The Story of "King Kong vs. Godzilla"
Hey kaiju fans, I'm The Boy Who Cried Godzilla, and today I'll be talking about the movie that launched the Godzilla series: Ishiro Honda's "King Kong vs. Godzilla." Released in 1962, near the height of the Japanese film industry, its blend of wisecracks and kaiju wrestling led to unprecedented success. With a big-budget remake on the way… eventually, there's no better time to look back on the first meeting between the two mightiest monsters of all time!
The Assassination of Willis O'Brien's Idea by the Coward John Beck
By 1961, Willis O'Brien was in a rut. America was obsessed with monster movies, but the legendary stop-motion animator behind the original "King Kong could only find work on more modest affairs like "The Black Scorpion and "The Giant Behemoth." Worst of all, Irwin Allen hired him for a remake of "The Lost World," the film that put him on the map, only to employ dressed-up reptiles as the dinosaurs instead. Determined to kickstart his own comeback, he went back to two of the greats. In his 1960 treatment for "King Kong Versus Frankenstein," the two monsters meet as captives in a San Francisco exhibition, the latter being created by a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein in Africa. Naturally, they escape and start pummeling each other throughout the city. It drew interest from producer John Beck, best known for the James Stewart classic "Harvey." Beck brought in George Worthing Yates to turn O'Brien's outline into a full script. Along the way, Frankenstein's name changed to Prometheus, then Ginko, to avoid drawing Universal's wrath. Carl Denham also entered the story, recapturing Kong and setting up a boxing match between him and the Ginko. Some guys never learn.
Every American studio Beck talked to turned him down, but Toho was intrigued by the prospect of King Kong battling another famous monster… so long as it was one of their own. 1962 marked the studio's 30th anniversary, and such a crossover would make a fine addition to their lineup. It would also be a dream come true for special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, whose career was sparked by the original "King Kong." After seven years trapped in ice, it was time for Godzilla to return—in color and TohoScope!
Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka tapped Shinichi Sekizawa, one of Toho's most prolific sci-fi screenwriters, for the script. "Mothra" in particular had been a massive hit, and the company wanted something similar: less horror, more comedy, and monsters an increasingly young audience could love. It's hard to believe now, but "King Kong vs. Godzilla" was only Toho's second monster-battle movie. The "Godzilla Raids Again" formula, in which Anguirus died in the second act, wouldn't work this time. Instead Sekizawa introduced the two monsters in parallel stories. The King Kong plot apes the original film, but with a more satirical bent: a ratings-crazed ad director sends two of his hapless employees to a South Seas island after hearing reports that a giant monster lives there. King Kong turns out to be quite real, saving the islanders from a giant octopus, and they manage to subdue him. Bringing him to civilization, of course, doesn't quite go as planned. The Godzilla plot is more straightforward: After an American nuclear submarine accidentally wakes him up, he attacks a military base in a conveniently unnamed country and runs amok in Japan. Godzilla and Kong have a brief initial encounter which establishes Kong as the underdog, but he turns out to have a type advantage: electricity makes him stronger and Godzilla weaker. Our heroes and the military set up a showdown on the slopes of Mt. Fuji in the hopes that both will die. After a lightning storm powers up Kong, they tumble off a cliff. Kong surfaces and begins to swim home, with Godzilla's whereabouts left unknown. And yes, despite what "Spacemen" magazine, Ian Thorne's "Godzilla" book, the Genus III edition of "Trivial Pursuit", and even the "New York Times" would have you believe, the outcome is the same in every version of the film.
"King Kong vs. Godzilla" doesn't always take its title seriously. Before the monsters even meet, they're battling for media coverage, a struggle Tako obsesses over far more than the fate of his country. Even after Kong has torn up the Japanese countryside, he's still introducing himself as his sponsor, and nearly comes to blows with someone over how strong the monster is. (We've all been there.) Television was fairly new to Japan at the time, and cultural critics despaired over its lowbrow programs. Appropriately, Tako spends his first scene disparaging an educational program for being too boring. The satire fades as the film goes on, but King Kong and Godzilla strike a final blow against commercialism before their exit. Atami Castle is an impressive structure, but not a historical one: it was built in 1959 as a tourist attraction.
