1962's "King Kong vs.Godzilla" is essentially the glorious long-term dream of any giant monster fanboy who had been watching these kinds of films since the 1930s. "King Kong" was in many ways the direct inspiration for Toho's already-legendary 1954 "Godzilla". However, both of these characters had been in retirement for several years now. Godzilla had not been on the big screen since "Return of Godzilla", and King Kong himself had been missing in action since 1933, notwithstanding several Kong-inspired films. This film was the ultimate match-up of the greatest American giant monster against the greatest Japanese giant monster - and an octopus, but we'll ignore that guy for now. How can anything about be anything less than pure awesome?
Well, there is immediately a wrinkle. If you think about it, King Kong does not stand a chance against Godzilla. Kong is fifty feet tall at best, while the Showa era Godzilla was fifty meters tall*, utterly dominating his opponent. Plus, Godzilla can breathe fire, and was able to incinerate an entire city in a single night. King Kong was slaughtered by biplanes, Godzilla was briefly annoyed by jet fighters. King Kong stayed dead for thirty years, Godzilla was back alive without much explanation in just a single year. Curiously, the way Toho made this idea work was to resurrect a Willis O'Brien script concept for a film called "King Kong vs. Frankenstein", where King Kong would fight a gigantic kaiju version of Frankenstein's Monster. Eventually that evolved when Toho bought the rights**, and gave King Kong the giant Frankenstein's powers. This explains why King Kong this time is now 167 feet tall (45 meters), and eats lightning. The end result makes "King Kong vs. Godzilla" a properly ridiculous adventure, pure fanservice from beginning to end, and adorable in its simplicity.
The first note I should make is that I watched the American cut of this film, which honestly, was something of a mistake. The American version of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" is actually more a meddlesome cut than that of "Godzilla: King of the Monsters". Rather than adding in an American POV character who at least organically could claim to be in the area where the story is taking place - if never actually interfering with it, the American characters that are added is a news reporter, Eric Carter, played by Michael Keith. He isn't actually watching the events in Japan, in fact, he's not even in Asia, he's in a UN news room, reporting on the action in an extremely crude way of giving exposition, in the place of the original Japanese scenes. (By the way, does the United Nations even have a televised news service? Or, as this movie claims, a space station where they receive signals?) So the entire movie is terribly muddled, since the real characters never get introduced properly, and you're never really sure who anybody is. Plus, this movie has a relatively large cast of characters, since two interlocking plots of King Kong and Godzilla attacks need to be woven together. Eric Carter is not the man to do that. And the worst part about the American dub is that they replaced the Akira Ifukube score with stock American music.
However, shockingly, the Japanese original of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" is actually lost. The DVD release in the US doesn't even any Japanese version, so you have to do some searching to find it. It was terribly preserved, several scenes were lost, and many more scenes are in horrible quality. Also, the American cut of this film is that one I grew up with, so I'll stick with the familiar.
"King Kong vs. Godzilla" is a considerably sillier production than the previous Toho giant monster movies. This is actually the first giant monster comedy, with several characters nothing but comic reliefs, including a Carl Denam-esque character that acts like the Japanese Groucho Marx and a Japanese Don Knots. This is the movie where the final fight mainly revolves around King Kong trying to grab Godzilla's tail and kicking giant house-sized boulders at this enemy. This is the rise of the silly children's kaiju, where these aren't so much movies as much as set-ups for huge monsters to fight in what are essentially costumed wrestling matches. I mean, look at this:
The first time either of these characters were in color, by the way.
This move towards silliness was mostly the decision of Eiji Tsubjuraya, the special effects master of pretty much all of Toho's science fiction films at this point. He really wanted to appeal to children with this film, which really did not sit well with director, Ishiro Honda, who thought Godzilla should be more serious, but his issues were shot down by the Toho upper staff. Still, it didn't stop him from continuing with the series, and making movies far goofier than this one. ("All Monsters Attack" comes to mind.)
Anyway, the plot. On Faro Island in the South Pacific, there are wonderful medicinal Red Berries, which are great sleeping drugs and might possibly be useful in chemotherapy - Eric Carter never explains it very well. The very stereotypical natives, however, won't let the Pacific Pharmaceutical Company take the berries because they say they need them to put their angry mountain god to sleep. The Pharmaceutical Company boss, a Japanese Groucho Marx, also decides to send three guys to capture this god for television ratings. "Get me a monster!" And stunningly, these three dudes, one of which looks like Don Knots and dresses like TV's Gilligan, actually don't get killed immediately. They appease the islanders by giving them the greatest gift a pharmaceutical company could ever give: precious life-giving cigarettes. One dude even hands the deadly tobacco over to a child, whose actor actually smokes on set. Oh God!
Meanwhile, in the North Pacific, huge glaciers have been falling into the water. If you recall back in "Godzilla Raids Again", he was ultimately defeated by the Japanese airforce when they cornered him in a valley in Hokkaido and covered him in snow, where he froze. Unfortunately, Godzilla never stays beaten for long, and the glacier he's riding gets hit by a nuclear submarine. This frees Godzilla, who makes a B-line straight for the nearest base where he destroys several tanks and wrecks havoc.
Back on Faro Island, our heroes spend the night in the village, when out of nowhere, a giant octopus attacks! This octopus isn't a prop, its a real life octopus they just threw on the model of the village, and had the actor in the King Kong suit wrestle with. There's a small combination of very simple stop-motion to have the octopus grab things, but its basic. If you're worried as to whether this creature was harmed or not: it was. The crew fried it up and ate it once its filming was finished.
