Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #11.5: Godzilla, King of the Monsters

[I'm normally lax about giving credit where it's due, but this fine image comes from the Alyon.org Poster Gallery]

It's been a while, but my views on GOJIRA now being a matter of record, I decided I'd pop in the DVD's other disc and take a look at the American re-edit that, for so long, was the only version of the film most people in this country had seen. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS kicked off a long tradition of Japanese monster movies being chopped and remixed by American distributors, but despite this infamy it's a good film on its own. Though it pares down the symbolism of the atomic monster's rampage through postwar Japan, it doesn't remove it entirely, and in contrast to the epic artfulness of the original version, it delivers a lean, frightening sci-fi thriller. In short, it's probably the best American translation of a Godzilla film that involved more than just dubbing over the actors.

The structure of the film is altered to start, as we open on an already devastated Tokyo. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), who provides narration throughout, is rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building and taken to an emergency shelter. There, he recounts his story; on his way to cover a story in Cairo, Martin had a layover in Tokyo, where he heard about the mysterious sinking of a Japanese shipping vessel. As he stays behind (sorry for the tense shift but I'm not sure how you do that with flashbacks), more and more ships disappear, all in the vicinity of Odo Island, where one of the survivors washes ashore. Joining a research team consisting of most of the Japanese cast, Martin is a firsthand witness to the discovery of Godzilla, a giant dinosaur-like creature resurrected and made radioactive by the testing of atomic weapons.

From here the film unfolds mostly as it did in the Japanese version; Godzilla shrugs off the military's attempts to destroy him and proceeds to reduce Tokyo to smoking rubble in a magnificent sequence that was left mostly intact. The power of the monster's rampage is not diminished at all in this version; the sheer stark horror of the monster scenes, supplemented with footage of the grim aftermath, must have been particularly strong stuff to viewers expecting yet another B-movie. What does get trimmed is a lot of the side material that strengthens the film's allegorical connections; gone is the debate over whether to make the creature's origins public knowledge, the reminisces of bystanders who compare their situation to life during wartime, and much of Yamane's attempt to convince the authorities that the monster should be studied (though he does assert this position in one scene.)

Which is not to say the allegorical connection is entirely gone. Mostly intact is the plot thread focusing on Serizawa's fear of his Oxygen Destroyer becoming a weapon, and his decision to use it but sacrifice himself in order to protect the secret. Some of the debate is abbreviated, and it's more about fearing the Destroyer "falling into the wrong hands" than it becoming a military weapon period, but the basic moral decision is still there. Some of Martin's narration also can't help but bring the imagery of nuclear annihilation to mind, particularly when he describes Godzilla turning Tokyo into a "sea of fire". The alterations to the film weren't made so much to take away this connection as to trim it down and give it an American perspective, but the message is less obvious and more of a subtext. (Raymond Burr, for his part, understood exactly what the film was about, and was quoted as saying "Godzilla is a symbol of the nuclear menace threatening mankind." Throughout his life he remained proud of his involvement with the picture.)

The actual new material is well integrated with the film; Martin interacts with Japanese characters and even some of the main cast through the use of doubles and re-used footage to show reverse angles. For the original footage, the film alternates between dubbing and original language with some narration for explanation; when this version of the film played in Japan, audiences were amused by the discrepancy between what the characters were actually saying and what the subtitled narration said they were saying. (Keen listeners can hear the word "Gojira" being bandied about well before the creature appears.) Obviously we know it's a re-edit, but the illusion is mostly convincing. Martin's narration is well-written and well-delivered to boot, and the producers of the American version deserve credit for not replacing Akira Ifukube's score (which, sadly, would not be the case for the next two Godzilla films.)

Though it's as well-done as you could expect an extensive foreign re-edit to be, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS still isn't the masterwork that GOJIRA is. It puts the central theme of the film far enough in the background so as to be merely a particularly intelligent movie of its type, a well-crafted monster movie with more impact than most. It doesn't have the same level of intensity. As such, with the proper version finally available, one could relegate KING OF THE MONSTERS to obscurity, but it maybe deserves a little more than that. For most of us this was our GODZILLA, and everyone's always slightly biased towards the first incarnation of something they come across; I still have fond memories of catching this on TBS as hosted by Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster.) But there's more to it than nostalgia- the "Greek chorus" element of Raymond Burr's narration adds an interesting level to the story. As a substitute for the real thing, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may be barely adequate; as a companion volume, it's great to have around.

Additional material written by Al C. Ward
and directed by Terry O. Morse

Grade: A-

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