dir. Terry O. Morse
1956 / Jewell Enterprises / Trans World / 80′
written by Al C. Ward
director of photography Guy Roe
edited by Terry Morse
starring Raymond Burr, Frank Iwanaga and Mikel Conrad
Godzilla King of the Monsters! is now available, along with Godzilla, in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection
“This is Tokyo, once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of man’s imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown – an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could, at any time, lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could have told of what they saw. Now, there are only a few.”
Though a phenomenal success in its native Japan, garnering nearly 10 million admissions during release, Godzilla remained relatively unknown abroad – unknown, that is, until the international distribution rights were secured by Jewell Enterprises (otherwise best, and seemingly only, known for the Mara Corday crime picture Girls on the Loose and the shabby cavegirl adventure Untamed Women, one in a long line of shows that repurposed the creature effects from Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.). The firm would would go on to hire Terry O. Morse, an experienced film editor with limited directing experience, to oversee their American adaptation of Godzilla, and cast recognizable talent Raymond Burr, here just before his rise to fame on television’s Perry Mason, as their new star. The resulting film would eventually be seen world wide, even in Japan (where it was retrofitted for ‘Scope projection for a 1957 release), and bestow upon its eponymous attraction a title still familiar to this day – King of the Monsters.
Though drastically restructured for its Stateside adaptation, the meat of Godzilla King of the Monsters!’ narrative remains familiar. Ships are disappearing off the Japanese coast, their survivors recounting stories of boiling seas and brilliant light. Officials are at a loss for why until an expedition to an isolated island near to the disappearances reveals the terrifying truth: Godzilla, a monster right out of prehistory, has been torn from its undersea niche by Pacific H-bomb testing and is making a bee-line for the Japanese capital. Impervious to all known armaments, Godzilla seems unstoppable until a young inventor reveals his own horrifying discovery – a new elemental power with more deadly potential than the atom.
The difference lies in the framing, accomplished through new footage starring Raymond Burr as American press correspondent Steve Martin, who recounts the majority of Godzilla‘s events in flashback. On layover in Tokyo, Martin takes to investigating the shipping disappearances out of a natural journalistic instinct, but soon finds himself witness to the utter destruction of Tokyo.
Though filmed in a matter of days, the footage that serves as Godzilla King of the Monsters!’ backbone is remarkably ambitious for its type, with a good deal of effort made to match locations and even actors (with doubles only seen from behind) so that the new story line fits properly with the old. One can question just how Martin so insinuates himself into some of the film’s lesser drama, like an underlying romantic triangle, but writ large the material works quite well, and no future attempt at the same would ever be so successful. A lot of that success is undoubtedly linked to the casting of Burr, who could deliver a stereo manual with thrilling authority, but the script by seasoned television writer Al C. Ward is no slouch either. Martin’s narration remains sensible and intelligent throughout, even when he’s privy to unlikely plot details, and the few new dramatic scenes – largely between Burr and Frank Iwanaga, playing a Japanese official – are well drawn and plot-driven. It’s much more than could be said of the comparable Half Human, the American adaptation of Ishiro Honda’s second monster feature Ju Jin Yuki Otoko, which has John Carradine ponderously spilling the full details of its foreign action from the comfort of an office chair.
Despite being shorn of some of its original drama (including all overt references to World War II) and re-structured with a distinct focus on action, Morse’s Godzilla King of the Monsters manages to retain much of the feel of the original. Morse shows a notable respect for his material throughout, something lost on the purveyors of many of these fantasy and science fiction imports, remaining true to the Japanese source during the occasional dubbed scenes (much of the dialogue is retained in Japanese) and leaving Akira Ifukube’s phenomenal score untouched. He even gets away with some critical commentary on the H-bomb, courtesy of Dr. Yamane’s dubbed remarks, an intellectual thread dismissed by critics at the time. “We assure you that the quality of the picture and the childishness of the whole idea do not indicate such calculation,” notes a condescending Bosley Crowther, writing for the New York Times in May of 1956. “Godzilla was simply meant to scare people.”
