Monday, May 12, 2014

Godzilla Week: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

This Godzilla movie from 1962 is undeniably a hell of a lot of fun, yet it is not quite the clash of the titans that fans of both King Kong and Godzilla might have hoped for.

I’ve probably seen King Kong vs. Godzilla ten times since I was five years old, and I certainly love it for nostalgic reasons, if not for its quality.

To wit, the film today seems a little superficial and shallow, and a bit like a missed opportunity. Specifically, Godzilla’s screen time seems unnecessarily abbreviated, and the Great Lizard doesn’t get to express much in terms of character or personality. 

Meanwhile, King Kong obligingly relives all the well-known moments of his particular mythology, with a baffling new power -- electricity eating! -- thrown in for good measure.

The nail in the coffin is the film’s anemic final battle, which doesn’t rate all that highly in terms of Godzilla franchise history. It’s a brief affair, and mostly lacking in tension, perhaps in an effort to keep it fair.

I mean, I love King Kong as much as anyone, but who really believes that Godzilla wouldn’t completely smoke the giant ape (literally) with his atomic fire breath?

Intriguingly, King Kong vs. Godzilla’s relatively inconclusive ending -- which occurs near water -- does seem to forecast, after a fashion, the closing moments of Freddy vs. Jason (2004). 

In that film, as you may recall, Jason emerges from the water with Freddy’s head…but Freddy winks at the camera, letting you know he may be down, but he isn’t out.  I remember thinking at the time that there was no way on Earth Jason would ever beat Freddy.

In King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong emerges (apparently…) triumphant and starts trudging it out for Faro Island, while Godzilla is MIA. 

He’s not visible, but you know he ain’t dead, either…

At this point, I should probably note a bit about my own biases. The Godzilla movies that I tend to love the most -- and admire most as works of art -- are those that are about, essentially, man’s stewardship of the Earth. 

Accordingly, two of my favorites in the cycle are the original Godzilla (1954), a searing document that has lost none of its power today, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972), which replaces the terror of nuclear power with the terror of unrestrained pollution.

In both the 1950s and the 1970s, there is this pervasive fear in the Godzilla franchise of man ruining life on Earth, spiraling out control…creating ever more destructive “monsters” from his own lack of wisdom.

King Kong vs. Godzilla boasts little such overt meaning or deep sub-text, although its commentary on big business and Pacific Pharmaceutical’s avarice appears to set the tone for John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong.  

In both films, Kong is seen not as a natural force of nature, but rather as a “tool” that can be used in terms of marketing a product to the public. 

I note this leitmotif with appropriate appreciation, but also suggest it is much more expertly featured in Godzilla’s next outing, the superior Godzilla vs. The Thing, a film which pits him against Mothra. 

In fact, that (very good…) film plays very much like a superior remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla, only with all the wrinkles here ironed out.

“We must bring them together!”
Eric Carter (Michael Keith), a news anchor for the United Nations, reports about a new environmental problem plaguing Japan.  A group of icebergs are breaking up in Japan’s sea.
When a U.S. submarine, the Sea Hawk investigates, it discovers that the bergs are radioactive.  The sub is soon lost, and presumed destroyed.
Later, a helicopter exploring the same territory sees Godzilla burst out of an iceberg, bringing terror to the world.  The giant radioactive lizard -- apparently a cross between a tyrannosaurus rex and a stegosaurus  -- heads immediately and instinctively for Japan…
At the same time, however, an exploratory team from Pacific Pharmaceuticals visits isolated Faro Island in hopes of bringing back more narcoleptic “soma berries,” and the legendary Faro Island Monster as a TV mascot as well. 
The natives on the island worship a giant ape, King Kong, and when Kong saves them all from a giant, carnivorous octopus, it is easy to see why. 
King Kong is brought back to civilization at precisely the same time that Godzilla makes his deadly march towards Tokyo.
The two titans meet, and King Kong gets the worst of it in the first battle. 
But after dining on some electrical wire, the giant ape is ready for the final battle at Mount Fuji, as the world watches…

“I hope we’ve seen the last of them for a long time…”

King Kong vs. Godzilla is basically a lightning-quick reiteration of two famous monster myths, and then a half-hearted climactic battle between goliaths.