Filming the Battle of the Century
When people complain about "King Kong vs. Godzilla," the first thing they usually bring up is the monkey suit. Kong historians in particular view it as an affront to God and O'Brien, while Toho fans often wonder how the same team that produced the Snowman suit from Half Human could have fallen so far. One constraint should be kept in mind: RKO asked Toho to steer clear of the original Kong's facial features. Instead, Teizo Toshimitsu turned to Japanese macaques for inspiration. Toshimitsu and Keizo Murase's Godzilla suit, on the other hand, tends to win rave reviews, especially for its profile. Godzilla also apparently lost his fourth toes while entombed in ice, a change that would persist for the rest of the Showa era. Puppets of the monsters took over for certain close-ups and long shots, and Godzilla even landed a stop-motion drop kick against Kong.
Haruo Nakajima returned as Godzilla's suit actor, while Shoichi Hirose played King Kong. Mindful of Toho's directive to make the monsters funnier, Nakajima pivoted from the animalistic combat of "Godzilla Raids Again" to professional wrestling. That meant shoulder flips and spinning throws as well as a bit of showboating. Director Ishiro Honda was less than pleased with the monsters' antics, but didn't feel he had enough leverage with Toho to change it. Tsuburaya, on the other hand, went all in. The final battle is one of his finest hours, a nine-minute spectacle where each combatant uses every trick in his arsenal to try and emerge victorious. However, both Nakajima and Tsuburaya were unimpressed with Hirose's performance. Tsuburaya asked him to study the movements of gorillas, but he never actually did, and it showed. Nakajima quipped to him, "You could easily be King Kong, without the suit! But with the suit on, you can't be King Kong." He would only have two more outings as a suit actor: King Ghidorah in his first two films, a monster animated mostly by wires. Still, he suffered as much as anyone while playing Kong, flooding the suit with sweat during one of the knockout scenes, which took three hours to film, and catching fire during the Mt. Fuji battle.
There are two famous stories from the set of "King Kong vs. Godzilla." The first has nothing to do with the title characters, but the Giant Octopus who menaces Faro Island. While a prop was used for its interactions with Kong and stop-motion let it grab some Faro Islanders, live octopi portrayed it for most of its screentime. Accounts vary on how many cephalopods took the stage, but all agree that Tsuburaya and his team ate some of them afterwards. Hey, it saved on catering. Accounts also diverge on the second story—regarding whether it happened at all. While filming King Kong and Godzilla's tumble into the ocean, Hirose recalled that Nakajima became pinned on top of him, and the crew had to scramble to free him. To make matters worse, the shot was unusable, as they had landed outside the frame. Koichi Kawakita also remembered this incident, though Nakajima said it never happened.
The drama unit suffered a scare as well. Hiking alone during a location shoot near Yamakita, Honda took a spill and sprained his left arm. Fortunately, he was back on set two days later, directing in a cast and sling. If you've only seen the American version of "King Kong vs. Godzilla," you're missing out on a decent chunk of his work, which is filled with rapid-fire jokes and slapstick. While Honda's core group of actors was already taking shape by 1962, many of the film's stars migrated over from Toho's white-collar comedies. Tadao Takashima and Yu Fujiki were already well-known to audiences as a straight man/funny man duo, while the scene-stealing Ichiro Arishima had key roles in the Young Guy and Company President series. Kenji Sahara, who played the leads in "Rodan" and "The Mysterians," returned as an inventor who makes the ultra-strong wire used to transport Kong to Mt. Fuji. As Dr. Shigesawa, Akihiko Hirata did his best to give the kaiju a veneer of scientific backing. "King Kong vs. Godzilla" was also the second of many occasions Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi worked together, with later projects including the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice." Hama, incidentally, remains the only dark-haired woman Kong has fallen for in any of his films. Kong was by far the most expensive actor in the film: according to Fujiki, RKO charged Toho 80 million yen for his use. That dashed plans to film the Faro Island scenes in Sri Lanka. Instead Honda shot them at Oshima Island and on studio sets with Japanese actors in brownface, an all-too-common sight in 60's kaiju films. [Audio clip: Faro Island chief shouting, "NO GOOD!"]
