I can’t see the new GODZILLA VS. KONG in a theater, because we still have the pandemic here (and apparently slower vaccine distribution than some other states). But I’m excited to at least get to watch it on TV tonight. I don’t know if it will live up to my hopes, but I’m glad it inspired me to rewatch the original East-meets-West giant monster mashup, 1963’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.
In my mind it seems like this current GODZILLA series rushed to the KING KONG crossover pretty fast, but not really. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was only the third film in the GODZILLA series (though it also followed the American productions KING KONG and SON OF KONG, both from 1933). As discussed in yesterday’s review, the series started with GOJIRA in 1954, and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN six months later. It wasn’t exactly a smash, so seven years passed before they brought the big guy back. Think about that – seven years is almost as long as the gap between BATMAN & ROBIN and BATMAN BEGINS. Or FRIDAY THE 13TH and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII. About the same as the gaps between A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, or FREDDY VS. JASON and the ELM STREET remake.
So after that wait Toho brought back original director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (who held KING KONG dear since it had inspired his interest in effects) to revive Godzilla in this big crossover event that marked both monsters’ first appearances in color and in widescreen. Also their first movie that opens with a quote from Hamlet (at least in the American version, which I watched because I didn’t realize the original was hidden in the supplements of the Criterion box set).
Though clearly a Japanese film, the idea started over here on the Kong side. Reeling after the financial failure of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, animator Willlis O’Brien thought a good commercial idea might be KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN, pitting his famous creation against a creature sewn together from various African animals. Producer John Beck (HARVEY) liked the idea, but couldn’t get any of the American studios interested. Then he thought to bring it to Toho, who could replace O’Brien’s costly art of stop motion with their suitmation process (people in cool monster costumes). Toho was looking for a way to bring back Godzilla, and also for event movies to release in their 30th year of business, so they ditched Frankenstein and subbed in Godzilla.
Beck kept the rights to do the American version, written by Paul Mason (later executive producer of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE) and Bruce Howard (The Red Skelton Hour, Punky Brewster) and re-edited by Peter Zinner (THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE DEER HUNTER, also played Admiral Yuri Padorin in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). The new footage (directed by Tom Montgomery, visionary director of a couple episodes of Dobie Gillis and My Mother the Car) is mostly a TV broadcast with some expert guy (Michael Keith, THE WORM EATERS, BINIKI BISTRO) explaining the plot to us, shot in a duller and cheaper fashion than the actual movie. When this first happens there’s a glass jar full of what look like Roma tomatoes conspicuously on the table – eventually the guy pulls one out to explain that it’s a rare, non-addictive but narcotic berry discovered by a pharmaceutical company on the mysterious Faro Island, where natives turn it into a juice that they use to subdue a legendary giant monster. I kept expecting him to take a bite out of it, but he puts it back.
Meanwhile, an American nuclear submarine crashes into an iceberg and unleashes Godzilla, who attacks their nearby military base (illustrated with some cool shots of toys tanks melting). Bummer, but I’m impressed that the “cause an avalanche over him” plan in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN managed to keep Godzilla out of the picture for seven whole years. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the pilots from that tuna company.
One really cool thing about revived Godzilla II is that sometimes his dorsal plates glow blue and then he breathes blue beams from his mouth. I guess it’s atomic breath, but I like to think of it as his newly acquired ice powers.
Back on Faro Island some employees of the pharmaceutical company, Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yu Fujiki, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS) are trying to find the alleged giant monster for their rich asshole boss Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima, THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD) to use for publicity. (This is reminiscent of the plot of KING KONG as well as MOTHRA.) They see the island attacked by a giant monster, but it’s not King Kong or Godzilla – it’s a fuckin octopus! There’s a funny line when one of the visitors runs to grab a rifle:
“What’s the matter?”
With the possible exception of an earthquake scene later on, this is the most impressive special effects sequence. It’s definitely the least ethical. It looks remarkably real because it mostly is. Four different real octopi were filmed crawling across the miniature island set with the encouragement of hot air blowing on them. According to the Godzilla fandom wiki, three of them were released afterwards, the other was eaten by effects director Tsuburaya.
The footage looks phenomenal when you’re expecting a rubber prop but see real tentacles unfurling and gills opening and closing. They also composite in other elements like natives throwing spears at it, and there are some shots of stop motion tentacles animated by Koichi Takano, who went on to direct special effects for the Ultraman shows and co-direct the animated movie RETURN OF THE DINOSAURS. (Tsuburaya had considered animating Kong and Godzilla in tribute to KING KONG before deciding they couldn’t afford it.)
So, what’s the deal? Does King Kong not live here like we assumed – is this octopus “The Giant God” they talk about? Nope – King Kong (Shoichi Hirose, LADY SNOWBLOOD 1 and 2) shows up, busts through a giant gate and beats the shit out of the octopus. (When he picks it up is the only time the octopus looks laughable, because they covered a rubber prop in Saran Wrap to simulate sliminess. I was relieved it looked fake though because for a second I worried it was an octopus corpse wrapped for freshness.)
I should warn you that the Faro Island natives are dressed to appear African, but played by Japanese actors in dark makeup. And the translator for the drug company is a little, uh… minstrely. But like the natives in KING KONG and MOTHRA they have drums and a song they sing to calm King Kong, and he drinks the vats of berry juice they prepared for him and instantly passes out.
Well, the rich guy gets his monster. Briefly. They float Kong on a big raft behind a boat, but an ethics squabble causes him to be freed in the vicinity of Godzilla, and they fight, and it’s cool. Rocks are thrown, blue ice power atomic breath is fired, Kong touches his chest like “Are you serious? You’re singing me?” He realizes he can’t take Godzilla and kind of wanders off.
