The Americanization of Godzilla

Godzilla“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.” That bit of wisdom from Blue Öyster Cult (or Richard Meltzer if you prefer), is a condensation of the 1954 classic, Godzilla. Last weekend, I got the Criterion Collect DVD of the film. It was very exciting. I grew up watching Godzilla films, but I had never seen the original. So I watched both versions — Japanese and American — twice: once straight and once with what is very possibly the best commentary ever, by David Kalat. It is quite an experience — especially because the two versions are so different.

Godzilla was such a big deal in Japan, that when American distributors bought it, they decided not just to dub the film; they shot extra scenes and turned the main (human) character into an American reporter, played by Raymond Burr.[1] And it works remarkably well. The film editor Terry O Morse was hired to direct the whole thing, and with television writer Al C Ward, he used the existing movie to tell the story from a remarkably different perspective. It’s especially interesting to see how conversations are totally changed from one version to the other.

But even while marveling at just how clever Morse and his team was, there is a fundamental problem: they didn’t do a very good job of matching the style of the original. Ishirō Honda and his team made a very good film that is visually interesting even without Godzilla. The camera is relatively fluid, the shots are always well framed, the lighting is realistic. It’s what we’ve come to expect from feature films. The scenes with Burr are static and flat. Great care is taken to make things match up, but it does feel choppy.

In addition to this, the film is excessively narrated. I suspect that this decision was made so as to require as little dubbing as possible. And that does work. There is relatively little on screen dubbing. And despite the fact that the dubbing actors didn’t even get to look at the scenes they were dubbing, it works quite well. But it does mean that we see a lot of the backs of America doubles while the dialog takes place.

Still, all of this occurred to me because I had just seen the original. I think it wouldn’t be nearly as clear if I had just watched the film cold. But the original is clearly the superior film. That’s not just because of the awkwardness of the added material. The original is also a more thoughtful and subtle film. It actively engages with an issue that I care deeply about: the responsibility of scientists for the uses of their findings. The two scientists in the film are disgusted by the state of the world. On the other hand, sometimes you just need to get through the crisis at hand. It doesn’t matter that, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.”

[1] It’s very cool. At the end, he has Godzilla on the stand. “And was it not you who destroyed Japan — going so far as to chew on a rail car?!” And Gozilla broke down, “It’s true! I couldn’t stop myself!” Alright, maybe not. But I think Godzilla vs Perry Mason would have been a fantastic film.

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