After fans catch the return of King Kong to the big screen in Kong: Skull Island and before Legendary brings its own head-to-head MonsterVerse remake, Kaiju Kingdom’s Chris Eaton looks back on the original King Kong vs. Godzilla film from 1962 for this month’s TokuNet Film Club.
When the head of a major pharmaceutical firm grows weary of the shows his company sponsors, he gets the idea to head to a mysterious South Pacific Island named, Faro. The island bears red berries that contain a powerful narcotic effect, which were said to be brought back to Japan by a doctor who carried the native berries in a satchel. While they may be a boon for the drug company, the company boss really wants to capture and commercially exploit the monster that calls the island home.
So, under the guise of bringing back more native berries from the island of Faro, two executives are dispatched on a real mission: find the monster.
Meanwhile, in the sea north of Hokkaido, Japan, an American submarine investigates a radiation spike in a swath of icebergs. They inadvertently crash into one, unknowing that it’s the prison of Godzilla. The King of Monsters soon breaks free, destroys the sub and a local military base, before it starts heading south.
Back on Faro Island, the two executives are welcomed by the locals after bribing them with candy and cigarettes. The native lead the two men around the island, collecting berries, and keeping an eye out for the monster the natives aptly call, King Kong.
Thinking the monster is nothing more than a myth, the executives are tired of the mission and are ready to pack up. Before they leave and after making juice from the narcotic berries, a giant octopus suddenly attacks the village they are staying in. As the tribe desperately fights the eight-armed giant, King Kong arrives and makes short work of creature. In a victorious celebration, Kong indulges in the berry juice and passes out in a stupor as the natives lull him to sleep with a song. Seizing their chance, the executives manage to strap Kong to a raft and officially towed to Japan.
Godzilla continues his rampage toward Tokyo, attacking a train in southern Hokkaido before moving to the mainland where the military attempts to plunge him into a giant ditch and blow him up. The assault fails as Godzilla shrugs off the attack and marches south.
Off the shore of Japan, the Japanese government forbid the pharmaceutical company from bringing Kong into the country. They order the boat to turn around and head back to Faro. Before they can, Kong awakens from his drug-induced slumber, escapes the raft, and heads to mainland. With two giant monster now in Japan, the world watches as the colossal creatures meet for the first time in forest not far from Tokyo.
Godzilla and Kong posture each other, before Kong is forced to retreat from Godzilla’s firepower. Godzilla is diverted from Tokyo by a power line defense, while Kong breaks through due to his ability to absorb electricity. Kong attacks Tokyo, takes a woman hostage, and scales the National Diet building. Unable to attack with the woman Kong has hostage in his hand, the military detonates a concentrate of the narcotic berry juice over Kong’s head and is put to sleep. With Kong knocked out, the military decides the only way to handle their monster problem is to let the two fight and destroy each other.
Strapped to a dozen over-sized balloons, Kong is towed to Mt. Fuji, where Godzilla roams freely. Once overhead, the military literally drops Kong on top of Godzilla. Thus, begins the climatic show down of two of the greatest titans on Earth.
Arguably, the two most famous monsters in film history came together by happenstance.
Originally, Willis O’Brien, the animator of the original King Kong, had been trying to resurrect the character for over a couple of decades. He created a concept originally titled, King Kong vs. Frankenstein, that involved Kong taking on a monster created by the descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. He planned on using the same stop-motion techniques used on the original Kong film. Alas, because such techniques proved costly, O’Brien had little luck pushing through the project.
Then along came a producer by the name of John Beck, who decided to help O’Brien properly package and sell the project. After finding no luck State side, Beck attracted the attention of Toho Studios in Japan. Already in the business of monsters, the company was more than eager to produce a King Kong film. Unfortunately for O’Brien, Toho felt their own creation, Godzilla, would be a better sell. Beck sold the project to Toho behind O’Brien’s back and the latter didn’t receive credit or a dime from the project that came to be.
With the rights secured to Kong from RKO, Toho created arguably one of the most famous crossover films; perhaps more historic than the time Frankenstein’s monster met the Wolfman. Unlike that film, King Kong vs. Godzilla would live up to the big fight name the title carries.
One of the big aspects that makes this film special is that King Kong vs. Godzilla is the first color film for both monsters. Kong, not seen on-screen for nearly 30 years at the time, was still popular as ever and Toho decided to bring back Godzilla to film after nearly a 7 year hiatus.
The latter’s last film was 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again and the studio put the iconic kaiju aside for other monsters to have their place in the sun. Nonetheless, Godzilla remained the flagship character for Toho and was still a cash cow to be milked. A fight between Kong and Godzilla was a sure-fire win.
To guarantee the win, Toho brought Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya to bring the clash to life. The duo were an instrumental part of the team the created the original Godzilla film as well as most of the kaiju Toho created afterward. With their involvement, Toho banked on obtaining the same level of quality.
