a zoo in hell


Gojira (1954) Review

Godzilla: The Original Version (60th Anniversary)

I don't know what it is that makes giant monsters so compelling. The fascination with stories about giant creatures goes back much further than the early fifties American atomic bestiary, earlier than the first "King Kong", probably even further than the golden age of mythic storytelling in ancient civilization. Whether this obsessions comes from some primordial memory of beings we've since otherwise forgotten or from a Jungian tendency to conceptualize the infinite and impossible as natural giants, these creatures have always been with us and always will.

"Gojira" (1954) wasn't the first giant monster movie. Depending on how you define "giant monster" that honor can go to the original "King Kong" (1933) or "The Lost World" (1925). "Gojira" wasn't even the first atomic age monster. "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953) was a dinosaur brought to gigantic life through nuclear weapons. There were five other Hollywood iterations of nuclear nature before the American version of "Godzilla, King of the Monsters " (1956) arrived. So, there is really no reason why this black and white movie which didn't use stop motion animation (mostly) should have the prominence it does. Yet, it has surpassed them all and become nearly archetypal. I often joke that Godzilla is the only supernatural being I can really believe in, but the truth is I am only half-joking.

I think it is somewhat uncanny that after all of these years of being a "G-Fan" I have finally seen the real cinematic evidence of what I knew to be true on an intuitive level. The fact that Godzilla (1956) is a just a pale shadow of the original is common knowledge, but I have to love it because it brought this great beast alive in my young imagination. Now, I am old enough to understand how limited and simplified that version is. That Godzilla fits in nicely with the 1950's American pop science-fiction narrative of science run amok; nature mutated and bent on destroying pretty girls and fancy cars. In these movies, the hero always kills the monster, order is restored and everyone can breath a sigh of relief that this will never happen again. The subtext, of course, is that as much as we destroy and screw things up, good old know-how is always going to win in the end. Right?

Restored to its original glory and the original running time, Gojira has a much different feeling. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say the difference between the 1956 "Godzilla" and the 1954 one is similar to the difference between the 1936 "Dracula" and the 1958 "Horror of Dracula". (You could also make the case that it is similar to the difference between "Dracula" (1936) and "Nosferatu" (1922), but that is more a matter of style than actual substance.) This film, despite it's clear b-movie roots, is much more than a thrilling cautionary tale for teens. This is apocalypse before the apocalypse was cool, this is a memory of total annihilation made by people that have actually seen it happen.  Go ahead and laugh at the special effects, but you may feel a bit awkward when a weeping mother and daughter are consumed by a sweeping atomic firestorm a few minutes later. This is a theater of doom made to signify something far greater than the meager Toho soundstage would allow. I guarantee you won't see teenagers joking sardonically about the Nagasaki atomic bomb in "The Blob" (1958), like you will in "Gojira" (1954).

This 60th Anniversary wide release is essentially the same as the 50th Anniversary release from 2004. Though it is delivered here in digital format, and I have to say that it is better for this preservation. The blacks are deeper and many of the details are sharper than in previous film transfers. Additionally, the translation and subtitles are new and improved. There is a bit more poetry in this version than I have seen previously and the actual pacing of the subtitles on the screen is more precise. In this print it is easy to see that the noir style is not an accident of contrast but a definite choice of cinematography. The soundtrack is cleaner too, and the overall effect is a more coherent narrative with stronger emotional effects.

Equally interesting is that this film is as much horror as it is science-fiction. The nod to expressionism through noir is explicit in many of the scenes of Godzilla looming over devastation. Imagery of victims being treated in hospitals, the long tracking shots over total devastation, the screams of victims crushed or burned all add up to an experience that is somehow prescient of the gritty apocalyptic horrors we've come to expect in the 21st century cinema. This isn't The Walking Dead, this is the walking death.

I am a fan of the Lovecraft mythos, and I have long seen the connection between the lurking doom of Cthulu and the undersea behemoth that we know as Godzilla. There is a deeper connection than just narrative overlap, though. In the world of H.P. Lovecraft, the cosmic terrors are merely signifiers for horrors that that the human mind can never really wrap its brain around. The true nightmare far exceeds anything our monkey brains can grapple with. This applies to our atomic fire breathing giant too.

In a world where all that remains of human beings are carbon shadows on brick walls, when the soil itself crackles with the energy of the sun, where you are spared the horror of sudden blindness by the incineration that arrives before the light itself, a giant "destroyer of worlds" is no laughing matter. Don't think that the thunder in the theater is mere special effect, or the light on Godzilla's spikes is an easy optical trick; this is the aftershock and earthquake light from an explosion that happened long ago and has taken this long to reach us.

Go, go, go, Godzilla.

T.A. Wardrope
Original Site: boxd.it/37v4p