A Spoiler-rific Review of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla

Blu-Ray case for King Kong vs. Godzilla
Blu-Ray case for King Kong vs. Godzilla
The third installment of the fledgling Godzilla franchise was King Kong vs. Godzilla. Released in 1962 this is the first Godzilla movie to be filmed in color. According to every account the Japanese people were fascinated by the original King Kong, and particularly by an island populated by giant monsters. Getting the rights to King Kong to do a Godzilla movie must have been cause for great excitement.

Now there is no menu, so no option for an original version. The Blu-ray disc just starts right up. Granted this means there are no annoying commercials in front of it either.

This movie appears to attempt to interweave the original King Kong origin story into a Godzilla movie. There are a lot of scenes that are very like scenes from the 1933 King Kong. Ishiro Honda who directs, is a genius but there are some misses in this movie.

The movie opens with a shot of a space station, establishing video and communication from anywhere on Earth instantaneously, then quickly segues to a group of pharmaceutical businessmen who are discussing giant fruit discovered on a small island. They are concerned with giant berries that are about the size of a small apple (and look as plastic as can be) that are rumored to be a miracle cure. I don’t seem to recall what they actually cure. There is also the rumor of giant monsters on the island that the berries came from. Mr Tako, the chairman of the company sends his minions to go and collect a giant monster to promote their miracle cure. Because testimonials from former disease ridden people just won’t do, I guess.

From there we skip to an American submarine checking out a glowing iceberg in an area of ocean that is filled with icebergs. Somehow this nuclear submarine runs into the glowing iceberg. This just happens. There is some talk of getting a reading on a Geiger counter, but no mention of the iceberg suddenly changing course. So either their pilot is worse than incompetent or we skipped a fairly important plot point.

The submarine experiences catastrophic hull breaching and after a few tense moments on the bridge where the captain and crew try to escape, the sub is destroyed. A search and rescue helicopter shows up in time to see Godzilla break out of the iceberg. This is very thoughtful because in Godzilla Raids Again the Japanese Defense Force’s solution to Godzilla raiding again was to imprison him in an avalanche on a glacier. From there it’s just a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Godzilla being calved into the sea from the glacier.

The first part of this movie is actually very well done. Things don’t go wrong until King Kong actually shows up. Well, a good part of the story arc on Farou island is painful but some of that is due to it being filmed in 1962.

There is actually a half way decent script and Ishiro Honda’s directing is, as always, fantastic. They did a fair job of recreating the sense that viewers got from the sets on the island where King Kong was discovered in the original 1933 movie.

It’s on the island that we discover that the juice of those giant (plastic apple) berries is a soporific. This is a plot point.

The giant octopus attack just makes me feel sorry for the poor octopus. For 1962 though the effects are pretty amazing. The forced perspective filming combined with stop motion animation is impressive. The Blu-Ray version cleans up some of the green-screen artifacts that earlier releases had during this scene that had really show cased the film’s age.

The King Kong suit is just bad. This is supposedly deliberate but it just looks bad. This is the movie where Honda began to experiment with humor and the first parts to undergo experimentation were the suits.

King Kong shows up to drive off the giant octopus, which had, for unknown and unfathomable reasons crawled up out of the ocean. Allegedly for the berry juice but who knows really. Kong sees a bunch of clay jars of the juice and, after vanquishing the giant octopus decides to go on a bender, guzzling down all of the berry juice. The islanders play a lullaby for him as he passes out.

The agents of the television station determine to take King Kong back with them as their bosses had ordered them to. So in many, important, important ways King Kong vs. Godzilla follows the story arc of the original 1933 King Kong.

One great scene is where a scientist, speaking to a journalist for television, compares the brain sizes of Godzilla and King Kong: Dinosaur brain size vs. Mammal brain size.

With Kong on a giant raft being towed behind a large ship, the chief of the television station gets himself airlifted to the ship. No sooner is he aboard, wearing a ridiculous explorer’s outfit and holding a shotgun as if he had anything to do with capturing Kong, when the Japanese military boards the ship. They are told, in no uncertain terms, that King Kong is considered a threat to Japan and must be returned immediately. The television executive faints since he’s tied up everything in bringing back this spectacle to boost ratings.

Meanwhile, Godzilla apparently remembers being imprisoned in a giant ice flow and is holding a grudge. He’s making a bee-line for Japan. As an aside this is a great suit. Making landfall, Godzilla takes out a high speed rail, which he seems to particularly hate. Tokyo Tower seems to fare better in this particular movie.

