Gammera the Invincible is a monster film from 1966… sort of. In reality, it’s one of a few Japanese monster movies that were modified for the U.S. market. The original film, Daikaijû Gamera, was released a year earlier in Japan, directed by Noriaki Yuasa. For the American release, some of the original footage was cut out, and new footage was spliced in, directed by Sandy Howard. This mostly consists of adding scenes of the U.S. government debating the Gammera issue, and later, the U.N. debating the issue. On the one hand, this is obviously little more than blatant pandering to the belief that Americans wouldn’t accept a film without American characters in it, and indeed it rewrites the script so that the final idea for a solution is an American idea. On the other hand, it does have the nice effect of acknowledging that if a giant monster were to ravage a nation, the rest of the world would actually sit up and take notice, which is something that always seems curiously absent from giant monster movies.
Gentlemen, it’s agreed: we’ll shut down the government unless the president agrees to de-fund giant monster defense systems.
Gammera is an ancient, gigantic turtle-like creature with an impervious shell, tusks, and the ability to breathe fire. He has been existing underneath the arctic ice cap in a state of suspended animation for eons. He is awoken (at least in the U.S. version) when American planes shoot down a Soviet jet that had flown off course, causing it to crash with an atomic bomb on board. Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), on a scientific expedition in the Arctic, is one of the few people to witness Gammera’s awakening and survive, and he becomes one of the experts on how to deal with the monster once it begins attacking cities. On the American side of things, Dr. Contrare provides his own technical expertise towards solving the problem. Contrare is played by Alan Oppenheimer in his on-screen film debut. The name may sound familiar to animation fans, as he provided the voices for a great many characters, including the original voice for Mighty Mouse and the voice of Skeletor in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
The plot is simple, but entertaining enough as such things go. Gammera goes from town to town, stomping things into bits, breathing fire, and absorbing energy from power plants and other sources. The destruction isn’t particularly widespread at any moment, but it’s fun to watch, and Gammera is an interesting looking creature even if he is rather obviously a man in a rubber suit.
Two decades later, somebody would get the idea to do this again, only with a quartet of heroic mutated turtle monsters.
There are some definite slow periods to the film, though. This includes the numerous debate scenes on what to do about the monster — both the original footage and the added footage have copious amounts of this. There’s only so much arguing about a giant turtle monster that one can listen to before wanting to see the giant turtle monster again. There is also a subplot about a turtle-obsessed little boy (Yoshiro Uchida) who is convinced that Gammera isn’t really a bad monster, he’s just really lonely. This suggestion goes over about as well as one might expect.
When the movie decides to focus on the monster itself, rather than discussions about the monster, it’s reasonably interesting. While not the greatest film, it’s fun enough and seems to be a decent introduction to the Japanese giant monster movie genre.