After a three-year break from tokusatsu films, Akira Ifukube produced one of his most memorable scores for "King Kong vs. Godzilla". Highlights include "The Giant Demon God", which the Faro Islanders use to sing Kong to sleep, the lively "Planning King Kong's Transport", and of course the theme he devised for Godzilla, which made its debut in this film. Along with the JSDF march in the original film, it's become one of the pieces of music most associated with the character.
Monster Box Office
Toho released "King Kong vs. Godzilla" to theaters on August 11, 1962, with high hopes, and it performed accordingly. With 11,200,000 admissions, it still holds the attendance record for a live-action Japanese sci-fi movie. If we assume no repeat viewings (which is admittedly a big assumption), that would mean over a tenth of the country saw it. A seven-year-old named Masaaki Tezuka, who would direct half of the films in the Millennium Godzilla series, was one of them. His remembrance is as follows: "The theater was filled with people, and I couldn't get a seat. I had to stand off to the side. As I was short, I could only see the screen by peeking through the narrow spaces between the adults. Still, I was so excited. Godzilla was everything—scary, fierce, and indestructible. He was unlike anything I knew." Like Tezuka, plenty of children were meeting the King of the Monsters for the first time, and they embraced him. From 1964 to 1975, Toho would make 12 more Godzilla films, with kids increasingly the target audience, and introduce a horde of other kaiju to the world. The dream team of Tanaka, Honda, Tsuburaya, Ifukube, and Sekizawa was just getting started.
John Beck Raids Again
John Beck's agreement with Toho gave him the distribution rights to King Kong vs. Godzilla in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Israel. He promptly sold those rights to Universal for $200,000, but they asked him to produce an Americanized version of the film first. Peter Zinner, who would go on to edit "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II", and "The Deer Hunter", served as the film editor, the music editor, and even supervised the dubbing. He replaced close to Ifukube's entire score with selections from the Universal and Mutel libraries, most notably the Gillman's leitmotif from "Creature from the Black Lagoon". Numerous scenes with the original cast gave way to new segments in a United Nations newsroom, where Dr. Arnold Johnson held court. The curator of the American Museum of Natural History was blessed with divine knowledge of the monsters' motivations, strengths, and weaknesses from the moment they appeared. Many of the deleted scenes involved Tako and his employees, muting the film's satire significantly. It emerged with a somewhat drier sense of humor instead. Most of the voice actors remain anonymous to this day, although Les Tremayne played the narrator quoting Hamlet at the beginning and both of the American screenwriters had a few bit parts.
Promoted as "the most colossal conflict the screen has ever known", "King Kong vs. Godzilla" grossed $2.7 million in the U.S., a massive return on Universal's investment. Like "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" before it, this was also the version of the film that spread around the world. But not everyone emerged a winner. The tragedy of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" is that John Beck never told Willis O'Brien about his deal with Toho; in fact, the animator never found out about the film until months after it hit Japanese cinemas. He contemplated suing Beck for intent to defraud, but didn't have enough money for a protracted legal battle. On November 10, 1962, O'Brien died of a heart attack in his home, and his widow would later cite "the frustration of the King Kong Vs Frankenstein deal" as a contributing factor.
I'd like you to imagine for a moment what might have happened if Beck had kept O'Brien in the loop. Picture O'Brien and Tsuburaya, the gods of stop-motion and suitmation, working together on the meeting between their greatest creations. But, in the words of one of the films "King Kong vs. Godzilla" made possible, "the what-ifs are only fairy tales."
