Godzilla may very well be one of the most popular giant movie monsters to appear on the silver screen, but he wasn’t the first. In 1933, powered by the stop motion effects from Willis O’Brien, King Kong thrilled audiences as the giant ape battled dinosaurs on his home Skull Island and later fought the army in the streets of New York City,all the while protecting the object of his affections, Ann Darrow. Son of Kong followed shortly thereafter, but the big ape himself didn’t appear on the big screen for another 29 years. In the meantime, other giant beasties appeared in theaters- the Rhedosaurus (designed by O’Brien pupil Ray Harryhausen, who himself went on to become an effects legend in the world of stop motion photography) in the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the giant gorilla Joe in Mighty Joe Young (1949), assorted giant insects and spiders (the best of these being Tarantula in 1955 starring Leo G. Carroll and the giant ant flick Them! from 1954 starring James Whitmore and former Santa Edmund Gwenn), and of course, Godzilla. It was with this last monster that Kong would again appear in the theater on the big screen.
(Trailer above courtesy of TheThingKing).
In 1962, director Ishiro Honda brought together these two titans in King Kong vs. Godzilla. As before, both a Japanese version and an American version were made, with the American version being headed up by producer John Beck. The idea arose out of a planned TV series about Kong by Willis O’Brien, but when American studios didn’t buy into the idea the producers took it to Toho Studios. The result is one of the best clashes between two iconic movie monsters in the history of film, and has become a classic in its own right. While it has its fair share of campy humor, the movie is one of the better movies in Godzilla’s history, and despite the dated special effects remains enjoyable viewing to this day.
The plot revolves around the discovery of two mysteries- one that of melting icebergs in the Arctic drifting towards Japan and the other a tale of a mysterious island where stories of a monstrous god and some berries with medicinal properties originate. A U.S. submarine discovers an iceberg with a greenish glow and meets with disaster, as that glow is from none other than Godzilla, who had been trapped in ice at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. On Faro Island, two explorers from Pacific Pharmaceutical encounter the island god, which is named King Kong. They witness a battle between Kong and a giant octopus, and capture the big ape after he falls asleep from drinking the juice made from the berries. Kong is strapped to a raft and the y proceed to take him back to Japan. In the meantime, Godzilla makes his way onshore, attacking a train at Hokkaido and thwarting the Army’s attempts to stop him. An American scientist suggests that electricity might be the key in stopping Godzilla. Naturally, that’s not the first thing tried. At first a large ditch filled with gasoline and rigged with dynamite is set up to trap the big lizard. Of course, this proves unsuccessful, so a barrier of high voltage electrical towers is constructed around Tokyo.
As this is happening, Kong makes his escape and heads for Japan. While electricity may stop Godzilla, it is a friend to Kong, as explorers witnessed on Faro Island during a lightning storm. The two beasts do come together, and initially Godzilla causes Kong to beat a retreat with his fire breath. The electrical barrier does turn Godzilla away, but not Kong, who chews through the wires with ease. Kong attacks a train and captures a girl, who is freed when the explorers from Pacific Pharmaceutical play music from the island and a gas made from the berries is exploded over Kong’s head. Kong is put to sleep and rigged to balloons by a special, high strength wire. Helicopters then transport the big ape to Mt. Fuji, where Godzilla is, in the hopes the two monsters would destroy each other. Again the two clash, and for a moment it looks like Godzilla has the upper hand. But an electrical storm breaks overhead, and Kong is energized by lightning strikes. The two battle it out and plunge over a cliff, with Kong emerging out of the water. For the moment, Godzilla has disappeared. At least until his next sequel.
There are various differences between the Japanese and American versions of the film, among them the use of reporters filling viewers in on proceedings (the US version) and the musical score (In the Japanese version, Akira Ifukube again composed the music. In the US version, various music from different movies was used, among them music from Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon.). The Japanese version also focused more on the head of Pacific Pharmaceutical, Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), and his desire to lift the ratings of the company’s science television program, as well as the relationship between Fumiko (Mie Hama), her brother Osamu (Tadao Takashima), and her boyfriend Kazuo (Kenji Sahara). The movie had more comedic overtones, so as to make it less scary for younger audiences. This film marked a difference in Godzilla’s roar, making it higher pitched, and that roar became standard throughout the rest of Showa’s films featuring the monster. This was the third film for each monster, and marked the first time both had been seen in color.
King Kong vs. Godzilla kicked off a slew of movies featuring Godzilla fighting various enemies throughout the 60s and beyond. I’ll touch on some of those films in our next installment of our month long salute to Godzilla.
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