Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s problem with Godzilla is finally explained after nearly 70 years.
He and his work inspired generations of filmmakers and neither practically needs any introduction with cinephiles familiar with him. But what few of them may know is his bitterly rocky history with Godzilla that gave rise to an account of a mythic disdain for the Toho kaiju.
More hate than you can fathom
Seemingly, it stemmed from hard feelings over the Japanese studio allegedly ripping off ideas, particularly that of a prehistoric creature attacking a city, from the film The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms — which had a monster created by Harryhausen and came out within a year of the first-ever Godzilla movie.
This quote from IMDb sums things up:
"“Harbored a life-long resentment for the Japanese Godzilla films, which took major inspiration from the American movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), for which he had animated the monster. Ray considered the suit-mation techniques of Japanese monster films unconvincing and cheap, and there is even a widespread rumor that claims he would reject fans who approached him wearing Godzilla T-shirts.”"
Don’t believe everything you read
However, paleoartist Mike Tharme, who is also a Ray Harryhausen Foundation ambassador and a former apprentice of the legend, is now coming forward to say the above isn’t exactly the case.
“That was my truth on the whole thing until about a year ago,” Tharme said in an interview with Klayton Fioriti on his YouTube channel Dragoncurve.
Tharme clarified he held his opinion before he spoke to Alan Friswell, conservator of the Harryhausen Foundation. Friswell is described by Tharme as having a “fountain of knowledge” on Harryhausen’s career and many of his personal thoughts, so he set the record straight.
Addressing the “half-truth” about the quote, Tharme explained he was told, “the truth about that quote is that Ray didn’t like the suit animation,” and when he sees someone portraying a creature in a suit that isn’t humanoid or of human proportions “it switches him off” and his enjoyment of the given film.
Kaiju cinema and tokusatsu, invented by Eiji Tsuburaya, amid the bulk of the last seven decades is the biggest culprit – from Godzilla to Gamera to Ultraman. Yet when it came to American monster movies with scaled man-in-a-suit cryptids as in Creature From the Black Lagoon, Harryhausen “loved that suit.”
“So it wasn’t like he was against all suits,” Tharme revealed. “It was just the ones that weren’t done very well and that’s what he sees with Godzilla.”
On a tight schedule
Intrigued by this information, Fioriti added he can understand why Harryhausen might think Godzilla’s production methods didn’t look as good, and Tharme noted the rushed filming schedule of your typical Godzilla movie.
Gojira (1954) was released on November 3 whereas The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms screened for the first time in Japan earlier that year — meaning Gojira director Ishiro Honda had only a few months between the time he saw Harryhausen’s work and the release of his own pivotal picture.
There had to be some borrowing going on then although that wasn’t really what gave Ray Harryhausen his enmity for The King of the Monsters. The inciting issue came years later when the King faced off against another King for the first time.
The root of the problem
The quote from IMDb continues and adds another layer to the story:
"“The film King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) was initially conceptualized by his mentor and close friend Willis H. O’Brien, but was completed without his consent. O’Brien was appalled [by] the completed product due to it bearing no similarity to his original idea, which would have added more fuel to Ray’s disdain for Godzilla films.”"
As Tharme explains, Willis O’Brien — both the father of stop-motion and the designer of King Kong in his 1933 debut — begat the idea as “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” (later dubbed “King Kong vs. The Prometheus”). But in O’Brien’s pitch, Kong would’ve fought a monster sewn together by a mad scientist using animal parts.
Stabbed in the back
A book by Harryhausen, A Century of Model Animation, recounts some of this tale. It also mentions a producer at RKO — the studio behind ‘33’s King Kong and its sequels — went behind O’Brien’s back and sold the idea to a Japanese studio.
The book doesn’t name Toho but it is believed that’s who it was. They made one request and that was to substitute the Frankenstein monster with Godzilla. The rest, including Harryhausen’s outrage on behalf of his former mentor, was history.
O’Brien died in November 1963, a few months after King Kong vs. Godzilla came out and became a smashing success. To this day, it remains the highest-attended movie in the Godzilla franchise and though Willis O’Brien’s efforts in unintentionally getting it made can’t be denied, he never received credit.
It wasn’t all bad
Knowing that, Tharme maintains Harryhausen’s resentment was against producers of King Kong vs. Godzilla, and maybe Toho, but not with the Godzilla IP itself. It was more the suit technique that turned him off.
And finally, when it came to his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Tharme says Harryhausen may have raised an eyebrow at the similarities but it didn’t bother him when there was copious ripping off of ideas going around at the time when they proved successful.
Godzilla also didn’t hurt 20,000 Fathoms’ box office Stateside. It didn’t even reach America until 1956 as the recut Godzilla: King of the Monsters starring Raymond Burr when the latter had already come and gone to give way to other giant monsters and rampaging dinosaurs.
Long live the King
Unlike The Beast, however, the nuclear lizard would become one of the most popular film franchises of all time, appearing in more movies than any other character (more than James Bond, Batman, and Mickey Mouse).
He may not have had a fan in Ray Harryhausen but Tharme thinks the stop-motion maestro would have appreciated Godzilla more if his preferred method had been used by Honda and Tsuburaya.
“When Ray learned of [the fact Godzilla was initially planned as a stop-motion film], he would have preferred to have seen a stop-motion Godzilla,” Tharme said, so it wasn’t the idea itself.
Did you find that interesting? Had you heard the story before or believed some shred of it? Discuss below and tell us if you are a Godzilla fan.