By Orrin Grey
Director: Ishiro Honda. Country: Japan
Like most people of my age and general inclinations, I grew up watching Godzilla movies. They were among my first introductions to monsters and the fantastic, in film or anyplace else, and I loved them with a child’s unapologetic enthusiasm. Prior to starting this column, I hadn’t seen one in years.
In the course of prying the lid off that particular vault of nostalgia, I discovered that my wife had never seen a Godzilla movie, except for the truly unfortunate American version from 1998, which hardly counts. So, we decided to have a Godzilla movie marathon, cramming in as many of them as we could acquire/stomach, starting with 1954’s Gojira and going in chronological order until we hit Final Wars. At least, that was the plan.
I sat down to do a master list that would provide us with a fairly-representative cross-section of each of the franchise’s three eras – the Showa era (1954-1975), the Heisei era (1984-1995), and the Millennium era (1999-2004) – but I quickly learned that there were fewer Godzilla movies conveniently available on DVD than I would’ve expected, so our choices were somewhat limited.
The other thing we figured out early on was that Godzilla movies were not as awesome as I remembered them being. Between that fact and our failure to secure some of the films we had intended to screen, we ended up watching five four-and-a-quarter Showa-era flicks and only one Millennium one.
We at least stuck with our plan of starting where Godzilla started, with the black-and-white 1954 film Gojira. We watched the Japanese version, rather than the re-cut American one with Raymond Burr, but I’d never seen either before, so this was my first exposure to Godzilla’s origins. I was surprised by how effective it was.
There’s a reason that Gojira is still considered a masterpiece of atom-bomb parable. The slow buildup to Godzilla’s reveal works shockingly well, as does the “music” that represents the pounding of his footsteps. Even the suit and other special effects hold up remarkably, with the black-and-white film and night attacks helping to hide any imperfections.
Nothing about this Godzilla is played for laughs, and the destruction he wreaks, leaving Tokyo a “sea of flames”, is actually very chilling. Sadly, it’s pretty much all downhill from here.
Skipping only 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, we jumped straight to the inevitable-seeming 1962 pairing of King Kong vs. Godzilla. It’s a movie of a couple of historic firsts, representing the first time that either of the titular monsters ever appeared in color, let alone together. It also has a storied production history, which begins with a Willis O’Brien concept in which King Kong was to fight an enlarged version of Frankenstein’s monster. The story of how that movie turned into this one is one of the great “movies that never were” stories of old Hollywood and is well worth researching.
When I was a kid, I only owned two Godzilla movies on VHS. One was King Kong vs. Godzilla and the other was Godzilla vs. Megalon. I watched both of them to death, but Godzilla vs. Megalon was never released on DVD and so was (perhaps mercifully) excluded from our scrutiny.
Upon revisiting King Kong vs. Godzilla I found that I remembered more than I expected and still loved it probably a little more than it deserved, mostly because of the music, which instantly made me feel the same childlike sense of wonder and excitement that the movie used to hold for me. It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of it was not so wonderful.
We watched the cut-down American version, which (in spite of popular legend) doesn’t have a different ending, but does have a bunch of totally-unnecessary sequences of a reporter broadcasting via a picture of a satellite (from another movie, The Mysterians) and an annoying Godzilla expert who teaches us about dinosaurs and is able to abruptly deduce things (like that King Kong gets more powerful from electricity) without ever actually observing them.
Maybe it’s my youthful nostalgia, or maybe it’s because we were still early in the marathon, but I enjoyed King Kong vs. Godzilla more than a lot of what was to come later, even though (or maybe because) it was completely ridiculous. The basic plotline is a cautionary tale of capitalism, in which a greedy pharmaceutical company sends the comic relief to an island to recover some effectively-magic berries and, while they’re at it, also the island’s local deity, King Kong.
The treatment of the island’s indigenous peoples is exactly as sensitive as you might imagine (though still better than in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong), but some of the movie’s best bits take place on the island, notably when the village is attacked by a “giant octopus” that is actually just a real, live, regular-sized octopus crawling around on some models.
Inevitably, Kong makes it back to Japan and ends up fighting Godzilla, though not until after he’s climbed the tallest building around (which unfortunately, isn’t very tall), been put to sleep by drug rockets and the mellow stylings of the Comic Relief Band, and then tied to a bunch of balloons and flown to Mount Fuji.
King Kong vs. Godzilla marked the beginning of a trend of “dumbing down” the monsters to make them appeal more to children that would continue through most of the Showa-era films, and it shows in much of the confrontation between Kong and Godzilla. They volley a boulder back and forth, slap each other around, smash some buildings, and then Kong gets struck by lightning and jams a tree into Godzilla’s mouth. Eventually, they both roll into the ocean and Kong swims off (presumably back to his island). Roll credits.