On the first of March in 1954, sailors were on the deck of a Japanese fishing trawler out in the Pacific when they were startled by an astonishingly bright light at the horizon. It lingered long enough to illuminate the clouds and the ocean itself. One of the sailors ran to his cabin where another sailor was humming a song, and blurted out the same sentence as did a distant witness to the first atomic test at Los Alamos: “The sun rises in the west!” Crew members still on deck finally heard the deep rumble of an explosion, and were soon coated with gray ash.
This was the Diago Fukuryu Maru, translated into English as the Lucky Dragon #5. By the time it returned to port two weeks later, some in the crew of 23 were covered with sores from burns, and many were suffering the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: nausea, bleeding gums, pain in their eyes, headaches. The first death was recorded in September.
Doctors and scientists in Japan immediately recognized the radiation effects. They had seen them before. They also measured excessive radiation in the fish aboard the Lucky Dragon and other boats, and this new threat caused panic in Japan that spread around the world. United States officials responded to Japanese requests for information with official lies. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for the tests, denied any ill effects could be from the Bomb test. It took more than thirty years for such official lies to be fully exposed.
Almost immediately, Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka took clippings about the Lucky Dragon incident to the Toho Motion Picture Company and proposed to replace a foundering film project with a movie about a prehistoric monster awakened by the Bomb.
The resulting movie, called Gojira, was released later that same year to great acclaim in Japan. (That's the same year as the event that inspired it.) In its original form, it was not seen in the US or the rest of the world for fifty years. It had a limited theatrical release in the US in 2004, and was released on DVD in an excellent two disk collector's edition. I've seen it several times, you might even say many times, and it is a masterpiece.
Last year, on the 60th anniversary of Gojira, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. released their Godzilla, which appeared this year on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is a monster of a movie, with 3D and IMAX versions, and a total estimated cost of $225 million. It was a worldwide hit.
It's not just that it violates any sense of actual science repeatedly--though we're all supposed to be good sports and eat our popcorn while we roll our eyes. The real violation is to history, to a very dangerous history of nuclear weapons that is not over, and insults the real feeling and the ethical explorations within the allegory of the original movie.
In the new movie, Godzilla was awakened in 1954, not by the hydrogen bomb test, but by deep sea exploration by the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus. Both the US and USSR became aware of the monster. "All those bomb tests in the 50s? Not tests. They were trying to kill it."
Forget that the Nautilus didn't make an actual voyage for several years after it was commissioned in 1954. Explaining away the bomb tests of the 1950s (which actually began in the 1940s) for the purpose of a monster movie is itself monstrous. It is absurd, first of all, and shows an utter ignorance of history--not just of tests but of everything around them, up to and including the Cold War. It's an insult to everyone who lived through those years of terror. Specifically it is an insult to the entire original movie it purports to honor.
The first U.S. thermonuclear device detonated in 1952 in the Pacific was approximately a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It sent a four mile-wide fireball five miles into the sky, with a cloud atop it that rose twenty-five miles high, and left a canyon in the ocean floor a mile long. It vaporized the island where it stood. But it was not a true bomb yet, capable of being dropped from a plane. That's one reason they tested.
The Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in 1949, and their first hydrogen bomb in 1955--and it was a bomb. There were hundreds of bomb tests in the 1950s, in the US, the Pacific, in Europe and in Asia. The Soviet Union exploded 30 large bombs in just 1961. The US responded by exploding 25 test bombs between spring and fall of 1962. And it quickly became apparent that such explosions caused radiation that sickened and killed people, sometimes years later, and sometimes creating mutations in the next generation.
This radiation was carried in the air, something called fallout, and though it diminished with distance, it could travel thousands of miles, even entering the upper atmosphere. There were 20 atomic bombs exploded in Nevada by 1953. Radioactive fallout from a test in 1951 was measured in Rochester, New York.
When news emerged from Japan of radiation sickness and the resulting deaths, the official U.S. position was that this was just Japanese propaganda. And even if there was deadly radiation, the head of the US bomb program General Leslie Groves told Congress, radiation poisoning is "a very pleasant way to die."
But the facts were soon documented. Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. By five years later, effects from the radiation had more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. Radiation was eventually responsible for the vast majority of the Nagasaki bomb deaths. Some effects of radiation were apparent within days and weeks, which included very ugly and painful immediate illnesses, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years.
