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A look back at how Godzilla and King Kong first roared onto screen

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the Warner Brothers film "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire," now in theaters, we get to see two legendary screen monsters team up to save the world. On today's show, we're going to recall the origin of these roaring creatures with archive interviews about their first appearances before movie audiences. First King Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING KONG")

ROBERT ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Come on, I got him. He'll be out for hours. Send to the ship for anchor chains and tools.

FRANK REICHER: (As Captain Englehorn) What are you going to do?

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) I'll build a raft to float him to the ship. Why, the whole world will pay to see this.

REICHER: (As Captain Englehorn) No chains will ever hold that.

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) We'll give him more than chains. He's always been king of his world. But we'll teach him fear. We're millionaires, boys. I'll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it'll be up in lights on Broadway - Kong, the eighth wonder of the world.

DAVIES: That's a scene from the 1933 film "King Kong." That was Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, the producer who journeys to Skull Island in the Indian Ocean to capture the giant ape and bring him to New York to star in his nightclub spectacle. "King Kong" was directed by Merian C. Cooper, who was himself an adventurer and documentary filmmaker who traveled through Africa and East Asia. We're going to listen to Terry's interview with film historian Rudy Behlmer recorded in 1999, when the soundtrack of "King Kong," dialogue and music, was released on CD. Behlmer had written the liner notes. His books include "Inside Warner Bros." and "Behind The Scene." Many things made that original "King Kong" memorable - the special effects, the image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, the screams of Fay Wray and the score composed by Max Steiner. Here's the opening title music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Rudy Behlmer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RUDY BEHLMER: Thank you very much, Terry. (Vocalizing) Bum, bum, bum. It doesn't sound as good when I do it as when Max Steiner did it.

GROSS: Well, he wrote it.

BEHLMER: Yeah.

GROSS: What would you say the importance of Max Steiner score is for "King Kong?" I mean, I love the score for this.

BEHLMER: It's a wonderful score. And, of course, he was a pioneer, certainly, in doing sound motion picture scores. But if you can imagine that picture, if you turn the sound off when you're watching a cassette or seeing it on television and you turn the sound off during the big sequences, certainly on - in the Jungle and on top of the Empire State Building and so forth, and you realize how much the sound elements contribute to the success of that film, not only the sound effects that Murray Spivack created out of roars and grunts and groans and what have you that he manufactured, but also, the wonderful dramatic values that Max Steiner brought to it, because, you know, at that time, when he was beginning to score that in late 1932, music throughout, in terms of a underscoring was not prevalent. It was shortly after sound came in and the emphasis was on dialogue. In fact, background scoring was relatively sparse.

But Max rose to the occasion, and fortunately, Merian C. Cooper was a staunch advocate, and so was David Selznick, who was the executive producer at RKO Radio at the time. And they said, yes, we want a full-blooded score. And it certainly became that. And he - you know, he made that thing work from a dramatic standpoint.

GROSS: I love this score, but I find something very amusing about it, which is that although it's set on this island, Skull Island, the music is really very European and nothing like what would have been heard in the region at that time. And I'll play this scene in a moment, but, you know, when they first get to the island - when the American film crew first gets to the island and they're watching this, you know, native ritual...

BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...The natives are chanting Kong, Kong, Kong. And there's this, like, march behind them as a kind of precursor of Kong's footsteps that will be marching toward his prey.

BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: And the march is a very European form, and the brass instruments playing it are so European. And yet this defines a kind of, you know, South Sea Island or African kind of Hollywood sound.

BEHLMER: That's true. Well, of course, Max and everybody else associated with this picture knew we were dealing with a fantasy here. It's a total fantasy, a more - as Cooper said, a more illogical picture could never (laughter) have been thought up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEHLMER: And it is illogical if you stop and examine it from that standpoint. But the music, you know, they weren't saying, well, wait a minute, we have to get something that's indigenous to this area. We have to be authentic. We have to be like a documentary. And, you know, it was full reign of the imagination. And of course, Max composed in a full Wagnerian manner, you know, with light motives and with all kinds of percussive effects that could be used. And he just went all out and the aspect of credibility, you forget about that, because, once again, we're dealing in the world of fantasy - the ultimate world of fantasy.

