Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Strange Case of ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’

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What does one call a movie like Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the Americanized version of Godzilla? It is not a remake, for much of the film still consists of scenes shot by Ishiro Honda and Masao Tamai. The film was re-edited, restructured, and re-tooled by film doctor Terry Morse and others for American and worldwide audiences. 

The changes made by Morse, the American producers, and others were made without Honda’s knowledge. Indeed, Honda did not know they had edited his film until they had released Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, in Japan years later. Yet, the Godzilla movie that most of the world saw was not the Ishiro Honda masterpiece I reviewed earlier.

Instead, it was Terry Morse’s strange bastard child born out of necessity and a desire for a quick buck by exploiting a market that barely existed. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a far better title than the producers originally wanted; Godzilla the Sea Beast. True, the “King of Monsters” bit is a clear nod to the infamous King Kong and was ostensibly dreamed up to create a rivalry between the two monsters out of whole cloth.

While, Morse’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is easy to read as an American butchering a Japanese classic, it must be viewed through the lens of the time. First, the Japanese classic wasn’t widely available until the early 2000s, and the movie that popularized one of the world’s longest and most profitable franchises was Morse’s version. On the surface, the changes that Morse made — who served as the director, supervising editor, and co-writer — could seem insulting to our 21st-century eyes until you step back and consider them.

Switching the point of view of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! from a Japanese point of view to an American one makes sense. Modern audiences will ask, “Well, why not just release Godzilla with subtitles.” Because then, as now, Americans hate to read, especially in movies. The producers knew Godzilla would do huge numbers just as it did in Japan. It just needed to be re-tooled.

Understand also that Godzilla, King of the Monsters! didn’t come out until 1956, a full two years after Godzilla and a mere eleven years after America had bombed Japan and interred their own Japanese citizens. This doesn’t even take into account that up to this point, the highest-grossing Japanese film in America was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a movie that didn’t even break a million dollars. A box office ceiling Godzilla, King of the Monsters! would obliterate by making over 2 million dollars.

Enter the reporter Raymond Burr as Steve Martin — no not that Steve Martin. Morse and the other filmmakers cleverly insert Burr’s Martin into the proceeding by merely having it explained that he is an old friend of Dr. Serizawa’s (Akihiko Hirata). By doing this he also knows Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her father Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura). Using narration, Morse and co-writer Al C. Ward, shrewdly insert Burr into the film while also allowing him to tell the audience about the love triangle between Emiko, Serizawa, and Ogata (Akira Takarada).

Strangely enough, there’s not nearly as much dubbing as one would think for an American re-release of a Japanese film of that time. What little there is done largely by Sammee Tong and icon of the screen James Hong, though neither of them is Japanese. 

Hong has said in interviews that the dubbing took place in one day based on an interpreter’s transcript of the original movie. This means that an interpreter watched the film and frantically scribbled down every line of dialogue and then Morse and others had to decide what to keep and what to toss out. Hong’s voice was used so much that in one scene, he can be heard voicing both characters. Hong says, “I was arguing with myself.”

While using Chinese actors to voice Japanese characters is considered insensitive by today’s standards, I would point out that the characters added for the reshoots-and the voice actors hired for the dubbing are all Asian American or part of the Asian Diaspora. Just a few scant years earlier, and heck even at the time of the movie and even after, Asian characters were often played by white actors in yellowface with buck teeth doing outrageous racist caricatures. Mickey Rooney in Blake Edwards’ 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an infamous example. 

Hell, Jackie Chan would be playing a Japanese character as late as 1981 for Hal Needham’s nonsensical Cannonball Run.

To top it off, Burr’s Steve Martin treats the Japanese characters no better or worse than anyone else. At one point they even dubb one of Dr. Serizawa’s lines to tease Steve Martin about his awful Japanese.

This isn’t even taking into account that Burr’s co-star in Morse’s version, security officer Tomo (Frank Iwanaga), is an Asian actor who often interprets for both Martin and the audience. Iwanaga shares most of the scenes with Burr, but neither Burr, Morse, nor the film, ever treats him like a side character. 

In other words, despite appearances, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a labor of love. The changes streamline Honda’s more nuanced take on nuclear power while also creating a template of sorts for other monster movies. Honda played with tension, often cutting away from a reveal, to keep us in suspense. Morse, on the other hand, doesn’t play with it so much as expertly lays it out in a way that is still effective. 

Burr’s Steve Martin is an observer, powerless to do anything but watch. Morse edits around Burr and Iwanaga, at times making them appear seamlessly part of the original film. While at others, making it glaringly obvious that they were added in by one small studio over a course of five days. 

