Growing up in the early ’90s, I learned everything I know about Godzilla from the Sci-Fi Channel, TNT’s MonsterVision and, occasionally, the Disney Channel. However, they primarily only played Godzilla’s more “whimsical” adventures from the ’60s and ’70s. I didn’t stumble across Godzilla, King of the Monsters! until some years after I’d first been introduced to the Big G. Since this was the cut of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic Godzilla which I and most other Americans were first introduced to, I felt it deserved to be covered in its own separate review as I work my way through the Showa series.
I’d say I was about ten or eleven when I first saw it. The grandfather of one of my friends had a huge collection of classic horror movies that he’d taped off TV. Lots of obscure stuff I never even knew they played. He was kind enough to lend me his tapes, which my mom quickly got to work on copying over to Beta (we had one VHS player but four Beta Maxes, so we always transferred VHS tapes to Beta cassettes). While pouring over the tapes, I came across King of the Monsters, a Godzilla movie I didn’t even know existed. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued, and the grim, violent, dark movie that I watched next completely blew my fragile ten year-old mind.
Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) is a reporter briefly stopping over in Tokyo while en route to Cairo. However, he quickly discovers a story far more amazing than whatever it was he was originally assigned to: it seems some mysterious force wiped a fishing vessel off the face of the Earth and Japan’s entire scientific community is determined to get to the bottom of it. With cooperation from Security Officer Iwanaga (Frank Iwanaga), Steve tags along as Japanese scientists, such as famed paleontologist, Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura), and Steve’s old college buddy, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), investigate the mystery. While visiting Odo Island, Steve and Iwanaga come face to face with the deadly culprit: A towering, radioactive, prehistoric monster called Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima). As Steve chronicles Godzilla’s reign of destruction, Japan’s only hope lies with the reluctant Dr. Serizawa and his deadly weapon: The oxygen-destroyer.
I’ve chronicled my thoughts on most of this movie in my review for the original 1954 version, Godzilla, so I’ll mostly just yak about the new scenes added by Director Terry O. Morse and the various edits to the film.
King of the Monsters isn’t a bad film. I’m not just saying that because it’s the version I grew up with, but because there genuinely isn’t much wrong with it. Sure, it isn’t as good as Godzilla, but that doesn’t make it bad. Director Morse and writer Al C. Ward go through a lot of trouble trying to reorganize the movie and shoehorn an American character into the mix. Ward manages to pen a rather sensible reason for Steve Martin to be there and be involved in all the major sequences from the original film, while Morse does an admirable job of trying to make his interactions with the environment and characters of the film as believable as possible.
Stand-ins and doubles shot from behind as they converse with Martin work pretty well, particularly in regards to Emiko (as they dub over a talking head shot of her, making it look kind of sort of like they’re actually interacting) and Dr. Serizawa (who out of sheer luck has a scene where he talks over the phone while keeping his mouth completely obscured by chemistry tubes). The only time this really looked bad would be the scene where Steve Martin talks with Professor Yamane after a press release, with Yamane being shot entirely from behind for the duration of their rather long conversation.
Fitting Steve Martin into the environments of the film proved a bit easier, as they just shuffled Martin, Iwanaga and some bystanders off into a corner and have them comment on what’s going on at the other end of the room. I suppose the only time this method fails is when they don’t find matching wallpaper patterns.
Oh yeah, that’s absolutely the same room.
As someone who speaks Japanese, I always get a kick out of Iwanaga’s “translations” of dialogue from scenes from the original version of the film. The “translations” are tailored to fit the reorganized plot of the movie and don’t even remotely match-up to what the characters are actually saying.
While some people tend to call King of the Monsters a “butchering” of the original Godzilla, I actually admire it for doing something I’ve only ever seen done in Back to the Future Part II: It takes a pre-existing movie and gives us an alternate perspective of its events. Okay, so maybe that’s a little misleading, as they reorder some scenes and film an alternate version of Emiko’s reveal of the oxygen-destroyer to Ogata (Akira Takarada), but those bits aside, it’s honestly pretty true. King of the Monsters gives us a unique look at Godzilla’s rampage from an outside observer, only slightly removed from the main characters. It’s essentially the same movie, but through the eyes of a different person. All you have to do is pretend that there was a white guy standing just off screen throughout the entirety of Godzilla.
The entire film is done from a retrospective standpoint, as Steve Martin describes the events of Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage after the fact. His narrative adds some nice insight to the horror and death that Godzilla caused, but can get a little irritating after a while. Particularly as he describes the actions, thoughts and feelings of the Japanese cast to us. Since, save for the newly shot sequences in which they interact with Steve, the Japanese cast is portrayed entirely through Steve Martin’s narration, you really feel nothing for them. This admittedly robs the movie of much of its emotional impact, at least in regards to these characters.
While a few future releases of both Toho and Daiei monster movies would try to recapture the effect of adding scenes with an American actor into the mix (including Godzilla: 1985, which brought Raymond Burr back as Steve Martin), none manage it as successfully as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! In fact, I can’t think of any other movies that managed it successfully period!
While it goes against all my childhood instincts, I cannot deny that Godzilla is a better movie than King of the Monsters. That’s not to say that this film doesn’t have its own unique value, though. If anything, it’s best watched as a supplement to the original film, to give you an interesting look at the events of the movie from the eyes of a different character.
And as an afterthought/tangent, I highly recommend tracking down an episode of Pinky & the Brain entitled Tokyo Grows. It is the funniest Godzilla parody I’ve ever seen, made even funnier as it randomly inserts scenes with a Raymond Burr-esque character saying “Yes, I see!” throughout the episode.