Toho Studios made two attempts at making a film featuring King Kong. This was the first.
The genesis of King Kong Vs. Godzilla was simplicity itself: Willis O’Brien (animator for the original King Kong) wanted to make another movie featuring his beloved giant ape and this time, Kong would battle a Frankenstein-type monster. He took this million-dollar idea to RKO, but they weren’t making movies anymore and so they directed O’Brien to someone who could make his dream a reality: John Beck. Under Beck’s stewardship, the idea was fleshed out in a screenplay by George Worthing Yates and became King Kong Vs. Prometheus once they realized they didn’t hold the rights to Frankenstein.
Unfortunately, no American studio would touch it because the cost of stop-motion animation was too high. This didn’t stop Beck, and neither did basic professional courtesy: he went behind O’Brien’s back and took the idea overseas, eventually landing at Toho Studios. They had wanted to make a King Kong movie for years and were also looking for a way to bring back their own giant monster and the movie became King Kong Vs. Godzilla, making movie history and a ridiculous amount of money. None of it, nor any credit for the original idea, went to O’Brien who was reportedly heartbroken at what had become of his idea and his creation. Merian C. Cooper, one of King Kong‘s directors, shared his sentiments and considered the portrayal of Kong by a man in a suit to be an insult to the character. O’Brien’s proteges were also turned against Godzilla.
Despite this controversy, there’s a real chance that both King Kong and Godzilla might have passed into the pop cultural ether were it not for this film. There hadn’t been an official entry into the King Kong franchise since 1933’s Son of Kong and the ape himself hadn’t been seen since his death in his eponymous debut film. While many still knew his name that’s an awfully long time for a character to be out of the limelight. This may have been partially because his creators wanted King Kong portrayed properly (through stop-motion animation) rather than other means, making his return financially unfeasible. This still meant that by the time King Kong Vs. Godzilla came out it had been nearly thirty years since Kong had done anything.
Godzilla was in a slightly better position though this depended on where you lived and how observant you were about kaiju cinema. Those in Japan had enjoyed two Godzilla movies, Gojira and Gojira’s Counterattack, with the latter debuting in 1955. Americans only had 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters though those paying attention would have realized that 1959’s Gigantis the Fire Monster was actually its sequel. This meant that Godzilla had been dormant for seven years in Japan, six in the United States, and three if you knew that he was secretly Gigantis.
This also meant that if you were an American ignorant of the Gigantis connection, King Kong Vs. Godzilla was a movie that featured two giant monsters who were confirmed to be dead. Yet the movie arrived in Japan in 1962 and in the United States the following year, cementing each character’s place in the pop culture canon. This film’s King Kong is an entirely new creation, a bit larger than the original with the same taste for island life. Godzilla is simply the second Godzilla who had been trapped in an iceberg at the end of what came to be known as Godzilla Raids Again with a slight redesign.
In addition to securing the legacies of these two kaiju, King Kong Vs. Godzilla also holds the distinction of having one of the longest lived rumors in cinema (ed. note – this claim is unverified) thanks to a magazine called Starmen that claimed that the Japanese and English cuts of the film featured different endings, which each territory receiving a version of the movie in which their home monster won. The fact that this rumor persisted in an official capacity (many books on the subject of Godzilla and giant monsters cited it as fact along with other outlets like Trivial Pursuit) is probably thanks to the lack of the widespread distribution of foreign media in the United States but by the time we were officially able to see the Japanese cut of King Kong Vs. Godzilla (in Criterion’s 2019 Showa Godzilla collection) the rumor had long been put to rest though the two versions of the film have numerous other changes.
The plot of each cut is the same: a Japanese pharmaceutical company sends two of its employees to Faro Island where they encounter and capture King Kong and attempt to bring him back to Japan. Godzilla, meanwhile, has re-emerged and eventually the two giant monsters meet and battle with King Kong either emerging triumphantly in the end or fleeing from a superior foe, depending on your interpretation of the scene.
One of the more interesting differences between the two cuts are how Japan reacts to each of the monsters. As you can see from the above pictures, they knew Godzilla’s return was inevitable and that he’s something more than natural. They try to trap him in a giant hole filled with fuel and, later, repel him with a million volts of electricity. The latter works a bit better, but ultimately, they decide to throw Kong at him who they seem to view as menacing but not an urgent threat. The American cut has the Japanese become far more combative, with the scientists declaring that Godzilla must be destroyed immediately and even going so far as suggesting the use of an atomic bomb against him. They also view Kong as far more of a threat and hope that the pair ultimately kill each other.
The other major difference between the two should be no surprise to those familiar with the changes made to Gojira to turn it into Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Most of the exposition in the Japanese cut happens naturally, while the American cut gives most of this over to newly filmed footage of a reporter and scientist working for the United Nations explaining the plot and later taking over a Godzilla explanation from the Japanese scientists. There’s also a far heavier military response to the two monsters, with the world uniting against them and soldiers super-imposed over several King Kong rampage scenes. There’s also a number of other changes, mostly to the details of various scenes, which have little bearing on how things progress.
The movie itself is a decent early example of Toho’s work with kaiju and lacks some of the polish its later entries into the genre would enjoy. King Kong’s appearance does little to assuage his creators’ worries about such a portrayal and looks remarkably cheap for a movie that was such a big event. Despite this, the actor inside the suit (Shoichi Hirose) does a remarkably good job of giving Kong a lot of personality and making him surprisingly emotive. Godzilla’s redesign has an odd almost too reptilian head that almost looks squished compared to other versions.
Their various rampages are done well, with Godzilla’s bringing with it a lot more menace and damage than Kong’s which almost felt like a frolic compared to the destruction Godzilla wrought. This makes a certain amount of sense since King Kong was definitely the “hero” of the film with Godzilla not yet having made the transition from dangerous monster to heroic ally of Earth.
The battles, of course, are the real highlight. The two only clash twice, with the first being an acting tour de force for Kong as you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he realizes he’s up against a giant lizard with atomic breath who’s capable of setting giant apes on fire. The second fight is literally earth-shaking as the two clash across the Japanese countryside and eventually tumble into the sea with only Kong emerging, having survived only through receiving electricity-based powers to allow him some edge over Godzilla. All in all, a movie worth watching.
The movie has a legacy of its own, though most importantly, it secured the legacies of both Godzilla and King Kong. It showed that Godzilla was a box office draw and led to his long and storied career in cinema, comic books, animation, and much more. King Kong also proved he could still bring ’em in, and the film’s popularity didn’t hurt his eventual animated series, leading to Toho’s second dance with the king. Toho was even going to make a direct sequel to the film which never manifested. What did manifest, eventually, was Toho’s very own solo King Kong film.
Next: King Kong Escapes