Godzilla was redesigned with a larger body, one less toe per foot, no ears or fangs and bigger dorsal plates. Reportedly he is grey, but my brain continues to see him as green. King Kong is, of course, the more drastically changed one, since he has become a guy in a suit rather than a stop motion puppet, but also the contract with RKO stipulated that he couldn’t look the same. Instead of a gorilla they modeled his face on a Japanese snow monkey.
I think his coolest feature is his inhumanly long arms, a great advantage over Godzilla’s stubby little floppers, but he doesn’t take full advantage of it. Perhaps out of a sense of fair play.
In Kong’s first appearance he has a motionless mask, so it seems like he will lack personality, but as soon as you see his puppeteered expressions you love him. I’ve always been more of a Godzilla guy, but this movie makes Kong the one to root for. He’s kind of the underdog and although Eric Carter (the guy on TV) said it was a non-addictive berry, his drinking is definitely an issue at times. But on TV there’s also a doctor who tells us that Godzilla’s brain is the size of a marble and Kong, being “a thinking animal,” has one “about ten times the size of this gorilla skull.” Which in Kong’s head would be very small. So I don’t trust this channel – they seem like a bunch of quacks. (This nitwit also said “The world is stunned to know prehistoric creatures exist in the 20th century,” as if unaware that this same Godzilla destroyed a major Japanese city within the last decade.)
After fighting Kong, Godzilla attacks Tokyo. The authorities set up electrical wires to shock him, which is a good plan, because Godzilla says “fuck this” (paraphrase) and leaves. The downside of the plan is that Kong later shows up and chews on the wires and for some reason it makes him stronger. High from huffing a million volts he picks up a subway car, peeks inside and pulls out a woman (Mie Hama, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) – who happens to be Sakurai’s sister Fumiko! – and carries her around in his hand as she screams “Let me go!”
(If you enjoy charmingly dated special effects, you will enjoy both the giant hand prop around the real actress and the Barbie doll Fumiko that the suit actor holds.)
The authorities arranged to have Kong’s song played for him as they gas him with berry juice (very respectful to his culture) so he falls asleep, sitting on a building, and luckily Fumiko is able to gently escape his hand and walk right up to her brother which doesn’t surprise her as much as you’d think. Then they come up with a plan to tie some giant balloons to Kong and fly him away, and I have to say I am very impressed with how quickly they were able to execute that plan. These guys are gettin shit done! We could’ve used a little of that can-do spirit during some of our recent disasters.
They drop him off by Mt. Fuji where Godzilla is hanging out, I believe under the philosophy that one of them killing the other will be a 50% reduction in giant monster problems. And this leads to a very fun final fight. Poor Kong is all bleary eyed, maybe hung over. He yanks on Godzilla’s tail but loses grip and falls on his ass. He does a cool somersault but hits his head on a rock and is totally out of it, laying on the ground all groggy as Godzilla kicks rocks onto him. At one point Godzilla stops and just looks at him and I really thought he felt sorry for him, but then he starts doing some brutal tail slams. Apparently alot of the fighting is modeled after Judo, sumo and pro wrestling moves, but the tail thing I believe Godzilla came up with on his own.
Luckily for Kong and for fairness there’s a sudden lightning storm and he’s struck by lightning and is back in the game. He does a great move where he stuffs a tree in Godzilla’s mouth, which Godzilla counters by blowing atomic breath that spits the tree – now on fire – back at Kong. But Kong keeps pounding on him and with every hit there are little animated electricity bolts. Video game shit before there were video games.
Famously the ending is a little unclear as far as which monster should be considered victorious. There’s no referee, no judges, and viewers interpreted it differently, leading to myths that there were two endings. In one sense there are: the American version ends with only Kong’s roar, the original ends with both. But when they fall in the water and only King Kong is seen again (wading off into the sunset), Toho intended King King to be the winner.
On American television, Eric Carter says that “Strangely enough we wish him luck in his long journey home.” Whatever happened to objectivity? I’m tired of all this biased news. But I do agree, Kong seems pretty cool other than how handsy he gets. Exactly like Jason in FREDDY VS. JASON, Kong is depicted as the good guy between the two, and it got me rooting for him even though I’ve always been a bigger fan of his opponent.
In Japan, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a runaway hit, and to this day has sold the most tickets of any GODZILLA movie in Japan. Its success inspired Toho to continue the series by having Godzilla fight monsters from previous Toho films, starting with Mothra. And hey – they tried to do that with FREDDY VS. JASON VS. ASH! Those movies could’ve gone on forever if they’d played their cards right. And eventually they could’ve fought Godzilla. Anyway in the U.S. obviously it wasn’t going to do as well. I couldn’t find much concrete information about the release, but ironically I think it was released around the same time as the stop-motion-using classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Speaking of which, although the whole movie evolved out of O’Brien’s idea, he was not credited or even told it was in the works, and died before it was released. I’m unclear whether Toho was aware of his involvement when they bought a rewritten version of his script from Beck. Original KING KONG director Merian C. Cooper found the crossover “belittling,” was disgusted that it was a guy in an ape costume rather than animation, and attempted to sue Beck to stop distribution until he realized that he didn’t officially own the character.
He wasn’t wrong, but also this is a fun movie and one of the many entertaining forms in which the King lives on. How many other characters from 1933 films still make movies? THE INVISIBLE MAN, in a way. That might be it. Congratulations Kong, whether you’re animated or suitmated, gorilla or snowmonkey, sober or intoxicated, you will always be a legend.