Some scenes are shortened or cut out altogether. Gone is the subway scene where everyday Japanese citizens bemoan having to deal with Godzilla so soon after surviving the A-bomb. Yet, Godzilla being the creation of atomic testing still pulsates under every scene. Nuclear testing is still cited as the reason for Godzilla’s awakening. Some may argue Morse’s version is quiet on who’s doing the testing but so is Honda’s version. Everything that is great about Honda’s version i’s still there. Only the audience has changed, and with that has their relationship with the atomic age. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was hardly the first movie to have a giant monster created by radiation. Godzilla is a movie made by a country that had only fairly recently begun to rehabilitate itself. Whereas Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Was made by a country that had not really begun to reckon with its own actions during the war.

Watching Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is an excellent study of not only how editing and form can impact a movie but also how cultural differences can change a message without the filmmaker’s knowledge. Many people assume the changes made to Godzilla, King of Monsters! stems from the cold war paranoia sweeping the country at the time. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that I can find that Morse and the American Producers set out to defang Honda’s anti-nuclear screed or radically alter his political messaging. 

However, there is a change, and I doubt they even noticed it. In Honda’s Godzilla, Serizawa and Ogata have a serious moral debate over whether or not to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. Serizawa worries that once it is used it will ignite an arms race that will only end in the planet’s destruction. Ogata rightly points out that if they don’t use the Oxygen Destroyer, Godzilla will destroy the planet. The fact that the Oxygen Destroyer likely wouldn’t do anything to Godzilla is neither here nor there, the basic precept of the moral responsibility of Science is the question, not the logistics of a fictional weapon of mass destruction.

But in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! the conversation is centered on the old American standby, “What if it falls in the wrong hands?” This implies that someone is going to invent the Oxygen Destroyer anyways, what matters is how we use it. To some degree this mirrors the plight of Oppenheimer himself, a man who started work on the atom bomb to defeat the Nazis to see their defeat happen, only to discover that the powers that be didn’t care about that and still wanted the bomb.

It doesn’t change the thrust of the movie. Instead, both Morse’s and Honda’s versions wrestle with the responsibility human beings have to each other and to the rest of the world. Both movies have to face a fact that the weapon is inherently immoral but that Godzilla is a brutal, unforgiving force of destruction like the one we created. It’s a hell of a thing to see something that is normally treated as a hackneyed plot device be used so effectively by two different filmmakers in the same film.

One of the main visual differences is how Honda and Tamai shot scenes to allow the crowds of people to create a feeling of claustrophobia. Morse and his cameraman Guy Roe cut to medium shots, in their own way still giving the film a feeling of being overrun with bodies. Roe has an uphill battle shooting scenes on rinky-dink sets in an unimaginable short time to get them to feel as if they were part of a bigger and much more planned and well-funded film.

The fact of the matter is for all the re-edits, and re-shoots, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is never dull. Burr’s rich silky voice is perfect as a narrator and audience stand-in. On top of this, Burr’s performance is never campy, on the contrary, he plays it straight. There’s a reason why it became popular for famous character actors to appear in cheap monster movies. 

Except, many of those actors would be make it seem as if Godzilla was beneath them. Burr, on the contrary, plays the role the same as he would his role of Perry Mason or any number of roles he had in films directed by Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang.  He reportedly would never miss a chance to brag about how he was in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! He loved the movie so much that he jumped at the chance to reprise his role in Godzilla 1985

Morse’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters! has great respect for Honda’s Godzilla. Yes, twenty minutes are shaved off the runtime, but Godzilla’s death is still tragic. Morse and the other filmmakers tapped into the Universal Monster movies of old and made Godzilla a monster, but a monster you almost understand. After all, he is a creature that after eons of being asleep, is woken up due to atomic blasts. The poor monster is in a time and place that is not it’s own. Yes, he is a danger, and yes he must be destroyed, but neither Morse nor Honda take any real glee or pride in it. Both movies understand that Godzilla is a monster of our own creation and that more than anything unites the two movies in a perfect symbiosis.

Still, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! remains unique in the annals of cinematic history. While other films have had film doctors, they have more often than not been called upon to “rescue” a bad film. I cannot recall a group of filmmakers being called in to make a movie that is already a critical and financial hit like Godzilla, only to add a few scenes here and there and cut some things out. 

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is not the bastard child you would think it is upon hearing the story of its creation. Instead, Terry Morse and his fellow filmmakers worked on a laughably small budget in a very short span of time and turned out a movie that is at once built on the foundation of a movie deeply rooted in its own culture and history while somehow using that same foundation to create a wholly separate movie that runs parallel to the original that would go on to dominate the world over. 

Images courtesy of Trans World Releasing Corporation and Embassy Pictures

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