I'd encourage you to check out this article Phil Hall over at Film Threat has written about Gamera in his Bootleg Files column. Honestly, I was going to cover this movie in a similar fashion, but he beat me to the punch. Oh well. Even though I don't agree with his assessment that Gamera was the worst kaiju creature ever, I still think he's "always entertaining". ;)
So, let me piggyback on what Phil wrote over there. As I'm sure you know, I love Gamera and most of the reason being he and his films are just so dang goofy. I mean, a giant, fire eating, flying turtle who is friend to all children? Sign me up!
This first Gamera movie wasn't quite the loopy kiddie fare as the rest of the series though. It's pretty obvious the inspiration for this one was the first Godzilla film, as Gamera shares it's ominous tone and rather stark black and white feel.
Even so, there are moments in the film, like when Gamera rescues Toshio from the lighthouse (which, to be fair, Gamera had just smashed) that portray Gamera as more of the good guy he'd become in later films. It also feels like Gamera is portrayed a bit more sympathetically in this film than Godzilla would be in his first.
Like the first Godzilla film, Gamera wouldn't make the voyage to America without some major alterations. Scenes with Americans were added and love interest subplots were removed in both films.
Godzilla, The King of the Monsters (the US version of Gojira) is shorter than it's Japanese counterpart, even with added scenes. One of the most interesting thing about how that movie was Americanized was that it wasn't just dubbed into English. Instead, the story was retold through Steve Martin's (Raymond Burr) eyes so he'd have to ask for someone nearby to translate what was going on. It was a pretty clever solution and I'm sure it saved money as the whole film didn't need dubbed, just a few parts where he's directly talking to main characters.
The American version of Gamera was titled Gammera the Invincible. It actually runs longer than the Japanese version due to the inclusion of many scenes by the US distributor. Almost all of these scenes are talky and grind the film to a halt.
I will say one positive thing about the US scenes, the military scenes added in the US are a million times better than the US military scenes in the original movie, even though they are a little "wacky" in tone. I'm willing to bet Daei found some Americans on a military base and put them in the movie as they are clearly not actors.
The other thing that bothers me about Gammera the Invincible is the dubbing. Now, this version was dubbed by Titan (think Speed Racer) who normally do a great job. For some reason, everyone talks like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's in the dub track here. Of course, it's still miles better than the second version of Gamera which would come to us from the infamous Sandy Frank.
Gammera the Invincible was released in 1966 by World Entertainment Corp. It then went to TV, where it played along side the rest of the Gamera films that AIP brought straight to TV. Apparently in the 80s, the rights to the Gamera films switched over to Sandy Frank, who was bringing bunch of Japanese movies and TV shows to America.
For many of us who grew up in the 80s, this was how we were exposed to Japanese shows from the 60s and 70s as many cable and UHF channels bought these films and they were staples of creature feature and Saturday afternoon movie shows. Of course, the Sandy Frank syndication package also accounts for a large part of the third season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the highlight of the series, for me anyway.
Rather than paying again for the right to the US Gammera the Invincible, Frank just took the Japanese film and redubbed it. The good thing about this was, for the first time we saw the untampered version of Gamera in the states. However, the dubbing was atrocious, to the point of making the movie unintentionally comical.
This Sandy Frank version made it to home video, both as cheap VHS and as half of a laserdisc Gamera double feature. It's currently unavailable on DVD, though it's not difficult to find on the collector's circuit. Same for the MST3K version.
Gammera the Invincible first made it to home video in 1998 when Neptune released an excellent letterboxed tape. They also released the Japanese Gamera widescreen and subtitled on VHS and laserdisc, which is the only time the completely unaltered movie has been available in the US. Unfortunately, Neptune seemed to go out of business quickly and the pricey tapes weren't generally available and are still difficult to come by.
Currently Gammera the Invincible is languishing in public domain hell. In 2003, Alpha released a DVD of the 16mm pan and scan TV print of the film and since then everyone and their brother has done likewise. I am normally a big fan of the public domain, but in this instance I wonder if Gamera is truly in the public domain.
This situation seems to happen for a lot of foreign films; the US distributer fails to renew their version of a film as they haven't renegotiated the rights for the film. These version then fall into the public domain, but the original film is still protected meaning they'd still have to be licensed from the original foreign company but not the US one who made the alterations.
Confusing isn't it? I guess that's why a lot of stuff falls through the cracks. It seems like many foreign film companies either don't know what's going on or don't feel it would be worth their time to pursue the copyright on their works.
While it's nice to get all these movies for cheap, it greatly diminishes the likelyhood of getting anything other than cheap copies. Who would want to put the money into releasing a restored version of a film when not only would it have to compete against dozens of cheap versions, but someone could rip off your restoration job and there'd be little you could do about it?
If you're really interested in the film, I'd suggest you look for the Neptune VHS*. Seeing Gammera the Invincible in it's proper aspect ratio is like watching a different film. The Gamera movies look considerably less cheap when seen widescreen, but unfortunately US audiences rarely got a chance to see them this way. The cheap DVDs out there range from ok to unwatchable, but even at best, you're watching a highly compromised version of the film.
I strongly doubt the Sandy Frank versions are ever going to make it to DVD legitimately, but here's the Sandy Frank song from MST3K to tide you over.
* Neptune also released separate dubbed and subtitled widescreen tapes of a couple other Gamera films. I have Gamera vs. Zigra on the way in a dubbed version