- Godzilla (1954) movie review: As the cinematic symbol of our potentially apocalyptic atomic age, the awesomely destructive creature seen in Ishirô Honda’s horror classic remains one of the most exemplary big-screen monsters ever.
- Godzilla 1954 vs. the 1956 U.S. version: Which is the superior movie?
Godzilla 1954 movie review: Gojira is cinema’s ‘King of the Monsters’ in iconic Japanese horror classic & 1956 U.S. version
Heaven. When I came across the long-awaited DVD release of the original Godzilla 1954 a.k.a. Gojira, I thought I had struck heaven. That it was accompanied by its Americanized cousin, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), only doubled the joy of expectation. For once, I was not disappointed.
The mark of a good critic is admitting biases, so I will state up front that as a young boy, growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I used to watch the annual American release of the latest Godzilla film at the old Ridgewood Theater. That was one of the few joys to be had in the depressing urban blight of Queens; so, objectivity will not be feigned in this essay.
The best of that sillier run of films was Godzilla’s Revenge, in which the titular character took on a mythical stature in the mind of a lonely latchkey child who kept bullies and gangsters at bay while communing with Godzilla’s son, Minya.
Yet nothing could top Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, with Raymond Burr – old Perry Mason and Ironside himself – as reporter Steve Martin. I must have seen that film on TV for the first time when I was four or five, and damn, it was scary. Other than its quickie sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), none of the 1960s and 1970s Godzilla movies ever portrayed the beast as such pure hellish destruction.
Even in youth I could discern that the original was easily the best and that it was more than truly scary: It was scratching at that unnamed part in all developing minds. It had things to offer I could not quite place at that time.
I’d always heard that my favorite movie was derived from an original Japanese production that didn’t have the Raymond Burr intercuts. Having become an expert in every Godzilla film, from the 1956 American version to Godzilla 1985, I was always excited by the prospect of some day seeing the Japanese original. I’d even watched a handful of the post-1985 movies, but the original remained a mystery.
Finally, in 2004 Rialto Pictures released Godzilla 1954 across American theaters for its 50th anniversary. And earlier this year, Classic Media released the Toho Film production and its American version as a two-disc DVD, so that a side-by-side comparison could be made.
After watching both films, with and without the commentaries, my appreciation for Gojira – directed by Ishirô Honda, and written by Honda and Takeo Murata, from Shigeru Kayama’s “story” – as well as for the U.S. version, often derided as a bastardization, has grown stronger.
Neither one can really be considered a great “film” – but great movies? Hell, yes! The difference between the two labels is the difference between a great novel and a great comic book: Great films really move one to think more deeply about life, whereas a great movie does that a bit, perhaps, but more often it greatly entertains.
Both Godzilla 1954 and King of the Monsters! easily qualify on that score. In addition, with their anti-atomic messages and unflinching look at destruction, they are better than Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original King Kong (1933) – which is still a great movie itself.
Godzilla 1954 vs. King Kong & The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
In spite of the rubber-suited reptilian scoffed at by stop-motion enthusiasts, what raises Godzilla – especially Gojira – above King Kong, is that the Japanese monster tale still has resonance today. It can thus be seen as an allegory, whereas King Kong is essentially just a ripping good yarn.
Yes, Godzilla 1954, reportedly the most expensive Japanese production up to that time, owes a great debt to King Kong, whose 1952 re-release was a remarkable hit. And in truth, it owes an even greater one to the success of Eugène Lourié’s 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn”).
Having said that, Godzilla has a political resonance and emotional depth that both King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms lack. After all, Kong is basically a victim while the Beast (a Rhedosaurus) is just a hungry lizard.
Godzilla, on the other hand, was a by-product of the atomic age, even if, cleverly, Honda covered his ass by never explicitly showing this to be true. In fact, the monster’s motives are never made clear, as it does not seem to be seeking food.
So, is it nature’s revenge on humanity or a cosmic random bit of fury?
Godzilla 1954 vs. King of the Monsters!
The plot of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is well known: An American reporter, Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), tells the story in flashback, after Godzilla has leveled Tokyo, leaving him recovering in a hospital. He is reputedly pals with a brilliant scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), although the two never seem to meet up.
