Although a handful of independent, low-budget films had previously been filmed in Japan after World War II by American companies and featuring Japanese players in the cast, Godzilla represented the first to present Japanese in principal, heroic roles or as sympathetic victims of the destruction of Tokyo (albeit by a fictional giant monster) to the American public in a commercial release given A-picture status and bookings.
American reporter, Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), is brought from the ruins of Tokyo to a hospital filled with maimed and wounded citizens. Emiko (Momoko Kochi) finds him among the victims and attempts to find him a doctor.
In flashback, Martin recalls stopping over in Tokyo, where a series of ship disasters catches his attention. When a survivor finally washes up on Odo Island, Martin flies there for the story with Tomo Iwanaga (Frank Iwanaga), a representative of the Japanese security forces and learns of the island inhabitants' belief in a sea monster god known to them as "Godzilla", which they believe is causing the disasters. That night a storm stikes the island, destroying many houses and killing some villagers. The locals believe that Godzilla and not the storm are responsible for the destruction.
Martin returns to the island with Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), who leads an investigation crew to Odo Island, where in the ruins, radioactive footprints and a Trilobite are discovered. An alarm rings and Martin, the villagers, and Dr. Yamane's crew head to a hill for safety. Opon reaching the top, the crew comes across Godzilla, looking down on them over the hill. Dr. Yamane returns to Tokyo to present his findings and concludes that Godzilla was resurrected by repeated nuclear tests. The military responds by attempting to kill Godzilla with depth charge weapons (much to Yamane's dismay). Martin contacts his old friend, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), for dinner but declines due to planned commitments with his fiancé.
Emiko, Dr. Yamane's daughter, goes over to Serizawa's to break off her arranged engagement to him, due to her love for Hideo Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain. However, Dr. Serizawa gives her a demonstration of his recent project which horrifies her and is sworn to secrecy while unable to break off the engagement. Godzilla surfaces from Tokyo Bay unharmed by the bombs and attacks the city. The next morning, the JSDF arranges a modification of tall electrical towers along the coast of Tokyo to use against Godzilla.
Godzilla resurfaces that night and breaks through the electrical fences and tanks using his atomic ray. Martin documents Godzilla's annilation of the city via tape recorder and is nearly killed during the attack. Godzilla returns to the sea leaving the town in burning ruins. The flashback ends and Martin wakes up back in the hospital with Emiko and Ogata. Horrified by the destruction, Emiko reveals Dr. Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer to Martin and Ogata, which disintegrates oxygen atoms and the organisms die of a rotting asphyxiation. Emiko and Ogata go to Dr. Serizawa to convince him to use the Oxygen Destroyer but initially refuses. After watching a program displaying the nation's current tragedy, Dr. Serizawa finally gives in to Emiko and Ogata's pleas.
A navy ship takes Ogata and Dr. Serizawa to plant the device in Tokyo Bay. After finding Godzilla, Dr. Serizawa unloads the device and cuts off his air support, taking the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer to his death. The mission proves to be a success and Godzilla is killed, but many mourn at the unexpected loss of Dr. Serizawa. Martin ends the film by saying, "The menace was gone, so was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again".
In 1955, Edmund Goldman "discovered" the original Japanese-language Godzilla screening at a cinema in Los Angeles. He bought the international rights for $25,000, then sold them to Jewell Enterprises Inc., a small production company owned by Richard Kay and Harold Ross which, with backing from Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, successfully adapted it for American audiences. Levine paid $100,000 for his share.
The adaptation process consisted of filming numerous new scenes featuring Raymond Burr and others, and inserting them into an edited version of the Japanese original to create a new film. The new scenes, written by Al C. Ward and directed by Terry O. Morse, were photographed by Guy Roe with careful attention to matching the visual tone of the Japanese film. Burr's character Steve Martin appears to interact with the original Japanese cast through intricate cutting and the use of doubles for the Japanese principals, in matching dress, shot from behind in direct interaction with Burr's character.
