Retro Review: King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)

Retro Review: King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)

Before the two titans throw down this week, let’s do a blow-by-blow of their first fight.

This week we get the two biggest monsters on the planet, King Kong and Godzilla, in an epic show match in theaters (and HBO Max.) Despite being to two most iconic titans in film, their paths have only crossed once before. The story of how that fateful encounter was born is nearly as bonkers as the end result: a giant ape fighting a fire-breathing lizard. Before the main event, let’s settle in and review the tape on how Kong and Godzilla matched up in their first fight.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)

A pharmaceutical company captures King Kong and brings him to Japan, where he escapes from captivity and battles a recently released Godzilla.

“Battles” is perhaps being generous.

How Hairy Met Scaly.

One of the original stop-motion animators for the OG King Kong movie, Willis O’Brien wanted to see the big ape ride again. So naturally, he came up with a script pitting Kong against his natural enemy: Frankenstein. Frankenstein? Yup, the motley assortment of odds and ends from the slab, Frankenstein’s monster.

Man, they really really really wanted a Giant Frankenstein movie in Japan, didn’t they!?

O’Brien shopped the idea around, with various changes to title and location, until finally he got to Toho, the studio behind Godzilla. Toho accepted the pitch…and then promptly exchanged big Frank for their boy Godzilla and re-wrote most of the script. They never even gave O’Brien credit.

No Split Decision.

Due to the wrangling between RKO (who had the rights to Kong) and Toho (Godzilla Co.) two cuts of the film exist – BUT THEY DON’T CHANGE THE ENDING. A myth popped up that Godzilla won the Japanese edit, and Kong won the American edit. It’s complete monkeyshine. In both films Godzilla disappears underwater and Kong pops back up to the surface, implying Kong’s victory. Toho even came out and said Kong won…a smart move as King Kong was a bigger audience draw at that time (Godzilla had only been in two movies since 1954) and Godzilla was seen as a thorough villain and existential threat to Japan. Anybody who made it so the big lizard had to eat his lunch through a straw was going to be seen as a hero.

Retro Review: King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)
Despite the fact that Kong wrecks as much of Japan as Godzilla does.

The only changes between the versions were minor. The pharmaceutical company comes off as more villainous in the Japanese edition, and the final dialogue after Kong reappears is a bit more ambiguous as to whether Godzilla is dead or has just been run off. The American edition inserts newsreel commentary to help the story make more sense to US audiences, and it uses footage from other disaster movies to punch up some of the stock scenes of how much damage Kong and Godzilla are doing.

Monster Mash.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla can be a bit of a slog, mostly because they are smashing two movies together. You get a Godzilla flick that would essentially be the mold Toho would use for tons of sequels in the Showa era. Godzilla wakes up. Godzilla goes to town. Another monster shows up. They fight. Godzilla swims off. It may have been a bit fresher in 1962, but well past its expiration date in 2021.

The second film is a pretty cheesy riff on the King Kong origin story. The location has changed, and the reasons for capturing Kong are different, but it’s pretty much beat for beat the Kong story everyone knows. Toho embroiders on some modifiers, like a native fruit juice that can put Kong to sleep and the kinda consequential discovery that Kong gets crazy electricity powers when hit by lightning, so they have that going for them. Which is nice.

Great. Now we have a giant monkey with a drinking problem. How does this solve our giant lizard problem again?

Let Them Fight!

So the real reason anyone cares about the movie is to see the two most iconic mega-monsters throw down. In that regards, this movie is a bit of a farce. The first fight goes disastrously, with Kong half-heartedly throwing boulders in the lizard’s direction, who promptly gets annoyed and zaps the ape with his atomic breath. Kong, chastened, kinda just shuffles away in shame.

Shit! Nobody mentioned the fire breath. Get my agent on the phone!

The second fight at least brings the loony tunes energy you’d expect from a Toho Godzilla picture. Kong is airlifted to Godzilla’s location by freaking helium balloons and then just dropped on his ass. As he tumbles down the mountain side, he bowls Godzilla over. He then beats a retreat, trying to ambush his fire-breathing quarry. He grabs onto G’s tail…and is promptly flicked away like a bug. Things don’t get much better for him, as Godzilla proceeds to pummel him into the ground and then dismissively kick rocks on his corpse.

Luckily for Kong, lightning strikes, giving him a force multiplier. He does his version of pummeling his foe, which for all intents and purposes looks like a middle school slow dance. Toho adds an electric shock effect to his hands, which is kinda lame compared to atomic breath, but it seems to get the job done. Godzilla looks about done for as Kong rams trees down his throat. Luckily for Godzilla, there’s a handy historical castle nearby and the two decide to play patty-cakes with Atami Castle in the center instead of really fight. Then they both go tumbling off a cliff into the sea for some damn reason and Kong wins by TKO.

Remember to eat your greens, kids!

The King of the Monsters?

Yeah, there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that King Kong Vs. Godzilla is one of Godzilla’s lamest outings. I’m even counting the films in which he has a dough boy-looking son. At least in those flicks he is fighting a couple of monsters with unique powers, and Toho had learned that the best way to film a Godzilla fight was to pretend they’re sixty story tall lucha libra wrestlers. Besides Kong getting off a pretty sweet double leg drop kick, the guys in the costume just kinda flail around without much flair or energy.

The traditional aspects of the film are interesting, but not nearly best in class. The stop motion and forced perspective used when Kong fights a giant octopus has some appeal for fans of old practical effects, but it’s no Ray Harryhausen spectacular. The miniatures for the cities and the army look like toys, but they have a lot of precise movements during the battle scenes that made me tip my hat to the effects team. Yeah, they’re toy tanks, but making them do maneuvers is still impressive.

You can bet they ate that poor sucker as soon as he finished filming his scenes…

At the end of the day, King Kong Vs. Godzilla would not be anywhere near the top of the list when it comes to my Godzilla recommendations. You can get crazier fights elsewhere, and you can get better old-school practical effects elsewhere. The story dawdles on rehashing elements from both monsters’ filmography, all leading up to a payoff of a rather underwhelming clash. Hopefully Godzilla Vs. Kong brings their A game when it comes to letting these titans wallop each other around the big screen.

Sorry.

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