GROSS: Well, let's hear that scene where the film crew is observing this native ritual where the natives are chanting, Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING KONG")

FAY WRAY: (As Ann Darrow) What do you suppose is happening?

BRUCE CABOT: (As Jack Driscoll) Oh, they're up to some of their heathen tricks. Now, don't go rushing out to see.

WRAY: (As Ann Darrow) All right. But isn't it exciting?

CABOT: (As Jack Driscoll) Sure. I wish we'd left you on the ship.

WRAY: (As Ann Darrow) Oh, I'm so glad you didn't.

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Wait. Easy now. Wait till I see what goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Holy mackerel. What a show. Hey, skipper, come here and get a load of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Ever seen anything like that before in your life?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Kong, Kong.

GROSS: The pure musical delirium (laughter). I really love it.

BEHLMER: And frenzy. Frenzy and delirium.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

BEHLMER: I think that would be a good team.

GROSS: Well, the other memorable sounds in "King Kong" include, of course, Fay Wray's screams and the roar of Kong himself. Let's start with Fay Wray's screams. You know, in the movie, the Carl Denham character, the character who wants to, like, wrangle Kong and bring it back for a nightclub act, he says to the Fay Wray character, he's kind of, like, teaching her how to scream. And he says, OK, pretend you're screaming for your life. Which, of course, she later has to do. Do you know what kind of advice Fay Wray was given about how she should scream?

BEHLMER: Well, the interesting thing is that, of course, if she had done as much screaming when they were shooting this film as it appears to be, she would have been hoarse on the fourth day of shooting. Most of her screams were post-recorded. After the picture finished shooting, they took her into a sound booth and she did wild screams, and they used those screams. So fortunately, she had one major screaming session, which, once again, was after the film finished shooting.

GROSS: And of course, King Kong has a very memorable roar. What do you know about how that was achieved?

BEHLMER: Well, a remarkable man by the name of Murray Spivack, who was the head of the sound department at RKO Radio Pictures at the time, he was confronted with this film, you know, and thought, what can I do? It can't sound like some animal. It has to be a distinctive sound. So he went out, and he recorded the roar of a lion and the roar of a tiger, and he was playing things at different speeds and playing them backwards and then combining them. And then even for some of Kong's grunts and things, he recorded himself doing (imitating King Kong) in a little megaphone-type deal, so the sound is a kind of a combination of many things. It sounds like a roar, but it's not a roar that you can identify, which of course is what he wanted to do. But by altering the speeds of the recordings and taking two different animals and overlapping them, of course you can do all kinds of things.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a nice scene with plenty of screams and roars? And this is, I believe, the first time we actually see Kong. Fay Wray is tied at the stake during another one of these ceremonies, and this scene starts with the chief, played by Noble Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING KONG (1933)")

NOBLE JOHNSON: (As Native Chief, non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As tribe, chanting in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

WRAY: (As Ann Darrow, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF KING KONG ROARING)

WRAY: (As Ann Darrow, screaming).

DAVIES: A scene from the 1933 film "King Kong." Film historian Rudy Behlmer spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "A BOAT IN THE FOG")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and as the new film "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" appears in theaters, we're listening to Terry's 1999 interview with film historian Rudy Belmar about the original "King Kong," released in 1933.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, you know, Carl Denham is the character who's the American promoter determined to capture Kong so he can create a crowd-pleasing spectacle, you know, back in New York, and I want to play the scene where he explains why he needs a beautiful actress for the film that he eventually wants to build around Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING KONG (1933)")

SAM HARDY: (As Charles Weston) You never had a woman in any of your other pictures. Why do you want one in this?