Forced finally to admit the existence of the radioactive fallout, the U.S. claimed that the Japanese had been warned but ignored the warnings, and when that turned out to be a lie, claimed that the winds had suddenly shifted and so the U.S. hadn’t known where the radioactive dust would fall. That was also a lie. The winds did shift, but (as revealed in the 1980s) the U.S. knew that the fallout would reach the islands and the fishing lanes, but went ahead with the test as scheduled.
When Dr. David Bradley published the revised edition of his best-selling No Place to Hide, he reported on 406 Pacific islanders exposed to the fallout from the test in 1954: nine of their children were born retarded, 10 more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be “not recognizable as human.”
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945. The US occupied Japan, supervising its government and everything else, until 1952. Only two years later, an independent Japanese film company made Gojira. It did not and could not overtly criticize its former occupier that was now its ally and protector. But through the allegory of a monster raised from the depths, the horror of the atomic age was evoked, and more than that, the ethical issues bravely delineated.
The 2014 American movie done with some participation by Toho, the Japanese film company that made the previous Godzilla movies beginning with the first (and excepting the 1998 Hollywood remake), featured one major Japanese character: Doctor Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe. Like the other major character, he mostly stands tall and looks calmly at the surrounding monsters and mayhem, although he often looks befuddled or aghast while the young soldier played by Aaron Taylor looks bravely calm or just emotionless. There was a Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, but this version is less an homage than another travesty.
|publicity still--not a real scene: far right: Dr. Yamane and Serizawa|
While Yamane figured out what Gojira was and that he was revived and mutated by the bomb test, Serizawa had the key to destroying the monster. He had inadvertently invented the "oxygen destroyer" that when set off in the water killed everything in it. But he had kept the invention secret, tortured by its power, and knowing that if he announced it, others would turn it into a weapon.
The meaning of this could not be clearer. He was in the position of the atomic scientists. He had invented the ultimate weapon, that could mean the destruction of humankind. He could not in conscience allow it to be known.
These were the stakes in 1954, and they got even higher as the bomb tests went on and provided the knowledge to make smaller bombs with higher yields, then place them in guided missiles--faster than airplanes, less detectable, cheaper to make in quantity, and impossible to defend against. Soon there were thousands of missiles carrying several hydrogen bombs, each bomb capable of destroying a city and killing people for hundreds of miles. Even by 1960, there were enough atomic bombs to kill everyone in the world seven times over.
elsewhere on this site.)
Like other recent blockbusters, it cannibalizes previous movies for effect, sometimes effectively. The slow reveal of the monsters that some reviewers thought so brave in 2014, the filmmakers say they took from Jaws, though Speilberg had grown up on other 50s monster movies that also built suspense that way, including two of the best: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! (with an early uncredited appearance by Leonard Nimoy.) Though done in what I experienced as a confusing manner, it nevertheless built suspense.
None of that really matters as much as its dangerous and willful ignorance. It is compounded in the final scenes when a nuclear device, supposedly more powerful than the 1954 bombs and so many, many times larger than the Hiroshima bomb, detonates in San Francisco Bay without any effect on the city or other inhabited area. Just a flash within view of shore.
That I fear is what generations who did not experience the 50s through the 80s may actually believe about nuclear weapons. They're just special effects explosives. They're ordinary bombs but maybe a little bigger. They don't even make waves, let alone set the air on fire or spew radiation. Millions of people will see this movie, and may even believe this.
And so a movie that invents a monsters so large that it could not possibly exist--bones simply couldn't make it stand up, let alone move--ends up minimizing the destructive power of something that does exist, and is an actual danger to humanity.
There are still hundreds of hydrogen bombs and atomic bombs and their delivery systems, all over this planet. That we understand this, and what nuclear weapons really mean, is vitally important, and even more important than the grosses of a Hollywood film. Such a film may not bear the responsibility to tell people what the nuclear dangers are--even if it is a remake of the first film to try to do so. But it does have the responsibility not to mislead its audience into believing that it's no big deal.
This movie may invoke Hiroshima in a line or two but it otherwise displays ignorance about what it meant and means. That's a horror story.