A documentary style was imposed on the original dramatic material through Burr's dialogue and stentorian narration; he plays a reporter, replacing a comical reporter character in the Japanese original. This turned out to be quite easy to do, as Ishiro Honda's original story had already been told in a somewhat documentary form.
More importantly, his presence as the lead character served to ease American audiences into comfortable relationships with characters, whose mere nationality might otherwise have made them difficult to relate to. For similar reasons, protracted dialogue regarding the arranged marriage between the Japanese heroine and a scientist was greatly reduced, as the concept would have been unfamiliar to an American audience, and scenes evincing an active affair between two characters was cut to avoid offending parents of the film's youthful target audience.
A raging debate in Japan's Diet over the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and continued nuclear testing was considered unlikely to be approved of by American veterans of the recent war, and the theme of devastation of Japan by nuclear holocaust became sublimated in the editing. This theme was not entirely eliminated, giving the film a subversiveness on the nuclear question that would later be consciously recognized by the youngsters at whom the film was aimed as they entered adulthood. The producers were still able to keep at least a hint of "nuclear" connotations, since atomic-mutation monster movies were becoming popular in the U.S. at that time (Them, Tarantula, The Amazing Colossal Man, etc.). While Ishiro Honda's original film had a very serious, anti-nuclear tone, this seemed to be overlooked by American audiences that were becoming accustomed to B-movie silliness.
This production is one of a select few general release American films (including Night of the Living Dead) that were not composed for widescreen despite being released after the widescreen transition of the early to mid 1950s. The new Guy Roe-shot sequences were composed for the Academy ratio just like the Japanese footage, and the ending credits were blocked much too tightly for any amount of matting to be possible without causing lines of text to trail off the screen. Since 80% of downtown theaters and 69% of neighborhood theaters had already converted to widescreen by the end of 1953, and since theaters that made the transition would not have had the Academy ratio aperture plates anymore, it is very likely that many people saw the film in a matted widescreen ratio such as 1.85:1, which had become the non-anamorphic industry standard by September 1956.
There is sometimes confusion about who distributed the film to the US. The poster for the film states only that it is "A Trans World Release", while the poster itself bears a copyright notice for "Godzilla Releasing Corporation". Trade reviews from its New York showing indicate that it was released by Embassy Pictures. Classic Media indicates that it was released by Jewell Enterprises, but in fact the credits only show this company as presenting the film. In fact, the film was adapted from the Japanese original by Jewell Enterprises, which took "presentation" credits on the screen and in some advertising copy, copyright by Godzilla Releasing Corporation in its adapted form, and nationally released under control of TransWorld Releasing Corporation, all of which were companies owned by Rybnick and Kay. It was actually distributed in the western US by TransWorld Releasing Corporation and in the eastern half by Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures, then just a Boston-based states rights exchange. Embassy was most frequently noted as sole distributor in reviews and trade annuals published in New York: the movie was given "A-film" promotion, and opened at Loew's State Theatre on Broadway and 45th Street in New York City on April 27, 1956.
New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther gave the film a bad review the following day. He dismissed it with, "'Godzilla', produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film". After complaining about the dubbing, the special effects ("a miniature of a dinosaur") and an alleged similarity to King Kong he concluded, "The whole thing is in the category of cheap cinematic horror-stuff, and it is too bad that a respectable theater has to lure children and gullible grown-ups with such fare".
Crowther notwithstanding, the film was a notable success with the American public. The film was a box office success, grossing up to $2 million in the United States alone. It easily exported to Europe and South America, where the original was unknown and where it also had a major impact. The door was thus opened in the Americas and Europe for the import of unexpurgated Japanese science-fiction, horror, and other commercial film products; it also garnered western awareness of Toho Studios, which had retained producer credit. In 1957, the film made its way full circle back to Japan, where it was exhibited as Kaiju Ō Gojira (怪獣王ゴジラ, lit. "Monster King Godzilla"), where it became at least as popular as the original, replacing the latter in Japanese theaters and influencing sequels and remakes there.
