More memorable title: The Godzilla movie with bloody King Kong in it! OR The one with all the Japanese people in brownface.
So, let’s go back in time a bit. 1962. Godzilla had one good movie, and one film that was kind of there, and largely wasn’t really a known property. He hadn’t been seen in theaters for years. King Kong, though, King Kong was the big time. Household name. Was already a classic movie monster. And the writer behind King Kong had a new project he was wanting to move forward with. The original plan was to do a King Kong vs. Frankenstein film, but the cost for that was prohibitive, so the producer on the project reached out to Toho, who had been having success with the giant monster movies, Godzilla and otherwise. Toho was celebrating its 30th anniversary with a whole bunch of high profile films, and wanted to give Godzilla a comeback, so they slipped Godzilla in there, brought back the team behind the original, and the rest is history.
Well, sort of. The original Godzilla movie had started an America cinematic tradition of buying up the writes to Japanese movies on the cheap, filling them with large helpings of cheese, and bringing them over with a rather lackluster localization job, kind of creating a perception that Japanese movies were cheap tawdry affair because that’s how American artistes greased them up. The producers behind this film didn’t want that, and so they took it a bit more seriously, but kind of in the wrong way. Godzilla vs. King Kong itself is a decidedly more silly movie than the previous two affairs. It stars King Kong, at the time a much more prominent figure, in the primary role, and seems to be designed more as a good, entertaining popcorn muncher than as the thoughtful horror pieces of the past. Ishiro Honda still wrapped in his usual work of making the monster movies more meaningful by having the film be a satire on the Japanese TV comedy scene of the time. That apparently wasn’t going to fly with the American version, and the producer there cut a lot of the satire scenes out, replacing them with transition scenes of some boring as stale milk schmucks in a newsroom talking about all the cool action that just happened, and interspersing it really weirdly into the film. It ruins the film’s momentum in a really weird way to have all these kickass scenes with Godzilla destroying stuff IN COLOR for the first time, then to interrupt them in the middle with Mr. Whitebread saying something like “Our news satellite tells us that Godzilla has just destroyed a train, and is now heading for Tokyo.” It’s galling. And guess which version of the movie seems to be the only surviving copy. Even the Criterion Collection… uhhh… collection, with as much work as the company did in making things as true to the originals as possible, still only manages the US recut. They do foreshadow plenty of things and explain some plot stuff that otherwise would come out of nowhere, so it’s not like they’re without merit, these scenes are just really boring. And some of the explanations in the US version don’t exactly match up with the overall canon of the series. So as we go through the synopsis, imagine that that’s repeatedly going on.
Anyways, do you remember the end of the previous film? Japanese military crushed Godzilla in an avalanche on an island covered in ice. Except screw you, it wasn’t an island, it was an iceberg, and now it’s in the arctic. A US military submarine is up there for some reason doing something and also has a bunch of civilians on board for reasons that are never really explained. It looks like there’s an iceberg there that’s glowing with intense radiation. As the military does in most films in which they’re not the protagonists, they proceeded to cock everything up and somehow accidentally rammed the iceberg. This releases the beast, who does what all the giant monsters do and goes to destroy something Japanese. Meanwhile, you run into the offices of what is ostensibly a pharmaceutical company but throughout the movie they’re only ever concerned about their TV show so who even knows. Their show sucks and they want to make it not suck so the company president, who looks like he’d be named Nigel if he was born in any other country, decides to go get a giant monster to do something for his show because nothing could possibly go wrong with that idea.
So he sends two guys to not-Skull Island, where there’s rumored to be monsters. To be honest, all the human characters in this film aside from Nigel and the news schmucks are pretty interchangeable, and it’s a little hard to keep track of them all, so nobody else is getting nicknames. Faro Island there is populated by a tribe of Japanese people in brownface. They make friends with the locals by giving all the children cigarettes. There’s a couple of things that could make you uncomfortable here. Personally, I’d be inclined to give the brownface a pass, given that it’s coming from a culture that doesn’t really have a context and history of being used to blindly make fun of broad groups of people like we do in the west. On the other hand, though, this tribe is clearly modeled after pop-culture Africans and also is totally ignorant and sells out their deeply held cultural values in a second, so even without the brownface, this is not by any means a culturally respectful measure. In any case, the two guys win the respect of the tribe, then hunt around for monsters for a while. A giant octopus attacks the village in a scene that is very obviously just a real octopus slurming over miniatures. King Kong comes out of nowhere to get his face suckered on then chases the octopus away. Our two fellows are like “Hey! Gotta get us some of that!” So they get Kong drunk, the village sings their tribal lullaby, and our crew strap him to a raft.