Out on the high seas King Kong starts to rouse from his night of berry juice binging and in a bit of a panic the people on the boat try to blow him up. This, as one might imagine, makes him a touch cranky. Loud noises after an all night bender tend to do that.

Kong runs into Godzilla and the two have a bit of a tussle. Godzilla’s breath weapon seems to vanquish King Kong. Godzilla, triumphant, continues on his rampage across Japan.

The Japanese Defense Force decides that since ice didn’t work they’d try fire this time. To that end they carve out a huge “U” shaped valley and run huge pipes filled with gasoline to the area. Then when Godzilla gets there they set it ablaze. This serves to annoy Godzilla. Next up a blockade of high-tension wires.

This is where Mr. Exposition (really a television announcer) tells us that King Kong draws strength from electricity whereas Godzilla trys to stay away from electricity. Not setting us up for the climactic battle at all. In the original Gojira, Godzilla didn’t seem to care much one way or another about high-tension wires. In King Kong vs Godzilla there is a scene where they explicitly show Godzilla being hurt by electricity.

Yes in future movies, lightning is what revives Godzilla on more than one occasion. But that is in Godzilla’s future. In this movie electricity is what harms Godzilla and helps King Kong.

The models and miniatures are quite fabulous in his movie. King Kong flossing with high-tension wires is not so fabulous. Also not so fabulous is King Kong being airlifted via balloons to Mt. Fuji where the military people are hoping that Kong and Godzilla engage in mutually assured destruction. The original, “Let them fight,” moment.

Yes I skipped over Kong picking up a girl out of another high-speed rail (apparently he hates them too, high-speed rail that is) and climbing the capital building. This is j a scene and a part of the story that feels forced. The girl is the sister of the main character and love interest of another of the major characters but that is her only role. It’s unworthy of a Godzilla movie and feels out of place.

One of the things that Godzilla movies do so well is elevate women and the roles of women. In all but the worst Godzilla movies (and this seems to be un-related to the roles women play in the movies, it’s just a strange coincidence), women have meaningful roles to play. They are journalists or photographers, scientists or even technicians and pilots. These are all groundbreaking roles for women in movies of their eras. It’s just one more reason to love Godzilla. Women as real people and not just props.

Back to the movie: The military drops, and I do mean drops, King Kong on the side of Mt. Fuji where he slides down into Godzilla. Godzilla was climbing the side of Mt. Fuji, you know out for a hike in the wilderness when King Kong slams into him and sends him tumbling down the mountain.

This is the start of the climactic final battle. Godzilla’s breath weapon seems to be unbeatable. But wait! There’s an electrical storm on the way. Kong grows stronger with electricity. The fight is back on. Trees are uprooted and in a call back to 1933, Kong tries to force feed a tree to Godzilla. Maybe he thinks the King of the Monsters needs more fiber in his diet. Buildings are destroyed, rocks are thrown and the two titans tumble off a cliff and into the sea. This can only work in Godzilla’s favor. Godzilla is amphibious. Kong is a non-aquatic primate.

The impact of the monsters creates a giant tidal wave and an earthquake. Tons of debris flow into the sea after the monsters. Next we see King Kong swimming out to sea with no sign of Godzilla. Seems like a draw to me although Toho has stated that Kong was meant to win as he was the more popular of the two monsters. I reject their reality and substitute my own.

I don’t know if it’s the imported grapefruit beer or not but this movie isn’t quite as bad as I seem to remember it being. It’s not great but I can see how much effort was put into it, the care taken to craft the story. Ishiro Honda was a genius.

Speaking of geniuses, the soundtrack was scored by Akira Ifukube who is the genius who came up with Godzilla’s iconic roar and scored many of the Godzilla movies. There is a very distinct sound to the music of Godzilla and it is never more apparent then in the scene where King Kong is lying at the base of the Japanese Capital building (after being put to sleep with the berry juice and a recording of his islanders singing his lullby) and the theme music for Kong from the 1933 movie is played. It’s jarring. It is phonetically out of place and really highlights the juxtaposition of the cultural Kong with the cultural Godzilla.

With news of a Legendary Pictures Godzilla vs. Kong to be released in 2020 this revisiting of the original Toho production gives me hope that the new one will be epic. I hope, expect actually, that they will not be experimenting with humor. I also hope, expect actually, that Godzilla will be the clear winner. Atomic breath! There’s no breath mint for that.

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