Sunday, February 2, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - King Kong vs. Godzilla

Witness one of the greatest crossovers of all time.

Nearly thirty years after he created the amazing stop-motion effects that brought King Kong and The Son of Kong to life in their 1933 films, special effects artist Willis O'Brien was anxious to bring Kong to the screen again. He wanted to make the return of Kong a monster mash, to pit the huge ape against another large monster, and for the other monster he turned to another famous name of classic film and literature. He turned to Frankenstein.

Ignoring the events of The Son of Kong, O'Brien's story was to center on the showman character of Carl Denham, the man who made the disastrous decision to transport King Kong from his native Skull Island and make him appear in a New York City stage show. As everyone knows, the film King Kong ends with the titular beast plummeting to his death from the Empire State Building. O'Brien intended to retcon that ending, and this new movie would show that the ape had merely been wounded by his fall, and was then taken back to Skull Island, where he was able to recuperate. Having not learned his lesson, Denham would leap at the chance to again make Kong part of an event when he hears that the San Francisco-based grandson of the original Doctor Frankenstein has created a monster called The Ginko, a humanoid creature crafted from the body parts of various types of animals from Africa. Denham arranges a meeting, in fact a boxing match, between Kong and The Ginko... and of course things go terribly wrong, resulting in the two monsters engaging each other in a vicious fight in the streets of San Francisco, and ultimately on the Golden Gate Bridge.

O'Brien wrote up a treatment for King Kong vs. Frankenstein, alternately called King Kong vs. The Ginko, but was unable to find a studio that was willing to take on the project and fund its stop-motion sequences. He did find an interested party in a producer named John Beck. Unfortunately, Beck took the concept and ran with it but didn't keep O'Brien in the loop, developing the project on his own, without O'Brien's consultation. Beck hired George Worthing Yates, a screenwriter who had worked on such films as It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Attack of the Puppet People, War of the Colossal Beast, Frankenstein 1970, Earth vs. the Spider, and 1954's Them!, to turn the treatment into a screenplay titled King Kong vs. Prometheus.

Script in hand, Beck continued the studio and funding search with no luck... Until he got in contact with Japan's Toho Studios. Soon to celebrate their 30th anniversary, Toho was looking to mark the occasion with an event picture, one which would see the return of Godzilla to the screen for the first time since 1955's Godzilla Raids Again. The successful release of Gojira in 1954 had changed the entertainment landscape in Japan and revolutionized Toho, it was only fitting that he be part of this milestone. King Kong had been the king of monsters since long before Godzilla was given that title, Gojira and other monster movies Toho had made in its wake (Varan the Unbelievable, Mothra) had taken clear inspiration from Kong, so it seemed very appropriate to bring the original giant monster himself into the fold, and pitting Godzilla against such a popular character would definitely fit the bill as an event picture.

With a deal in place to have Universal distribute the film in the United States and the rights to use Kong secured from RKO, Toho partnered with John Beck to make a King Kong project. O'Brien had been completely pushed out of the picture by Beck at this time, and now his Frankenstein/The Ginko idea was tossed out as well in favor of Godzilla. The result of this long, twisty development process? King Kong vs. Godzilla, the most successful Godzilla film ever made.

Toho hired Gojira director Ishirô Honda to helm their 30th anniversary commemorative movie, and Mothra screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa was brought on to write the screenplay from the ground up.

Special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya had pioneered the use of suitmation to bring giant monsters to the screen with the original Gojira and perfected this technique on ensuing films, reaching impressive new heights on 1961's Mothra, but he may not have returned to work on this entry in the Godzilla series if it wasn't for the presence of the monster Goji shares the title with. King Kong had started it all for Tsuburaya, Willis O'Brien's effects work on the 1933 film were what had inspired him to get into doing his own special effects. He couldn't miss this opportunity to bring Kong to life himself.


As a whole, the story does tilt in the favor of King Kong over Godzilla. Kong is the focus of the main plot, while Godzilla lurks around in a subplot before the two finally come together in the last third of the film.

The story, which ignores the events of both King Kong and The Son of Kong and is instead Toho's own take on the famous monster, begins with Mister Tako, chairman of the Pacific Pharmaceuticals company, who is very disappointed with the Wonderful World science television series that his company has invested in. The show is dull and unimaginative, and its poor ratings prove that the Japanese populus is not interested in it at all. Something needs to be done to avert disaster and embarrassment.

