CineMe 1969: Destroy All Monsters


cineme

1969: Destroy All Monsters

Directed by Ishirō Honda
Written by Takeshi Kimura

Godzilladam“The major cities of the world are being destroyed one-by-one by the monsters!”

What was to be the final film in the Godzilla series stomped into Japan as Kaijû sôshingeki (Charge of the Monsters) a full year before its Americanized version.  But for years, the dubbed glory of Destroy All Monsters was all we had, as was the case for all the Godzilla films.  They were the province of lazy Saturday afternoon creature features on UHF channels, the subject of ribbing from horror movie hosts and even Saturday Night Live when NBC aired Godzilla vs. Megalon in prime time. And that was enough for a wide-eyed kid sitting in rapt attention as giant monsters battled to the death.

No one can accuse the Showa series of Godzilla films — the run from the original Godzilla in 1954 to Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1974 — of meeting the most exacting production standards.  The monsters are clearly guys in suits. The models are clearly models.  Most times, the films come to complete agonizing halts whenever the monsters aren’t on-screen.  But what’s undeniable in these films is the sheer unbridled enthusiasm with which these monsters parade across the screen.  Lasers and lightning bolts arc across the sky, giant beasts wage battle across open plains, and aliens scream down from space to rain ruin upon a defenseless planet.  It’s the equivalent of kids playing with their toys, only with a budget and a distributor.

I can’t remember which Godzilla film I saw first, but I do remember Destroy All Monsters being a sort of holy grail.  It was the scorching fastball a pitcher holds back until he really needs it.  Oh, the stations would run Monster Zero and Godzilla vs. The Thing at the drop of a hat, but it felt like Destroy All Monsters was for special occasions.  It was the All-Star Game of monster movies, every heavy hitter on display, and you didn’t want to waste that by running it into the ground.  For a kid my age growing up in the pre-Star Wars days, watching Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and the rest of the Toho monsters gang up on King Ghidorah was as absolutely good as it got.

Of course, when I saw it again years later on home video, the seams showed.  There was this annoying plot that kept interrupting the monster mayhem.  The wall-to-wall destruction I remembered was much more spaced out, and the final battle wasn’t nearly as epic as it had seemed to a pair of seven-year old eyes.  But when it was on, it was on, and I felt like that little boy whose father sat him down in front of a black and white TV one day and said, “Watch this, you’ll like it.”  The friends I was watching the video with cheered with glee when Godzilla stomped on Ghidorah’s neck, and all the faults didn’t matter one damn bit.  Monsters were fighting.

Destroy All Monsters didn’t end the series.  The Big G kept roaring along well into the new millennium, with his production values improving as the technology got better.  But while the spectacle was on a grander and much more believable scale, a lot of the charm of those older films was lost.  Without the ragged appeal of the dodgy effects, the shortcomings in the scripts became much more apparent, and an over-serious air came over the whole enterprise, a striving for significance that hadn’t been tried since the somber atomic allegory of the first film.  But those films from the 60s and 70s remain favorites, both as fond reminders of their place as one of my gateways into geekdom and as light-hearted escapes into a simpler world where monsters on a thirteen-inch TV screen could still be giants in the eyes of a child.

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