The Godzilla 28 Movie Challenge: Number 3 - King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962)

It’s the 60s now – gone are the grainy black white Kaiju movies, we finally get to see Godzilla in glorious colour  - the best way to see a giant grey monster!

A shift to full colour isn’t the only noticeable change here, the film kicks off in a lighthearted way as a Pharmaceutical exec expresses frustration at the dull programmes they are sponsoring on television, there’s even classic physical humour when he picks up the phone and holds it the wrong way round. It might not be laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy, but it’s obvious within the first few moments that the more serious anti-nuclear message of the first two films have now given way to light family entertainment.

Two separate storylines lead us to two separate monsters, a convergence of plots gives us the chance to see them do battle. King Kong is ‘found’ by an expedition funded by Pacific Pharmaceuticals in an attempt to find something exciting to film so that they can advertise the red fruit which grows on the remote Pharaoh Island. The island is populated by natives which are depicted as simplistic folk succumbing to the usual racial stereotyping (primitive technology, chanting and ‘blacking up’ to look a bit ‘tribal’) – but this was the 1960s and you simply have to accept that times are now thankfully more enlightened. The camera does tend to linger longer on one lady more than any other tribe member, clearly her jiggling ‘assets’ were deemed to be perfect for the big screen!

Kong may be massive, but thankfully the red berry juice on the Island sends him to sleep, and during peaceful slumber he is transported to a huge raft and towed away for the purposes of creating marketing material.

We’re back to more familiar ground (or should that be water?) pretty quickly though as an American Submarine investigates a “warm current running in the Arctic sea” and observes a glowing glacier. There’s some slow dialogue and thoughtful nodding of heads as the crew watch the phenomena on screen. True to the hastily-accepted-and-never-questioned science we’ve already enjoyed in Godzilla films, the sub dives after stating the light must be generated by some kind of nuclear reactor, though to be fair – there is a Geiger response too to support the nuclear theory. It’s not long before we hear a familiar roar.

Ishiro Honda is back as director (making this his second Godzilla film after the original Gojira) and although the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, the actual monster action is not done in a silly way. Honda would later express regret that Godzilla and his monster peers became almost like live-action cartoons and believed they should be intimidating and able to cause a scare. While the Pharmaceutical Industry executive (Mr. Tako) is pratfalling, gurning funny expressions and over-reacting in hilarious ways, the monsters are treated with respect and although Godzilla has adopted an excitable hand clap – it’s probably more to do with the limited movement of the suit ensuring that it’s the only real way to physically react rather than a method to inject humour. 

There are some regrettably poor King Kong moments (more about those in a moment) but by enabling the two stars to exist as destructive forces rather than comedy buffoons, the film is saved from being a cheap parody of the genre. The fighting is different to what we saw between Godzilla and Angilas in ‘Raids Again, with 2 bi-pedal creatures we get fighting more akin to wrestling as the two titans grapple and throw each other. Godzilla is bigger and has atomic breath, in order to level the playing field – Kong gains energy from electricity, and thankfully for him there’s a convenient thunderstorm during their showdown. It has to be noted that King Kong uprooting a tree and forcibly ramming into Godzilla’s mouth is one of my favourite moments in this film! 

As well as traditional suitmation we see some puppet work and a brief moment of stop motion as Godzilla jumps and kicks King King. That moment of stop motion looks a bit dodgy, mainly because it looks so different and the sudden change in style is jarring. I love stop-motion and the stills below show that the models are very detailed (I'd love to have them on display), but the aesthetic shift is too obvious in the film.

There is a scene late on in the film where we see what looks like 2 handheld static models being held to depict them fighting in the distance, and it does look like someone playing with 2 action figures!

As the Godzilla suit changes through the films, I’d like to look at some of the changes in this film. Due to the nature of the picture difference (this was Godzilla’s first colour movie), the suit detail is much more obvious. The softness of the first two films along with the black & white masking some flaws gives a genuine charm and a unique look to Godzilla. In the last film we saw Godzilla slim down a tad, in King Kong Vs Godzilla the most obvious differences are the bulking out of Godzilla’s lower half which makes him look more balanced, larger more emotive eyes, and the loss of those massive teeth which stuck out at strange angles. His ears have been removed and the eyes are more side facing than before. 

