Film Discussion

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) – Throwback 20

Despite the success of 1954’s Godzilla, which led to a sequel one year later with Godzilla Raids Again, there was a surprisingly long period where Godzilla was off Japanese screens; something that wouldn’t happen again until the mid ’70s. His triumphant return, his first time in both widescreen and colour, was also a big deal for another reason. He wasn’t alone. King Kong had come with him!

King Kong vs. Godzilla began as a concept from Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator on the original 1933 King Kong. O’Bien developed an idea called ‘King Kong Meets Frankenstein’, in which the titular ape would travel to San Francisco, where he would battle a creature made from multiple stitched together animals in a big boxing match. The idea was taken to producer John Beck, who shopped it around under the title ‘King Kong vs. Prometheus’. However, no US studio wanted to take on the project. However, Beck found one that did in Japan: Toho.

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Whilst Toho loved the idea, and were excited to produce a King Kong movie, they cut the new monster out, and instead decided to bring back their own heavy-hitter, Godzilla. Toho’s 30th anniversary was approaching, and the studio were considering producing a new Godzilla film anyway, so bringing the two monsters together felt like the perfect way to celebrate the studio’s birthday. To help make the film a success, and to recapture some of the magic of the original Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda was brought back, along with composer Akira Ifukube.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go smoothly with the initial deal, in which Beck was supposed to pay half the cost of the King Kong license. When Beck ducked out it left Toho to pay $220,000 in licensing to RKO Pictures. As a result, some cost saving measures had to be taken, including cutting of filming in Sri Lanka, and a less than perfect Kong suit. Despite these difficulties, the filming went well.

© Toho 1962

The film tells the story of a pharmaceutical company looking to find the next big thing to attach their products to in order to gain attention. The TV shows they sponsor are dropping in ratings, and they need something to grab the public attention. When they hear of a giant monster on a remote island, they decide to send a team in to locate and capture the creature, hoping to use it as an advertisement. Arriving on the remote island, the team discover the giant ape King Kong, and proceed to knock him out using the strange berries that grow on the island.

Meanwhile, a US submarine gets stuck in an iceberg out in the ocean. Whilst breaking free the submarine accidentally frees Godzilla from inside the ice, where he was left at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. Godzilla destroys the sub and begins to journey towards Japan. When the two titular creatures both arrive in Japan at the same time they clash, and cause extensive damage. The Military decide that the best way to deal with the two creatures is to lure them both into a remote location, letting them fight each other.

© Toho 1962

Whilst the first two Godzilla films, and the first two King Kong films, were a more serious affair, Toho made the decision to make a more family friendly and comedic film for their team-up. Part of the decision was influenced by the fact that they’d paid a huge amount to RKO, and needed to attract as wide an audience as possible. The designs for both monsters were made with this in mind, with Godzilla in particular being made less frightening than his previous incarnations.

Both suits were also designed to have freer movement, and suit actors Shoichi Hirose (King Kong) and Haruo Nakajima (Godzilla) were left to choreograph much of the fighting themselves. The two of them took influence from professional wrestling, which was hugely popular in Japan at the time, and worked it into their performance. A number of gags such as the two creatures playing volleyball with boulders, and Kong’s eyes going wide upon first seeing Godzilla were thrown in for younger audiences.

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The film received a summer cinematic release in Japan, where its initial release run was extended. It would go on to be rereleased in cinemas and at festivals multiple times over the following years, and would be used to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Godzilla in 1979. The film did extremely well at the Japanese box office, and still has the highest number of box office attendance for a Godzilla film to date, and became the fourth highest grossing film of that year.

Not only did King Kong vs. Godzilla become a huge financial success, but it helped to launch Godzilla on a trajectory that would see the iconic monster star in a film almost every year for the next few decades, becoming a Japanese institution. Sadly, whilst it spawned a formula that would see Godzilla reach new heights of popularity, the same could not be said for King Kong, who would only go on to have a handful more film appearances. Although, one of these appearances saw him reunite with Godzilla in 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong.


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