After basking in international acclaim for magically bringing King Kong and a fistful of dinosaurs to life in 1933, stop-motion giant Willis O’Brien suddenly found it very difficult to scratch up any work.
After the same year’s obligatory Son of Kong, it would be another 16 years before he got any substantial film work, and even then it was just a smattering. He worked on Mighty Joe Young, The Black Scorpion, and The Giant Behemoth, but as beautiful as the results were, O’Brien’s technique was simply far too slow and laborious, and too expensive for most B-monster movie productions. Finally recognizing he had himself become a dinosaur, he decided to take a different track.
In the last decade of his life, O’Brien tried desperately to exploit his masterwork, writing a number of new Kong scripts and pitching them around the major studios. Unfortunately, no one was buying.
Then in 1961 the script for something he was calling King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which sounds like an awfully one-sided fight and a very short film) somehow landed on the desk of Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. It was a lucky break for both of them. Some changes to O’Brien’s story were necessary of course, but with a quick flick of the pen King Kong vs. Frankenstein became King Kong vs. Godzilla, and they were good to go. Easy as pie.
The original Kong, and especially its almost unfathomable success, had been one of the primary inspirations for 1954’s Gojira, and Tanaka had been itching to make a Kong film of his own since then. Toho’s in-house special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya freely admitted O’Brien’s work had been a major influence on him as well. Not only did he initially want to make Gojira as a stop-motion film (that turned out to be too costly, so they went with the suit idea instead), but early design sketches reveal a Godzilla who looked much more like a giant ape than a giant lizard.
At the time O’Brien’s script arrived, it had been over five years since the first (and to date last) sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, hit theaters. In those ensuing years, Toho had been busy populating its kaiju universe with Mothra, Rodan, Gorath, and the Mysterians. The King’s return was long overdue, and O’Brien’s script gave them the perfect excuse. It not only allowed them to finally make a Kong picture of their own, but also opened the door to a much wider shared universe.
It had worked for Universal back in the ’40s, right? Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula had all been big hits, and it could work for Toho as well. Plus, though Toho fantasy films tended to cite the United Nations instead of any specific non-Japanese countries when necessary, by bringing Eastern and Western icons together that way, it even allowed the studio to reflect the warming postwar relationship between the U.S. and Japan.
Directed as per usual in those days by the great Ishirô Honda, Kingukongu tai Gojira marked a number of firsts, and pointed clearly in the direction the still-fledgling franchise would be headed for the next two decades. It was the first Godzilla film in color with a palette of eye-popping reds, greens, blues, and yellows that would come to be so closely associated with the kaiju films of Toho’s golden era.
And with those cartoon colors, the film also veered away from the almost overwhelming grim intensity of Honda’s 1954 original (which had been tempered considerably by the American distributor). The original had been a somber allegory, a dark meditation on nuclear war and recent Japanese history. But King Kong vs. Godzilla, while still offering a bit of commentary about the nuclear threat, marketing, and the environment, was a much more lighthearted affair, a live-action cartoon with plenty of humor. It also introduced the era of the kaiju smackdown.
The story all but completely ignores the previous two Godzilla films, borrows heavily from the original Kong, takes its share of poetic license with both legends, and, in the American version anyway, offers up a few head-scratchers.
As the story opens, a biochemist has discovered a rare new narcotic berry on a remote and primitive island supposedly inhabited by some kind of giant god. It could be worth millions, but the problem is the berries only grow on that one island, and the natives are understandably reluctant to give them up. Undaunted and desperate to get the country hooked on a new drug, the pharmaceutical company he works for sends a pair of PR guys back to the island to collect more berries and return with both the berries and this so-called giant god.
Meanwhile strange earthquakes and unusually warm currents are messing things up all over the planet. The polar ice caps are melting, and several enormous icebergs seem to be on a collision course with Japan. Then a nuclear sub filled with esteemed research scientists mysteriously sinks. When a rescue helicopter is sent out to look for survivors, the crew sees Godzilla punch his way out from within one of the Japan-bound icebergs.