Tako sees a chance to revitalize the company when one of Pacific Pharmaceuticals' doctors returns from an expedition with a load of large red berries which may have medicinal properties. These berries were collected from an unexplored island called Faro Island, which lies 100 kilometers south of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. The expedition wasn't able to spend much time on Faro Island, because the natives warned them that the side of the island on which the berries grow is inhabited by a large animal, a monster that they worship as a god. The juice from the berries is used to placate this god.

As interesting as these berries may be, Tako is much more interested in the report of a large monster. Dollar signs fill his eyes as he comes up with an idea - Pacific Pharmaceuticals could capture this monster and use it in their advertisements. This could be great for publicity! Tako immediately puts a plan in motion to send another expedition to Faro Island, this one headed up by inexperienced, reluctant, scared ad men Sakurai and Kinsaburo, with the objective of locating the monster, capturing it, and bringing it back to Japan to be the star of commercial television.

While Sakurai and Kinsaburo make their way to Faro Island, this story's version of the original Kong film's Skull Island, and win its natives over with gifts of a transistor radio and cigarettes (which are even enjoyed by the island's small children), the Godzilla subplot is also in motion...

The American nuclear submarine Seahawk is in the Arctic Sea, conducting an extensive study on unusual phenomena that have been occurring there, things like the presence of a warm current in the iceberg-filled waters, and one particular iceberg that emits the same sort of glow as a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately for everyone on the submarine, they soon discover exactly what has been causing these things when Godzilla emerges from that iceberg, in which he was entombed at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. Godzilla makes his first onscreen appearance in this film, his first appearance onscreen in seven years, his first appearance in color, at the 26 minute point. After destroying Seahawk, he proceeds to lay waste to a nearby military base, smashing buildings, his radioactive breath strong enough to melt the tanks that roll out in an attempt to ward him off.

In the Godzilla suit for this installment were veteran Goji performers Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. Although it's meant to be the same Godzilla from Raids Again, the look of the costume was greatly redesigned for this film. Among other alterations, Goji's ears were removed, he has three toes on each foot instead of four, he has a bulkier build, the sizes of the plates on his back were changed, and the texture of the suit is more reminiscent of an alligator or crocodile.

Godzilla disappears back into the sea after attacking the Arctic base, and the people of Japan fear that he may be returning to their country, the land the monster considers home. Meanwhile, the only luck Sakurai and Kinsaburo are having at locating the monster of Faro Island is that they regularly hear its horrific roar echoing out of the jungle. They don't catch a good look at the monster until a giant octopus attacks the natives' village.

As they had during pre-production on the first movie, Honda and Tsuburaya had considered using stop-motion effects for the monster sequences in this film, which seemed especially appropriate since King Kong had only been presented in stop-motion previously. That idea was passed on for budgetary reasons and the decision was made to stick with traditional Toho suitmation. However, the octopus attack sequence does feature some moments of stop-motion as the creature's tentacles whip out at the natives trying to fight it off.

37 minutes into the movie, King Kong makes his first appearance, in color and brought to life through suitmation, Shôichi Hirose the actor in the costume and performing the gorilla-like movements.

Seeing the octopus wreaking havoc in the village, Kong ignores the vats of berry juice the natives have set out for him, easily busts through the wall they constructed to keep him away, and attacks the octopus, quickly scaring it away from the people of Faro Island. Once the octopus has made its retreat, Kong chugs some berry juice and passes out.

With an unconscious Kong right in front of him, Sakurai knows this is his chance to do what he was sent to Faro Island to do. A giant raft is built and rigged with dynamite as a precautionary measure, then Kong is strapped down to the raft to be hauled back to Japan via ship...

Tako is ecstatic that Kong is now in the custody of Pacific Pharmaceuticals and anxiously looking forward to getting Kong into Japan, revived and put to work. The National Land Bureau puts a damper on things when they deny the monster entry into the country, classifying him as smuggled goods since Tako never made a request to let Kong in. The expedition ship is stranded off the coast with their dangerous cargo, and the stage has been set for our titular monsters to be in the same place at the same time.

Indeed, Godzilla makes landfall in Japan, as expected. Soon after, Kong begins to stir from his slumber on the raft. To Tako's distress, an attempt is made to set off the dynamite... but blowing up the raft only aids Kong in his escape. The monster of Faro Island then makes his way onto the shores of Japan as well.

As the two monsters go on their own individual rampages through Japan, it's only a matter of time before these pop culture titans will clash, which they do on more than one occasion. The movie is very self-aware about the appeal of these monster fights, the characters share the interest in seeing the outcome that the audience has. Characters wonder which of the two is stronger, the title "King Kong versus Godzilla" is spoken aloud, bets are made on which monster will be the victor.