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Because the public, bless them, must have a pretty face to look at.

HARDY: (As Charles Weston) Well, Mr. Denham, why not take a picture in a monastery?

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Makes me sore. I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture, and then the critics and the exhibitors all say, if this picture had love interest, it would gross twice as much. All right. The public wants a girl, and this time, I'm going to give them what they want.

HARDY: (As Charles Weston) I don't know where you're going to get her.

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) You think I'm going to give up just because you can't find me a girl with a backbone? Listen, I'm going out to make the greatest picture in the world, something that nobody's ever seen or heard of. You'll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back.

HARDY: (As Charles Weston) Where are you going?

ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) I'm going out and get a girl for my picture, even if I have to marry one.

GROSS: Well, Carl Denham is certainly determined to do anything he needs to do to make this picture. Any comparisons you could make between Carl Denham and the real director of King Kong, Merian Cooper?

BEHLMER: Well, there are a lot of comparisons because Merian Cooper was, to a large extent, Carl Denham, and Ernest Schoedsack, his partner, who was the co-director, was, to a certain degree, the Bruce Cabot character.

GROSS: That's the love interest of Fay Wray.

BEHLMER: The love interest of Fay Wray, who was the first mate on the junket, and Ruth Rose was Mrs. Schoedsack, and she wrote the final dialogue script. And Cooper and Schoedsack had been partners for a long time. They had done a very important documentary called "Grass" back in 1925, and then they did another one called "Chang" in 1927, where they were actually over in Siam, which it was called then, and later Thailand, and shot there up in the jungles with the tigers and the elephants and so forth, and they were really adventurous folk. I mean, back then, this was a big deal. And the entire company was Cooper and Schoedsack. They shot their own footage. They directed it. They set it up. They got to know the natives. So this kind of an expedition, of course, was taken to its fantasy element once again by "King Kong," which was a conception of Merian Cooper's.

When he was a young boy of about 6, his great-uncle gave him a copy of a book that was written in the middle of the 19th century called "Explorations And Adventures In Equatorial Africa," by a man by the name of Paul Du Chaillu. And in it, he's describing these terrifying gorillas, which, of course, years later, we've come to realize is not the case, but this was before anybody had really gotten to study the gorillas, and this electrified Cooper as a little kid. He said - and he told me this back in the '60s. He said, from that point on, I knew I wanted to be an explorer. Well, he did want to become an explorer, and he combined exploring with motion-picture-making and then, later on, with aviation, and he was quite - he was an incredible character.

GROSS: Cooper refused to use a man in a gorilla suit for King Kong, and so they went with, you know, the puppet and stop-time animation. Why didn't he want to use a man in a gorilla suit? It certainly would have been a lot easier.

BEHLMER: Well, he felt that this had to be something different, and of course, there had always been these men running around in gorilla suits in all kinds of movies that were made in the '20s and early '30s, and, you know, that was fine, but he wanted to do something special. And when he saw, over at RKO, Willis O'Brien, who was the chief technician, working on some stop-motion material for a picture called "Creation," which was never made, and he saw these dinosaurs, he thought, wait a minute. Nobody's going to finance me during the Depression to go over to Africa and shoot a gorilla and then bring the gorilla to Komodo and so forth and so forth. When he saw that process at RKO, he thought, wait a minute, this is the way to do "King Kong." So he wanted to do it via the stop-motion, but to hedge his bet, he also had a huge, full-size bust of Kong constructed and a hand and arm of Kong constructed and a foot, so that for some shots - for example, when he's holding Fay Wray in his hand, you've got the hand. When you see an occasional close-up of the head, it's this big, oversized Kong, so he - but he did not want to shoot a man in a gorilla suit. He just drew the line right there.

GROSS: I've always thought that Kong's size and his, you know, relative size to buildings and people keeps changing throughout the movie.

