Rob Edelman: Godzilla, New And Old

May 26, 2014

With the release of GODZILLA, the latest of countless mega-budgeted, special effects-laden blockbusters that seem to be dominating movie theaters these days, the original screen version of the story is well-worth recalling. This GODZILLA, of course, was wildly successful in its day. It was produced in Japan and released in 1954, and baby boomers may recall that the U.S. edition included added footage featuring a pre-PERRY MASON Raymond Burr. The full title of this version is GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, and the monster in question is a giant, apparently unstoppable fire-breathing lizard who, like so many 1950s sci-fi movie creatures, was the byproduct of nuclear weapons testing run amok.

Across the decades, dozens of Godzilla films (not to mention novels, video games, and comic books) have been produced and marketed. Indeed, the character is so iconic that it even has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! But what is so fascinating about the original GODZILLA is that it is more than just a curio. It is much more than an artifact of its era.

For one thing, a newly-restored version recently has been enjoying theatrical play dates. For another, its storyline remains as relevant-- and as jarring-- today as it was six decades ago. The key here is that this GODZILLA was released less than a decade after the atom bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War. So the original GODZILLA is not just one more monster movie. It is a metaphor for the nuclear age and a symbol of the very real apprehension on the part of many Japanese in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

According to various sources, the Godzilla monster was inspired by the rhedosaurus, a fictitious creature concocted by famed animator Ray Harryhausen for THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which dates from 1953. Clearly, this Godzilla was linked to the atom bomb. In fact, the texture of its skin was designed to reflect the kind of scars that marred the bodies of many Japanese bomb blast survivors. With this in mind, it might be said that Godzilla was a "nuclear monster"-- and the new GODZILLA is directly linked to the original in that the monster also is directly associated with 1950s nuclear testing. Here, this testing is shown to be causing some odd and unusual occurrences in the present day: occurrences which just may be a prelude to a worldwide apocalypse. In this regard, the new film also may be linked to other 1950s sci-fi films that feature creatures from black lagoons, giant leeches and crab monsters, "body snatchers" invading small American towns, women growing to 50-feet high, and men shrinking to nothingness-- all because of unabated nuclear testing.

Cinematically-speaking, the Godzilla of 1954 and the Godzilla of 2014 may be vastly different. But both films do reflect a certain trepidation on the part of humankind. Sixty years ago, this trepidation was related to the effects of post-World War II nuclear testing. Today, it is linked to global warming and climate change and other issues that cause the thoughtful among us to question the future of humankind.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


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