HCF REWIND NO.120: GHIDORAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER AKA SAN DAIKAIJU: CHIKYU NO KESSEN, THREE GIANT MONSTERS: THE BIGGEST FIGHT ON EARTH [Japan 1964]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 93 min/ 86 min [US version]
FEATURED MONSTERS: GODZILLA, RODAN, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Police Detective Shindo is assigned to guard Princess Selina Salno of Selgina during the Princess’s visit to Japan, due to a suspected assassination plot. Selina’s plane is destroyed by a bomb, though a disembodied voice makes her jump out of the plane just before the explosion. At exactly the same time, a meteorite shower draws the attention of Professor Murai, who along with his team of scientists sets out to examine the largest of the meteors, which has magnetic properties. To Shindo’s surprise, the supposedly deceased Selina turns up in Japan, without her royal garb and, claiming to be from the planet Mars, preaches to sceptical crowds of forthcoming disaster; the resurrection of Godzilla and Rodan, plus the arrival of a deadly monster from space. Meanwhile Selina’s uncle, who was behind the assassination attempt, sends some assassins to Tokyo to kill her…..
I always have trouble deciding which is my favourite Godzilla movie. Ignoring Godzilla for the moment which is artistically in a different class to all its sequels but in the end not as purely entertaining as many of them, I would say there are four or five entries which vie for pole position. Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster is amongst them, and it might be the one I have watched most, even years ago when I only owned the heavily-altered US version. It introduces the best Toho monster after Godzilla. It has Godzilla defending the earth for the first time, teaming up with two other monsters in a finale which actually gets me cheering. It spends a lot of time on its ‘human’ subplot, but it’s an interesting one which actually incorporates several intriguing science-fictional concepts quite subtly. It’s fairly serious for its first half, then, when the monsters go into action, it gets sillier, with some of the craziest WTF Godzilla film bits, but without ever losing the excitement, and God damn it, I LOVE it when things get goofy anyway, unlike many fans who dislike it and deride this film for its comical bits. It has maybe the best monster fighting, both thrilling and funny, and I don’t think the two elements jar at all. Perhaps director Ishiro Honda is less focused on this than classics like Mothra and Matango, but special effects supremo Eiji Tsuburaya is certainly at the peak of his form.
The amazing thing about Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster is that it was actually a very rushed film. In 1964 Mothra Vs Godzilla was a big hit, and Dogora was scheduled to follow, with the next Godzilla film half-planned for 1965. Toho decided to speed things up and have Godzilla return towards the end of 1964. Dogora was hurriedly churned out and Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster was rushed too, though only occasionally to detrimental effect. Shinichi Sekizawa’s script actually seems to look forward to Invasion of Astro-Monster the Godzilla film that came after in some ways, so maybe he had a grand plan for the two films to be linked which did not entirely work out in the end. They intended to use the Godzilla suit from Mothra Vs Godzilla but the head had become damaged so they built a new sturdier one which also allowed for more mobility. Featuring many of the familiar Toho crew in front of and behind the camera, this film made more money than the previous one, though no series entry would match King Kong Vs Godzilla in terms of receipts. It was picked up for US distribution by Continental Films, a distributor of foreign films under 20th Century Fox, who did well from double bills pairing it with both Harum-Scarum starring Elvis Presley and the British Agent 8 ½, though they made quite a few alterations.
Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster really does take its time to bring in the monsters, and there are many complaints of its slow first half, though I wouldn’t say it’s slow myself. The script introduces various strands which begin to come together, and the main story of the endangered, amnesiac princess who becomes a prophetess of doom, and the cop who defends her, is so interesting that you could make a pretty good whole movie about it without having Godzilla and company butt in. You could increase the action content from the gun fights in the existing film and maybe have a huge natural disaster in the climax which could be either averted or not stopped at all. Sekizawa borrows a bit from his previous script for Dogora, especially when concerning the incompetent crooks who are always foiled, and while things like a heat wave and the possibility of aliens are introduced and not developed, as I said you could tie this in with the next movie which involves aliens invading earth. There’s also a fascinating scene when the hypnotised Selina tells of how Venusians came to Earth millions of years ago and evolved into humans, with maybe the old Venusian instincts like telepathy and prediction kicking in times of trouble. Similar ideas were played with in Quatermass And The Pit, Mission To Mars, and others.