In terms of Kong and his story, this film showcases his island home and the exploitation of the natives there by modern civilization.

At one point, Pacific Pharmaceutical employees give children and women cigarettes to assure their cooperation.

But more to the point, the film reveals the great wall separating Kong from the village, as well as the capture of Kong so that he can be brought to the First World as, essentially “a show-piece.” 

In this case, Kong won’t play on Broadway, but on TV instead.  The new wrinkle here is that Kong is downed not by gas grenades, but by a berry narcotic drink which he enjoys…and which makes him very sleepy.

Once in Japan, Kong goes through more of his familiar routine. He is curious about an urban train, and up-ends it…much to the chagrin of the passengers.  And the climbs to the top of a building -- an Empire State Building surrogate -- clutching a woman.  In this case, it’s not Fay Wray but unlucky (and gorgeous…) Fumiko (Mie Hama).

Godzilla, meanwhile, must reckon with the same set of challenges he already faced in his 1954 film: a ring of electric towers forming a barricade around Tokyo. 

Similarly, King Kong vs. Godzilla features approximately a dozen mentions of the atomic bomb, and whether or not it is appropriate for use in this circumstance.  The bombs are described as being ready, but they are never deployed, for the obvious reason that they would cause considerable destruction.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of King Kong vs. Godzilla today is the vastly expanded role of the U.N.  In this film, it has its own TV network, for instance, not to mention its own highly-advanced satellite. 

Indeed, the U.N. seems to be the hub of the civilized world here, which is something that would no doubt send Glenn Beck screaming under his bed.  But, apparently in 1962 there was a lot less cynicism about the organization than there is in 2014…

In terms of visuals, it’s fair to state that they are a mixed bag. The Faro Island wall looks completely amazing, for instance.  It’s a different design than the one we saw in the 1933 Kong, but nonetheless quite impressive.

But on the other hand, the Kong suit itself is really, really dreadful. King Kong looks ridiculous in this film.  He isn’t helped, either by a script which requires him to be the Kaiju equivalent of a heavy drinker.

King Kong vs. Godzilla also sees the regal ape carried from scene to scene by a clutch of over-sized balloons…

My greatest disappointment, though, is that Godzilla at this early relatively early stage in his career doesn’t showcase some of his best ticks and behaviors: the flapping of his arms in triumph after a successful blow, the occasional victory dance, and other expressive acts that mark the big guy as something more than your average radioactive dinosaur.

Also, I feel very strongly that the U.N. scientist here gets it all wrong when he notes that the battle in the film is brute force (Godzilla) vs intelligence (King Kong). 

As we all know, Godzilla demonstrates cunning and intelligence throughout the film series.  Even so – and as I wrote above – it’s clear that if the filmmakers were being completely fair about this, King Kong wouldn’t survive the first round.

Later monsters -- like Mothra, Megalon, and Rodan, for instance -- are capable of countering Godzilla’s atomic fire breath with weaponry of their own.  The filmmakers endow Kong with the power to re-charge from chewing electrical wires, but let’s face it…you can’t re-charge when you’re dead. 

Godzilla would set fire to Kong’s furry countenance with one good shot, and that would be it.

King Kong vs. Godzilla also quickly turns its corporate goon, Mr. Tako, into a buffoon or figure of fun.  The accent on humor absolutely undercuts the social critique about out-of-control business interests.  I mean, who can really be mad at a guy who almost accidentally detonates the dynamite on Kong’s raft?

I hope that no one perceives me as being too hard on this movie, because or all its flaws, it is eminently watchable and never dull. For me, watching the movie is like spending time with an old friend.

And yet, I also feel that King Kong could have been so much more, and that other entries -- like the aforementioned Godzilla vs. The Thing -- are so much stronger. 

1 comment:

  1. I think it's fair to say that the Godzilla suit looks great in KK vs. Big-G. It's my favorite of the entire series. In fact, it looks so good that it almost makes up for the complete crap that is the King Kong suit. But Kong is hilarious here and the suit adds to the humor.


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