“King Kong can’t make a monkey out of us!”
Ask someone to name a gigantic, city-destroying movie monster, and they’ll likely say either King Kong or Godzilla. In 1963, Toho Studios took a cue from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the other Universal horror “crossover” movies that followed by bringing cinema’s two biggest titans together in a single movie, and then having them smack each other around. It’s King Kong vs. Godzilla.
United Nations scientists are researching a newly-discovered South American berry that provides miraculous growth properties. Elsewhere, an inventor has developed a new super-strong fishline-thin wire that…nobody cares about any of this, because here comes Godzilla!
Godzilla emerges from an iceberg, where we last left him in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, and he immediately sets about rampaging against Japan, knocking over power lines and melting tanks. Elsewhere, explorers in South America have discovered a lost tribe who worship an even more amazing discovery, the giant ape King Kong.
While politicos and scientists debate whether to use the atom bomb to stop Godzilla, which might destroy all of Japan as well, as risky plan is put into action transport—King Kong around the globe and put him in Godzilla’s path. Is the ape’s strength enough to send Godzilla back to the ocean?
Has there ever been a movie with more unconfirmed rumors and speculation surrounding it than King Kong vs. Godzilla? A quick internet search finds folks saying the following…
• There are two endings, one where Kong wins and one where Godzilla wins.
• There’s another alternate ending where it’s left ambiguous as to who wins.
• There’s yet another, made-for-American-television version of the film with American actors edited into it, like what they did with Raymond Burr in the original Godzilla.
• Filmmaker Miriam Cooper and special effects whiz Willis O’Brien, who created the original King Kong, were at one point involved in the production.
• The monsters were originally going to be depicted with stop-motion animation instead of men in suits, but that proved too expensive.
• The movie was originally going to be Godzilla versus Frankenstein, using the weirdballs Frankie from Toho’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
Is any of this true? Nobody frickin’ knows! No one can agree on the why and how this film was made. I was hoping that, with this new Blu-ray, someone at Toho and/or Universal would finally come clean about the movie’s history, finally setting the facts straight after all these years. Unfortunately, King Kong vs. Godzilla‘s Blu-ray is a stock catalog release, with no bonus features or anything. I know a lot of you are already preparing emails for me saying you know the real story, but before you hit send, know that somebody out there on the internet is going to disagree with you. Talk amongst yourselves. With the film’s background a black hole of speculation, all we’re left with is this one (only?) version of the film itself.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is only the third Godzilla movie, and therefore occupies an interesting space in the series. As we all know, the first Godzilla—or Gojira if you insist—was a horror film, with the big G as the scary monster. In time, however, Godzilla became a hero, defending humanity from other monsters. In this movie, still early in the series, Godzilla is very much the villain, despite his star status. Godzilla is pure destruction, marching toward Tokyo, and he must be stopped. This is single driving force of the plot. This puts Godzilla firmly in antagonist mode, with King Kong serving as protagonist, overcoming obstacles and whatnot in pursuit of this goal.
A huge portion of the movie is a remake of the original King Kong, with explorers in a Skull Island-like jungle environment, complete with Kong held behind a massive wooden door. The “natives” are Asian actors in blackface, which is all kinds of awful, but on the plus side, there’s a nice buildup to Kong’s first appearance. There’s also a secondary monster attack, when a giant octopus tears up the jungle. This was done with trick photography, by filming a normal octopus so that it looks like it’s towering over the actors. The result, although obvious, is effective, in the way the animal slithers and squishes about all slimy and gross. Later, when Kong reaches Japan, there’s another callback in which the ape carries around a woman like he once did with Fay Wray. The woman is the human main character’s sister and not his love interest, a telling clue of how the Godzilla series would become more family-friendly in the future.
The monsters might be the marquee stars, but we’ve still got to have those pesky human characters. The inventor is our main human protagonist, whose high-tech wires come in handy later in the film. The two jungle explorers do a lot of Abbott and Costello-style comedy shtick, another example of the series taking steps toward being geared for kids. These characters are fine, the ones that really bring the movie down are the newscasters. Throughout the movie, exposition is provided by not one but several TV reporters, often telling us what we just saw or saying random lines like, “Godzilla is on the move again.” I wonder what it’s like for an actor to have to deliver lines about Godzilla with deadly seriousness, but that’s just what these guys do.
Enough about humans. Let’s talk about the big monster rumble! How’s the fighting? Well, if you know your Godzilla movies, you know what to expect. Once the two square off (at the 53-minute mark) there’s a lot of lumbering and stumbling about rather than punches thrown. This is partially to depict the gigantic size of the creatures, and partially because the stunt performers have limited mobility and visibility in those costumes. Kong’s signature move is to pick up boulders and hurl them at Godzilla. Godzilla, demonstrating why he’s a movie star, uses his tail to swat the boulders back, as if he’s playing tennis. Kong is later randomly given electro-powers to even the odds, and the two finally exchange blows, taking down some buildings as they do so. It’s a decent monster brawl, but it’s often interrupted by those newscasters, and it ends abruptly. Just when you think it’s building to something, it’s over. The folks at Toho got a lot better at these fights once the likes of MechaGodzilla came along, but this one’s still fun for what it is.
The picture quality on Universal’s King Kong vs. Godzilla (Blu-ray) varies. Presented in 2.35:1/1080p HD widescreen, some shots (especially outdoors) are rough and grainy, but other moments, such as the monsters appearing before the dark blue sky, look much more clear, with surprisingly good detail. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is decent, but lacks the booming “wall of sound” experience we want from our giant monster flicks. As noted above, it really hurts not having bonus features. It might be cheesy, but it’s nonetheless a historically important film, and deserves better treatment than this.
A lot of folks joke about the special effects in these Godzilla movies look fake. They do, but what we’re seeing here is an evolution from horror/sci-fi into the “giant monster movie” becoming a genre of its own. In this genre (or subgenre, or sub-subgenre, or whatever) the rubber suits, plastic models, and slow, clunky action are part of the language of why these films are so beloved and still have fans all these years later. King Kong vs. Godzilla helped pave the way for this style of film, and further established its two leads as the biggest, baddest monsters of all time.