It's like every childhood Thanksgiving rolled into one.

It’s like every childhood Thanksgiving rolled into one.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part V

King Kong vs. Godzilla  (Kingu Kongu tai Gojira)  (キングコング対ゴジラ)

  • Director:  Ishirô Honda
  • Writer:  John Beck  /  Willis H. O’Brien  /  Shin’ichi Sekizawa  /  George Worthing Yates
  • Producer:  John Beck  /  Tomoyuki Tanaka
  • Stars:  Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara
  • Studio:  Toho  /  Universal (U.S. release)
  • Award Nominations:  none from groups I track
  • Length:  99 min  (91 for U.S. release)
  • Genre:  Horror  (Monster)
  • MPAA Rating:  none
  • Release Date:  11 August 1962  /  3 June 1963 (U.S.)
  • Box Office Gross:  $2.725 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #46  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notable:  none
  • First Watched:  on Channel 9 every Thanksgiving
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  6 or 7

This post is popping up on Thanksgiving for a reason.  If you watch any of a myriad of cable stations of holidays, especially Thanksgiving, they often do marathon programming of one show or another.  This is nothing new.  When I was a kid, growing up in Orange County, several of the local independent stations used to do the same thing.  On our main television was usually the Twilight Zone marathon on Channel 5 (KTLA), being watched by my siblings.  I was often in one of the back bedrooms watching our little black and white tv, tuned to Channel 9 (KHJ back then, KCAL now) watching their monster movie marathon.  I had a love of Godzilla films and couldn’t ever get enough – Godzilla to me was a tragic hero, always misunderstood, destroying Tokyo not out of evil or spite but because he didn’t know any better, born of the horrible atomic fire coming out of the second World War.  But the real winner of all the monster films, the one I would actually sneak off to watch, taking my plate of food with me, was King Kong vs. Godzilla, still my favorite Godzilla film, always my favorite Godzilla film.  I watched it so often as a kid on the black-and-white tv that when I went to my video copy to watch it to write this review I had forgotten the film is in color – I generally think of it in my memory as being in black-and-white.

Watching it now as an adult, of course I don’t have the same sense of wonderment that I had when I was a kid.  It’s too painfully obvious that King Kong is a man in a suit and a pretty bad suit at that, depending on the shot (when he is being flown back to battle Godzilla, the mask is especially bad – there are some amazing inconsistencies in the various shots of Kong).    Parts of the big fights scenes are quite ridiculous, with the two creatures kicking rocks through the air as if they weigh nothing precisely because they do weight practically nothing.  And most of the acting of the main human characters, who take up a considerable portion of the 99 minute running time, are really pretty bad, bordering on cartoonish.

That all being said, there are still some very good things about this film that can make it a rollicking good time and still make it the best of all the Godzilla films.  Parts of the film are very well constructed and part of that is because Toho, when they made the first Gojira film in 1954 (renamed Godzilla for the American release in 1956 mainly because of the phonetics of how the word sounds) made one absolutely brilliant choice.  That was the original sound that Godzilla makes, created by the composer and the director (‘I loosened the strings of a double-bass and pulled them with resin-coated leather gloves; then we slowed the speed and tried other things, and that gave us Godzilla’s roar.’).  This sound not only was amazing and distinctive, but also allowed for other directorial flourishes.  In this film, the third Godzilla film, Godzilla comes upon a submarine and rips open the hull.  We don’t actually see Godzilla at this point, but we hear that distinctive roar and it tells us everything we need to know.  The same flourish would be used for the introduction of King Kong as well, but that leads into Kong’s appearance, while we here we are able to cut away with the full knowledge that the sub has been attacked by Godzilla.

Then there is the first encounter with Kong on his island.  After we are first introduced to Kong we see him battle with a giant octopus, a battle that actually looks better in its effects than the later battles between Kong and Godzilla.  And there is more than one battle.  In the first one, the two creatures fight mainly because they have come across each other and with Godzilla’s atomic breath keeping Kong from getting too close, they go their separate ways.  They both then manage to destroy considerable portions of Japan (the miniature shots still hold up pretty decently) before Kong is knocked out (this scene would actually be one of the ones that the 1976 King Kong didn’t take from the original but from this one – the idea that Kong’s island experiences could be replicated in the city) and thrown back into the fight.  This time it’s all out slugfest, ending with the two creatures tumbling off a cliff and into the sea, with only Kong seen swimming away.

This is far from a great film, though how much you enjoy it depends on your frame of reference.  When compared to the 1933 or 2005 King Kong, it is at best a second-rate monster movie.  But when compared to the 1976 King Kong, with the exception of the look of the ape, it stands up.  And it is probably the best or second-best of all the Godzilla films (behind the Japanese version of the original).  It’s not great filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it can be quite enjoyable, even today.

And part of that comes down to the final part that I haven’t yet mentioned.  When watching the film on Channel 9, I was almost certainly watching the American version of the film, cut down by almost eight minutes.  I doubt that any of that lost footage was a big deal.  But there was one big deal that I didn’t know about and was surprised when I got the original Japanese version of the film.  All the music from composer Akira Ifukube, who had also done the fantastic theme for the original Gojira (which can be heard here) had been replaced with stock music for the American release.  But my copy restores all of Ifukube’s music and his music, just like with the first film, provides a sense of pathos to a film that really would be just ridiculously silly without it and which, let’s face it, is still pretty silly even with it.  But it’s fun to watch.  Most of it, anyway.

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