BOB GARFIELD: One film that would likely make it unscathed through a Clearplay DVD player is Godzilla. The King of the Monsters turns 50 this year, and to commemorate the great lizard's golden anniversary, a restored print of the original Japanese version has been stomping through selected theaters across the country. Finally, American audiences can view the cut that director Ishiro Honda intended. There's 40 minutes of unseen footage, subtitles to replace the cheesy dubbing, and no Raymond Burr. He was added for the comfort of stateside audiences. Many critics are saying the original is far less campy and far more genuinely haunting. The same cannot be said for the sequels, now numbering nearly 30, and counting. NPR's Jim Zarroli looks back on a half-century of Godzillas. [CROWD AMBIENCE] [BIG, HEAVY FOOTSTEPS...]
MJIM ZARROLI: Even before you saw Godzilla, you heard his footsteps, [PEOPLE SCREAMING] falling on the earth ominously, shaking buildings and trees. Soon he would appear in the water or over the crest of a hill -- an enormous scaly creature like a dinosaur with a roar that was somewhere between a lion and a giant vacuum cleaner. [LION/GIANT VACUUM CLEANER ROAR] He had a stiff, lumbering gait, and a tail that could squash skyscrapers. He emitted a kind of radioactive beam that he could train on his enemies. He was always getting tangled up in power lines, and when he showed up, whole villages fled in terror. [SCREAMS OF VILLAGERS FLEEING IN TERROR] Godzilla was not like American movie monsters -- he didn't lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce. He wasn't malevolent. He was a kind of huge, unstoppable force that showed up unexpectedly and almost despite himself left a trail of destruction in his wake. And if you grew up in this country in the '60s and '70s, you probably watched his movies after school, usually on the low rent UHF stations. For fans like John Lipartito and Norman England, there was nothing like Godzilla.
JOHN LIPARTITO: When you're a kid, when, like, you're a boy -everyone's telling you what to do and everyone can put you down. And then you look at Godzilla, and nobody can put this guy down. He walks around, does what he wants to do, he knocks some buildings over, and-- just as a boy, I don't know, I felt like - oh, wow -that would be cool, if I could do that kind of thing.
NORMAN ENGLAND: I think kids kind of want to be Godzilla, so I think he's a natural child-icon. He's a role model. [LAUGHTER]
MJIM ZARROLI: In truth, there was never one Godzilla any more than there was one Cinderella or Robin Hood. The first Godzilla movie was a dark, serious story about a monster who was somehow brought to life after nuclear tests in the Pacific. He rampages Tokyo before being killed. As this dubbed American version suggests, the shadow of Hiroshima hangs over the movie. [CLIP FROM FIRST AMERICAN GODZILLA MOVIE PLAYS]
MAN: At 3:30 this morning a ship from Tokyo was literally wiped from the surface of the ocean in a matter of seconds.
RAYMOND BURR: Anything from the ship's radio?
MAN: It said there was a blinding flash of light, and the ocean burst into flame.
MJIM ZARROLI: The first Godzilla was no B-movie. It was the most expensive film ever made in Japan at the time, and its cast and crew included some of Japan's most talented people, including some who worked regularly with Akira Kurosawa. The huge success of Godzilla led to sequels. Godzilla took on new monsters like the gentle Mothra and the three-headed Ghidorah in long epic clashes that were like battles between gods. To many fans, it was the golden age of Godzilla. But by the late '60s, says film historian David Kalat, Godzilla like the Terminator later on, had changed -- going from marauding menace to super hero. This Godzilla saved cities from other monsters.
DAVID KALAT: Partly it was a reflection of the fact that Godzilla was obviously the popular character, and that's the, the key around which the franchise was revolving, so-- if you're going to keep bringing back the character over and over and over again, and the audience is going to be there to watch him do his stuff, naturally that audience sympathy works better if you're depicting him as a, as a heroic character rather than a villain.
MJIM ZARROLI: By the 1970s, monster movies were no longer very profitable, and Godzilla's producer, Toho Studios, started cutting the series' budget. [MONSTER SCREAMS]
MAN: Godzilla! [UPBEAT MUSIC] And Kamakura!
MJIM ZARROLI: Toho also began aiming Godzilla at children, and the stories became more simplistic, even campy. [MONSTER SCREAMS, CAMPY MUSIC] Kalat says one reason so many Americans think of Godzilla movies as crudely made is because they crew up watching the Godzilla of that period.
DAVID KALAT: I've often had the, the pleasure of taking somebody who has that, that negative opinion and showing them an earlier film, like Godzilla Versus Mothra, and watching their eyes open as they go - wow - this is - this is really good.
MJIM ZARROLI: In the 1980s, Godzilla fans mounted a successful letter-writing campaign to persuade Toho to return to the darker, more serious movies of the past. Since then, Toho has been churning out new movies of varying quality every few years. The most recent movies are, by contemporary standards, pretty low-tech. Godzilla is still played by a man in a rubber suit who tromps through miniature cities. And that is fine with fans. For people like Norman England, part of the appeal of the old Godzilla movies was that they didn't look realistic.
NORMAN ENGLAND: Today there's kind of a, more of an emphasis, in both Japanese films and American films, on looking real, and what I really liked about in the '60s was it didn't necessarily look -necessarily look real. It looked like another world, and the miniatures themselves kind of hold an appeal like a very intricately-designed H-O scale train set. So, as a boy, I mean I just would just watch these films with my mouth hanging down.
MJIM ZARROLI: Trying to put Godzilla in the real world, fans say, somehow detracts from his power, making him just another movie monster. A few years ago, Columbia Tristar released an American version of Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick [SOUND FROM GODZILLA/MATTHEW BRODERICK VERSION] [MUSIC/SCUFFLING SOUNDS] -- it had all the special effects money could buy. Godzilla tramped through the streets of Manhattan looking realer and scarier than ever before.
MAN: Oh, my God-- God!
MAN: Come on! Let's go!
MAN: One second, all right? One second. This is--unbelievable! [MONSTER SOUNDS]
MJIM ZARROLI: The movie was a box office disappointment, and many Godzilla fans in particular loathed it. Still Toho has continued putting out Godzilla movies in Japan, and Godzilla remains one of the few Japanese entertainment exports that's instantly recognizable around the world. A few years ago, when the 6' 2" Osaka-born Hideo Nomo went to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was nicknamed Godzilla, and no one had to explain the reference. [GODZILLA THRASHING AND ROARING] After nearly half a century of doing battles against monsters of all kinds, Godzilla continues to triumph -- at least as a cultural icon. For On the Media, this is Jim Zarroli. [GODZILLA THRASHING, ROARING BIGTIME]