Waiting for Godzilla: The Roots of The King of The Monsters

Godzilla’s origins can be traced back much farther than the atomic bomb.

It was sixty years ago when Godzilla first popped out of the ocean and, given as he’d never been there before, decided to pay a visit to Tokyo. Maybe it makes sense that the aging star should opt to mark the anniversary with a new film directed by hip American Gareth Edwards instead of another Toho contract player. Look at what Blue Velvet did for Roy Orbison’s career and Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash’s, right?

For as long as he’s been in the public eye, though, in a career that’s spanned 28 films, for all that’s been written, for all the jibes and interpretations, an awful lot of questions remain. Tops among them is where in the hell did he come from originally? That is, where in the hell did the idea for something that looked and acted like Godzilla come from?

It would be very easy to say 1954’s Gojira can be traced back to the fire-breathing dragons of mythology. After all, dragons worked their way into the legends of cultures the world over. China, Japan, Northern Europe and South America all had their own dragons to contend with.

So it’s simple, right? Godzilla came to be because fire-breathing dragons were always part of Japanese culture, and a producer at Toho Company, Ltd.—one of Japan’s largest movie studios at the time—decided to make a movie about a new kind of fire-breathing dragon, one that symbolized the dangers of the contemporary world. Simple as pie.

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Simple as it is, it wouldn’t be correct. Not exactly, anyway. Throughout the series, Godzilla’s origins have been explained and revised and revised again any number of times. Likewise, the real story behind the birth of Gojira is a complicated, convoluted bit of business. It’s in fact a Möbius strip of history, influences and references which, to date, continues to fold back upon itself. Dragons aside, in order to trace the origin and evolution of Godzilla, we need to go back to the first part of the 19th century.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that people started recognizing dinosaur bones for what they were. Prior to that, it’s entirely plausible to believe misinterpretations of those same bones gave rise to the world’s dragon legends, but finally in 1822 the scientific study of dinosaur bones became a legitimate field of research known as paleontology.

It’s no surprise that as paleontologists came to better understand what these dinosaurs were and how some of them behaved, their findings sparked the public imagination. They also inspired writers Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, all of whom, in books like Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lost World, and The Land that Time Forgot, would speculate about what might happen if modern, civilized men were to discover living dinosaurs. The general consensus was things would probably not end well.

The advent of motion pictures at the beginning of the 20th century opened up a whole new world for creative storytelling. As early filmmakers played around with cameras just to see what these new gadgets could do, the results tended to be more experimental than narrative in nature. Although the films were interesting in themselves, they didn’t exactly send mainstream audiences flocking to the local bijou.

It didn’t take long, however, for another experimenter named Winsor McCay to come up with the notion of a “moving cartoon.” McCay, the newspaper cartoonist who’d created the popular Little Nemo strip, saw the possibilities of film and began conducting a few tests.

He produced a stack of drawings, each only slightly different from the one preceding it, and shot them all in sequence, one frame each. In 1911, he premiered the world’s first animated cartoon, which perhaps not surprisingly was based on Little Nemo. Not much happens in the film, but he did prove that a drawing (or in this case 4,000 drawings) could be made to move realistically on the screen. Another, longer film, The Story of a Mosquito (or How a Mosquito Operates), appeared about a year later.

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Then one day in 1913, as the story goes, McCay and some friends were in New York when their car broke down in front of the Museum of Natural History. The repairs were going to take some time, so the group decided to explore the museum a bit as they waited.While admiring the mounted skeleton of a brontosaurus, McCay, a wagering man, suggested he could bring the dinosaur to life. One of his friends took that bet (for a fancy dinner), and McCay went to work on the 10,000 drawings required for the job.

With the 1914 premiere of Gertie the Dinosaur in Chicago, McCay won the bet. The short film, which became part of McCay’s traveling vaudeville act, was also incredibly popular, despite the early skepticism of some audience members. Never having seen an animated film before, they assumed it was some kind of puppetry or a magic trick.