It’s a great suit which seems to allow for good movement. The spikes are well pronounced and walking doesn’t look like a lumbering chore. The tail is more animated too and we see it hovering above the ground rather than being dragged behind him.

As for Kong, well…

…I’m not a fan of the King Kong suit. However the close ups of the head during the giant octopus face hugging scene (which would have given Ridley Scott a run for his money) look pretty good. The face is a little lumpy and bumpy but the lips and teeth look menacing and the moving eyes give personality.

The rest of the suit is poor though, the nipples are quite high up and in wide shots the head is generally non-expressive with milky eyes. My main issue is with the arms though. Depending on the scene, there are different arms and it’s really obvious. Regular length arms are used when Kong has to use his hands to pick things up, but in most shots he has longer more gorilla-like arms which just swing about like useless extensions. They look really awkward and pretty cheap.  Some of the images below show how unwieldy they are at times, they distract from everything else because they look so uselessly cumbersome.

The fact is that King Kong was the star of the film, he was much better known internationally and bigger (pardon the pun) in Japan than Godzilla was at the time. This was his first colour movie too. Godzilla was still seen as a ‘baddie’ at the time with Kong possessing some humanlike qualities and is effectively a victim in the film who was simply reacting to being displaced. Given Kong’s celebrity status (he’d been a famous figure for 30 years) it’s surprising to see such a shabby suit which looks pathetic compared to the stop motion effects of the 1933 movie. It was nice to see some nods to the original King Kong film though, at one stage he holds a girl in his arm while climbing a building – it’s not quite Fay Wray and the Empire State Building, but the parallels are obvious. Speaking of nods to the previous films – Godzilla is discovered trapped in an iceberg, this ties in nicely with Godzilla Raids Again when he was buried in Ice. Always great to see continuity!

Tsuburaya is able to continue his usual high standards of visual effects. Model work impresses (as usual) with some buildings looking intricately detailed. There are scenes involving a military base which look particularly good. 

Some of the camera angles really help to make the model scenes look realistic and the building site is the most authentic looking model set-up of the film and one of the best of this era.

Most of the monster action takes place away from the metropolis though and so we see more rolling on sandy earth than crashing through buildings! Ifukube’s music (which was missing from the second film) is back and it really adds to the tension. I watched both American and Japanese edits of this film, although the American version doctors the film it actually does an impressive job of marrying together new and existing footage – but the main thing it lacks is the original score. After watching both variations of the same scenes, the Japanese original has a better ‘feel’ to it, more suspense and atmosphere thanks to the incredible soundtrack, especially Godzilla’s theme.

This is a much more fun film than the previous two. Whereas the first two films were born from the shade of war, nuclear warfare casts little shadow here. As I mentioned previously, the human cast provide comedic moments throughout (who has the bigger steak?!!) and Mr. Tako is a walking caricature. There does seem to be a drop in quality but this feels like a very different film belonging to a different genre, it’s not horror, it’s family entertainment and it succeeds in that arena. This is the turning point for Godzilla, it finds a new audience here and whether it’s the change in tone or the draw of King Kong, this was a very successful film financially and a game-changer for Toho. Inspired by the cinema takings, it was decided to build on the success and create a series of films, although a direct sequel was dropped, a range of new monsters were created and from 1964 – 1975 there would be a dozen more Godzilla films. Toy action figures and a progressively more child-focused approach tapped into new demographics for Godzilla.


Cult Kingdom rating:  3/5 

Considering this is King Kong’s first outing in full colour, he’d never looked so poor. As a Godzilla fan though, the Big G looks pretty awesome and this is the film which established the idea of a Godzilla film franchise. I liked the serious nature of the first film, it wasn’t as strong in the second.  Seven years later in the third instalment, the political references and post-war cultural impact has been replaced with sheer entertainment. There is an element of corporate satire here, but essentially it’s a fun film where a giant gorilla fights a giant, atomic reptile. It’s time to surrender to spectacle and silliness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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