BEHLMER: You're absolutely right on that, Terry. It does keep changing, and this, once again, was - people were saying, well, wait a minute. We built him on a scale of 18 inches to a foot, meaning that he'd be 18 feet high, and yet you want to make him - he said, I want to make him - for this scene, I want to make him bigger. I want to make him 24 - and they all kind of looked at him like - I want to make him 24 feet. And then, on occasion, he said, forget the 18 to 24. I want to make him 45 - you know, so it does keep changing, but he felt that the concept - when he got to New York, he definitely had to be bigger because of the environment, and of course, Cooper was right. Cooper had to, you know, do a lot of fighting for things that he believed in, but inevitably, I found, through the years, he was right.

GROSS: Now, "King Kong" is really filled with a lot of bondage imagery - you know, Fay Wray in flimsy, chiffony dresses and lingerie, tied at the stake on the island or pulled out of her bed by Kong's giant arm in New York. Do you think that Cooper was intentionally playing to a kind of low-level bondage, S&M kind of thing?

BEHLMER: I don't think so. I think that he just thought this would be great material. You know, I don't think he ever gave thought to that sort of thing. He obviously wanted to use a woman, and he had not used a woman, really, in his documentaries, but he did want to use - and he did like Fay Wray. He had used her in "Four Feathers," the Cooper-Schoedsack production of '29, and he used her in "The Most Dangerous Game," which is a wonderful short story by Richard Connell that he was producing concurrently with "King Kong" at RKO. She was in that, and she was running around in the same jungle that - she'd be shooting in the jungle during the day for "The Most Dangerous Game," and at night, with Cooper, for "King Kong," and for "King Kong," he wanted her in a blonde wig. She was actually a brunette, which she appears to be in "The Most Dangerous Game," but he thought that the "Beauty and the Beast" bit - that Beauty should be a blonde, so she wore a blonde wig. And he was great friends with her and admired her, and they remained friends over the years.

GROSS: The blonde was probably a better contrast to Kong's dark body.

BEHLMER: That's right. And he said - you know, he said to Fay Wray when he first talked to her about it, he says, you're going to play opposite the tallest, darkest leading man...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEHLMER: ...Because she didn't really know. You know, he - and as she got into the thing, she realized what this was going to be, but she didn't understand how it was - 'cause a lot of the time, she was up in a tree reacting to things that hadn't really been photographed yet, or, you know, screaming in a cave or doing one thing and another. And, of course, the putting together of this film - you know, it was very difficult to know exactly what it was going to look like when it was all put together, so she had to rely on Cooper and Schoedsack, and fortunately, she knew them both, so that worked to her advantage.

GROSS: Well, Rudy Behlmer, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BEHLMER: Well, Terry, it's been my pleasure, and remember that big guy (imitating music).

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

BEHLMER: Film historian Rudy Behlmer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1999. Behlmer died in 2019. After a break, we'll hear Terry's interview with Steve Ryfle, author of a book about the making of "Godzilla" and its many sequels, and Justin Chang reviews the new film, "Civil War." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "THE AEROPLANE/FINALE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Dave Davies. Today, as the new film "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire" brings two classic film monsters together for movie audiences, we're recalling the origin of these durable beasts with a pair of archive interviews. Next, Godzilla.

(SOUNDBITE OF GODZILLA ROARING)

DAVIES: He was dubbed king of the monsters in the 1956 film that Americans saw, but that "Godzilla" was considerably different from the original Japanese movie. We're going to listen to Terry's 2004 interview with Steve Ryfle, author of a book about the making of "Godzilla" and its many sequels titled "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star." The Japanese Godzilla is much more than a campy or scary monster movie. It's a very bleak, somber film with echoes of the firebombing and atom bombing of Japan and direct references to the perils of radiation. You probably know the story, an angry giant reptile emerges from the ocean and stomps across Tokyo, breathing fire and destroying the city. A scientist believes that radiation from atomic bomb tests turned a formerly peaceful sea creature into this monster. The American version of the film deleted about 40 minutes from the original to make it shorter and to make way for new footage that was added to make the film more marketable to American audiences. The new footage featured an American wire service reporter whose reports provide the narration for the story. The reporter was played by Raymond Burr, who went on to play Perry Mason. Here's how he opened the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!")

