In the Track of the Behemoth: Celluloid Monsters


At least as far as celluloid goes, the first giant monster attacking a modern city plot was 1933’s King Kong. A giant from a land of giants, Kong rampages through the streets of New York City hunting a human woman he loves. Tragically, he comes up the loser in a climatic battle atop the Empire State Building. King Kong thrilled audiences on release. It has even been remade several times, with the most recent being 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.

               But giant apes are far from the only jumbo-sized critters to aggressively landscape a city or two. However, the proliferation of giant monsters on film was a surprisingly slow process.

Scales and Tails

               The next leap forward came in the form of the 1942 Max Fleischer animated Superman short, The Arctic Giant. These beautifully animated shorts were the first superhero films. Even now, their influence on the entire medium of animation shines even today. The Arctic Giant concerns a gargantuan frozen dinosaur that paleontologists have excavated in Siberia and brought back to Metropolis. Of course, the dinosaur unfreezes and proceeds to go about tearing through the city. Not for any real reason mind, just because it’s a savage beast and mindless destruction is part and parcel. Superman wins in the end, like there was ever any doubt. The Arctic Giant finishes the episode chained to the floor in a concrete pit in the Metropolis Zoo.

               Animal cruelty aside, the Arctic Giant introduced many elements that would become part of the giant monster genre. For example, the Arctic Giant was far larger than Kong. To the point that humans were more like mice in its eyes. It also shrugged off the same small arms fire that put Kong down back in 1933. Finally, it was a threat not just to humans and vehicles but also to large buildings and other superstructures. In other words, improbably gigantic, improbably invulnerable, and needed a similarly improbable solution to stop its rampage. The basics of giant monster movies as modern audiences know them come from this eight-minute short.  

The Dinosaurs Go Atomic

               However, the genre lay dormant for another decade. That only changed in 1953 with the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Directed by Eugène Lourié, born Jewgeni Lurje, a Franco-Ukrainian production designer and artist. Also working on the film was stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, who brought the titular Beast to terrifying life.

The film was ostensibly based on the Ray Bradbury short story The Foghorn. The story is about a sea monster that attacks a lighthouse, though its more complicated than that. The sea monster is implied by the story to be the last of its kind. Tragically, it mistakes the lighthouse’s foghorn for the call of another of its kind. It then destroys the foghorn and lighthouse in a rage when it realizes that it was mistaken. It is still completely alone in the world after all.

The film dispenses with this sympathetic motive, and instead makes its monster, well, a monster. A mindless rampaging beast that just seems to cause destruction because it can. While the attack on the lighthouse attack happens in the film, it’s just a nod to the original material. In fact, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms seems to crib a lot of its story from The Arctic Giant. To wit, the Rhedosaurus (the beast’s proper “scientific” name) was frozen deep in the arctic ice until a nuclear test awoke it. Oh, yeah. It was the atomic age so they had to put nukes in there somewhere. In fact, this film probably introduced the conceit of nuclear weapons creating, or at least reviving, a monster.  

It Always Happens in New York

After Rhedosaurus awakens, it takes authorities some time to realize it’s loose in the world. After all, the scientist who first saw it revivified only got a glimpse and was knocked out shortly after. It causes a few sea disasters as it makes its way to the coast of New York. Sadly, no one puts much stock in the tales of injured, traumatized sailors. Even when the US Navy gets involved, it comes ashore in New York City before they can do anything about it.

               Rhedosaurus rampages through New York City and fights the police and the National Guard. However, its bulk makes it impervious to small arms and artillery wounds it, but doesn’t kill it. Even worse, the creature has brought a virulent prehistoric pathogen with it. Now that it’s bleeding from the wounds the Guard gave it, the disease spreads through the city. Needing to destroy monster and malady in one stroke, the scientist who first saw it in the Arctic develops a plan. He must fire a radioactive isotope into the creature’s wounds. Which they succeed in doing after tracking Rhedosaurus to Coney Island.  

               The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was highly successful and Eugène Lourié would find himself direcing two more giant dinosaur films over the course of his career. It also inextricably linked giant monsters and nuclear weapons (plus just plain old radiation) in the popular imagination. This led to an explosion of giant monster films that ran from the fifties to the seventies, though the fifties were almost certainly the trend’s heyday. Classics like 1954’s Them! and “classics” like 1957’s The Beginning of the End poured into theaters, thrilling audiences like nothing else.


               But it was perhaps only a year after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that the giant monster picture reached its apotheosis. Better known as Gojira or Godzilla outside of Japan. Directed by Honda Ishiro, Gojira followed a similar plot to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but eschewed the Arctic origins.

               Instead, Gojira emerges from the Pacific. It does this because of the recent Castle Bravo tests have burned and irradiated it under it’s little more than a charred corpse that walks. Now blind with rage and agony, Gojira begins a one-dinosaur war on humanity.

               The authorities are not sure what’s happening at first. First, a fishing boat sinks in the South Seas. The ship’s radio operator can only describe a fearsome, blazing sea before losing contact altogether. Another ship is diverted to investigate but is also lost in the same manner.


               However, a survivor from one of the ships washes up on his home of Odo Island. As he recovers, he describes an attack by a ferocious monster at sea. As it turns out, the Odo Islanders believe in a giant beast that lives in the waters near the island. In fact, that they used to sometimes send young girls out on rafts as sacrifices to it. Fortunately, they now just hold a ceremonial dance at the local shine instead. But whatever the ceremony, they were the ones who gave this ancient creature the name Gojira in the first place.

