Review: Godzilla (1954)


The Film Studio Formerly Known As Miramax took quite a bit of flak in its day from foreign film enthusiasts for its maddening habit of buying the rights to Asian hits only to re-edit and re-score them in the name of “American tastes.” But Bob and Harvey Weinstein have got nothing on producer Joseph E. Levine and his cronies at Embassy Pictures, who performed a truly heinous hack n’ slash job on director Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, Gojira. When a retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters hit American theaters two years later, it had been robbed of 40 minutes as well as the blatant anti-nuke message at the core of its story. (Camp movie aficionados will be quick to note the American cut did, however, add some unintentionally hilarious dubbing and 20 minutes of newly shot footage featuring future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr.) Fifty years later, Honda’s somber cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear proliferation can finally be seen on these shores in a form Elvira Mistress of the Dark would barely recognize. Taking plenty of time to create suspense before revealing its 150-foot-tall, fire-breathing metaphor for the bomb, the film opens with a string of disappearing boats and a nighttime stomp across the island of Oda by a barely seen Godzilla. After Honda and co-scripter Takeo Murata have established the threat to humanity posed by the monster, the tone shifts to question the moral implications of eradicating something mankind may have helped create. Everyone wants to kill the monster except paleontologist Dr. Yamane (played with quiet dignity by Takuya Shimura, fresh off Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai), who theorizes that Godzilla was disturbed by H-bomb testing and believes that mankind should instead study him. But soon Godzilla launches a full-scale attack on Tokyo, a set piece of scale-model destruction by special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya (who went on to create Ultraman, a staple of 70’s TV in both Japan and the States). While the “man in a rubber suit” is often the butt of easy jokes in the wake of numerous low budget sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs, here the combination of Tsuburaya’s miniatures, forced perspective and Honda’s dark, documentary-like cinematography create a surprisingly convincing illusion of Godzilla destroying Tokyo’s landmarks (and decades before Independence Day, mind you). Finally, not-so-mad scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) reveals a weapon powerful enough to stop the beast—though he does worry that it could become the world’s next “weapon of horrible destruction.” But, following the logic of the genre, the only way to stop a monster—even one created by man’s powerful weapons—is to use an even more powerful weapon. At least the good doctor has the decency to burn all his notes for the “Oxygen Destroyer” lest they be adapted for military application after his death. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, albeit one with a moral about as subtle as its title character. In fact, the final line of dialogue has Yamane warning that another monster could appear if nuclear testing continues. Of course, Honda may have been a bit naive to think a sci-fi movie could change anyone’s mind about such weighty matters, but Godzilla remains a powerful anti-bomb statement, even if it’s taken 50 years for “American tastes” to be ready to listen.


2 Responses to “Review: Godzilla (1954)”

  1. 1 Flash
    March 6, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    “Gojira” is an absolutely brilliant film. I get amused at the ‘fast-buck, can-do’ attitude of the promoters back then, filming all of Raymond Burr’s scenes in a day then tacking them on. You have to admire the ingenuity, if not the reults. Great post.

  2. March 8, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Flash! Yes, I had one opinion of “Godzilla” for a large part of my life, until I discovered that the undoctored original (IE “Gojira”) was a completely different creature, so to speak.

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