Sunday, January 12, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Raymond Burr presents Godzilla to America.

Although a massive hit in its native Japan, 1954's Gojira only received a limited release in the United States. It was during this small run that a California-based producer named Edmund Goldman caught a screening of the movie in a Chinatown theatre. Realizing the worth and potential of the film, Goldman purchased the international rights from Toho Studios for $25,000, then passed them on to a company called Jewell Enterprises.

Two and a half years after Gojira was first released in Japan, Jewell Enterprises, TransWorld, Inc., and Embassy Pictures gave a nationwide, A-picture level release to a new version of the movie, which they titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Rather than just release the film in its original form with English subtitles or do a simple dub job on it, the companies gave it a complete overhaul in adapting it for American audiences. Writer Al C. Ward was hired to write new scenes and add in English dialogue, while editor/director Terry O. Morse was given the task of re-editing the film and shooting those new scenes, six days worth of filming, to insert into it.

King of the Monsters is essentially the re-telling of Gojira from the perspective of a character we never met or saw in the '54 film; the new scenes introduce into the story an American reporter named Steve Martin, who's played by Raymond Burr, then probably best known for playing James Stewart's suspicious neighbor in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which came out in 1954.

The film begins with shots of the aftermath of Godzilla's raid on Tokyo, the devastation that he left behind, the many wounded citizens filling the hospitals. Among the wounded is an injured Steve Martin, foreign correspondent for United World News. The destruction is used as a teaser for what's to come, as a narration by Martin leads us into a flashback to the beginning of the Godzilla situation.

Martin had been on his way to an assignment in Cairo when he stopped off to spend a few days in Tokyo to visit his old college friend Doctor Daisuke Serizawa. Unbeknownst to him, as his plane was flying into Japan, the fishing boat disaster that opened Gojira was occurring in the sea below. When he arrives at the airport, Martin is greeted with two inconveniences: First, Serizawa's assistant is there to inform him that his friend may not be able to see him during his stay, as he had to go inland on field experiments. Secondly, in their search for answers to what happened to the fishing boat, authorities are questioning everyone who was on Martin's flight to see if they noticed anything strange as they were flying in.

Martin is questioned by a security officer named Tomo Iwanaga, and though he has no information to give, when he tells Iwanaga that he would like to be kept in the loop as the investigation continues, a partnership is struck and from that point on Iwanaga sort of becomes Martin's sidekick.

As the film goes on, it's a slightly condensed version of Gojira. Most of the major scenes are retained, just with altered editing. Despite all the additional minutes with Martin, King of the Monsters still has a running time 15 minutes shorter than Gojira, so quite a bit has been cut down. The subplots are simplified, the missing pieces of story and character filled in by Martin's narration.

Martin is able to relate the same basic information that was given in Gojira because, as it turns out, he was there for most of it. As scenes from Gojira play out, new shots show Martin standing at the back of crowds or against walls in rooms, listening intently. He's there for the meetings about what's going on and for paleontologist Kyohei Yamane's presentations on his findings. He was on Odo Island with an investigative team during the storm and Godzilla's arrival there, he saw the exorcism ceremony with his own eyes. He returns to the island with Yamane's research party to witness Godzilla's first onscreen appearance, which happens at the 27 minute point rather than Gojira's 20 minute point.

For the most part, dubbing is rare, a lot of the original Japanese dialogue is still in there; we watch the actors deliver it, then the scene cuts away to Iwanaga translating what was said into English for Martin. That doesn't work in every case, however, so sometimes the original actors have been dubbed by English-speaking voice actors, often lapsing into English for no clear reason. It has to be pointed out that when dubbed, Yamane mispronounces some words in very amusing ways.

A few times, Martin actually interacts with actors from the original film, a feat that was accomplished by dubbing English dialogue onto out-of-context cutaways to the actors, then using stand-ins shot from the side or from behind in the shots with Martin.

There are some facts given in the KotM version of the film that are different from those in Gojira - for example, the voltage of the electrified fence built along the coastline in attempt to keep Godzilla off the mainland is boosted up from 50,000 to 300,000 volts, a current more likely to have an effect on such a large beast... which is said to be much larger here than in the original version. While Godzilla is estimated to be 50 meters/164 feet tall in the '54 Japanese cut, King of the Monsters makes the claim that he is in fact over 400 feet tall, a change made to make him more impressive to American audiences; with skyscrapers in the U.S. being taller than the buildings in Tokyo at the time, it would make more sense to American viewers that a 400 foot tall creature would tower over buildings the way Godzilla does than a 164 foot tall creature.

When Godzilla makes it into Tokyo to start destroying said buildings, Martin is there, reporting live on the horrific event. He meets a similar fate to the radio reporter who screams goodbye to his listeners as Godzilla causes his death, he just turns out to be luckier. Good for us, otherwise we wouldn't be getting to hear his side of the story. In the end, he witnesses the choice his old college friend Serizawa has to make regarding the use of his discovery, the Oxygen Destroyer.

For decades, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was the only version of the original film that was available to most Godzilla fans, and it's the film that introduced generations of fans to the titular monster. Despite all the reworking that was done to the original story, it's not the disaster that it could have been, that most people would assume it to be if news of something like this came out today. It actually works in its own way, a Cliff's Notes telling of the film is in there with the added perspective of Steve Martin, and it's quite enjoyable.

King of the Monsters isn't as dark and emotionally effective as Gojira, the re-editing and inclusion of Martin somehow manages to alleviate the horror a little, but it still doesn't hold back. If you'd expect shots like the mother cowering with her children as Godzilla tears into Tokyo to be removed, you'd be mistaken. That's still in there, Godzilla's actions are still being presented in a deadly serious manner.

Gojira '54 is a great, classic film, and King of the Monsters is a very entertaining variation on it.

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