BOOTLEG FILES 148: “Gamera” (1965 kaiju romp with the world’s largest turtle).
LAST SEEN: Available for download via Public Domain Torrents.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in duped copies.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It depends on which version of “Gamera” you are talking about.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Probably not as an “official” version.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Japan’s most popular exports didn’t come from the realm of automobiles or electronics – it came from the fertile imagination of the Toho Studios, which churned out a loony series of monster movies that captivated film lovers all over the world. The idea of seeing Tokyo destroyed by the likes of Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra kept movie audiences enthralled for years, and in their own weird way these zany movies helped to reintegrate Japan into the world community following the difficult post-World War II years.
But within Japan’s movie industry, jealousy began to ferment against Toho’s success in the monster flick sphere. Daiei, the rival film studio, thought it could do Toho one better by creating its own kaiju superstar. The result of that jealousy was the 1965 offering “Gamera.”
In talking about “Gamera,” there are actually three different movies: the original Japanese version, the Americanized version that was released as “Gammera the Invincible” (with an extra “M” in the title) and another Americanized version that kept the original Japanese footage but added new Yankee-dubbed dialogue. Needless to say, this is all quite confusing when one considers the source material is just a dinky black-and-white feature made for what appears to be a few yen.
For those who don’t know, the monster Gamera is a giant turtle. Obviously, turtles are not exactly scary creatures – in fact, they are rather cute, albeit in a lazy manner. So taking your average pond turtle and growing it hundreds of feet doesn’t really make it threatening – it only makes it hundreds of feet out of proportion. Thus, a new breed of terrifying terrapin was required to wear the kaiju crown.
Enter Gamera, who is perhaps one of the strangest monsters in Japanese movie history. Unlike his fellow turtles, Gamera is bipedal. In fact, the creature looks like a man in a turtle suit – complete with long human limbs. Gamera also has a mouth full of teeth plus two lower jaw tusks and the ability to roar like a lion, and when he is agitated he can even breathe an atomic flame jet (similar to Godzilla, his crosstown rival at Toho). Even better, Gamera can tuck in his limbs and head and shoot jet propelled flames that enable him to fly.
“Gamera” opens in the Arctic, which may not be the obvious location to root a movie about a giant turtle. After all, the North Pole isn’t exactly overrun with those shelled critters. However, an aerial duel between US and USSR jets causes an A-bomb heavy Soviet airplane to crash into the ice. That creates a polar meltdown that releases Gamera from his icy tomb. But this should not be a huge surprise, since the film informs us that the local Eskimos carried on bizarre folktales of a giant turtle who used to terrorize the igloo crowd since time immemorial.
Gamera doesn’t choose sides between the Americans and Russkies – like any self-respecting kaiju star, his goal is to destroy Tokyo. Thus, he makes a sharp southwestern turn and heads towards Japan. Before hitting Tokyo, he makes a stop along the coastline to terrorize a coastal village. His boisterous behavior results in the destruction of a lighthouse, but Gamera shows uncommon good manners by rescuing a fat-faced boy named Toshio from the lighthouse wreckage. Toshio, who ironically has a turtle fetish, thinks Gamera is ultra-cool.
Gamera eventually makes it to Tokyo and, not surprisingly, begins destroying buildings. A combination of nutty scientists and humorless Army officers concoct a plan to dynamite Gamera, which results in having him knocked on his back. Turtles on their backs are supposedly helpless, but Gamera uses his ability to fly to lift-off from that awkward situation. Eventually, the scientists and the soldiers cook up another plan: to lure Gamera into a giant rocket, where he is trapped. The rocket blasts off to Mars, thus saving the Earth while supposedly dooming Gamera to either suffocation or starvation on the distant red planet. Nice way to kill a monster, yes?
The version I saw for this column was the first Americanized offering, “Gammera the Invincible.” As with the Americanized “Godzilla,” it was determined that an all-Japanese movie would not have commercial power in US theaters. Thus, a good-sized chunk of the Japanese footage was jettisoned in favor of new scenes featuring American actors who don’t actually seem to have any direct contact with the situations allegedly surrounding their characters. Raymond Burr was conveniently absent this go-round, so “Gammera the Invincible” had to make due with a pair of has-been character actors from the 1940s, Albert Dekker and Brian Donlevy. Neither was particularly happy to be in this no-budget endeavor, though Donlevy (wildly miscast as a general) seemed so ashamed of his participation that he appeared to be on the verge of tears while delivering his tough guy lines.
Not unlike “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (which also inserted new American scenes into its US version), “Gammera the Invincible” made heavy use of the United Nations. In this film, the UN was the common ground where all of the countries of the world came together to fight the common enemy in Gamera (which was strange, given that he was only destroying Japan). For this film’s UN, it was easy to determine who represented what country: the Turkish ambassador wore a fez, an African ambassador wore a dashiki (we never found out which nation he was from, or what his nation could actually offer to fight Gamera), the Soviet ambassador sounded like Boris Badenov from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, and the Japanese ambassador looked like a white man who squinted his eyes and spoke broken English.
Speaking of broken English, the dubbing for “Gammera the Invincible” determined that everyone in Japan spoke English with comic accents. Thus, an affirmation of a pleasant future was delivered as “good ruck” on the soundtrack.
But even without the Americanized intrusiveness, the whole concept of the film is inane. Gamera is perhaps the worst kaiju creature ever: there is absolutely nothing fascinating about this dull, eye-rolling turtle. The film was clearly aimed at the kiddie audience, hence Gamera’s destruction of seemingly vacant buildings but no damage to human life. And having the emetic boy Toshio rooting for “big and clumsy” Gamera against the Japanese army is enough to drive a placid person to homicide. Seriously, kaiju rarely gets as bad as this film.
“Gammera the Invincible” had its US theatrical debut in New Orleans, of all places, in December 1965. That unlikely location for a premiere was never explained (perhaps it was in honor of the Big Easy’s famous turtle soup?). However, the theatrical reaction was so negative that none of the film’s six subsequent sequels ever played in American cinemas – all of the follow-ups went straight to television.
In the 1980s, “Gamera” came back to America in a new dubbed version. The new segments were junked, mercifully, but the dubbing was actually worse than the original US release. The man responsible for that was one Sandy Frank, who later licensed that version (and the sequels that he also acquired for re-release) to a low-budget TV show out of Minneapolis called “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” “Gamera” was the fifth episode in the first season of “MST3K” (one of the sequels, “Gamera vs. Barugon,” was the fourth). When “MST3K” graduated to the Comedy Central cable network, the show’s riff on “Gamera” turned was repeated for the national viewing audience and became one of the most beloved episodes in the series – beloved by all except Sandy Frank, who was furious with the show’s jokes and subsequently refused to renew the distribution rights for his “Gamera” to the program. The “MST3K” episodes featuring the Sandy Frank “Gamera” releases were taken out of circulation – the show’s writers responded by ridiculing Frank himself in later episodes.
If you are looking for any of the “Gamera” incarnations on bootleg video, you have quite a choice. The original Japanese-language edition can be located on imported DVDs, the hokey “Gammera the Invincible” version is easy enough to find thanks to its public domain status (I recently picked up my copy in my local supermarket’s DVD bargain bin), and “MST3K” fans have circulated taped copies of that show’s comic “Gamera” offering for years.
Gamera still maintains a fan base – in Japan, a new Gamera adventure recently played in theaters. But the original 1965 flick, in any edition, is as compelling as a turtle race – or a bowl of cold turtle soup.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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