Acting as an impassive observer, Martin turns up at key moments in the film until he, along with thousands of others, ends up being nearly killed by the beast. Eventually, he recovers and witnesses Serizawa descend to the depths of Tokyo Bay to destroy Godzilla with a weapon as powerful as the atom bomb: The Oxygen Destroyer.
Godzilla 1954 is a bit different; obviously there’s no Raymond Burr character and the film itself is longer, at 98 minutes vs. 80 for King of the Monsters!. The original opens with a scene of a fishing ship consumed by glowing, boiling water – something that resonated with the Japanese public, as earlier that year a fishing ship caused an international stir after accidentally sailing too close to an American H bomb test in the Pacific.
Comparing Gojira to the shorter American version, much of what was cut out featured references to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, arguments between politicians over Godzilla, references to the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other scenes that fleshed out the main Japanese characters who were relegated to lesser roles in the U.S. release.
But despite accusations that most of these scenes were cut from Godzilla, King of the Monsters! to downplay anti-Americanism, that is simply not the case.
Anti-American monster movie?
By 1956, when the U.S. version debuted, World War II was long gone and the Japanese were now our friends against the Red Menace. Thus, the idea that the low-budget filmmakers who added the Burr scenes were censoring a political message is a bit far-fetched, especially considering that the dangers of atomic testing and radiation fallout from the monster figure prominently in both versions.
The reasons for the cuts are more easily explained if one imagines what would have happened had Roger Corman gotten a hold of – and re-edited – Nosferatu, Metropolis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even The Birth of a Nation. Major political and sexual themes would have been lost, but this would be attributable to a lack of artistry, not to Corman’s political or sexual views.
On top of that, Godzilla 1954 is explicitly anti-war and anti-atomic bomb, not anti-American. When discussing nuclear technology and its consequences, mankind in general – not any specific nation – is always referred to as the cause. This is a central point many critics have missed.
Moreover, in the Godzilla, King of the Monsters! DVD commentary, director Terry Morse’s son, Terry Morse Jr., debunks the notion that either his father or the film’s U.S. producer, Joseph E. Levine, ever set out to mute political messages.
What’s an actor like you doing in a movie like this?
Politics aside, Godzilla 1954 can also be seen as a representation of the changing postwar Japanese culture, right alongside the great later films of Yasujiro Ozu, in which there are always young Japanese challenging seemingly silly social traditions.
For instance, the youthful female lead in Gojira, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), dares to turn down her arranged husband-to-be. Although in love with oceanographer/diver Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), Emiko has been betrothed to Akihiko Hirata’s eyepatch-wearing Dr. Serizawa, who, on first blush, seems to be the archetypal mad scientist working alone on a top-secret project.
As a plus, Godzilla features the great Takashi Shimura, just off of his excellent roles in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Shimura plays Dr. Kyouhei Yamane, Emiko’s father and a paleontologist who becomes the film’s resident monster expert, naturally fearing that destroying the creature will be a great loss to science. The presence of a veteran of many Kurosawa films in something like this is akin to Gary Cooper or Cary Grant getting cast in a Frankenstein movie.
Of course, Dr. Yamane gets his geology totally wrong, stating that the Jurassic Period was only two million years ago (the Jurassic ended 130 million years ago) and that the Age of Dinosaurs ended with it (the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period). That said, along with the often ridiculed dubbing, Godzilla films are recalled with affection for their bad science.
Which is the better Godzilla movie?
While it cuts key scenes from Godzilla 1954, the U.S. version amply compensates by not having the ending of one of its major characters as manifestly foreshadowed as in the original. These sorts of wise screenplay and directing choices keep the American film not too far behind the Japanese original in overall artistic quality.
Besides, the fact that the U.S. version, told from an unnamed future, plays out from Steve Martin’s perspective should naturally allow for the condensation of many of the Japanese scenes because the American reporter sums up the plot points brought out by the other characters. Else, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! would have dragged on too long.
Another usually ignored plus is that there is a subliminal dissonance between what we see – i.e., the cinéma vérité newsreel-like images – and the fact that Martin tells the whole tale in flashback, magically appearing at all the right moments.