Okay, let’s pause here for just a second. Two things. First, the fact the rescue party immediately recognizes Godzilla firmly establishes that by this point (though it wasn’t at all the case in the first two films) Godzilla is simply accepted as an iconic eternal legend within the strict confines of the Toho universe. In Toho’s fantasy Japan, he’s a well understood recurring threat and a part of the culture. Also, at the end of 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla was buried under tons of rubble created by a man-made landslide on a barren island near Japan, so how he ended up frozen in that iceberg is anybody’s guess. Ten minutes into the film, you also have to start wondering how much of O’Brien’s script actually made it to the screen.
Anyway, Godzilla then makes a beeline for Hokaido, and in the U.S. version an American paleontologist (Harry Holcomb), ignoring the fire breathing, the radioactivity, and Godzilla’s place within Japanese mythology, explains the creature is nothing but a plain old dinosaur who’s returning to Japan (a la Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) because he considers it his home. Once there, in a nod to the ’54 original which was itself a nod to the ’33 Kong, Godzilla wrecks a commuter train.
Over on that primitive island, several scenes from the original Kong are recreated with a comic angle, although contemporary viewers might be a little disturbed by the problematic image of a tribe of natives portrayed by Japanese actors covered in brown body paint. When Kong is finally revealed, we see he’s less a formidable giant gorilla than what appears to be a gangly giant orangutan with a bad case of mange. He’s no longer the powerful fable he was in the original, but a sympathetic buffoon (which may be a comment on Americans in general), and in one scene we even get to see Kong get stoned on berry juice and stumble about for a bit before passing out. Before that, however, he does battle with a giant octopus, which must have been a double pleasure for Tsuburaya, who’d also long wanted to make a giant octopus picture.
The film does tackle one issue that has been traditionally and conveniently ignored by cinematic takes on the story from 1933 the recent Kong: Skull Island. Nobody but Honda and the screenwriters paused to consider what customs officials might make of someone (even a major pharmaceutical company) trying to bring a 50-foot gorilla into the country, let alone a massive supply of narcotic berries.
With Kong’s arrival in Japan, the American paleontologist reappears and declares, based on what evidence I’m not really sure, that Kong and Godzilla are natural enemies, and that a showdown is inevitable. It’s unclear where he’s getting his information, given that to his knowledge neither creature had ever been seen before. But I guess I’ll blame the U.S. distributor and let it slide.
Where it goes from there is pretty obvious, though we are treated to the decidedly surreal image of an unconscious Kong being transported to Mt. Fuji by means of a massive cluster of bright red helium balloons. One interesting thing: Kong had always, as per tradition throughout every film version, been accepted to be 50 feet tall. Godzilla’s declared height varied dramatically from film to film (as determined by the scale of the sets). While usually hovering around the 250-foot mark, he never dipped much below roughly 165 feet. Given the difference in stature, it would seem a wrestling match between the two (especially with one breathing radioactive fire) would last about as long as O’Brien’s original “Kong vs. Frankenstein” match-up. Fortunately, Toho took advantage of the above-mentioned poetic license in order to both grow Kong and shrink Godzilla to level the playing field a bit.
Despite rumors to the contrary, there were not two endings filmed offering different outcomes for Japanese and American audiences. Wherever you saw the film, it ended the same way, and in fact apart from the insertions (directed by Thomas Montgomery) involving a couple of American newscasters and that baffling paleontologist, the U.S. distributor didn’t mess with the film much at all. At least not as much as they usually did.
King Kong vs. Godzilla went on to become the most successful entry in franchise history. With good reason too, as to this day it remains a fast, funny, wild, and deliriously entertaining picture, and one that cemented the tone and style of the kaiju eiga to come. It would also be O’Brien’s final film credit, as he died right around the time of release.
That wouldn’t be it for Toho and Kong though. Five years later, they would team up with Rankin-Bass (who had a Kong Saturday morning cartoon on the air at that point) to make the tangential and strange King Kong Escapes. In 1965, they also returned to O’Brien’s original script, plundered a few unused ideas, and made Frankenstein Conquers the World (aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon), which would itself later be followed by the erstwhile sequel War of the Gargantuas.
O’Brien couldn’t have guessed that for all his influence, all his painstaking work, all his masterful artistry, his final ideas would be played out by a bunch of guys in big rubber suits.