As Corey Craft points out in his Godzilla ode, the King of the Monsters grew not only from the warlike follies of men, but from literary and filmic precursors similarly irradiated into existence.
And going back three decades or so, Godzilla has ancestors in just plain old bigness.
In conjuring the first gigantic movie monster, many might, predictably enough, jump back to the hairy ape King Kong. But one film full of overgrown beasts beat Kong to the silver screen. It’s probably not as well-known or often-shown, in part because it’s a silent, and perhaps because the filmmakers weren’t clever enough to cutesy-name one of its monsters. Like Tex Rex or something.
The mother of all gigantic monster movies is 1925’s “The Lost World,” featuring stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien — who improved on his techniques for 1933’s “King Kong” — and based on the novel by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, positing that dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals still stomped the earth, albeit on just one Venezuelan plateau.
Back in the day, you got bang for your big bucks. The titular great ape of “King Kong” was in fact just one gargantuan from an island — Skull Island — full of monsters, including outsized dinosaurs. But Kong had the catchy name, so he’s the one they captured and brought back to put on the ritz, on Broadway.
Originator Merian C. Cooper may have based his story on a number of conflations. Gorillas had only as late as 1847 been found and described by Western naturalists, and little was yet known about their range and rage (they’re actually quite docile).
Proto-humans might have carried forward tales of an extinct genus of ape, Gigantopithecus, which existed up until about 100,000 years ago, and stood as much as 10 feet tall and weighed up to 1,190 pounds.
And of course there was Doyle’s belief that, with much of the world still uncharted, some pockets of ancient, thought-to-be extinct creatures might survive on isolated places, such as islands. Add in the fact that islands encourage gigantism in some species — in part through lack of predators and availability of food — et voila! Skull Island.
Sequels and remakes and spin-offs followed — including 1949’s “Mighty Joe Young,” featuring animation work by O’Brien with Ray Harryhausen, who’d go on to create many monsters of his own — though few are as beloved as the original Kong.
In the ’50s, movie monsters exploded, almost literally: As Corey notes, the fears of post-Hiroshima fallout and mutation, and of the follies of men with their fingers on nuclear triggers, created 1953’s “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” the colossal ants of “Them!” (1954), the mammoth octopus of “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955), the towering spider of “Tarantula!” (1955) and the prodigious dinosaur of “Behemoth, the Sea Monster” (1959), which was very much a remake of “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.”
Interesting also to the origins of Godzilla, and Kong’s abiding influence: The original conception of the beast was as a cross between a gorilla and a whale. The Japanese title “Gojira” came from words gorira, meaning gorilla, and kujira, meaning whale. When Toho developed the edition for English-speaking audiences, it came up with Godzilla as the closest English transliteration of Gojira.