Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Godzilla Chronicles: King Kong vs. Godzilla

The season is once again upon us, and what better way to kick it all off, than with a look at another great Showa era Godzilla film? Warm up those engines, because Halloween-time is upon us! 

The US poster, a meeting of two Titans.

So thus far, in these Godzilla Chronicles, I've covered my early Godzilla memories, and then started going over the original 50s films, Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again. If we're going chronologically, then that brings us to a sizeable gap (the largest in fact) in that original Showa (50s-70s) era. Godzilla Raids Again released in Japan in 1955, somewhat of a rushed sequel to meet the massive success of the original. But while Toho followed this with other solo monsters films, introducing the likes of Rodan (1956), Varan (1958) and Mothra (1961), the second Godzilla offering didn't exactly light up the box office. So it would seem that they kind of slept on the big G for the better part of six years, before finally releasing the third movie in the series. And to "justify" a third film, they obviously wanted to go big. It was hard to top the original classic, so instead, they figured they would try and bring the world it's first BIG monster mash film, pairing the iconic Japanese monster, with arguably cinema's first real giant monster (all due apologies to the Brontosaurus from 1925's The Lost World), that of course being King Kong himself.

The original Kong.

The 1933 original classic was actually one of the first "monster movies" I probably ever saw, certainly before I saw a Godzilla film, and of course I loved it. Not the least of which because it featured many dinosaurs, an early childhood obsession of mine (and a lifelong obsession of special effects guru Willis O'Brien.) So naturally, after I got into Godzilla movies, and then saw King Kong vs. Godzilla on a Wal-Mart VHS rack, of course I was thrilled and had to have it.

Just look at that face.

Now a couple of things need to be gotten out of the way, to start with, when talking about this movie. The first and most obvious is "How the hell would King Kong even be a challenge to Godzilla?" And obviously, given their "real" stats, poor ol' Kong would not, in point of fact, be able to do literally anything of real consequence to Godzilla. Kong in the original film was about, at most, 25 to 30 feet tall. Godzilla, even in the original film, when there weren't too many super tall buildings in 1950s Japan, was roughly 50 meters tall, which comes out to around 124 feet tall. To remedy this, Toho decided they needed to just go ahead and make Kong around the same size as Godzilla, so that they would be an "even" match.

Which brings us to the second most obvious point: "What the hell is wrong with Kong's face?" Originally, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya had wanted, as probably noted in previous articles, to do Godzilla as a stop-motion model, inspired by the effects of movies like King Kong and Ray Harryhausen's Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Toho could not afford, or would not give up, the budget nor time necessary for such effects, so instead this lead to Tsuburaya innovating what would come to be known as "Suitmation", the art of actors in suits, smashing through miniature sets and landscapes. Now, many of these suits and miniatures over the years, looked pretty cool. But this film is notorious among Godzilla and monster movie fans, for both Godzilla himself, and especially Kong, looking, bluntly put, goofy as hell.

Kong's fur looks like a crappy, shaggy carpet, and his face, as you can plainly see, looks comically goofball, even kinda stoned. It's obvious to me, while Godzilla's suit for this film also features what I consider to be a pretty goofy looking face, that they spent a lot more time on that suit, whereas Kong's kinda looks last minute and slapped together. Maybe it wasn't, but it certainly doesn't look great. MIND you, that doesn't really detract from the film overall, but it does lessen any kind of menace that Toho was probably hoping Kong would have for audiences. Even as a kid, I found him funny looking, and not scary at all (whereas I was probably at least a little scared of the original 1933 Kong, upon first seeing it).

Promo art that did not, and would not ever happen.

Now those things aside, let's dig into the actual film itself. So this was one of the very first Godzilla films that I saw as a kid. The first I really remember seeing, was probably Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, though it's possible I saw something else first. This was definitely one of the first VHS tapes of his films I owned, though, and while it was not one of my TOP favorite Godzilla films, for reasons I'll get into, I still loved it. I did not completely understand as a kid, until reading in a book I borrowed from the library years later, that Godzilla had different suits for most movies. So it bewildered me that he looked so different in this film, than he did in movies like Sea Monster and Monster Zero. I did not, and still do not, prefer this look, though it's fine. His eyes and face are just too narrow.

But the OTHER thing, the big offender that I didn't like as a little kid, and would subsequently go on to initially dislike about Mothra vs. Godzilla, is that nobody, and I mean nobody, should beat Godzilla. I obviously liked Kong as a kid, he was a big ape, and on his own, perfectly fine (though I'll admit I was probably rooting for that T-Rex in the original film too). But against my MAIN MAN, Godzilla? Fuck no! Godzilla shouldn't lose, especially not to some crumb-bum gorilla! The same book that I read about different Godzilla suits from, also related a rumor that allegedly, the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla featured a different, alternate ending, where Godzilla wins. So it was only the American film in which the American monster wins the final battle, right? Well....no, actually. Turns out, that was a false rumor, and no such alternate ending was ever filmed. Toho always intended for Kong to "win" the fight. Regardless, my childhood self felt slighted, because there was no way Godzilla, the coolest, strongest, most powerful monster on earth, could lose a fight to that goofy looking drunk.

THAT'S more like it!