As was the case with Little Nemo, not much happens in Gertie. She walks toward the screen, looks around, lifts one leg then the other (at McCay’s command during his act), eats some plants, scratches herself with her tail, and that’s about it. But it was enough.

One of the most interesting things about Gertie was that, until that time, dinosaurs in popular culture had been portrayed as snarling, vicious monsters that chased people around, much like the dragons who had come before them. McCay’s portrayal of a cute, somewhat bumbling, slow moving and gentle creature helped change the public perception of what dinosaurs were. Gertie was more like a golden retriever than a dragon.

Interestingly enough, in Gertie on Tour, a sequel McCay produced sometime between 1918 and 1921, Gertie menaces a passing trolley car, albeit in an innocent and playful manner. It’s a scene that would be echoed, though with less playful results, in both King Kong and Gojira.

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In 1921, McCay made another film clearly foreshadowing the giant monster pictures to come, both in Japan and the States. His series of shorts, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, was, no question, deliriously odd even by modern standards. Each film opens with a man and wife preparing for bed, the man commenting on the rarebit he’s just eaten, and complaining that rarebit always gives him strange dreams. Then he closes his eyes and has a strange dream. The formula gave McCay the freedom to get as bizarre as his demented imagination would allow.

In one episode, The Pet, a perfectly normal-looking dog eats a bucket of what appears to be rat poison. Within a matter of moments, the dog has grown to enormous size and begins trotting through the streets of a small town, eating large objects and casually knocking over buildings before being chased by a squadron of zeppelins. It all looks quite familiar, except for the “dog” part and the “zeppelins” part. A few decades later, what McCay considered outrageous would become standard, even clichéd, matinee and drive-in fare.

In 1924 and ’25, four films were released theatrically featuring dinosaurs or dragons in pivotal roles. In Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, the legendary Nordic hero Siegfried himself does battle with a rather clumsy dragon, Fafner. Douglas Fairbanks fights his own dragon in The Thief of Baghdad. Even the great Buster Keaton tries to come to terms with a few dinosaurs while playing a caveman in Three Ages. The most significant of the four films, given the subject at hand anyway, is The Lost World, directed by William Dowling and Harry Hoyt, and loosely based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle. The story of an expedition to a forgotten South American island plateau populated by living dinosaurs turned out to be incredibly popular with audiences. Its popularity, however, had nothing to do with the acting, the script, or the direction. Audiences were instead amazed by the special effects.

Willis O’Brien, who like Winsor McCay had been a newspaper cartoonist, decided to take McCay’s Gertie one step further. Instead of animating two-dimensional drawings, using the same process he began experimenting with three-dimensional models. Instead of drawing tens of thousands of pictures and photographing each once, O’Brien built jointed sculptures, moving them a fraction of an inch for each frame of film. The process was just as laborious as McCay’s, but in the end he only had to build one model, he didn’t waste as much paper, and what appeared on the screen looked like a living creature and not just a sketch in motion. The process came to be known as “stop-motion animation.”

O’Brien had been creating some comic stop-motion shorts about the Stone Age when his dinosaurs caught the eye of the producers of The Lost World, who asked him to create the dinosaurs for their film. The results at the time were astonishing—nobody had seen anything like it before. McCay may have brought a dinosaur to life, but O’Brien made them breathe.

At the film’s climax, the explorers return to London with a brontosaurus in tow, hoping to prove their discovery to the world. Not surprisingly the brontosaurus breaks free and goes on a mild rampage before swimming back home.If you discount McCay’s The Pet, this would make The Lost World the first “giant monster on the loose in a major city” movie.

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O’Brien then set to work on Creation, an ambitious full-length animated dinosaur epic. He never finished it, but the scenes he did complete were picked up by producer-director Merion C. Cooper for use in his new film, King Kong. He also hired O’Brien to design and animate his leading man.

The similarities between 1933’s King Kong and The Lost World are hardly coincidental. Both involve a team of adventurers sailing to a remote, mysterious island that turns out to be inhabited by prehistoric creatures. They decide to bring one back to civilization as proof of what they’d seen, but it’s not long before the creature gets loose and starts ruining days. Both films even feature a massive tree trunk spanning a ravine, and some of thee explorers being knocked off the trunk by an enormous prehistoric monster.