RAYMOND BURR: (As Steve) This is Tokyo, once a city of 6 million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which, up until a few days ago, was entirely beyond the scope of man's imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could have told of what they saw. Now there are only a few.

DAVIES: Terry began by asking Steve Ryfle why Raymond Burr's character was added to the American version and why some of the film's message was changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE RYFLE: Well, this was, you know, the mid-'50s, a decade or so after the end of the war. I don't think there was a lot of sympathy for Japan. So the underlying message of the film may not have resonated so well with American audiences at that time. That having been said, I don't know that the distributors of the film in the United States had purely political motives. I think they were driven more by capitalism than anything else, and what they did was essentially disguise a Japanese film as an American one. And if you think about it, what they did was rather ingenious.

They rented Raymond Burr for one day. The story goes that they paid him for one day's work, and they kept him at the studio for 24 hours in order to film all of his scenes. They filmed everything on a little soundstage on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. They hired Asian actors, some of whom posed as essentially body doubles for the Japanese actors. They used over-the-shoulder shots and whatnot to kind of pretend that Raymond Burr was actually speaking to members of the Japanese cast, and they rather effectively, if crudely, incorporated him into the Japanese film. And what it did was it created a very marketable, giant monster movie of the variety that was so popular at that time.

GROSS: Now, the ending is really changed. In the original "Godzilla," the Japanese movie, the movie ends with the paleontologist saying, I can't believe that Godzilla is the only survivor of his species. If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear somewhere in the world. What's the ending in the American version?

RYFLE: Well, you know, the giant bug, giant reptile, you know, atomic monster movies were extremely popular in the 1950s. I mean, I could run down a list of really wonderful titles like "Tarantula," "Them!," "Black Scorpion," "Giant Claw," "Giant Gila Monster," "Giant Behemoth," "The Amazing Colossal Man," "The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman," and on and on and on. And what was the normal pattern in those films? Essentially, in the American atomic monster movies, the monsters were stand-ins for Cold War invaders, and at the end of the movie, there would be much celebration as the American military ultimately defeated these warriors, these monsters with new and more powerful military might.

Often there would be, you know, a new version of an atomic weapon that obliterated the monster. And the message was clear that no matter what the threat, you know, never fear, the American military is strong and will defend you. And what the American distributors of "Godzilla" did was essentially, if not completely, attempt to create an ending of that type. Raymond Burr's last line of the film was, you know, the menace was gone, but the whole world could wake up and live again. I think even in the Raymond Burr version of the film, the rather downbeat and poignant ending still shines through to a point.

But in the original version, as you said, it's much more pessimistic. If we continue to test these H-bombs, another Godzilla is going to appear somewhere in the world someday. To me, what that essentially means is, in our world, that someday, you know, one of these bombs is going to be used again. And if you look around us today, I mean, it's never been more true. I mean, we're just, you know, one accident away from a nuclear tragedy. And incidentally, the scientist's prediction was correct, wasn't it? Godzilla came back again and again and again and again, and that's why we're here talking about this today.

GROSS: (Laughter) You know, watching the movie as an adult, I was thinking, well, you know, it's the H-bomb that's responsible for Godzilla, but it's the atomic bomb that was actually dropped on Japan. Why is it the H-bomb that the movie is so concerned with?

RYFLE: Well, the H-bomb testing program was in full effect at this time. And there was an incident in early 1954, the Lucky Dragon tragedy. And this is really the incident that may have been, you know, the most responsible for the creation of "Godzilla." The Lucky Dragon was a Japanese fishing boat that set sail from its home port in Yaizu in January of 1954. And its voyage was ill-fated from the beginning. They were originally set to tuna fish in the waters off of Indonesia. But at the last minute the owner of the boat ordered the fishing master to set sail instead for the waters off of midway, because he had heard that there was great catches of albacore tuna to be had there.