Tsuburaya actually cancelled a pending project to work on King Kong vs. Godzilla. King Kong was very near and dear to him as Kong is what inspired him to go into special effects in the first place.
The result was as Toho desired: a fantastic extravaganza of film.
Long before crossover films pitted two franchises against each other (think Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator), King Kong vs. Godzilla set the stage for what is common place today. To be fair, this Kong wasn’t the same Kong that appeared in theaters in 1933. Knowing full-well that stop motion animation would prove too costly, Tsuburaya and Toho went with their traditional route of creating monster suits to match Kong with Godzilla.
From there, the staff crafted an interchangeable look and suit– two heads and two sets of arms. One set of arms were for shots where Kong appears more ape-like, and regular arms when suit actor, Shoichi Hirose, would have to grab or grapple.
Kong’s head altered the appearance from the original stop-motion as well. While retaining an obvious gorilla look, Tsuburaya and his staff put their own spin on the character. No longer black, Kong was brown, with a more crescent face. He stood completely upright for the most part and was also given a new ability to generate electrical shocks from his hands when juiced-up with lightning. Toho’s Kong was very much their own creation seperate from Merian C. Cooper’s Kong.
As for his foe, Godzilla, a brand new suit was built for production. Godzilla’s last appearance in Godzilla Raids Again was not much different from the look he sported in the original Godzilla. For his fight with Kong, the big guy would received a bit of an overhaul in look. The new suit was much bulkier in size, with the dorsal plates enlarged with more “puff” to them. His face was given a fatter shape and molded into more of a dinosaur look. This newer Godzilla was more imposing, like that of a Strongman competitor. Some argued that Legendary’s Godzilla took more of a cue in look from this Godzilla than any of the other incarnations.
The actual film itself is very lighthearted and a bit wacky. Its underlining theme is that big corporations–in this case, Big Pharma– are greedy. Even the head of the pharmaceutical company is played like a buffoon, while his underlings are a bit more level-headed and question his every motive. Two executives who went to the island were looking for a monster to make into a mascot seems ridiculous. Ironically, however, the very monster they find saves Japan from total destruction.
Compared to the previous two Godzilla films, King Kong vs. Godzilla is the most family friendly film Toho put out at that time. Kong, being the more famous monster of the two, is given top billing and, for the most part, the hero of the film. Godzilla is still very much the bad guy, but his image is softened here and would start the path to him becoming a fully fledged hero a few films later.
As for the rest of the film, once Kong is brought to the mainland, the story toggles between who’s doing more damage: Kong or Godzilla? Godzilla is the focus of the B-plot and the military’s futile attempts to stop him from advancing towards Tokyo. Ultimately, it comes down to a giant monster version of a dog fight–rile the two monsters up and let them go at it. That’s what they do.
The climactic battle between Kong and Godzilla remains one of the absolute very best of any kaiju battle. Set at the base of Mt Fuji in bright daylight, this is the most physical monster battle ever put to screen. With the Kong suit being more agile and Kong’s characteristic brute strength, the fight is fast and nearly unrelenting. Shoichi Hirose and Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla in-suit, where given nearly free reign to choreograph the battle.
With its popularity on the rise in Japan during the time, the suit actor duo based a lot of the choreography around professional wrestling, using drop kicks, grappling, and throws. Kong swings and punches while Godzilla claws, bites, and throws his tail around. There are magnificent set pieces that feel like the monsters are really going at it.
There was even some thought with the monsters’ special abilities. While Godzilla has his atomic ray, Kong learns to dodge it then later tries to stop it by shoving a tree down Godzilla’s throat. Tides turn when Kong gets supercharged by a lighting strike and ramps up his beating with an electrical attack through his fists. Tumbling and shoving, the two fight for miles, coming to the edge of the ocean with Atami Castle falling victim to their rampage.
It all ends when Kong tackles Godzilla over the cliff side into the Pacific Ocean, causing an earthquake as they continue to clash underwater. It’s all spectacular and very few, if any, giant monster films ever come close to creating such an entertaining battle.
Things end with Kong swimming away, and Godzilla nowhere to be seen. At the time, people loved it. King Kong vs. Godzilla would go on to become the highest grossing film in the series. It still holds that title today. Toho would go on to produce one more Kong film a few years later. Meanwhile, Godzilla would be turned into a full-fledged series, and, like Marvel films of today, would start fighting monsters that previously had their own films. Thus, turning their kaiju films into a loose cinematic universe. As it remains one of the best known films for both monsters, the two have not re-matched in battle since; mostly due to rights issues with Kong.
However, with the upcoming Legendary MonsterVerse, Legendary Pictures is making sure that changes soon.
At first glance, King Kong vs. Godzilla was a stunt. At its best, it’s a film that answers one of the best questions in tokusatsu fandom circles: Who would in in a fight?
In this case, the honor goes to King Kong.