Despite all those menacing dinosaurs they find on Skull Island with Kong, at heart King Kong was a simple retelling of the beauty and the beast fable—a point bluntly made throughout the film. After the audience reaction at first screenings, however, a few scenes were cut to make Kong less beastly. In the subsequent wide release of the film, he no longer eats or stomps on people, and he doesn’t rip off Fay Wray’s dress and sniff his finger.

Of the elements that remained, there are more than a few that would later make the connection between King Kong and Gojira pretty clear. Both creatures are discovered on primitive islands, and are worshipped like gods by the inhabitants. As mentioned earlier, both monsters destroy elevated trains. And Max Steiner’s music for King Kong‘s native dance ritual was all but lifted by the brilliant Japanese composer Akira Ifukube (despite what most people say) for his scores to both 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla and 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Even though the star of King Kong was only 18 inches tall and made out of steel, rubber, and hair, Kong exuded more personality and more humanity than any of the actors on screen with him. Although he was essentially little more than a fancy doll, when O’Brien was done with him he was more human than human. Again, because O’Brien was able to bring that doll to life, audiences cared what happened to Kong and the film became an enormous success. A monumental success, even. So much so that a sequel (Son of Kong) was whipped together and released that same year. And Kong itself became the first film in history to be re-released, first in 1938, and later in 1952.

One of the people who saw the film in 1933 was young Ray Harryhausen, who at age eight walked out of Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Unlike most of us who felt that way once or twice when we were kids, Harryhausen stuck with his initial post-Kong dream.

Like O’Brien, Harryhausen began building dinosaur models and making short stop-motion films. As a teenager filming dinosaur movies in his parents’ garage, he even arranged an audience with O’Brien himself, where he showed off some of his models and screened a reel of his work. O’Brien, Harryhausen would recall years later, was blunt in his criticisms, but supportive of the young animator’s work. O’Brien was apparently more than mildly impressed by what he saw, given that in 1947 he hired Harryhausen to be his assistant on the next of O’Brien’s “giant ape with a heart of gold” pictures, Mighty Joe Young.

The film was another big hit, and a few years later in 1953, Harryhausen was given the chance to handle all the special effects on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

As providence would have it, not only was this to be Harryhausen’s big break, it also gave him the opportunity to work with an old friend, writer Ray Bradbury. The two had met in school and became lifelong friends after learning they were both King Kong fanatics and both loved dinosaurs.

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Based on Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn” and directed by production designer Eugene Lourie, the plot of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a simple one. An atomic blast in the Arctic Circle awakens a giant prehistoric creature that promptly works its way down the East Coast, smashing boats and coastal towns along the way. Once it hits New York, it knocks over some buildings and snacks on policemen until finally reaching Coney Island. There, a sharpshooter lodges a harpoon carrying a radioactive isotope in the beast’s throat, and it dies a convulsive death on the Boardwalk.

The film was yet another big hit. A few months prior to its release, King Kong had been re-released for the second time and went on to make more money than it did in 1933.Around this same time, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was on a flight back to Japan from Indonesia after a movie deal collapsed, trying to figure out how to fill a sudden gap in Toho’s release schedule. At some point during that flight, he decided they’d make a movie about a giant sea monster.

It’s not irrelevant that both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had been in theaters within the past year and both had made lots and lots of money. Even though The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had not yet been released in Japan, you have to figure Tanaka was aware of it, given the original title he gave the project was The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea. You also have to figure Shigeru Kayama, the writer Tanaka hired to come up with a story, was familiar with the film, too (or at least Ray Bradbury’s story), given that his initial scenario included a scene in which the creature attacks a lighthouse, echoing a scene in both Bradbury’s original story and the subsequent film.

In another interesting parallel, the dinosaur in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, along with crushing everything in its path, was also carrying an unknown prehistoric disease, so even those people who crossed the monsters path without getting crushed ended up with a horrible bacterial infection. Godzilla, meanwhile, is of course radioactive, so those people who cross his path without being crushed or burned still end up with radiation poisoning.

