Review 2: Godzilla, King of the Monsters – 1956


Rayond Burr and his translatorI admit to a nostalgic affection for the American (dubbed) edit of the original Gojira — renamed Godzilla, King of the Monstersbecause it was the first film in the franchise I ever saw. It helped give me a love of monster movies I still have, more than 60 years later. At that time, I also saw a lot of other scifi and monster B-films in the ’50s and ’60s on TV, in theatres, and at the drive-in, but Godzilla holds a special place in my heart. As, of course, my readers here know.

Although it came out after the second Godzilla film in the franchise (Godzilla Raids Again), I’m reviewing the American version after the original because they’re like sisters. Not, of course, twins, but with shared DNA. I’ll get to Godzilla Rides Again next time. Because of the impact this version had, it deserves its own post; most other Americanized versions will be commented on after the Japanese version in the same post.

Facts first: the original Gojira was shown in the USA before the edited version, but in Japanese to a small audience. Its presence went entirely unnoticed by the mainstream media at the time. It was this edited version that caught popular attention and launched the Godzilla franchise in North America.

I am torn between wanting to criticize the cultural imperialism that the remake represents (and the arrogance for thinking someone could edit the original) and the happy fact that it introduced millions of North Americans to Godzilla. It also gave many their first taste of Japanese films. Given that the memory of the War in the Pacific was still vivid among many Americans, perhaps the treatment was warranted. I doubt the original, with its explicit anti-nuclear-bomb message and its scenes of a revitalized Japanese military would have gone over as well. Overall, about 15 minutes of scenes were cut, but with the new scenes added in, the running time for the film was only about 10 minutes shorter than the original.

Many fans tend to dismiss the remake (the Toho Official Guide gives it a mere one paragraph), but I think it deserves more critical attention because it opened the door for the subsequent films to be shown in North America. On a careful re-viewing this week, I realize it was made with affection and respect for the original, but also respect for the contemporary tastes of the American audience. It manages that balancing act quite well. Burr himself is solid all the way through and the inserted scenes are far from cheesy.

Godzilla King of the Monsters posterThe big thing in the remake is the narration, often spoken over the scenes to explain the events and people. Canadian-born actor Raymond Burr plays a newscaster named Steve Martin in Tokyo on his way to interview Dr. Serizawa (the mad scientist of the original). Burr/Martin provides a blow-by-blow explanation of each major scene. Given the editing, cuts, and scene changes, this actually helps provide a bit of coherency and avoids the controversy of subtitles. I recommend you read my previous post on the original to make more sense of this one.

The remake opens not with the attack on the fishing boat as in the original, but with Martin buried in rubble and being rescued so he can tell his story to the audience via a series of flashbacks. The boat scene that opened the original comes in at 0:05:30, with Martin’s comments (from his airplane seat high above them) about an “incident… that would shake the foundations of the civilized world.” Cut to the flaming boat sinking and then to Martin going through Japanese customs, only to be waylaid by a cop and taken away for questioning. There he gets asked about an “unusual” event during his flight. That’s where he learns about the attack on the ship.

The inserted scenes with Burr are generally well filmed, but in some he’s clearly not in the same location as the original Japanese actors: the original scenes have a visual difference that exacerbates that separation (check the direction of shadows, for example). It’s not horrible, but it can break the sense of immersion, albeit briefly. Burr’s narrative over the scenes brings it all back together and keeps the plot moving. Burr would reprise his role as Steve Martin the US edit of the 1984 Godzilla film, but I’ll get to that in time.

By 0:14:09, the scene moves to Odo Island, where the fishing village will soon be visited by Godzilla. On the plus side, a lot of the Japanese dialogue is kept in so Burr can provide a comment about what they are saying.

At 0:16:40, Burr is interviewing a “villager” (a studio stand-in) who claims to have seen a “horrible monster.” Burr tries to pass it off as “too much sake.” His translator (Tomo, played by Frank Iwanaga) who accompanies the reporter everywhere dismisses this comment, but says the villagers are “very superstitious.” And during the dance ceremony, Tomo explains the legend of a monster offshore, “too terrible for a mortal to conceive.” The name of that monster is revealed at 0:17:49: Godzilla.

