I’m never sure. How seriously am I supposed to take Godzilla?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Godzilla movies. In fact, I’ve probably seen more than most people, having – more than once – written holistic retrospectives of the whole series. That means I’ve seen over 30 Godzilla movies. Some are great, some are awful, but all are enjoyable in their own way; Godzilla is just a fun idea, really. I simply enjoy seeing him go to work.
The question arises over the tone of certain Godzilla films. The 1954 original, GOJIRA (or ゴジラfor the purists), is a maudlin film. It’s commonly known to be a metaphor for the lingering effects of the atomic bomb, and is, as such, a melancholy work about loss and the tragedy of mass destruction. But almost immediately, the series transformed into something much more fun, and the tone shifted toward the light almost immediately. There were attempts along the way to recontextualize Godzilla back into his sad metaphorical origins (SHIN GODZILLA did this most effectively), but, for the most part, Godzilla has appealed to a more immature part of my brain; the part that enjoys watching guys in elaborate monster costumes stomping around on miniature sets. The part of it that’s still 9 years old.
Is it okay if I think a lot of Godzilla is silly? Can I be a fan if I laugh both with and at something? I enjoy myself to no end, and will openly and proudly defend Godzilla films as indelible, primal entertainments, but I also acknowledge that the imagery is inherently ridiculous. There’s a balance to be sure; a good Godzilla film can be serious and silly in turns. But thanks to the 2014 American remake GODZILLA, there seems to be a new contingent of geeky fans who feel that Godzilla ought to be dark, realistic, and emotional. This is a tone that seems to be antithetical to the very notion of Godzilla.
Case in point: As early as 1962, there was a real plan to have Godzilla fight a 100-foot-tall Frankenstein monster.
To offer some background on the Godzilla series: As mentioned, the first GOJIRA appeared in 1954 and was an instant hit in Japan. A sequel was rushed into production, ans 1955 saw Godzilla fighting a creature called Gigantis in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. Godzilla did die at the end of Gojira, so this was a secondary creature. That too was a hit, but Toho, the production company, began turning its focus elsewhere. Godzilla, it seems was not yet poised to become a cultural juggernaut.
In 1956, the Japanese original was re-cut, re-shot, and released in America as GODZILLA,KING OF THE MONSTERS! Although Toho had put out several other kaiju films, Godzilla was emerging as a worldwide star. It took about seven years, but Japan responded to the world’s demand, and, in 1962, released KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. It’s a lavish, colorful production with a giant octopus, and scenes of Kong flossing with electrical wires to get juiced up to fight. Kong was the favored winner in that contest; at the time, he was more popular as a hero. Godzilla was still a villain monster in 1962.
Why did it take so long to make this film? You would think Toho would be able to rush something like this into production. Well, as it turns out, King Kong — taken from the ultra-popular 1933 film — was not meant to be Godzilla’s original foe. Toho, you see, had been bandying about concepts in the early 1960s of what they wanted to do with Godzilla. There was an early idea — and who knows who came up with this — to have Godzilla fight a Frankenstein monster.
Toho had been interested in Frankenstein for a while. By the 1960s, the character had become a cinematic staple, and numerous sequels and spinoffs of Mary Shelley’s original classic had already graced the silver screen. Japan wanted to get in on the game by turning Frankenstein’s monster into a proper kaiju, growing him by 100 feet, and having him stomp around through cities, smashing buildings. From the perspective of a hyperactive 9-year-old boy, this seems like a great idea.
Back in America, meanwhile, Willis O’Brien, one of the makers of KING KONG, had also been bandying about ideas of a KING KONG film wherein the giant ape fought a giant version of Frankenstein’s monster. Something in the world culture, I suppose, was reaching out for a feature film about a giant Frankenstein. O’Brien and producer John Beck commissioned a script, but had some trouble getting it looked at: For one, they had a little trouble securing the rights to the Frankenstein name, which was not owned by Universal as they thought.
Secondly, they also had trouble because the special effects technology to make a stop-motion animated monster would be too costly. The script, called KING KONG VS. PROMETHEUS, was completed, and Beck spent a long, long time shopping it around to various studios. Given the current feature film climate here in America, it looks like that title will eventually prove to be prescient (KONG: SKULL ISLAND and ALIEN: COVENANT, a sequel to PROMETHEUS, are coming out in the same year).
KING KONG VS. PROMETHEUS eventually made it way onto the desk at Toho. King-Kong-fighting-Frankenstein was, of course, a very similar to their own Godzilla-fighting-Frankenstein idea, and Toho eventually bought the script, and retooled it. Frankenstein was replaced in both scripts, and we were treated to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.
This, in retrospect, was a much more logical idea. Both monsters were about the same size, and fanboys had been pitting them against one another in conversations for years. Why not cater to a fanbase?
If you’ve seen the film, however, one detail may strike you as odd. King Kong is abducted from Skull Island, taken to Japan under false pretenses, and pitted against the Great Green One in a battle royale. Godzilla, as we all know, abhors electricity, as electrical wires always seem to give him trouble. Meanwhile King Kong, when he runs into wires, seems to feed on the shocks. He is jolted into an energetic state, seemingly powering up an internal battery.
A giant ape that runs on electricity? Well, when you consider that was originally a Frankenstein monster, it makes a little more sense. Frankenstein’s monster, after all, was resurrected using electricity. The logic, then, is that if he gets more electricity, he gets more powerful, right? In a little kid way, that makes perfect sense. King Kong using electricity is just absurd. But there it is. In the final cut of the film. A giant ape chewing on wires to get more powerful.
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is a spectacular film, however, and one of the better films in the Godzilla series. It knows exactly what it’s doing; tapping into the A vs. B mentality of a young boy. So many little kid stories begin with the phrase “Who would win in a fight?” This film, and so many films of the modern era (i.e., all superhero flicks), sought the answer.
The Frankenstein idea, by the way, was eventually used by Toho as well. In 1965, the studio – and the director of GOJIRA – put together FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (spoilers!), a film that, yes, featured a giant-sized Frankenstein monster wailing on a monster. I guess it was too great an idea to pass up. There was even a sequel, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, in 1966, which featured two giant-sized Frankenstein monsters wailing on each other. At the end of the day, we got every iteration of the idea.
One can be grateful to Toho and to Willis O’Brien for being so enterprising. Our inner 9-year-olds got a lot.