That dissonance provides King of the Monsters! with a dreamy quality that the original lacks, something reinforced by the fact that Martin never really interacts with the main Japanese characters despite some quite skilled intercutting. In fact, he seems to exist outside the film. It’s akin to having a lucid dream – that feeling that nothing can happen to the main character … you.
Oddly, this dreamy narrative is part of a documentary-like approach, a schism that affects the viewer in ways not noticeable the first time around, though the feeling lingers afterward. I’ve never known anyone who watched Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and was not affected by it, whether positively or negatively.
Now, a positive in both black-and-white films is that much of Godzilla’s destruction takes place at night – as this heightens what the viewer can imbue. The imagined is always more frightening than the real.
This also goes for the monster itself, as in the cross-cuts from rubber-suited man to miniatures, matte paintings, and puppets, the creature seems to be a shapeshifter, a preternatural beast – e.g., there are times we see pupils in Godzilla’s eyes and times when the monster seems like a white-eyed zombie or demon.
A few years later, the great British horror movie Night of the Demon (1957), directed by the inimitable Jacques Tourneur, would similarly make use of darkness to give its monster a shapeshifting feel, as well as hide its flaws in construction. (Perhaps as some sort of cosmic coincidence, Tourneur’s film was also released in an American version, Curse of the Demon, that has been ripped as a bastardization.)
Skillful behind-the-scenes talent
Also worth noting is that whereas later films gave Godzilla a traditional dragon’s fire breath, the original beast spews atomic radiation in a mist that ignites fires – showing that the roots of Godzilla were not in Japanese lore but in modern monster mythos.
All of these effects were skillfully created by Eiji Tsuburaya, and despite the ridicule that subsequent Godzilla films have engendered, the original had better effects and was more cleverly shot – to downplay its shortcomings – than other monster movies of its era.
Just as impressive is Akira Ifukube’s score. The opening footfalls of the monster are still as scary as any nightmare, while the main Godzilla theme, as well as those in other scenes, still resonate because they are fully apropos.
I don’t know who was responsible for Godzilla’s trademark roar, but it’s equally memorable.
Unlike in most other monster movies, the heroes in both Godzilla 1954 and King of the Monsters! are fallible little mortals whose heroism comes from their choices, not their strength or superhuman powers. That is especially true in the Japanese original, in which the de facto lead character – like the creature’s size and appearance – seems to shift throughout the film.
This is what humanizes these two Godzilla movies – not films – and makes them affect a viewer willing to suspend disbelief. After all, is a rampaging, giant atomic reptile really any more unbelievable than bloodsucking vampires, a huge ape who lusts after a woman one-twentieth its size, or aliens who grow out of pods?
Once again, neither Gojira nor its U.S. version is a great film. But they are great movies – something that is a rarity – in addition to being two of the best monster movies ever made.
Classic Media’s recent DVD set should finally debunk claims to the contrary, thus allowing Godzillaphiles to come out of the closet to proudly proclaim who they are. I am one. Long live the roar!
Godzilla / Gojira (1954)
Director: Ishirô Honda.
Screenplay: Ishirô Honda & Takeo Murata.
From a treatment by Shigeru Kayama, itself based on an outline titled “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” written by Godzilla 1954 producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.
Cast: Akira Takarada. Momoko Kôchi. Takashi Shimura. Akihiko Hirata. Fuyuki Murakami. Sachio Sakai. Ren Yamamoto. Toyoaki Suzuki.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)
U.S. version of Gojira, with additional footage directed by Terry Morse and featuring Raymond Burr. Besides, some footage from Godzilla 1954 was cut from the American version.
“Godzilla 1954 (Gojira): One of Cinema’s Greatest + Most Influential Monsters” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Godzilla 1954 (Gojira): One of Cinema’s Greatest + Most Influential Monsters” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Godzilla 1954 (Gojira)” endnotes
Raymond Burr Godzilla, King of the Monsters! image and trailer: Embassy Pictures | TransWorld Releasing Corporation.
Momoko Kôchi, Takashi Shimura, and Akihiko Hirata Godzilla 1954 images: Toho Film.
“Godzilla 1954 (Gojira): One of Cinema’s Greatest + Most Influential Monsters” last updated in September 2021.