The first confrontation between Kong and Godzilla is over quickly, as the giant ape is baffled by this other creature's ability to ignite fires with its atomic breath. Once his chest is singed, Kong beats a confused retreat and the pair continue on their destructive ways while the Japanese defense forces try to find a way to stop them.

The behavior of the original iteration of King Kong is honored when the monster takes an interest in a human female... In this case, Sakurai's sister Fumiko (played by Mie Hama, who would go on to be Bond girl Kissy Suzuki in 1967's You Only Live Twice) is the beauty who unintentionally wins the beast's heart and ends up getting carried around in his fist.

This Kong has his differences from the version in the 1933 film, too. In the original Godzilla, the military constructed a fence with 50,000 volts of electricity running through it in an attempt to stop the monster. The voltage was upped to 300,000 for the Americanized version of the film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! The same tactic is attempted this time around, with a much greater current - the electrified barrier will send a million volts through anything that touches it. This is a successful deterrent when Godzilla reaches it, but much less successful when Kong sees it. To the shock of the audience and the characters watching, Toho's Kong feeds on electricity, it boosts his strength. He snaps the wires and actually starts chewing on them, "eating" the electricity.

Ultimately, the authorities come to the realization that the only thing that can truly stop these two monsters is each other. They must be forced to fight. Kong is again knocked out with berry juice, then air lifted to where Godzilla is, hoisted up by wire that Fumiko's boyfriend Kazuo Fujita helped develop. Thin as sewing machine thread but stronger than steel, the strands of wire are strong enough to hold Kong as he's flown over the Japan countryside... and then he's released, dumped on an unsuspecting Godzilla.

The site of the rematch is Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area, and this time Godzilla and the electricity-enhanced Kong do engage in an extensive physical battle that is a whole lot of fun to watch. Witnessing Godzilla's annoying tendency to try to bury Kong with rocks really gets me on the great ape's side.

My favorite part of the fight? When Kong rips a tree up by the roots and tries to jam it down Godzilla's throat. The idea for this came from a publicity shot created for the 1933 King Kong that depicted him doing the same thing to the T. Rex.

There is another brief moment of stop-motion work during their altercation, allowing Godzilla to do a maneuver that his human performers wouldn't have been able to pull off in their bulky costume.

King Kong and Godzilla may not battle to death, but they do battle until Japan is again safe from them... for now.

King Kong vs. Godzilla represents a major shift in tone of the Godzilla series. While its two predecessors were dark and serious, with Ishirô Honda using Godzilla to represent the atomic bomb in the first film and showing through the monster movie the horror that the Japanese people experienced in 1945, the tone of this one is very light and comedic. There are moments of true danger, but they're far outweighed by the funny moments. Sakurai and Kinsaburo are a comedic pair, and even more comedic is the character of Mister Tako. Tako is a total goof, and actor Ichirô Arishima plays him in a very over-the-top, slapsticky way that is a blast to watch.

The story satirizes television and marketing and the film embraces the fun of the concept of pitting these two famous cinematic characters against each other. Kids were going to want to see these monsters duke it out, and this movie is playing to the kids (of all ages) in the audience.

Kong and Godzilla cause a whole lot of destruction in Japan, but the consequences are not really dwelt upon like they were in the '54 Gojira, their rampage is not the stuff of nightmares come to life. It's just spectacle, destruction as eye candy. When the two characters collide, it's a rousing monster mash.

This movie was made to mark Toho's 30th anniversary, and it truly does feel like a celebration.

As mentioned earlier, Universal distributed the film in the United States, and like with Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, they made a lot of alterations to the film. It was re-edited, composer Akira Ifukube's score was largely removed and replaced by stock music, including cues from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and new scenes were written by TV writers Bruce Howard (The Red Skelton Show, McHale's Navy, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Andy Griffith Show) and Paul Mason (CHiPs, Welcome Back, Kotter).

These new scenes feature UN reporter Eric Carter and are used to deliver dumbed down exposition on the story and further explain to viewers what's going on, as if anyone watching this wasn't familiar with who or what King Kong or Godzilla were prior to this. It doesn't shift the perspective enough to make it as unique as the King of the Monsters Americanization of Gojira was, but these added scenes are quite unnecessary.

The American cut of the film was the only version I was familiar with for many years, and in fact a VHS copy of it was the first Godzilla or King Kong movie I ever owned, but after watching the original Japanese cut the U.S. version does come off like a hatchet job.

Still, in either form King Kong vs. Godzilla is a highly entertaining film, and one of the most purely fun entries in the entire Godzilla franchise.

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