Until last year, the John Beck cut was the only version of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" available in the United States. As SciFi Japan put it, "If Universal wanted to exercise their rights to the Japanese [version], they would need to purchase new interpositives or clones of the HD masters from Toho. To date, Universal has not pursued this option, believing the potential sales for the titles do not justify the additional expense." Criterion managed to include it on their Showa Godzilla Blu-ray set, but circumstantial evidence, such as its presence on the bonus feature disc, suggests it was a last-minute addition. If you own that set, you probably noticed some significant shifts in the video quality throughout the film. These rough patches stem from a fateful decision made nearly fifty years earlier…
Champion Festival Chaos
The Toho Champion Festival was a series of seasonal, kid-friendly, all-day screenings which began in 1969. Every Toho kaiju film from "All Monsters Attack" to "Terror of Mechagodzilla" was part of the campaign, along with shortened versions of many of their older works. Naturally, "King Kong vs. Godzilla" was the first in line. Ishiro Honda offered to edit it down to 74 minutes (since the alternative was letting someone else do it), and Toho gave him the original camera negative to work on. For those of you who aren't A/V geeks, that translates to "the highest-quality version of the film in existence". This was before home video, and apparently before common sense as well, so no one realized that it might become a problem later on. Sure enough, when the VHS era came around, Toho had no choice but to supplement the Champion Festival cut with a 16mm print of much lesser quality. By the time they issued the film on Blu-ray in 2014, they had at least used the American version to replace some of the low-quality shots. This is the same amalgamation that's in the Criterion set. But wait... Toho discovered a complete 35mm print of the film in 2015, scanned it in 4K, and aired it on Japanese television the following year. Why wouldn't they just give Criterion that version? ["Why? 'Cause skreeonk 'em, that's why!"]
Toho also planned a direct sequel to "King Kong vs. Godzilla" shortly after its release, though it never came to pass. Sekizawa again wrote the story, titled "Continuation: King Kong vs. Godzilla". This time, King Kong adopts a human baby who becomes stranded in Africa by a plane crash, and then fights a giant scorpion, while an unconscious Godzilla nearly becomes an amusement park attraction. (Don't tell people who insist their fight ended in a draw, but the characters initially assume he's dead.) A rescue team brings the baby to Japan with Kong in pursuit, so the JSDF comes up with the questionable plan to revive Godzilla with electricity to fight him. This time, their battle is a proper draw: Mt. Aso erupts and swallows them both. That's a super-condensed synopsis, of course, but you can read a translation of the full story over at Toho Kingdom. There are some amusing touches, like an anti-Godzilla plan involving a giant inflatable Kong, but Tomoyuki Tanaka probably decreed that it was too similar to its predecessor. Fortunately, Toho's contract with RKO allowed them the use of Kong for five years, and they got one more film out of the deal: "King Kong Escapes" in 1967.
Toho tried remaking King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1991. By then, Turner Entertainment held distribution rights to the original "King Kong", and negotiations with them to license the character went nowhere. As "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" neared completion, Toho considered using Mechani-Kong instead, but Kong's notoriously convoluted legal situation made even that a daunting prospect. It was simpler to just bring back another one of their monsters. Ironically, the legal situation in question was a direct result of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Kong creator Merian C. Cooper had long suspected that RKO viewed the Eighth Wonder of the World as theirs, and when he found out about Toho's film, he took everyone involved to court. Lacking key documents, he was unsuccessful, but his estate won big during the legal frenzy surrounding the 1976 "King Kong" remake.
Legendary Pictures announced "Kong: Skull Island" at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014, leading to immediate speculation that a crossover with their just-released Godzilla reboot would follow. About a year later, Legendary made it official, and the MonsterVerse was born. It's been a long road to "Godzilla vs. Kong", and the finish line seems to keep getting further away, but the film is in post-production and we'll see it one of these days. Kaiju fans are full of questions about this potentially-final entry in Legendary's franchise, but few seem to be asking whether it'll live up to the original. Maybe that's for the best. Made for a global audience in a different country almost 60 years later, "Godzilla vs. Kong" is likely to be a very different animal. A thinking animal? Well, one can hope. As for who "falls", best to heed the words of Guillermo del Toro: "Even when I was a 10-year-old geek, I never engaged in those things. I would like them both to win, and come over to my house for dinner." The true victor in any battle between King Kong and Godzilla is, of course, the audience.