The human stuff spends a bit of a time of Sekizawa’s favourite love ‘triangle’ of the woman, her boyfriend and her brother, maybe too much for some, but there’s some good humorous touches, while Hiroshi Koizumi seems to be playing Muira again from Mothra Vs Godzilla but is here called Murai, and Yuriko Hoshi plays another intrepid reporter but with a more different name for some reason. The Shobijin return in a rather beautiful early scene where two young boys in a TV show ask to see Mothra [well, one of them, as we are told the other died, and in caterpillar form] and the Shobijin sing a very haunting song as images of them appear with Mothra and Infant Island. The lengthy wait for monster action is totally worth it when Rodan emerges from Mt. Aso where he was buried in 1956 [though again only one this time], Godzilla, in another great entrance when we first see dolphins swimming in the evening sea before the camera swoops round to reveal Godzilla, and Ghidorah, then soon reveal themselves. Ghidorah’s birth is both intensely exciting and technically superb, with the meteorite cracking open amidst lots of pyrotechnics, then several explosions going off extremely quickly as an optically animated fireball hovers above and finally morphs into Ghidorah. Then it’s monster fighting and more monster fighting, with Godzilla battling Rodan until Mothra gets them to help him against Ghidorah, though oddly no confrontation with the military.
The effects occasionally show the rushed production, like when someone catches a polystyrene boulder before falling to his death, but the matting involving the monsters and Shobijin against real things is second to none [a couple of shots with humans and the twins in the same shot are almost flawless], and then you have sights like Ghidorah spectacularly wasting Yokohama with his lightning beams. He really is an awesome creation, especially the way his heads move individually. It’s hard today to appreciate how hard this was to pull off, with the actor inside the suit aided by seven puppeteers. The monster fighting does get silly quite quickly, with a hilarious bit where Godzilla and Rodan are playing ball and you see Mothra’s head moving back and forth following the ball, and there is the oft-despised bit of daftness where the three monsters talk in their sounds and the Shobijin translate what they are saying. I love it, though I will say that Honda didn’t like it when the monsters were humanised and made funny. Then there’s the final battle, brilliantly choreographed and worked out, with Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan attempting individual attacks before trying some teamwork. Things like Rodan flying around with Mothra on his back may be silly, but the battle is a magnificent combination of thrills, spectacle and laughs with the funny bits never holding the scene back from being so wonderfully rousing. It’s pure, crazy cinema, and I adore it. I love many things, from Hammer Horror 007 to The Lord Of The Rings, but there’s something about this stuff that is so close to my heart, and I will adore and defend it till the day I die.
Akiko Wakabayashi stands out in a typical Toho cast as Selina, excellently deadpan, and she and Shindo have a lovely moment at the end when we are basically given a love that never had a chance to blossom. The subtle acting and the staging make it rather touching. The great actor Takashi Shimura has his last role in a Toho fantasy film as a doctor rather too quickly to use shock treatment, and Kenji Sahara and Akihiko Hirata are happy in small roles. Ifukube’s score introduces, and then proceeds to play to death, two of his most enduring themes; his menacing, undulating Ghidorah theme, which is actually a variation on one in Battle In Outer Space, and his rousing theme for Godzilla and Rodan which beautifully combines Godzilla’s Mothra Vs Godzilla theme with Rodan’s [which is actually a variation on Varan’s from Varan The Unbelievable]. Ifukube briefly repeats a busy motif from Dogora and uses a theme for Mothra’s egg from Mothra Vs Godzilla for Mothra herself in a score which is quite self-derivative and also sparing in its use of music [only 40 min long in such an action-filled movie], both probably because the composer had so little time. Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster may not be the best in the series, and I’m certainly aware of its flaws, but it is without a doubt what Godzilla films are about; bonkers, funny, imaginative and uplifting [yet with its non-monster element almost as absorbing as the monster part], undisputedly Japanese, but thrilling to anyone for anyone who can revert back to the sense of wonder they had as a child.
They mucked around with this film, though not always to its detriment. A few scenes are cut and others shifted around, presumably to speed up the pace of the first half, but only occasionally to bad effect, such as when Godzilla first appears and, here, immediately sees Rodan, represented by a shot taken from later on in the film. For some reason they replaced Venus with Mars, but the scene where the monsters talk is enhanced by one of the Shobijin saying; “Godzilla, what terrible language”. Ifukube’s score was partly replaced by library music for the first two thirds, but some of the new cues, like the discordant notes just before Godzilla first appears to destroy a ship, or the rather atmospheric track used to describe the place where the meteorite that will become Ghidorah has landed, work rather well. Adding the sounds of the monsters battling in the distance during the last gun fight is also a nice touch. The dubbing is poor, but overall this is one US version that is not as bad as they say.