I do not know, and I doubt anyone could say for certain, when the first movie was recut for foreign distribution. Certainly, it is not a remotely new practice. The last twenty-odd years of Harvey Weinstein holding court and chopping movies apart frequently for no more apparent reason than to make sure everyone was talking about him have resulted in a lot of attention paid to this somewhat dubious practice, but the single best-known re-edit of a film is almost certainly Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the 1956 reworking of 1954's Godzilla presented by Transworld Releasing Corp. It was overseen by editor Terry Morse, who also directed the large quantity of new scenes inserted due to Transworld's (unfortunately not insane) belief that Americans wouldn't want to see a film without an American protagonist, leading to a brand new plot featuring adventuresome Chicago reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) happening to be in Japan visiting his friend who happens to be at the epicenter of a great crisis when the radioactive dinosaur Godzilla rises from the sea to demolish Tokyo.

It's easy and reflexive to dismiss King of the Monsters as total hackwork, both because it was born of such easygoing xenophobia, and because the original Godzilla is so damn close to perfection. But that's absolutely not fair. Virtually every single Godzilla film over the next half-century to receive U.S. theatrical distribution received at least some measure of massaging that subtly but distinctly changed the plot, pacing, or focus; King of the Monsters is neither the most extreme nor by any means the most damaging. In fact, Morse's treatment of the film is surprisingly sophisticated and effective, and while there's an easy argument to be made that he should never have been given the assignment in the first place, it's hard to imagine him having done a much better job, creating one of the few American-market Godzilla pictures that works almost entirely on its own cinematic merits.

And that really is the way it needs to be treated, for it's quite a different movie. It opens on the tracking shot of a devastated Tokyo that occurs deep into Godzilla, setting itself up as a flashback related by Martin after he's already experienced the brunt of the monster's attack; it arguably means that King of the Monsters ends up working better as a thriller than the original film did, given that it makes the stakes far clearer, far earlier. But we needn't keep chasing that rabbit.

Martin is in Japan to visit his scientist friend from college, Dr. Serizawa (Hirata Akihiko), but upon landing he gets involved in a police investigation; seems that his plane was traveling directly over the site of a marine disaster, in which an unknown force caused a ship to sink. This immediately gets Martin's reporter senses tingling, and with Serizawa temporarily indisposed anyway, he has a perfect chance to attach himself to the doctor's fiancée Emiko (Kōchi Momoko) and her father, the great scientist Yamane (Shimura Takashi), also investigating the occurrence. Along for the ride is a security officer, Tomo (Frank Iwanaga), who tends to serve as translator far more than he ever provides security.

Broadly, this plays out like a clarified, detail-light variation on Godzilla: the order of events is muddied up a bit, the attack on Tokyo is significantly shorter, and it takes less time to get the final mission to kill the monster up and running. All of which makes sense, given that King of the Monsters adds a good 20 minutes of footage and still has a running time that ends up more than fifteen minutes shorter. It's far less dramatic and obsessed with the imagery of death and destruction that make Godzilla so unnerving, regardless of the way it foregrounds the desolation of Tokyo, and depicting in almost its full length the prayer song that is one of the most moving scenes in the original (less moving when the words aren't translated, it turns out).

The biggest shift, of course, is that all of the material pertaining to post-nuclear trauma and Japan's search for identity following WWII is quite out; even if it would have been "interesting" to an American audience, producer Joseph Levine quite rightfully wondered how Americans just 11 years removed from the war where we beat the Japanese would feel about a film where nuclear bombs - and that nuclear bomb in particular - were so vocally criticised. All this means, inevitably, that King of the Monsters lacks any real depth or humanity, an issue compounded by the limitations in working the main character into conversations with anybody else. And this issue is itself made worse by how increasingly clear it is that Steve Martin isn't really filling any function, or justifying his presence.

Even so, it's quite impressive how much work Morse put into incorporating Burr into the original film in a way that flowed and made sense, relying heavily on the backs of extra's heads dressed to look like Kōchi and Hirata and Takarada Akira in the original. The results are a little stiff - plenty of conversations where it's conspicuous how we're not seeing the faces of people talking - but Morse squeezed every damn drop out of footage he had to work with, in addition to leaving much of the film in Japanese, sot that Martin has to rely on translations to understand what's happening. It's often set, with justification, that the distinction between translated scenes and dubbed scenes is almost entirely arbitrary, but I'm still glad that the translator was there. For one thing, it makes it a lot easier to believe that Martin would just stand doing nothing at the side of a room. For another, it adds to the sense of authenticity, and even gives the film a veneer of "stranger in a strange land" tension, with Martin arriving in a place where he doesn't understand anything right at the most dangerous time he could have ever gone there. For yet another, the dubbing isn't great - the woman voicing Emiko sounds 10 years too old compared to Kōchi's face and voice, and while the man doing Yamane is "fine", it's hugely distracting to see the wrong voice coming out of the mouth of someone as recognisable to even the casual fan of Japanese cinema as Shimura.

The film still largely relies on Ifukube Akira's terrific score, used in different places and with different emphasis, but still beautiful to hear; it still boasts outstanding suits and dubious puppetry. The handful of quintessentially Japanese moments (the sequence on the sea floor, readying to kill Godzilla; a horizontal wipe that got left in, perhaps by mistake) mix oddly with the overall American-ness of the pacing and storytelling, but not without adding some interesting measure of culture contrast. There are some things I miss - the beautiful character moment where Shimura wryly fixes his tie is a painful loss, especially - but the core of it is still there. This is still a great '50s horror movie about the Great Big Unknown Thing that can swoop down at any second and kill you dead, and if translating it to the language of a matinee thriller means that it lacks the profound resonance of the original version, the fact remains that even thus compromised, King of the Monsters is still one of the strongest giant creature features scene in the United States in the 1950s. It moves well, it's got some terrific effects work, and there's a real sense of loss and danger absent from almost all other monster movies - what's not to love? No reason to use it as replacement viewing for Godzilla, you understand, but this is not a film without its own value, even if it's mostly reduced by this point to the status of rewarding curiosity.