After its theatrical run, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! became a television staple for decades, even into the cable years, and opened the international market for dozens of Godzilla sequels. In the era before widespread home videos, the movie was regularly re-shown in repertory theaters and drive-in theaters. As of May 2014, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! holds a rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In its original theatrical version, the film opened with the logo of TransWorld Releasing Corporation - merely the Toho logo with a rotating globe optically superimposed over it with the script, "A Transworld Release" overlaid in capital letters - and following the fadeout of the final shot, the hymn being sung by the schoolchildren was reprised over cast and credits, after which "The End" title appeared in white lettering on a black background, with Godzilla's echoing footsteps eerily replacing the soulful music. However, when the film went to television in the late 1950s, the credit sequence was removed to make room for more commercial time, leaving only "The End" on a title card. In the early 1980s, Henry G. Saperstein acquired the film for TV re-syndication and first publication on videotape and laserdisc by Vestron Video; the TransWorld logo was also removed, and re-publications made thereafter were taken from the Vestron-revised master (even the so-called "uncut" version released on DVD in 1998 by Simitar). This missing material was partially restored in 2006 on a Sony release; however, the TransWorld logo was left out and the end cast and credits were presented in a squashed widescreen letterbox format and mis-edited after "The End" credit instead of before. In 2012 the Criterion Collection restored the film in high definition and reinstated all missing material in the correct order for their Blu-ray/DVD release.
In its original TV syndication, a minimal credit screen reading "Starring Raymond Burr, directed by Terry Morse and I. Honda" in white lettering over a black background was spliced between the main title and the opening shot of Tokyo in ruins. These "opening credits" have never appeared on home video.
In 1985, New World Pictures released Godzilla 1985, based on the Toho production of The Return of Godzilla. Like Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it used footage from the Toho film, with added footage shot in Hollywood, and the dialog re-recorded in English. Raymond Burr would reprise his role as Steve Martin, acting as an adviser to the Pentagon, but did not interact within the main story as he had done in King of the Monsters. Return of Godzilla was a sequel to the original 1954 film, and Godzilla 1985 served as a sequel to Godzilla, King of the Monsters!.
In 1977, Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi released a modified and colorized version to magnetic band and sensurround theaters in Italy. Originally, Cozzi planned to re-release the original 1954 Godzilla without the Raymond Burr scenes but was unable to secure the rights from Toho and instead was sold the Americanized version of the film. Since the film was in black and white, regional distributors in Italy refused to release the film. In order to release the film, Cozzi hired Armando Valcauda to colorize the whole film frame by frame via a process called "Spectrorama 70" consisting of applying various colored gels to the original black and white footage, becoming one of the first black and white movies to be colorized.
The new version of the movie was advertised as: "The greatest apocalypse in the history of cinema with the sonorous and visual wonder of Spectrorama 70." The film's content was re-edited, adding new scenes and stock footage of graphic death and destruction (including a famous scene where Godzilla destroys a train), which made it 105 minutes long.
The film soundtrack was edited by Vince Tempera, Franco Bixio and Fabio Frizzi. In cinemas, the soundtrack was played in "Futursound", an 8-track magnetic tape sound system based on Sensurround, with a special effect that shook the seats each time that Godzilla took a step. Cozzi's film was a great success and received mixed to positive reviews, and some fans consider it superior to the 1956 American film. The poster appeared on the cover of Fangoria issue #1.
Most prints of the film were lost but some still exist. A bootleg version of the film was also released on some VHS tapes, but in poor quality compared to the theatrical version. As of 2012, the Cozzi colorized version (also known as Cozzilla by fans) has only been released in Italy, and later in Japan and Turkey. It should be noted, however, that this bootleg VHS copy has surfaced on YouTube, in its entirety, albeit in poor quality, and "hardsubbed" (meaning having had subtitles spliced into the film itself, rather than being given the option to view) in English, though it is still presented in Italian.
- ^ This WikiProject Films infobox contains information regarding the Americanized U.S. release; for information on the Japanese original, see Godzilla.