After Kong beats the octopus, he grabs giant vats of the Red Berry juice and puts himself to sleep. Its quite a thing to see a creature over one-hundred feet tall getting buzzed on red juice, then fall right on his ass in the middle of a village and fall asleep. I told you this movie was goofy. But somehow, the three pharmaceutical boys manage to get Kong on a giant raft and drag his sleeping body back to Tokyo. However, on the voyage, King Kong wakes up, and breaks the barge, where he then swims on his own to Japan to finally fight Godzilla.
We're roughly halfway through the movie now, and honestly, not a great deal has taken place. Even worse, the first fight between Godzilla and King Kong is pretty anticlimatic, Godzilla uses his nuclear breath to send Kong fleeing into the trees of Japan. And then he's back moving towards Tokyo. To stop Godzilla, the JSDF use an old trick: they build an electric barrier using electrical wires around Tokyo, which will shock Godzilla and force him to stay away. This didn't work in the very first film, because Godzilla simply melted the towers, but it seems he's forgotten how this time, and actually is stopped. What the Japanese don't expect though, is that King Kong is, for reasons never explained even by the American expert*** Eric Carter brings on his UN program, powered by lightning. He loves electricity, he eats it:
Mmmm, voltage, sweetest of the SI units.
This leads Kong straight to Tokyo. In an homage to a scene in the original "King Kong", he picks up an elevated subway train and starts playing with it. He even finds the main female of the movie, some nondescript girl who a few scenes ago survived a similar encounter on a train with Godzilla, and captures her. The Japanese forces, who keep considering to use an atomic bomb, instead fire rockets tipped with the Red Berry juice and play the chanting of the Faro islanders to lullaby King Kong back to sleep. And for the most part this works, though Kong does tear off a sizable chunk of the Japanese Parliament building. Then next move is to get King Kong together with Godzilla. To do that, they tie unbreakable metal string around King Kong and float him over to Mt. Fuji using GIANT BALLOONS.
Silliness levels reaching critical mass.
So now finally we've reached the moment we've been waiting for. The proper final battle between the two titans of giantness, King Kong VS. Godzilla, just as the title promised! And this is a marvel of silly kaiju fighting, its really a preview for how these Godzilla movies would be made in a decade, with huge goofy moves and over-the-top action. Godzilla, at one point, drop kicks Kong in the chest. Later, Kong gets hit by lightning when it seems like he's down - which is some dues ex machina cheating as far as I'm concerned - and gets lightning hands. The most brutal moment is when King Kong grabs a tree, and shoves it down Godzilla's throat. That's hardcore, man. But Godzilla has a counter for this, he uses his fire breath to turn that tree into a flaming missile right for the King's heart. This is it. This fight is really what this countdown was all about. Giant monsters, fighting it out, buildings getting smashed, and no shame of any kind.
King Kong vs. Godzilla vs. Japanese Castle
In the end, Kong and Godzilla smash a lovely Japanese monumental castle and go tumbling over the side of a cliff into the Pacific. I don't know what happens in the ocean, but somehow King Kong wins. Which is crap. He wins in the Japanese version as well, despite decade-old rumors that this was a change made for the American version. The ending is so sudden that it actually does look like something was cut, so I can see how this would be believed. But no, Kong wins.
Here's where fanboy me comes in. King Kong couldn't win this fight. And he shouldn't have. Godzilla had him beaten ten minutes ago, the guy was dying in the dirt, until the lightning brought him back. And even then, they had to lower the power of Godzilla's fire breath to mildly singe King Kong's body, instead of turning him into a roasted monkey sandwich like it really would have. Yeah, I'm a huge Godzilla fan, and I never like to see him lose. And worse, Godzilla lost in the ocean, which is where he would have had the advantage, since he's an aquatic creature. But what really offends me is that in the American dub, the scientist expert claims that Godzilla has a brain the size of a marble. FUCK YOU, guy! Godzilla is the King! His brain is glorious! Everything about him is glorious! May Godzilla rule forever!
Next time: I actually am going to stop advertising the next review, because I can't really be sure. I have a few candidates, but most likely, I'm skipping to "Mothra vs. Godzilla".
* That's 167 feet, if you're wondering. The American version of "Gojira", "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" claims that Godzilla is 400 feet tall, which is considerably more than official Toho source has ever given. Over the years, Godzilla has grown, going up to 267 feet (80 meters), and then again to 334 feet (100 meters). The American Godzilla in 1998 was already far shorter than his Japanese counterpart, since he was only 197 feet tall (60 meters). The tallest giant monster in all of giant monster history is probably King Ghidorah, who has hit 492 feet (150 meters).
** The legal rights to King Kong is something of a huge greasy noodle and probably the most complex and longest-running legal snarls in Hollywood history. In 1963, after a man named John Beck sold Toho the rights to O'Brien's script, Merian C. Cooper, the original director/writer of "King Kong" and creator of the character attempted to sue John Beck for not getting a get of the profits, but then he found that RKO studios was claiming total legal control. Cooper had lost his original documents that assured him that he had legal rights to the character and the uncertainty of King Kong's legal status had ruined several attempts over the years to make a new King Kong movie. Eventually Merian C. Cooper had to abandon his legal battle, having gained nothing, except for opening the door to a whole new generation of legal tussles that would erupt in the 70s and 80s upon the creation of the King Kong remake. And that's a whole other story that I'll have to leave to a later episode, when we find ourselves with RKO, Universal Studios, Dino De Laurentiis, Merian C. Cooper's son, and somehow Nintendo (yes, Nintendo) all together in the American courts, fighting over who actually owns King Kong.
*** Some expert, by the way. The scientific book this guy uses to explain his dinosaur theory for Godzilla is a children's picture book that looks like something he picked up a museum gift shop.