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King Kong vs. Godzilla - Review

A Review by Mike Bogue

2½ Stars - Pretty Good

Japanese release: Aug. 11, 1962

American release: June 3, 1963 (by Universal)

Direction: Ishiro Honda (U.S. scenes directed by Thomas Montgomery)

Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa (U.S. scenes written by Paul Mason and Bruce Howard)

Music: Akira Ifubuke (U.S. music supervisor Paul Zinner)

Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka (U.S. scenes produced by John Beck)

King Kong vs. Godzilla Still. Many G fans remember this as one of their favorite childhood movies.  Even those too young to have seen it during its 1960’s theatrical run might have caught it on TV at the age of five or six and fallen in love with it.  Although I was six years old in 1963 when the film played North American theatres, I didn’t finally see the film until May of 1972 when it popped up on a cable TV station!

But I still recall – and always will – that wonderful King Kong vs. Godzilla movie ad that appeared in newspapers across the country during the summer of ’63.  That one ad alone hooked me on The Big G big time, even though I’d never seen a Godzilla movie.  It promised so much in terms of spectacle and monster bouts and city razing that the ad practically reads like the recipe for the perfect kaiju eiga.

Of course, we all know that the ad “stretched” the facts.  Despite the poster’s promises, Godzilla didn’t knock jet bombers from the sky or attack Tokyo, nor were ocean liners capsized or the earth flooded by tidal waves.  (At the time, my older brother Frank told me these calamities were caused by Kong and Godzilla’s literally earth-shaking battle.)

But I won’t pillage the movie for what the ad said it would be.  After all, ads for sci-fi and monster movies frequently fibbed during the fifties and sixties.  That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it was often standard practice.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is, in this G fan’s eyes, a missed opportunity.  Instead of two colossal clowns cavorting about the screen, the film could have featured two colossal kaiju fighting it out tooth and nail.  Of course, Eiji Tsuburaya apparently came up with the film’s admittedly ground-breaking monster tactics that parodied Sumo wrestling and anthropomorphized the monsters.  Mr. Tsuburaya apparently felt lightweight “creature comedy” would be good for the small children in the audience.  Maybe it was.  But I’ve read that “The Old Man’s” assistant technicians couldn’t believe the outlandish things he was having Kong and Godzilla do.  For example, cameraman Teisho Arikawa said he thought Tsuburaya had gone “overboard.”

But that said, as every good Godzilla fan knows, King Kong vs. Godzilla remains the highest-attended Big G film of all time; in 1962, some 11.2 million Japanese moviegoers flocked to the film, making the movie a hit and catapulting Godzilla to “star” status.  The film’s enormous popularity proves that, for many Japanese, the light-hearted approach worked.  After all, without Toho Kong slugging it out with Godzilla midst a plethora of intricate miniatures and painted backdrops, there probably would have been no Godzilla series at all.

And there’s probably no need to heap further insult upon Kong’s unique (ahem) design.  Nevertheless, the getup of Toho Kong (as I prefer to call him) remains one of the strangest and least convincing of all ape costumes worn in the movies.  The close-ups of the articulated puppet head aren’t much better than the full suitmation costume.

King Kong vs. Godzilla Still.

Godzilla, however, fares much better.  Indeed, “King-goji” became the iconic symbol for Godzilla during the sixties.  Its massive body, pronounced dorsal plates, and distinct reptilian head and snout give the King of the Monsters a powerful, dinosaurian look.  Aurora used this very design to fashion its Godzilla model kit that came out in 1964.

And yes, this movie includes some decent scenes.  Maybe the most effective is that of the submarine Seahawk discovering Godzilla in an iceberg and the crew subsequently wishing they hadn’t.  The miniature of the sub is first-rate, and an overhead shot shows Godzilla impressively breaking free from his icy prison.

Other on-target moments:

  • The giant octopus attack on Faro Island.
  • Kong emerging from the sea after his imprisoning raft has exploded.
  • Godzilla’s bouts with the Japanese military.
  • Kong toppling electrical towers and making short work of a passenger train. 

Even much of Kong and Godzilla’s battle is well-filmed.  Their stomping through a cluster of Japanese houses as they grapple with one another is effective.  But the best scene in the movie occurs when Kong and Godzilla square off on opposite sides of Atami Castle.  The quick, back-and-forth close-ups of Kong and Godzilla as they plow through the crumbling tourist attraction are first-rate, and their subsequent slow-motion tumble into the sea is likewise noteworthy.

But as for Godzilla’s foolish arm-waving and inane “laughing” and Kong’s silly little leaps, well . . . I hope the kids liked it.

Much of the “human comedy” is just as painful, of course.  After all, who can forget one of the characters complaining about his corns and hamming it up while flinging away an obvious rubber lizard?  Such “comedy relief” stands in stark contrast to the more serious scenes involving the Japanese military and political leaders.

King Kong vs. Godzilla Still.

In addition, the quality of the miniatures and special effects varies from good to awful to everything in between.  Of course, one of the things that hampers most of the monster scenes is the fact that almost all of them are filmed in real-time; very rarely is the camera over-cranked.  This is a shame, because scenes such as Godzilla confronting the array of electrical towers and Kong loping through Tokyo would have been so much more convincing if they had been filmed in high-speed, which adds mass and greater realism not only to suitmation monsters, but to crumbling miniatures as well.

Yet despite everything I’ve said or haven’t said, I admit I have a certain grudging fondness for King Kong vs. Godzilla.  And in the film’s defense, it didn’t ask to be saddled with the tedious and often ludicrous American-made “U.N. news” scenes that periodically drive a stake into the pacing’s heart.  Nor did it ask to have the American producers almost totally remove Akira Ikubuke’s fine music score, only to replace it with old Universal horror and monster movie motifs, most prominently the theme from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I have seen the Japanese version of the film minus English subtitles, and it obviously flows better than its Americanized counterpart.  In addition, you can tell that the Japanese version is intended to be a satire of corporate greed and television, which might somewhat explain the kaiju spoofing.  The color is vibrant, and the inferior matte work looks better than it does in the Americanized version.  Still, in an early 1990’s interview, director Ishiro Honda himself expressed regret that the movie treats Godzilla in a basically juvenile manner.

For me, the best aspect of King Kong vs. Godzilla is the concept itself: that of having the most famous Western giant monster clash with the most famous Eastern giant monster, the two battling behemoths toppling buildings and pagodas in their wake as hundreds of panicked citizens flee before them.  Maybe someday, in another world or another century, this pivotal kaiju eiga will be remade to realize its potential as the greatest monster meet spectacle of all time.  In the meantime, we still have the entire Godzilla movie canon to keep us company.  Think that’ll be enough?

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