So in late February, they began fishing there. And on the morning of March 1, 1954, in the predawn hours, a few crew members were standing on the deck when they thought they saw the sun rising in the West. And what it turned out to be was an H-bomb test. Now, the crew of the boat had not been warned that they were drifting dangerously close to the Pacific Proving Ground, the H-bomb testing zone at the Marshall Islands, and even if they had known that they were close to the testing ground, they certainly did not know that a test was going to occur on that date. So as they stood there wondering what the heck this was, a few of the men who had served in the war started to get an eerie feeling, and the captain said, let's get the heck out of here. And by the time they reeled in their nets, they were being rained on with this sticky white ash, this radioactive fallout, and by the time they got back to Japan, many of the men were sick.

The radioman later died of leukemia that year. It became a huge international incident, and in mid-March, after the boat had returned to port and it was starting to be - this incident was starting to make waves in the press, Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the film eventually, clipped a newspaper article and went to the head of production at Toho Studios and said, what if these nuclear tests, what if these H-bomb tests, awakened an undersea creature that came on land and destroyed Japan? And that's really the genesis of "Godzilla."

GROSS: There are amazing scenes of destruction in "Godzilla." You know, Godzilla in the movie, he's not just a victim of the hydrogen bomb, a victim in the sense that he's become bizarre and radioactive as a result of this, but he also is a kind of, like, metaphor for the force of hydrogen and atom bombs. And, you know, he breathes fire, and he sets Tokyo ablaze, and the scenes of Tokyo burning are really disturbing, especially if you're a child watching it. Can you describe how those scenes were shot?

RYFLE: Well, the miniature sets of Tokyo, in some cases, were so large that they had to be built outside to accommodate the width and the dimensions of them. They were basically shot using, you know, miniature buildings constructed in 1:25 scale, and of course, Godzilla, as we all know, is a man in a latex costume who tramples through the set. You know, for instance, when Godzilla destroys the clock tower in the Ginza, that is a very, very accurately detailed model. The amount of care and detail that went into the construction of the miniature Tokyo is just amazing. When you witness Tokyo on fire, there's a great shot during the middle of Godzilla's long rampage that's just amazing. The destruction, the death toll, is sort of unparalleled on screen.

DAVIES: Steve Ryfle speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2004. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA IFUKUBE's "STORMY OOTOJIMA ISLAND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're recalling the origins of King Kong and Godzilla as the new film, "Godzilla x King Kong: The New Empire," appears in theaters. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Steve Ryfle about the original "Godzilla," released in 1954 in Japan and, in a modified form, in the United States two years later. The original Japanese version of the film wasn't released in the U.S. until 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the things that really intensifies all the effects of "Godzilla," the sense of danger, the sense of destruction, is the score. It's a fantastic score, and worked into the score are the sounds of the monster growling and the really frightening sounds of the monster's footsteps reverberating. Tell us something about the composer of the score.

RYFLE: Well, Akira Ifukube - boy, what can I say? I think the score for "Godzilla" - of course I'm biased, but I think it's one of the greatest film scores of all time. And of course, the motifs in "Godzilla" were reused and reworked continually throughout the golden age of the series in the '50s and the 1960s. Mr. Ifukube is a highly regarded classical composer in Japan. He scored many, many, many, many films, including several classics, and, you know, without Ifukube's music, I don't think "Godzilla" would have made the impact that it did. The music is synonymous with "Godzilla," as is Godzilla's roar, which, by the way, Mr. Ifukube created through the manipulation of musical instruments and sound effects.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a part of the score, and you'll hear the monster's footsteps and the monster's roar worked into it?