Meanwhile, Godzilla starts breaking things around Japan. One of the pharmaguys has a sister who has a fiancee who they thought was caught in the attack, but he wasn’t. This was a plot point I totally forgot about seconds after it happens. Japan shoots at Godzilla for minimal effect. Sister gets in the path of Godzilla, but fiancee manages to save her. The UN is in talks that maybe we should nuke Godzilla because the US version forgot all the reasons that won’t work. Back at sea, the JSDF intercepts the boat carting King Kong to Japan, and take the very reasonable position of “How about no?” Nigel is there arguing with them and almost accidentally blows King Kong up to comedic effect. It’s a moot point, because Kong wakes up. So they blow him up anyways. Except that doesn’t do anything. And now Kong is swimming to the nearest shoreline. Japan.
A lot of casual Godzilla fans, if that was a thing, express some astonishment of this film treating the match-up between Godzilla and Kong as a relatively even one. After all, Godzilla’s shown to be much larger and stronger than King Kong in their respective films, and Godzilla has more abilities. Which… yeah. And this movie doesn’t shy away from it, either. Godzilla and Kong just run into each other in the countryside. They don’t like each other. Kong throws a rock. Godzilla lights Kong on fire. Kong buggers off. Godzilla at this point was shown to be overwhelmingly more powerful than King Kong here. Their positions are well reversed now, but at this time, King Kong was by far the more famous figure, and the big audience draw. Which of course means that King Kong is the plucky underdog here.
Godzilla leaves, and the military tries to put him in a hole. I’ll let you make your own assumptions as to how that works. In any case, King Kong decides to take his frustration out by destroying Tokyo. Kong snatches the sister because she’s only there to be in distress, then they get him drunk again so he passes out and fiancee rescues her again. Japan realizes that having two monsters wrecking things is not an ideal situation, so they strap Kong into a bunch of hot air balloons and tow him to where Godzilla’s hanging, thinking they’ll fight each other to their deaths in the big thing that we all really bought our tickets to see. Not super useful, as Godzilla’s still stronger. Like, the whole movie they make a lot of the fact that Godzilla’s stronger, but King Kong is smarter, as if it balances them out, but in fact, although Kong tries some tricks, he’s never strong enough to pull any of them off. So King Kong and Godzilla fight for a while and destroy some famous Japanese building, but overall, Godzilla’s just too much for Kong. But! Did you know that King Kong gets powered up by electricity for whatever stupid reason? You do now, because a thunderstorm comes out of nowhere and a bolt of lightning hits King Kong while Godzilla’s standing above him in defiance of all the laws of physics. Godzilla is a water-type Pokemon, so King Kong’s newly unlock Thunderpunches are super effective. They end up in the ocean, Godzilla gets tanked, and King Kong emerges victorious, before he begins swimming back home.
I feel like this film was the first one that really hits what the Godzilla series would become. It’s much less serious than the franchise’s first two efforts, a bit more slapstick, while still keeping the overarching themes that serve to elevate the work a bit. Pro wrestling had become big in Japan since the previous two movies had come out, and as we’ll be seeing throughout the rest of the Showa era, the monsters take a lot of inspiration from that. Mostly in the posturing, how they pose off against each other. And of course, just absolutely reveling in having big dumb monster fights, that’s really key to the franchise, and this was the first movie to set you up to just straight enjoy watching colossi slam against each other.
And yeah, the hackjob localization of this film is rather unfortunate. I get that the satire on the Japanese film industry would not carry over to the west intact. And sure, you want scenes in there explaining it, and you want them done on the cheap. But man, were they placed at the weirdest moments. Those newsroom scenes kill momentum almost every time they pop up. They do give some essential foreshadowing, so that things like the fact that King Kong is powered up by electricity don’t come out of nowhere even though that’s a really stupid idea, but it’s not the best way to be delivering that content. Unfortunately, the Japanese originals have been trimmed down and ruined, so the American cut is the most most complete version we have of this. And it does leave enough intact to get something out of. The satire may be gone, but it still has a rather sledgehammery anti-corporate message that carries through well enough. It doesn’t have near the subtlety of its predecessors, but it does have more than just what’s on the surface level.
It doesn’t save the film from just being straight dumb. I mean, yeah, the Godzilla films are dumb, and usually I enjoy that, but this one just went to far. It’s dumb in its heart. And that’s not a good thing to be. The characters are interchangeable, a lot of the plot doesn’t really make sense, stupid stuff just comes out of nowhere. This is the most financially successful Godzilla film ever made, and it launched Big G’s career from this point forward, and I think it’s also one of my least favorite of the franchise. The world is weird like that.
Also, everything anyone told you about there being a different ending depending on where you’re seeing it? Complete bunk. And if anyone tells you that, you know you don’t have to believe anything they say ever again. King Kong was the popular guy here. The people’s champion. The hero of the story. He wasn’t going to be losing to some Johnny Come Lately Godzilla any day. At least back in 1962. When they revisit the concept in 2020, we’ll have to see.
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