By 1962, the Godzilla franchise had been dormant for 7 years. Meanwhile, Toho had given the world Rodan and Mothra to great success. But reviving Godzilla wasn’t an immediate thought. Instead, it came about after a rather long series of events that began in 1960.
Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animator behind the original King Kong in 1933, had long wanted to do a new Kong flick. His idea involved a giant Frankenstein monster. He took his idea to RKO Pictures, who he believed owned the rights to King Kong. They initially liked the idea but were concerned about using Frankenstein’s monster since they believed Universal Pictures owned the rights, which they did not. Producer John Beck became involved and began morphing the story around but it soon became apparent that stop-motion would prove too costly. Beck approached Toho with the idea and Toho was interested as they had wanted to do a new version of King Kong. This coincided with their desire to revive the Godzilla franchise and, by 1962, the story had become King Kong vs. Godzilla. Sadly, Willis O’Brien never received credit for his initial storyline as the deal was done without his knowledge or consent. O’Brien would die in November 1962 at the age of 76.
Toho forged ahead with King Kong vs. Godzilla with Ishiro Honda taking the director’s seat. By 1962, Toho was producing all of their films in color so the big guy was to finally make his colorful debut. This would also mark King Kong’s return to the big screen for the first time since 1933. Sadly, the suit made for Kong is far less convincing than the stop motion version done almost 30 years earlier. Personally, while I have fond memories of this movie as it was my first Godzilla experience, King Kong looks rather cheaply made. The general thought is that not only it is it one of the worst-designed creatures Godzilla faced, it’s also one of the worst filmed ape creatures of all-time.
Our story centers on a pharmaceutical company in need of boosting profits. Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), an incredibly over-the top owner, is looking for a way to increase sales and sends two men to a mysterious island in search of a mythical giant beast. Meanwhile, we follow the exploits of an American submarine that crashes into the same iceberg that Godzilla has been frozen in since the end of Godzilla Raids Again. Godzilla returns with mass destruction on his mind, getting all the press, which infuriates Tako. Meanwhile, on the island, there is indeed a giant ape creature known as King Kong. In a truly fun sequence, a giant octopus emerges from the sea to terrorize the villagers, forcing Kong to arrive and defeat the sea creature. This scene was filmed with a real octopus as well as a brief animated sequence where the octopus grabs one of the villagers. Surprisingly, it holds up rather well, despite the poor Kong costume.
Kong drinks a red juice the natives make and falls asleep, allowing the pharmaceutical company to capture him and bring him back to the mainland. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Kong awakes and confronts Godzilla. Initially, Godzilla forces Kong to retreat. We are then treated to Kong recreating events from the original 1933. He attacks Tokyo, kidnaps our main female lead, Fumiko, and sits atop a building before succumbing to an attack of red juice, again knocking him unconscious. He is captured and transported to the top of Mt. Fuji, where Godzilla has taken refuge, in hopes of a main event confrontation. What follows is one of Godzilla’s more iconic battles, despite the poor Kong costume. Ultimately, both beasts fall into the ocean, where only Kong emerges. However, as we see Kong escape with a return to his island, we hear Godzilla’s roar, implying he was indeed alive to return another day. Well, at least we did in the Japanese version.
Much like Gojira, the Japanese and US versions of King Kong vs. Godzilla have specific differences. Producer John Beck retained exclusive US distribution rights, which included his plans to re-edit the picture as he saw fit. Some scenes were cut while others were rearranged. Beck wanted the film to have a more American feel to it. Therefore, footage of a satellite and an American newscaster were inserted to describe the events of the movie as they unfolded. Earthquake footage from The Mysterians (1957) was also used to make the main fight sequence more destructive. But the most jarring change is the soundtrack. Akira Ifukube’s original score is mostly removed in favor of stock library music. Yes, that is the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon music used at one point. It always brings me out of the moment. The original Japanese version fairs much better and should never have been changed.
One myth that has been debated for years is that the American version allowed Kong to win while the Japanese version gave the victory to Godzilla. But no, this is not true. Having seen both versions, the film ends the same with one minor difference. Godzilla’s roar is not heard at the end of the American version. This is what has most likely caused some to speculate that Godzilla loses.
This marked the first step into a more comical approach to Godzilla. Many on the production crew were displeased with how lighthearted the film was, believing that Godzilla was more appealing when he was something to be feared. However, Toho wanted to broaden the audience and felt targeting children with the more comical scenes was the way to go. And, as I’ve already covered in some of my previous reviews of the films of the 60s and 70s, this concept was not going to go away.
Sadly, the Japanese version remains unreleased in the US. I actually prefer it over the American version but must admit, having watched the satellite and newscaster scenes since I first watched this on a Sunday afternoon in the early 1970s, it did feel like something was missing at first. But I really appreciated not thinking of the Black Lagoon during the main battle. The American version is easily found on DVD. Hopefully, someday we’ll get an official release of the Japanese version. However, some searching on the internet will result in copies of the Japanese original for a moderate cost. Check out the trailer while you peruse the World Wide Web.
Next time, we’ll take a look at Mothra vs. Godzilla!