In fact, in ways too numerous to list, you could say the original Gojira script was an amalgam of plot points lifted from both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. You have a prehistoric creature awakened by an atomic blast; you have superstitious natives on an isolated island offering up human sacrifices, you have giant footprints and a rampage in a major metropolitan area.

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Toho’s special effects genius, Eiji Tsuburaya, whom Tanaka had immediately hired for the project, freely admitted that he—like Harryhausen—had been originally inspired to become a special effects artist after seeing Willis O’Brien’s work in King Kong. The very first sketches of what the monster would look like, in fact, were decidedly apelike in nature, but were soon discarded in favor of a more saurian design. Tsuburaya said years later that before being hired for Gojira, he’d been planning to make a stop-motion monster movie about a giant octopus. He was forced to abandon the idea to work on Gojira, but coincidentally a year later in 1955, Harryhausen made his own stop-motion octopus movie, It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Unfortunately making Gojira as a stop-motion film, as Tsuburaya initially proposed, would have taken years to complete. Given they only had a few months to film, he decided to go with a guy in a big rubber suit instead.

There was one major difference between Gojira and its influences. King Kong was a fable. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was a simple adventure story. Tanaka wanted his film to be more than that. He wanted his film to be an allegory both about atomic weapons and Japan’s recent history. As a result, Gojira was a much darker film than either Kong or Beast. The opening scene of the film, in which the water around a fishing boat begins to bubble, followed by a blinding flash of light seconds before the boat bursts into flames, was a direct reference to an incident still fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences.

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted an H-bomb test on the island of Bikini in the South Pacific. One hundred miles east of the island, the Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon No. 5, found itself in the direct path of the fallout. All the fisherman aboard suffered radiation poisoning, and one died as a result. It was a major news story in Japan at the time, and one that convinced most Japanese (again) that not only were atomic weapons a threat to humanity, but also that the U.S. was being foolhardy and reckless in their testing.

Once more I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

It’s amazing that in spite of a tight budget and a tighter production schedule, the final film, released in November of 1954, was the masterpiece it was. It was far more than a simple monster movie. Director Ishiro Honda crafted a dark and somber allegory about the horrors of nuclear war. It was nothing to laugh at. The film ended with a sacrificial suicide, Tokyo in ruins, and the streets littered with the dead or dying.

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And boy, by some accounts, was Ray Harryhausen pissed—believing correctly he’d been ripped off and that Toho had made a mountain of cash as a result. While he put years of painstaking work into his giant animated monsters, Toho had taken the cheap way out, replacing stop-motion animation with a guy in a suit.

But the Möbius strip of Godzilla’s evolution, one that began with Gertie, doesn’t stop there. Gojira is merely an axis.

Back in Hollywood, while Harryhausen was averaging one box-office smash per year and Godzilla was becoming a franchise as well as a cultural icon, Willis O’Brien was waiting years between jobs and struggling to find work of any kind. After Mighty Joe Young, it was a full ten years before he was offered some stop- motion work on the giant scorpion movie The Black Scorpion, then another couple after that before Eugene Lourie, the man who directed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, brought him in to work on The Giant Behemoth

O’Brien knew what his real bread and butter was, and so as he waited for jobs he kept writing and shopping new King Kong scripts. Unfortunately every studio he approached took a pass. The problem was that O’Brien’s stop- motion technique was too slow and far too expensive. Taking a nod from Toho, American studios in search of giant monsters started using rear projection of real animals or miniaturized sets and stunt men in monster costumes.

One of O’Brien’s scripts was called King Kong vs. Frankenstein, and though it had been floating around for years, every major studio passed on it. (You have to admit that at first glance, a battle between Kong and Frankenstein’s monster wouldn’t last very long.)