At 0:18:27, Burr is lying in an open tent at night, smoking (personal aside: I know it was more common in the time, but I detest seeing people smoke in movies; it was a dirty, stinking habit even then). He and Tomo, his translator and companion, are roused by the gusting wind that brings in the storm that destroys the village. Burr holds onto a tree to keep from being blown away. At 0:20:24 we hear Godzilla’s bellow; the village is in tatters. Cut to the parliament building scene where the villages tell their tale. Burr is among the media taking notes. And then the paleontologist Dr. Yamane speaks… (dubbed). Burr “interviews” him… sort of… it’s an anonymous actor with his back to the camera and a voice-over.

Back on the island, Yamane finds the trilobite at 0:27:10, but his dubbed voice calls it “a three-winged worm.” I cringe. The discovery is interrupted by the ringing of the village bell: Godzilla approaches. At 0:28:33 Burr sees Big G for the first time, and looks somewhat nonplussed. He and Tomo flee with the rest.

Clumsy cut to the lecture hall where Yamane is giving a slide show. He points to a slide (a well-known painting of a clumsy, overfed, one at that) of an Allosaurus and labels it a “Brontosaurus.” More cringing. Showing his photo of Godzilla, Yamane says he is “over 400 feet tall.” That’s about 122m, or more than double the size in the original. I suspect it’s because he’s confused by using quaint, antiquated imperial units. And then he asks how this animal “happened to reappear after all these centuries.” Well, the Jurassic ended about 150 million years ago, which is a helluva lot of centuries (1.5 million).

Now here comes the kicker. Yamane at 0:31:18 says it was because of some “rare phenomenon of nature” that let Godzilla reproduce itself (ignoring the fact that Big G is single). And at 0:31:45 he blames Godzilla’s reappearance on the “repeated experiments of H-bombs.” He suggests G was awakened as a result, not created by the bombs (a subtle shift from the original message). He doesn’t point the finger at the Americans, but I assume the American audiences would have understood the implications.

What is missing in this scene is the parliamentarian’s efforts to keep G’s presence secret, and the fight with the truth-seekers in the audience. The original film’s implied criticism of bureaucracy via the government’s desire to keep the monster secret is cut out. In fact, the reporter seems to have access to a lot of information that wasn’t revealed so quickly in the original.

Burr (Martin) gets on the phone to his media boss, George (incongruously seen awake and dressed in the USA despite a time difference of at least 16 hours). Burr gives him the headline “Security decides to use depth bomb on Godzilla.” Not the navy, not the military, but “security.” America might not have been ready for a revived Japanese military.

Raymond Burr as Steve MartinMartin calls Serizawa (his mad scientist buddy he was meant to interview) to arrange a meeting. Up comes the love triangle confusion in the narration (but not the arranged marriage, considered too un-American to be kept in). The scene is interrupted by Serizawa showing off his oxygen destroyer killing his pet fish while his fiancé watches. Screams. But no visuals of dead fish.

Cut to stock footage of naval vessels firing depth charges. And wow: the original soundtrack emerges for a few seconds. But quickly the scene jumps to Yamane’s house where he opines about studying Godzilla instead of killing him. The original’s study-vs-kill conflict is also downplayed.

A night shot of Tokyo while Burr says the naval action was assumed to have “ended the short but terrible reign of Godzilla.” Then we’re on that cruise ship in the bay… and Godzilla is spotted in the city’s harbour. Panic.

At 0:40:46 the Ifukube soundtrack returns under Burr’s narration, somewhat muted. We see the tanks of the military rolling out “in an effort to stem the oncoming terror.” Hard to hide that revitalized military now. But… we cut back to Yamane’s house where beer is being served (what, no sake?). And then G rises again from the bay; the same scenes of shooting and panicked civilians trying to flee as in the original.

At 0:43:30 Godzilla is on land approaching the city. Burr watches as the commuter train rushes to its doom in G’s mouth and under his feet. G wades into the city, doing the same destruction we saw in the original, and again leaves after a mere romp through the dock section of Tokyo.