Regardless of contemporary critical opinions Godzilla King of the Monsters! was immensely successful upon release, and helped to pave the way for the colorful kaiju boom of the 1960s, as well as for the original Godzilla‘s more recent rediscovery. Indeed, with memories of the unvarnished Godzilla so fresh in mind I was a little surprised to find that this still works as well as it does, fifty-six years after it first stomped onto domestic screens. That’s not to say that Godzilla King of the Monsters! is a perfect film, not by a long shot, but it’s better than it really should be and a bona fide piece of film history besides, and worthy of the care and attention it has finally received.
released January 24, 2012 by the Criterion Collection
disc: dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | AVC | 1.37:1
audio: 24-bit LPCM 1.0 English
supplements: commentary by David Kalat, theatrical trailer, plus the original Godzilla (featuring its own commentary, interviews, documentary subjects and more)
retail price: $39.95
Available now from Amazon.com, and also available on 2-disc DVD
When the Criterion Collection’s Godzilla arrived I actually watched Godzilla King of the Monsters! first, and with some reservations I was duly impressed. Those familiar with the history of the film know that Toho has no elements of their own for the title, and as such no new transfer from quality material has been minted for decades. The 2002 Classic Media DVD and their later 2-disc edition, as well as earlier VHS releases from Simitar, Paramount and others have all been sourced from the same transfer, but change (for the better) is finally afoot courtesy of Criterion, who tracked down privately owned 35mm and 16mm elements from which to mint their new HD transfer.
Sourced from a combination of fine-grain 35mm master positive and 16mm dupe negative at the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Criterion’s new 1080p transfer of Godzilla King of the Monsters! represents the best that can be expected of the title at this point in time. There is damage, of course, plenty of which was inherent in the materials from the start, but don’t let that dissuade you. Godzilla King of the Monsters!, like its Japanese counterpart, finally exports a level of detail consistent with its 35mm photography, with excellent contrast to match. Guy Roe’s photography shines in close-up, even if lighting is flat compared to the Japanese footage. It all looks quite good overall, though there are issues worth noting for those wishing to give the transfer a closer look. Godzilla King of the Monsters! suffers most from Criterion’s efforts to stuff everything onto a single BD-50, and its modest 17.6 Mbps AVC encode just isn’t healthy enough to support the finer points of the transfer. Grain artifacts are evident throughout and the image just doesn’t hold up consistently to really close scrutiny, but it’s important not to overstate the issue (this is nowhere close to being an encoding disaster on the order of Horror Express). In motion I must admit that this looks very good, and ultimately I’d rather have the film available, even in a slightly insufficient encode, than not have it at all.
Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Comparison shots were taken from the 2002 Classic Media DVD of Godzilla King of the Monsters! in VLC in .png format, and compressed to .jpg using the same method as above. Frame matches in comparisons are exact. See our review of Godzilla for screenshots from the original version of the film.
More Blu-ray Screenshots:
Audio is again presented in uncompressed 24-bit LPCM, and the limitations of Godzilla King of the Monsters!‘ low budget mix are readily apparent. The track is clear enough (Criterion’s restoration has worked wonders on some of the crackle and damage) but sounds quite flat, and both the sound effects and score lack the dynamism evident in the original Japanese. That said, it also sounds perfectly accurate to the source, and I wouldn’t ask for more. Criterion have even provided optional English subtitles, leaving me no room to complain on that front. Supplements are limited for this cut of the film, unsurprising given that it’s a supplement itself, and include another commentary from critic David Kalat and the original theatrical trailer (featuring some of my favorite film ad phrasing – “A cyclonic cavalcade of electrifying horror!”).
Godzilla King of the Monsters! may not be enough to recommend this Criterion Blu-ray outright, but its inclusion certainly helps, improving upon an already strong release. Like plenty of others I know this is the Godzilla film I grew up with, watching it on TV or renting it from the video store at every opportunity before some enterprising adult finally decided I deserved a copy all my own. Seeing it looking as good as it does here was a real treat, and fans should be very pleased.