Stars, Stripes, and Monsters

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on April 09, 2015 in Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez, Uncategorized tagged with

What do Dracula and Godzilla have in common? What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke or a guiltily pleasurable “B movie” portraying the serendipitous encounter between two iconic monsters, is actually just a strange series of connections facilitated by two recent movies involving the characters: Godzilla (2014) by Gareth Edwards and Dracula Untold (2014) by Gary Shore. The two films are not thematically similar, neither through characters nor through plot; nevertheless, a potential point of contact is forged in regards to both the re-telling nature of the films (the two films posit themselves as new approximations to old stories and characters) as well as in the apparent interest of portraying a true or unseen side to the story of these characters.

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In this sense, Godzilla depicts a gigantic lizard that, despite being very much a product of a Hollywood film, is closer to the Japanese monster than previous Hollywoodesque incarnations (that is, as more loyal and empathetic); Dracula is also depicted as a more faithful version of the character, constructed through pieces of the literary myth as well as fragments of the historical narratives of Vlad the Impaler (Prince of Wallachia from 1431 to 1476/77).

This “untold” aura permeates the two stories and creates the impression that what we are watching is closer to the actual truth, or at least, to a literary, filmic or historical truth imbedded in the characters and their myths. With that being said, I am not particularly interested in discussing the historical or filmic accuracy of the portraits: in a more skeptical vein, what I wish to examine more closely is what exactly these movies intentionally decide to omit or to underline, and the analytical ramifications of these decisions.

In the case of Godzilla, being truthful to the Japanese version of the monster means, paradoxically, hiding (or eliminating) the connection between the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Godzilla, pivotal facts in regards to the origin of the monster. As Steve Ryfle asserts, “the monster became a simple and crude metaphor for Hiroshima, but Gojira was really a clever and restrained indictment of the doomsday scenario that Harry Truman set in motion”. In the 2014 movie the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 is mentioned just once, and only in relation to a personal item (a clock) belonging to one of the Japanese protagonists of the story:

– It’s stopped…
– Yes…8:15 in the morning, August 6, 1945.
– Hiroshima.
– It was my father’s…

Although this reference seems to superficially generate some kind of awareness of the nuclear attack on Japan, it is never addressed in the film as a historical fact that the United States has to take responsibility for, nor as a massive source of radiation capable of causing monstrous mutations (as the origins of Godzilla are explained in the Japanese story). Other fleeting and vague references to atomic bombs in the film are justified as feasible ways to try and destroy the monstrous lizard:

– All those nuclear bomb tests in the 50’s…no tests!
– They were trying to kill it…him! An ancient alpha predator.

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Atomic bomb used to try to kill Godzilla

The historical fact is thus warped in order to excuse the USA’s responsibility for the bombings and their horrifying aftereffects, and is instead presented as a matter of necessity, of assuming responsibility to save the world from an unknown monster. This strategy seems more significant knowing the backstory of a movie like Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) by Alain Resnais, withdrawn from competition at Cannes to avoid provoking American sensitivities regarding the atomic bombs and screened in the United States years after its release. Many of these sensitivities arose from the unresolved feelings that the bombs inspired in the American public, as Ryfle comments: “it has never been easy to reconcile dropping the bomb with a sense of ourselves as a decent people […] There is no historical event Americans are more sensitive about. Hiroshima remains a raw nerve.”

In Dracula’s case being truthful to history means showing whom the “real enemy” is in this particular story, an enemy so dangerous that it even eclipses the monstrosity of Dracula (monster of monsters): the Ottomans. Telling the untold in Dracula’s story allows for the construction of a more complex character, a Dracula that overlaps with the historical character of Vlad the Impaler, and shares with him his place as a Rumanian national hero. This multilayered approach to the character could be seen in movies previous to Shore’s film, like the 1992 Ford Coppola version of Dracula; nonetheless, this one is the first to go deeper into (the fictionalization of) the story.

Unfortunately, the interest in creating complex characters and situations stops with the protagonist, leaving the antagonist(s) as run-of-the-mill “bad guys” that replicate (and re-create) the historical myth of the evil and one-dimensional Arab (or Turk, or Iranian, or whatever other country in the Middle East is being targeted at the moment). Mehmed II, the antihero of the film, is portrayed as a cartoon villain, stripped of any depth or complexity, completely removed from the Ottoman ruler and conqueror that brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. The uni-dimensionality of the portrait doesn’t mean that the conflict between the Principality of Wallachia and the Ottoman Empire is an invention of Hollywood; it merely shows how movie producers act “selectively” when telling stories based on historical facts, as well as the obvious political implications of portraying Arabs as enemies when they are actually considered by many to be “the enemy” in contemporary geopolitical terms.

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Sultan Mehmed II as portrait in the film

Dracula, the monster of the story, is forgiven in the name (and because of his defense) of what is perceived as American values: family, nationhood, and homeland. He sells his soul to the demon/vampire in exchange for the power to defend his land and family against the horrible and imperialistic Ottomans. After decades of being depicted as a bloodthirsty and powerful member of the bourgeoisie defeated by an old British aristocrat, Hollywood decided to turn the tables and opt for a version of the story where Dracula is reimagined as a national hero (new for Hollywood, that is, as he is already considered a hero in Romania). As said before, this change is more related to ways of constructing and portraying the enemy – a particular and present-day enemy – than a positive action aimed at clearing Vlad Tepes’s name and reputation.

In both cases the monster and the apparent interest in being faithful to original narratives or telling the untold, serves a purpose of portraying particular versions of stories that have their origins in historical facts – or responses to historical facts in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and through the eyes of American directors and producers become the property of uniquely American tropes. Borrowing Edward Said’s conception of Orientalism, these narratives and the Others that they claim to portray are constructed through a decidedly Western gaze. In this sense, what is American and what is excluded is defined through the use of narratives that, even though they lack a direct connection with national discourses somehow become loaded with patriotic meaning.

Bibliography:

Ryfle, Steve. “Godzilla, Whitewashed: A Special Report.” World Cinema Paradise. May 18, 2014. http://worldcinemaparadise.com/2014/05/18/special-report-whitewashing-godzilla/

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

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