Of Ethics and Monsters: The Power and Resonance of Historical Footage

Beware: spoilers for Godzilla (2014) and Godjira (1954) lie within.

Earlier this month, I went to see Godzilla at my local IMAX screen (or lie-max, if you prefer). To be honest, I was not a fan, but I did enjoy elements of the film, not least the opening title sequence.

In it, the cast and crew credits mimic the text from classified documents (with parts being blacked/whited out), and are superimposed on pretend ‘historical’ stills and images, featuring Godzilla – or evidence of a large lizard, at least. It is a neat visual rhetorical trick that is often used in movies where fictional events are given resonance by a fictional history that pulls on recognisable signs of actual history. As the 20th Century saw the growth in recorded history, through the development of photography, film, recorded sound and radio and television broadcasting, those technologies are often used as visual cues to show how the fictional world in question fits into the timeframe of the real world.

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery,

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery.

The sequence ends with a mushroom cloud – apparently from the Castle Bravo bomb. It later becomes apparent that in the world of the film, the 1954 bomb was not detonated to test the nuclear weapon, but to get rid of a monster. Later, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) explains to Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that Godzilla is a creature who feeds off radiation, and therefore the development of nuclear weapons  in the 20th Century had woken the ancient lizard. Ford is shown more ‘archival’ footage of more mushroom clouds (I don’t know if the movie uses actual recordings or not).

Now, it is not surprising that in this film Godzilla is related to the development of nuclear weapons. The original Godzilla, famously, functioned as a way of talking about the effects and resonance of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.

I don’t have an opinion about whether the use of imagery of mushrooms clouds is appropriate or not. I don’t think its insignificant that Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is a Hollywood funded-and-produced reboot, and therefore the film does not have anywhere near the resonance of the original. On the whole, using nonfiction recordings (or allusions to nonfictional events) in fictional worlds is OK. In fact, the atomic bombings of World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and everything in between have given rise to some of the most powerful speculative, science-fiction and alternate history narratives. However, when fiction engages with these signs of historical events, they are engaging with real trauma, captured in the moment it happened.

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

In many ways film and audio recordings have made it easier for us to engage with the past. Yet, I think the fact that these are recordings – facsimiles of what happened – can serve to make them seem mere illustrations of the past. The images and sounds become distanced from their contexts, and their power diminishes. That is why many archivists are keen to preserve not just historical footage, but the context of that footage. There is a fine line between fiction that explores real events using factual recordings, and fiction that is appropriating the past and using it to up the dramatic (or even comedic) stakes, and context and intent are key to deciding if and when that line has been crossed.

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