               Some weeks after the fisherman’s return, Gojira attacks the island, leaving a trail of destruction and radiation. The Japanese government, begins to investigate but Gojira moves too swiftly for them. It begins to launch probing attacks in Tokyo Bay, before finally coming ashore and setting the city ablaze. The army does what it can, but Gojira is invulnerable. Thousands die, hospitals buckle under the strain of so many injured. Worse, many people become so irradiated there is nothing that anyone can do for them.

Science Offers a Solution

               The only hope for Japan, and possibly the world, is the work of the brilliant scientist Dr. Serizawa. Studying the properties of the oxygen atom, Serizawa has discovered a way to create a weapon. A weapon even more terrible than the atom bomb. Uninterested in giving humanity yet another potentially world-ending weapon, Serizawa has hidden his discovery away. However, he realizes that he has to use it to end Gojira once and for all. Since no other weapon can do so. Reluctantly he agrees to use his Oxygen Destroyer, but only after burning all his notes. In the end, Serizawa also sacrifices himself to end the threat of Gojira. And to ensure that his knowledge never falls into the wrong hands.

Atomic Allegory

                 Gojira is more than a monster movie. It is an allegory, and not at all a subtle one. Given its subject matter, a lack of subtlety is entirely forgivable. Especially keeping its adroit handling of its themes in mind. Essentially, the reawakened Rhedosaurus was a product of a nuclear detonation. Gojira was a nuclear detonation, and, simultaneously a victim of one.

               It’s obvious why the film took the shape it did. Only nine years earlier, the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had, burned in the unthinkable heat of an atomic explosion. However, it incorporated other things that had befallen Japan during the Second World War as well. Such as the American firebombing raids on Tokyo. It also incorporated more recent events, like the scandal over Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The shio strayed too close to the Castle Bravo nuclear test and her crew suffered dangerous levels of radiation.  

               Gojira embodies all of this. While it has the apocalyptic fury of the explosions that leveled two Japanese cities, it also has the scorched skin and dangerous radioactivity of a hibakusha or survivor of a nuclear explosion. This, combined with its dead, empty eyes almost make Gojira seem like something undead. It’s actions also aren’t mindless. Gojira knows, somehow, that the humans are responsible for what it has become. So, it destroys cities and settlements in order to punish humanity for its transgressions. Though, it certainly isn’t punishing the correct group of humans as the Japanese never used nor developed nuclear weapons.

Told from Personal Experience

               What lends the allegory its power, is that the director Honda Ishirô saw the destruction caused by the atomic bombs first hand. Though not a hibakusha himself, he saw the aftermath of the Little Boy’s detonation. This, combined with general war trauma from his service in Manchuria, greatly informed his work on Gojira. 

                 Apart from its topical nature, Gojira introduced the idea that a monster could be more than a monster. Gojira was destructive and animalistic, but was far from mindless. While Kong had motivations beyond simple destruction, his portrayal in the 1933 film left little doubt that he was just an animal in the end. Albeit an intelligent one. Meanwhile, both the Arctic Giant and Rhedosaurus really were just mindless beasts. Mindless beasts that destroyed because it was their nature and nothing more. Gojira, however, made deliberate and concerted attacks in humanity for the sake of revenge. It somehow understood that humanity was responsible for its agony.

               This was also one of the first times that a monster saw use as part of a specific allegory. Many monster tales have a certain amount of applicability, such as werewolves standing in for suppressed impulses. In this case, however, Gojira didn’t just represent a generalized fear of the new atomic age. Instead, it was a specific representation of what Japan had suffered at the inauguration of the atomic age. While this degree of abstraction is certainly quaint by today’s standards, at the time it was totally unheard of.

Global Popularity

               Gojira would go on to spawn a franchise that endures to this day. Parent company Toho even partnered with Hollywood to create new interpretations of its most beloved character. Meanwhile, the most recent Japanese entry in the film series saw release in 2016. Helmed by Evangelion creator Anno Hideaki, this film provided a grotesque new spin on the Big G. The American film series, meanwhile, has been running since 2014 and released its most recent entry in 2021.  

               The development of the giant monster movie does not stop at Gojira. Unfortunatly, few films match it in terms of soul. In fact, except for Toho’s vaunted franchise, giant monster movies have largely gone out of fashion. In fact, many audiences seeing them as a relic of another age.

Can The Behemoth Rise Again?

               This is not entirely without merit, since the giant monster movie hasn’t seen any meaningful development for decades. With the exception of 2016’s Shin Gojira, which framed its man versus monster narrative as a governmental procedure film. However giant monster movies have remained largely the same since The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms popularized the genre back in 1953. Even the newest entries in the Godzilla franchise only slightly tweak the formula. They still largely follow in the footsteps of the Godzilla films of the 60s and 70s.

               In many ways, Gojira, was a victim of its own success. Because it did what it set out to do and did it so well, most filmmakers didn’t bother making improvements. To add insult to injury, most filmmakers took only the surface level elements form Gojira. This was amplified by the franchise nature that Godzilla has since acquired. Most of the franchise does away with the somber tone and graphic depiction of the actual consequences of a giant monster attack that made the first film hit so hard. The new American entries only reinforce this trend.

               However, something new can always come along. Even though giant monster movies are frozen in time like their prehistoric behemoths, monster movies as a whole have innovated since the dawn of film. Perhaps the next big thing is out there, in the ice. Just waiting for a foolhardy paleontologist or nuclear explosion to wake it up.   

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