But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, so I'll back it up a bit!  As I would come to learn in my adult years, this movie started life as a concept for a Frankenstein vs. Kong movie. Yes, you read that right. A somewhat giant version of Frankenstein's monster would fight a regular sized Kong. This evolved, thankfully, into Godzilla replacing Frank, though the idea would have echoes throughout some of the later 60s Toho films. For one thing, Kong winds up inheriting the "grows stronger from electricity" element that they originally were going to give Frank. And later still, when they were going to do another Kong film, it was going to feature him fighting a sea monster....that's right, that project turned into Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and for whatever reason, Godzilla wound up kinda getting the electrical thing, as he gets revived from his slumber by lighting. Toho even wound up finally making a Frankenstein movie, in 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World, or as it was originally known in Japan, Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon (say that five times fast).

So as for my joke about Kong being a drunk in this movie, the basic plot goes something like this: a Japanese pharmaceutical company, which also sponsors and produces television programming, has had expeditions to remote "Faro Island", finding a indigenous red berry that has many medicinal properties. They also brought back with them stories of a giant "god" on the island, whom the natives call Kong. So the head of the company, wanting better TV ratings, orders his men to make another expedition to the island, this time to find and capture this Kong creature.

Meanwhile, Godzilla busts out of a glacier (yes, just like that), apparently revived from (one would imagine) his encasing in ice at the end of Godzilla Raids Again, by being attracted to the nuclear energy from a submarine that is in the area. He attacks the sub, and what else, heads for Japan. The expedition goes to Faro island, Kong winds up having a fight with a giant octopus (yes, just like that), and then he drinks giant jars full of red berry juice, that the natives make for him as an offering. Apparently, along with medicinal properties, the stuff also gets Kong drunk, and after downing two (or four) jars full, the dude straight up passes out. So he's easy pickings to tie up to a boat and take back to Japan. Or so they assume.

Probably the most famous image from the film.

Things never go according to corporate plan, however, and Kong wakes up while still on the open sea, busts out of his flimsy trappings, and decides to swim towards Japan himself, as if drawn there by fate. Now something else that I guess should be touched on, is that, like the first two Godzilla films before it, this movie received some...alterations when being brought stateside. The biggest change, really, was that they completely replaced a lot of the original Akira Ifukube score, with basically stock music from old Universal films. Some scenes were also removed, and much of the dialogue was changed. The original Japanese film actually featured a nice subplot basically poking fun at commercialism and capitalism. That is almost entirely gone in the American cut, which is the one I (and most Americans) originally saw.

So, getting back to the plot, obviously, the two monsters seem destined to meet, and after Godzilla does what he does best, and goes rampaging around Japan for a bit, Kong meets up with him, and is initially repelled, because Godzilla is awesome. And it doesn't hurt to have thermonuclear radiation breath either. The scene pictured above, is from their more climactic fight near the end of the film. The Japanese military, as usual, proves utterly ineffective at hurting, much less stopping Godzilla, and in the meantime, Kong is just going around being Kong. They manage to knock him out with gas made from his favorite berry juice, and transport him via stronger-than-steel wire (yup), to the Mt. Fuji area, where Godzilla has wandered off to. The hope is, of course, that they'll somehow destroy each other in battle.

The best of friends.

So, that leads to the big payoff, the REAL fight between Kong and Godzilla. And I must say, it is one of the more entertaining monster battles in the series, not the least of which because the suit actors spent hours beforehand planning out their fight, and basing it heavily on pro wrestling moves, as pro wrestling was steadily becoming very popular in Japan at the time. I don't want to give away the WHOLE fight, but it does feature some memorable moments, including a nice little stop-motion dropkick that Godzilla delivers to Kong (the last vestige of them wanting to use stop-motion effects, the giant octopus featuring a tiny bit as well). At one point, that jerk Kong even stuffs a full grown tree into Godzilla's mouth, which is incredibly rude.

Ultimately, as I've already spoiled (sorry), the two tumble right down a cliff-side and into the ocean. After many moments of bubbling and churning waves, Kong emerges the "victor", promptly deciding that he's had enough of this shit, and swimming off into the sunset, back to his own island. Godzilla, meanwhile, does not surface in the final scene, leaving the viewer to wonder if he's really dead, or just swam off himself. Nonetheless, as a kid I was thoroughly displeased with the ending. Toho made the decision to let the American monster win, both because at the time Godzilla was still essentially a "villain" monster, but also because even after nearly 30 years, King Kong remained very popular, worldwide. So it made business sense for them to have the damn ape win.

My Original VHS cover.

Now for all my bellyaching about that ending, and poking fun at other elements of the movie (like that damn Kong face), I want to point out that I actually really do like this film. In fact, if put on the spot, I very well might include it in my Top Five Godzilla Films of All Time. And it's certainly in my Top Ten. It's a fun little movie, notably goofier and more lighthearted than the first two films, which are both rather dark and brooding "horror" or disaster style movies. With the exception of the following film in the series, this was also a turning point for Toho, as they pushed Godzilla films more towards family and children audiences, trying to make him more popular. And eventually even turning him into a full blown "hero", which was the Godzilla I first knew and loved as a kid myself.

Of all the original Showa era Godzilla films, this would not be the first, or even second film, possibly not even third, that I would recommend people see, if they've never seen Godzilla movies before. The highest recommendations would likely be things like the original Gojira, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (my favorite), and perhaps the epic Destroy All Monsters. But otherwise, I absolutely WOULD recommend King Kong vs. Godzilla, to anyone who might be able to appreciate it and enjoy it. It is most certainly a goofy affair, and does not really take itself too seriously. But it is a very fun movie, and still one of the highlights of what I consider to be Toho's prime (the 60s).

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