(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA IFUKUBE'S "TOKYO IN FLAMES")

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of "Godzilla." The sound of Godzilla's footsteps have always seemed to me to be the sound of impending doom, you know, 'cause it's this thunderous, reverberating sound, and you get the feeling it's coming closer, you know? And so that's the feeling you're always left with when you hear these footsteps. It's like it's coming closer. The monster or the tragedy is approaching. How were those footsteps created?

RYFLE: Well, there are several accounts of how that was done. It seems to have been - the most logical explanation seems to be a large drum that was beat and recorded and, you know, reverb effects added to it. I don't think it was anything, you know, technically sophisticated at that time. This film really had a make-it-up-as-you-go-along, you know, approach. Whatever needed to be done, the filmmakers found a way to do it.

GROSS: How was the monster's roar created?

RYFLE: The monster's raw - boy, isn't that one of the greatest sound effects in movie history? Every kid knows it. I remember when I was a child, we used to try to imitate it no not too much success. It was created by rubbing a gloved hand - a leather gloved hand over the strings of a double bass, recording that sound and manipulating it, changing the speed. And that's what they came up with. And Godzilla's roar basically was created using the same sound effects even up until now. Now it's digitally altered, but it basically sounds the same. And if you recall, during the 1960s, Godzilla's roar became more of a high-pitched whine, but it's more or less the same sound.

GROSS: Do you think that the director of "Godzilla," Ishiro Honda, saw it as a monster film or saw it as, you know, a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons?

RYFLE: I think it's a little bit of both. Mr. Honda had served in the Japanese military during World War II, and upon his return home after the war, he had visited Hiroshima and witnessed the aftermath of the destruction there, and he was deeply affected by that. And he said so on several occasions. "Godzilla" is Mr. Honda's most personal film by far. And you can see the imprint that the war left on him. He worked personally on the script, you know, and he spoke many, many times over the years about how his desire for this film, while it was an entertainment film, by and large, but his desire was to send a message. Not an indictment of America. The monster really - that's another difference between "Godzilla" and American monster movies at the same time period. The American monsters usually are stand-ins, as I said, for Cold War enemies.

"Godzilla" is not really a stand in for America. It is more of an indictment of the nuclear age. And Honda's hope was that somehow, this film would inspire people to think about disarmament. I think today, if he were still alive, he'd be very disappointed that, you know, nuclear weapons are possessed by more nations than ever before.

GROSS: You've seen all of the "Godzilla" sequels. Which do you think are the worst?

RYFLE: Well, the film that is fairly universally regarded as the worst of the "Godzilla" series is called "Godzilla Vs. Megalon." And, you know, this film has unfortunately been probably seen more widely than any other "Godzilla" film. It came out in 1973 in Japan, '76 roughly in the United States. And NBC actually broadcast it in prime time, with John Belushi hosting it and introducing segments of the film wearing a Godzilla costume himself. It's crudely made. It's a lot of fun for laughs, but it's really not science fiction, you know, in any sense of the word. And yet, this film really has massive exposure, relatively speaking. And I think a lot of people who just assume Godzilla is this campy, you know, monster that is good for a little more than wrestling matches and goofy antics are thinking of films like this one.

That's why the release of this - the original "Godzilla" in its uncut form in this, you know, quote-unquote, "director's cut" version is so important because "Godzilla" didn't start out that way. It had serious intentions. And yes, it's an entertainment film. Yes, it's not meant to be taken too seriously. We're not talking about, you know, "Citizen Kane" here. I recognize that. But nevertheless, the original film and the filmmakers who created it had higher aspirations than something like "Godzilla Vs. Megalon," and let us not forget that.

GROSS: Well, Steve Ryfle, thanks so much for talking with us.

RYFLE: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Author and documentarian Steve Ryfle speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Ryfle is the author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-star," about the original "Godzilla" and its many sequels, and the forthcoming book "Godzilla Vs. The World: The Politics Of Japan's Disaster Monster."

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Civil War," starring Kirsten Dunst as a photographer documenting conflict in a future United States that's led to warfare among the states. This is FRESH AIR.

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