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A gift from heaven for bored kids on summer break, the 1963 Universal release King Kong vs. Godzilla was a surprise hit engineered by marketers that knew exactly what they were selling. At age ten I was walking through my living room just as a 20-second TV spot was playing. I imagine my response was the same as several million other kids with, shall we say, undiscriminating tastes: I knew exactly where I wanted to be come Saturday afternoon. I hadn't yet been introduced to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, but I already knew the score, having seen Gigantis The Fire Monster at age seven or eight. Self-appointed expert that I was, I couldn't be fooled: 'Gigantis' was really Godzilla. If King Kong vs. Godzilla played fair, the giant beast would have to appear from the huge block of ice in which he was previously buried.
The Saturday matinee was packed with kids, mostly boys. Our monster movies were serious stuff. It mattered not that the screenplay and dialogue were infantile, and it didn't even matter that the Japanese King Kong was, uh, on the inadequate side. We hung on every word and cheered every entrance of our giant monster-heroes.
The KKVG project didn't originate with Toho. We readers of FM soon found out that the great Willis O'Brien had been involved at an early stage. Only years later would researchers (Don Shay?) divulge the whole story, a typical Hollywood dirty deal. 1
The original Japanese version is a gala entertainment meant to re-launch the Godzilla name in a new direction. In color and Tohoscope, parts of it were intentionally comic. Godzilla is still a menace, but no longer a grim specter of the atomic age. The movie instead grafts a standard 'Godzilla is coming to Tokyo' plot onto a loose retelling of the Kong legend. While Godzilla terrorizes the Japanese mainland, representatives of a pharmaceutical company travel to Faro Island to secure their own monster for publicity purposes. King Kong battles an enormous octopus but is captured and shipped across the ocean on a raft. The comic drug company CEO panics when Kong escapes. Several already discounted methods of killing Godzilla are tried out (does General Jun Tazaki have a checklist?) before the two titans clash, in the middle of the city and finally on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.
The original Japanese-language Kingu Kongu tai Gojira had a satirical bent to its comedy. The ingenious screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa had already gone in for heavy criticism of First World/Third World exploitation in his marvelous fairy tale monster romp Mothra. Here the goofy CEO is simply an unreasonable clown. He faints when told that the government won't let him bring King Kong into Tokyo. Of course, the mighty ape is just offshore, and has no trouble swimming the rest of the way.
A standard nighttime scene of Godzilla menacing a commuter train is extremely well done, re-establishing the monster's size and menace. That octopus back on Faro Island may be the most impressive thing in the movie: it looks huge and moves with oozing twists of its tentacles. Back in '63 we thought it was awesome. The movie concocts a scene in which the heroine (Mie Hama, later tapped for a James Bond movie) spends a minute or two in the paws of the giant hairy ape, screaming her head off. Kong climbs atop the capitol's Diet building, a pitiful sight indeed. It was then one of the tallest buildings in the city. The original Kong had occasional inconsistencies in scale but Toho-Kong doesn't worry its head about such things. Mie Hama almost fills his paw, even though said paw is almost as big as Godzilla's head.
That brings us to Toho's interpretation of King Kong, which became an immediate target of fan derision. Toho had made reasonable ape suits before but this one is truly pathetic. The instructions seem to have been to not frighten 4-year-olds, and to slap it together in 24 hours. Toho-Kong's body is a shapeless gunnysack that often doesn't even look hairy. In some scenes it has arm extensions that fail to create an ape-like effect. When Toho-Kong gets wet it looks like a pile of stinking rags. The cartoonish face wouldn't pass muster in a Sid & Marty Kroft kiddie show. The Gargantuas of a few years later have more interesting bodies, even though their faces are not particularly appealing.
Once the fight begins the movie becomes an episode of Saturday Night Wrestling. The camera position is raised from ankle to waist level, so that the monsters no longer look gigantic. Kong waves his floppy arms and Godzilla shoots his fiery breath, although always at Kong's feet, for some reason. Kong tries to jam a tree down Godzilla's throat, and sends him flying with a Judo flip. The animation for Godzilla's oral flamethrower is excellent; his dorsal plates glow blue. One idea may have been a Willis O'Brien carryover from the Universal Frankenstein series -- Kong receives energy from high power lines, and electric bolts sometimes shoot from his teeth.
The effects are spectacular, but are given less attention to realism than in some Tohos. The painted sky backdrops for the ocean scenes are pretty bad. But the opticals are very clean; the few scratches we see are mostly on shots reused from earlier movies. Those familiar with Toho fantasies will likely recognize many recycled moments from earlier shows, especially Mothra and The Mysterians. A UN communications satellite is actually an alien battle station from the latter film.
The American version of KKVG pretty much ruins the flavor and pacing of the original, making plentiful trims and adding a running commentary via a "United Nations News Man" played by Michael Keith. He and a scientific expert discuss Godzilla as if addressing a nursery school, even producing a dinosaur book for kids. At times they talk as if Godzilla is a known phenomenon. A helicopter pilot immediately recognizes Big G by name, but when we cut to the UN News feed, the scientist acts as if confronted by something new. Frequent cutaways to the rather casual newsmen crudely tie the story together, closing gaps where Universal's editors have dropped character scenes from the original film. As might be expected, the American producer and director give themselves prominent title credits, while some of the original Japanese filmmakers go unmentioned, or misspelled.
Producer John Beck's editing is choppy but the dubbing is rather good, if at times grammatically challenged. The friends going to Faro Island behave like a comedy duo, and the writing for their cowardly dialogue is okay. Most of the original Akira Ifukube music track has been replaced by cues from, I kid you not, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The effect is rather jolting.
Today King Kong vs. Godzilla makes for a terrific kiddie film. The package text says "terrifying" but if your kids can handle The Three Little Pigs they'll have nothing to fear. For us older fans the show has definite nostalgia value. I was so busy cheering with my pint-sized peers that I wasn't aware of any jeering from teenagers -- except maybe when Toho's flea-bitten Kong made his first appearance.
Universal's Blu-ray of King Kong vs. Godzilla is surely primed to coincide with the opening of the new gazillion-dollar Breaking Bad Godzilla. The transfer of this 50 year-old picture is quite good. A few scenes are a little dark, but nobody has seen fit to "modernize" the colors, which are as bright and rich as ever. It's a perfectly good plain-wrap release. No title screen appears, the movie just plays upon insertion. An option to skip chapters comes up when one hits the menu button.
I'm told that a Blu-ray of the Japanese Kingu Kongu tai Gojira is due for release this summer, but the word is that it will have no English subs, like almost all Japanese discs. That's a shame, as not all viewers have Stuart Galbraith around to explain the film's subtext, such as the 'salaryman' humor that pops up in the episodes with the pharmaceutical company.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Kong vs. Godzilla Blu-ray rates:
1. I've simplified this quite a bit. The aging Willis O'Brien spent the last twenty years of his life trying to launch film projects, only to see them come to nothing. He had already received shoddy treatment at the hands of the makers of The Beast of Hollow Mountain. A couple of years later O'Brien prepared several large concept drawings for his next idea, King Kong vs. Frankenstein. He went to RKO-General to secure rights to the Kong character, but his producing partner John Beck shopped the idea to Toho behind his back. Willis O'Brien was once again locked out; his beloved Kong would not be brought to life with stop-motion animation. It was yet another project conceived and initiated by O'Brien, that was taken from him and made by others.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.