Sometimes the $5 DVD bin gives me unexpected treasures; more often, it gives me curiosities. From time to time, it even gives me guilt: the kind of guilt you experience when you come across something that is so much of a standard that you know you’re supposed to have seen it, but you haven’t, and so you fork over your five bucks just so that you can Join the Club.
In the latter category, a two-disk set of Godzilla, King of the Monsters found its way home with me the other day. The second disk is what decided me: it features the original Japanese version, just titled Gojira.
Watching the American version first, on the theory that I should come to it the same way most Americans did, I was surprised by how much Raymond Burr was added, and how little of the original remains in the American cut. This is obvious even if you haven’t yet seen the original: it has a shorter runtime, and is packed with just huge swaths of Raymond Burr everywhere, cutting into the main story and even making Burr the hero — as if the Japanese were unable to solve their own problems.
Burr is a taste that I have never acquired. Perhaps by necessity of the times in which he worked, he concealed his homosexuality behind a sham marriage and vocal cruelty to people like Lon Chaney, Jr., who was a little less in the closet but also unable to come to grips with his own sexuality. My father sat next to Burr once on an airplane flight, and came away claiming that Burr was a raving Queen who (and this I really don’t know whether or not to believe) had made an overt pass at him.
Whatever, none of this is really important except for the fact that Burr has always played such forcefully Manly roles, and that as an actor he has always appeared to me to be camping it up, to be Playing Straight, as it were, in Drag.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters offers no exception. Burr postures and camps his way through it like there’s no tomorrow. It his performance that takes what appears, in its American cut, to be an already extremely campy movie and pushes it over the top into self-parody, into farce. Looking at Godzilla, King of the Monsters, I could hardly understand how or why this ludicrous monster movie had caught on with anyone, much less become a classic.
From its opening frames — with Big G roaring at us out of the dark — all the way down to the final bubble of the Oxygen Destroyer, the original Japanese version, Gojira, is altogether a better movie, shaped entirely differently than the American cut and much more straight-faced, much more considered. Gone is the unnecessary, back-tracking narration… and while the plot unfolds in more or less the same order, it is much fuller, with more interesting characters, and a much more obvious resonance to Hiroshima.
By my guess, almost a full third of the original movie was cut from the American release. Even the scenes of Gojira destroying Tokyo were dramatically shortened, with all shots of identifiable individuals suffering — the only shots that give these scenes any emotional weight — removed. The only other time I’ve personally seen a movie damaged this badly in its American release was with Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Disney was responsible for that one: not content with lopping vast chunks of footage out of the movie, they completely reshaped it in the cutting room. The original is charming; the American cut turned it into an inedible and nonsensical cupcake laced with Sominex. Benigni was blasted by the critics — unfairly, because the movie that got released in this country was not his movie at all.
Of course the classic example of this kind of treatment was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which I’ve written about elsewhere on the site. This was reshaped, rewritten, and cut by more than forty minutes by its American distributor, and was never fully restored until quite recently.
But Gojira in any form is not Metropolis, nor even Benigni’s Pinocchio. Where the American version is pure camp, the original becomes too ponderous and collapses under its own weight. The jiggly rubber lizard suit doesn’t help; and the whole sub-plot with the scientist and his oxygen destroyer (which is about the only part of the narrative that the American version retained) is so overtly silly with its scarred scientist character looking like something straight out of Tetsujin 28-go) that it undermines the picture’s otherwise serious intent.
King of the Monsters? I’m afraid not, and not even close. I suppose its no wonder that studios are remaking it again and again to this day; and they still can’t get it right. Gojira is too big, too rubbery, and in the end, no matter which version you’re looking at, too tedious and tiresome to be taken seriously.