On a trip to Alice Springs, the hub of the Australian Outback, we learned that the rounded hills  encircling the town had once, in the Dreamtime, been giant caterpillars. In the course of our explorations of this area, we heard of many other large ancestral animals who had departed in spirit and had left their bodies behind as features of the landscape. Certainly there were large snakes and lizards (not dinosaurs), wallabies and related marsupials, and magnified insects such as those popularized in the movie, Where the Green Ants Dream.

While I was writing this segment of MovieJourneys, a friend gave me a deluxe DVD edition of Gojira, known in the Western market as Godzilla. Turning to my Movie Archive, I searched to see if I had reviewed this movie in the past or merely remembered it from my adolescence. Not only did I find a review of Godzilla, but I also came upon two other films of similar concept. They were, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! All three were made in the year 1954 at the height of worldwide anxiety over the proliferation of nuclear weapons and they all feature mutant monsters risen up from the depths to visit nature’s wrath on reckless humanity. It seemed to me that these were pre-apocalyptic Dreamtime creatures, bringing the realization that things will get worse before they get better.

Godzilla is not state-of-the-art filmmaking. But the crude cinematic techniques give the movie the advantage of believability. It’s almost as if someone had a home movie camera at the time of this catastrophe in Tokyo. I watched the movie again, thinking of it now as a cautionary tale for the new millennium. At the same time, there was news of a big-budget remake of Godzilla, due in early 2014. Though Godzilla saw a Japanese release in 1954, it did not appear in the U.S. until 1956. The gap was filled, however, by the American cult classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. 

Gojira (1954) / Godzilla  (1956)

This film appeared in Japan in 1954 under its original title, Gojira. It was released to the Western market in 1956 under its more familiar title with added scenes featuring Raymond Burr as an American news reporter. At the peak of the world’s greatest fears about what had been wrought in the atomic age, this crude fantasy arrived in movie theaters worldwide.

 The original and much more satisfying version begins with ships in the Southern Sea being mysteriously destroyed in bursts of fire. Soon it is discovered that the cause of the destruction is a huge monster living beneath the waves. People in a fishing village on Odo Island recollect an ancient legend of a monster called Gojira. They perform a masked ritual recounting the traditional story. The beast comes ashore, breathing fire and causing havoc.

At the center of the plotline is an attractive young Tokyo couple hoping to marry if they can secure the permission of the girl’s father. The father, however, is a paleontologist obsessed with Gojira. He makes a presentation to a government committee explaining that the creature is a hold-over from the age of dinosaurs, “two-million years ago.” He attributes the resurrection to radiation from the bombings of 1945. Gojira is described as “over 400 feet tall.” A group of angry women attempt to shout him down displaying no sign of old-school docility or obedience. The girl visits an older friend of the family to whom she has been unwillingly promised in marriage. He is a secretive scientist and confides to her that he has developed a weapon of terrible power. He will not use it against Godzilla out of fear that politicians will use it for a new generation of warfare. Godzilla rises out of Tokyo Harbor and reduces the city to flames despite the massive firepower of conventional weapons (it is interesting to note that the Japanese Army is equipped with artillery and jet warplanes within ten years of the 1945 surrender). There are hundreds of casualties and in the morning the scene looks like Hiroshima.

 There is more talk among the characters of the legacy of 1945, leaving no doubt that this is an “atomic allegory,” a cultural psychodrama for Japan and for the world at large. Eventually, the scientist is persuaded to use his weapon against the monster. He climbs into a diving suit and sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity. It is a moralistic ending underscored by a large children’s choir and a warning from the paleontologist that yet another monster could manifest if the world persists with nuclear testing. I was surprised at the quality of this movie. The only serious flaw was the ponderous beast, a man dressed in a monster suit. The primary strength in this project is in its portrait of Japan within ten years of the bombings and the surrender. Everyone is dressed in modern American attire. There is no sign of traditional Japanese culture except in the fishing village.

THE AMERICAN VERSION: 1956

The Western edition opens with Burr crawling out of the wreckage from the destruction of Tokyo by a fire-breathing monster. Lying in a hospital, he describes how he made a stopover in the city on his way to an assignment in Cairo and was caught up in the attacks by Godzilla. He is seen on the plane crossing the Pacific, smoking a cigarette in his Pan Am seat. Traveling with a local guide, he crosses to Odo Island, where the monster was first identified. He will narrate all of the action in the movie, sometimes through dramatization and other times with voiceover, all of it folded into the original footage from 1954. The local guide explains the meaning of the masked ritual in English, which is very helpful. Burr gets a great deal of screen time as he observes every aspect of the breaking story. Generally, this strategy slows the movie down and makes it more stilted.

The famous paleontologist states that the dinosaur-like monster has been revived from the Jurassic Age by recent testing of H-Bombs. The “two-million year old monster” enters Tokyo harbor and destroys much of the city despite the massive firepower of conventional weapons. Burr rides out the catastrophe until the movie comes full circle. The young couple comes to visit him with urgent news. It is now certain that the doomsday weapon of a local scientist is the only answer.  He has resisted making it known out of fear that it will fall into the wrong hands. In the end, just this once, the “oxygen destroyer” is used to kill the monster under the waters of the harbor.  The scientist has been moved by the suffering of the citizens of Tokyo, recalling scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A large all-girls choir sings a moving requiem.  Beneath the surface, the beast watches the preparations for his death, looking kind of goofy and pathetic.  The moment recalls the pathos of King Kong (1933).  The secret weapon resembles a giant Alka Seltzer, dissolving Godzilla and presumably every other living thing in the harbor.  The scientist sacrifices himself, wishing the young couple a life of happiness. Burr is on hand to witness the entire event and it is he who delivers the final warning to the world.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon  (1954)

This mutant “Gill-man” rises up from the bottom of the Amazon River to menace a flimsy steamer crewed by a group of men and one attractive woman. The creature is attracted to the woman and continually reaches out to her, but he has little regard for the lives of her shipmates.

Them!  (1954)

 Considered one of the better monster invasion movies of the 1950s, this one posits a swarm of giant ants produced by the nuclear explosions of 1945.  At the end, a professor suggests that the nuclear age has opened a whole new set of ills to afflict the human race.

Jurassic Park Franchise   (1993-2002)

This is a more up-to-date version of this Don’t Mess with Mother Nature genre. It spans the turning of the millennium and leaves behind the synthetic dinosaurs of the past in favor of exceptionally believable thunder lizards. This of course is the Jurassic Park franchise where human greed and overblown ambition combine to generate “the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.” By means of modern science, dinosaurs are rescued from 65 million years of extinction and set loose upon the world.

The blog that follows this one looks at hidden valleys where dinosaurs roam freely and represent no danger to humans unless they are molested. See Lost Land Movies below.

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