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Then in the early ’60s, a mysterious thing happened. The script for King Kong vs. Frankenstein ended up in Japan, on Tanaka’s desk. There had been hints from the beginning that Tanaka wanted to bring King Kong (or a version of him) to Toho, and now he had his chance. Another Godzilla picture was due, so with a simple dash of the pen, King Kong vs. Frankenstein became King Kong vs. Godzilla. The 1962 film, also directed by Honda with music by Ifukube and special effects by Tsuburaya, would go on to become the most profitable entry in the Godzilla series. It would also mark the last film credit the great Willis O’Brien would see in his lifetime. He died the year the film came out.

After that, Tanaka and Honda went a little batty with the giant apes. After King Kong vs. Godzilla, they made a sequel—1967’s King Kong Escapes, in which the Japanese version of Kong battles a robot version of the Japanese version of Kong. That film was a co-production between Toho and Rankin/Bass, the same fine folks who gave us Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming’ to Town. The film was based on a then-popular Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon series. This may help explain why Kong bears a certain resemblance to a reddish-brown version of Rudolph’s Abominable Snow Monster. Although King Kong Escapes was rated G and aimed at the kiddies, it still ends with a man being crushed by a sliding table and vomiting blood.

Two years after King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho would go on to film Frankenstein Conquers the World (whose American title strangely parallels a popular giant snail film from 1957, The Monster That Challenged the World), in which “Frankenstein’s monster” takes the form of a giant hairy retarded adolescent created by a mad scientist. This led to the sort-of sequel War of the Gargantuas in 1966, which featured two giant hairy ape-like creatures who cause trouble.

To twist the knot of this evolutionary chain one more time, we need to jump ahead to 1998, and the release of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s mega-budget, CGI’ed, pop-musicked remake of Godzilla.

Normally, as with The Godfather, Part III and all the George Romero zombie films following Day of the Dead, I prefer to believe the film simply doesn’t exist, and never existed. I bring it up here, however, for one reason. Despite the title and all the hype, Godzilla is not a remake of Godzilla. It’s a remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The original Gojira may have been inspired by Beast—may have even lifted a few things from it outright, but in the end Gojira was a unique film with its own identity, its own style, and its own message. This 1998 film is a straightforward remake. It’s just The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with worse special effects and the name “Godzilla” slapped on the poster. As in the original Lurie/Bradbury/Harryhausen picture, the American Godzilla is tracked underwater as he approaches New York. He makes a dramatic entrance on the docks. He walks through a building leaving a monster-shaped hole. He disappears for long periods of time while in Manhattan. Hell, he even looks more like Harryhausen’s monster than Toho’s—and he no longer breathes radioactive fire.

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Instead of dying at Coney, he (or she) dies at Madison Square Garden. I guess that’s different.

Interestingly enough, the movie Emmerich and Devlin made which got them the Godzilla job was Independence Day, a hugely successful summer blockbuster about an alien invasion that was at heart a remake of another Ray Harryhausen film, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers—right down to the destruction of Washington D.C.

I probably shouldn’t let movies make me mad like this, but if Harryhausen was pissed at Toho for using a rubber suit to steal his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, you have to wonder how pissed he was at Emmerich and Devlin for using computer animation to steal two of his movies and make bazillions without giving him a lick of credit.

At this point, things start to get complicated. In the early years of the 21st century, King Kong returned to America, and Godzilla returned to Japan. Ray Harryhausen received a long-overdue Oscar, and Toho began cranking out kaiju eiga as Peter Jackson once again remade King Kong.

There’s no saying at this point what Gareth Edwards’ upcoming 2014 Godzilla reboot will be, what effect it will have on the King of the Monster’s evolutionary path, or even if it’ll be a remake of Godzilla at all (maybe he’ll grab another Harryhausen film instead), but how we reached this point after all those cloverleafs and loop-de-loops remains reasonably straightforward. If Winsor McCay hadn’t made a bet that afternoon at the Museum of Natural History, we wouldn’t have Gertie. If there had been no Gertie, there likely wouldn’t have been a Lost World. No Lost World, no King Kong (at least not in the way we know it). No Kong, no Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. And if there had been no Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, there would have been no Gojira, and none of its 27 sequels.

Jim Knipfel’s latest book, A Purposeful Grimace: In Defense of Godzilla, may be ordered here.


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