Back in the newsroom, Tomo points out the high-tension power lines around the city, expected to stop Godzilla (we laugh, knowing the futility). Civilians are evacuated and “by nightfall everyone was off the streets.” Burr remains at his office to file his story, and then… G re-emerges from the water. At 0:49:07 Burr says “time has been turned back two million years.” Which doesn’t jive at all with the previous dates, but WTF. By now my paleontological inner self has got up and left me in disgust.

At 0:49:21 Burr describes Godzilla “as tall as a 30-storey building.” That is, by my rough calculations, between 325 feet and 430 feet (99-121m). And then G hits the “300,000 volts” of the powerline defence. Oops. Cue the Blue Oyster Cult song (in my head):

With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound
He pulls the spitting high-tension wires down
Helpless people on subway trains
Scream, bug-eyed, as he looks in on them
He picks up a bus and he throws it back down
As he wades through the buildings toward the center of town…

Godzilla, of courseOh, no, there goes Tokyo… G rampages unhindered. Well, without all the evident deaths as in the original. This isn’t as dark and bleak a film as the original, although civilians do die. But what’s that I hear? At 0:52: 02 I hear that superb Ifukube theme again, subdued but there while G rages. and then after a few seconds, it’s gone. Damn. The tanks (“an entire tank corps”) arrive and fire. G’s atomic breath wipes them out.

Burr is now using a tape recorded to capture the story, expecting to be killed in the carnage. “Neither man nor his machines are able to stop this creature,” he says into it. Pandemonium continues. By 0:54:45, G has torched much of the city. At 0:55:55 “Godzilla has turned the heart of Tokyo into a sea of fire. Beneath the flames thousands lie dead or dying,” Burr says. At 0:56:50 G spots the media in the tower and they get dropped to their deaths (as in the original). “Nothing can save the city now,” Burr says at 0:57:23.

At 0:58:06, a sweating, frightened Burr looks up and we see G’s head coming over the nearby buildings. “This is it, George,” he says to his tape machine. He “signs off” at 0:58:15, anticipating his own demise as G approaches. But he’s only partially buried in the rubble (and this is where he will be found at the beginning of the film). Without his narration, we see various scenes of G continuing his rampage, the arrival of the air force, and G’s retreat back into the bay.

Burr returns at 01:10:48 when he awakes, bandaged, in the makeshift hospital, surrounded by other wounded. survivors. The two lovers, Ogata and Emiko are there to greet him, and she tells Burr of Serizawa’s secret device (nothing like giving away your fiancé’s secrets to strangers, especially a reporter…). But the plot needs it. Burr warns, “…last night Tokyo was destroyed. Tomorrow it might be Osaka or Yokohama. If you can help, you must.” At which, she spills the beans, cueing the dead fish scene from the original. Small scream then she explains how the device works in a narrative sequence.

Burr says, “If I could only see him, talk to him…” at 01:04:40. As if a mere reporter could change an obdurate scientist’s mind. But Ogata and Emiko manage to, by going to his lab, as in the original. Same scene, same fight between testosterone-fuelled males. A narrator on TV (conveniently left on in the lab) speaks of a “national prayer” for the survivors. Seeing it, Serizawa has the same epiphany.

Burr doesn’t return to the narration until 01:11:20 when he explains how the ships are looking for G in the bay and what the oxygen destroyer will do. And when Serizawa and Ogata descend to the bottom, he says, “We ask the whole world to stand by.” As if they could do anything else.

The end rolls out as in the original, with the occasional shot of a bandaged, scarred Burr on the ship among the bystanders. G and Serizawa die, G rises and bellows, then sinks. Burr looks thoughtful. The end… sort of. There’s some mourning, some heads bowed, and a Burr narration that the “whole world could wake up and live again,” although I’m quite sure it wasn’t sleeping through this. I was a bit disappointed that the film didn’t end with a better epigram-like comment from Burr.

The original film ended with a pessimistic note about the future; the American with optimism. Different cultures, I suppose.

By the way, the edited American version was released in Japan in 1957, and got a good response from viewers. But it was by then feeding a keen interest in seeing more Godzilla films that had been sparked by the original, and fuelled by the subsequent Godzilla Raids Again follow-up movie.

The 1956 version presented an edited view of the film more suited to Western audiences, but one that isn’t entirely at odds with the original. It’s still worth watching, but I highly recommend you watch the original, 1954, edition as well.

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