearly labeled but it seemed that some were of Japanese-occupied China and one was particularly recognizable to an American – the burning hulk of the USS Arizona. That was 2002; perhaps things have changed. But walking out of that museum – or out of Gojira – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese were just sitting around, minding their own business, enjoying some teriyaki and bottles of Asahi Super Dry, when all of a sudden these terrible things happened to them for no conceivable reason.

Sorry, Ishirô – you can try peddling that to somebody else cuz I’m not buying.

And the American producers were wise to cut that silliness out and American-ize Godzilla into something an audience that consisted of many people who had literally been shot at by the Japanese just a few years prior might want to watch. They removed most of the allegory and, as the trailer shows, they gave Godzilla the full P.T. Barnum treatment, promising – and delivering – “dynamic violence” and “savage action.”

But they left the essential story elements in – Raymond Burr’s crudely inserted scenes simply frame the action and clarify the story so the movie can get right to the landscape-wrecking fun. The movie starts off with some mysterious events going on out in the Pacific. You don’t see the big guy at first – you just see shadows, bubbles, flashes, and huge footprints and you hear his legendary roar. When Godzilla finally shows up in all his glory – the special effects here really are terrific – it’s just awesome.

There are still no laughs – well, no intentional ones – in Godzilla. The people of Tokyo look and act terrified, and the movie plays the threat of the creature straight. You see the injured and the dying – it’s not graphic, but the movie does show the figurative fallout of the monster’s rampage. In the end, one character makes a noble sacrifice that will put a lump in your throat. And, as with all the best monsters, you sympathize with Godzilla as he meets his fate. It’s actually quite moving.

Sadly, after Gojira, the Godzilla series followed a regrettable pattern common to great genre flicks. The first movie is a serious, uncompromising film made by serious people for serious people (but sometimes, as with Godzilla, fully appropriate for and beloved by kids too). Then the series starts heading south. Pretty soon your terrifying, mysterious, darkness-swathed wraith becomes a fat guy in a lizard suit wrestling King Kong for laughs in broad daylight.

It happens all the time. The 1931 classic Frankenstein was a disturbing meditation on man and the limits of science. By 1948, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was chasing Abbott & Costello around while Dracula and the Wolf Man looked on. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a very tough, very creepy little horror flick. I think Freddy Krueger fights Jason in the last sequel. Or maybe Chucky. Or Optimus Primus the Transformerzoid. Who knows? Who cares?

I haven’t seen any other Godzilla films in years, and it appears I have not missed much. The movies reached their nadir after 1969’s Godzilla's Revenge, where the big guy stopped stomping cities and started helping out lonely latch-key children. Yawn. From its very loud, very explodey trailer, 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars looks more like Godzilla v. The Matrix.

And don’t even mention the awful 1998 re-boot. The new Godzilla featured a redesigned, doofy-looking monster plus some transplanted pseudo-raptors ripped-off from Jurassic Park chasing Matthew Broderick all over Manhattan. This only reinforced one of the five key principles that guide my life – never see a movie starring Matthew Broderick that does not also feature Ben Stein. Well, to be fair, Glory is pretty badass too – and itself no doubt a future “Movie We Like.”

Now, that is not to say that the later Godzilla films do not provide their guilty pleasures. Godzilla v. The Thing (1964) is a lot of fun. For some reason, a few years ago they insisted on re-titling it Godzilla v. Mothra, but to those of us who, in the 70’s, waited up late for Creature Features to see it, it will always be known by its original TV moniker. And, as a bonus, it features the miniature Mothra twins’ ear-melting Mothra song. And some of Godzilla's later antics have a kind of goofy charm:

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Another delightful Godzilla-related musical interlude is provided by the mind-boggling tune Save the Earth from 1971’s terrible, terrible Godzilla v. The Smog Monster. This is the one where Godzilla battles what appears to be a sentient, flying cow pie. The song is the true lowlight. It’s this combination of over-earnest 70’s enviro-nonsense and 60’s Japanopop that is mistranslated into English and served up for your listening pleasure. You can almost see Al Gore sitting alone in his mansion, nodding his head, grinning, and snapping his fingers to its big beat as he gazes upon his Oscar and Nobel Prize.

Forget the rest of the series. Stick with the original – okay, the second original. Godzilla, King of the Monsters is a terrific 80-minute thrill ride mercifully free of the kind of clichéd movie industry nonsense that ruins so many movies today. There’s no nauseating shaky-cam, the shots last longer than 0.35 seconds, and the whole thing is just plain cool. The kids dug it big time. Plus there’s a guy in a rubber dinosaur costume smashing up Tokyo who represents the awesome, righteous wrath of the American people – what’s not to like?

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