And so we finally reach my top ten favorite Godzilla movies. If you’re as big of a Godzilla nerd as me, you already know which films are in my top ten. The question is where will they fall. I will give those who don’t know a bit of info on my top ten – I still have one Heisei film, one Millennium, one that doesn’t quite fit into any series at this point, and seven Showa movies. In case you were wondering, the first Godzilla series is my favorite series.
Speaking of the first Godzilla series, let’s talk about its revitalization in the 1960s. While the first Godzilla film was a massive hit worldwide, “Godzilla Raids Again” proved to Toho that a series wasn’t viable at the time, so they put Godzilla on the backburner for a while. It wasn’t until Toho was approached by American producer John Beck to make a new King Kong film that Toho considered bringing Godzilla back again.
At this point, Godzilla had been off theater screens for roughly seven years, allowing Toho to make a wider range of monster movies, like “Rodan,” “Mothra,” “Varan,” “The Mysterians” and many others. But everything changed when they decided to make “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
I’ve already written an insanely long recap on “King Kong vs. Godzilla”‘s history in my novel-length write-up on King Kong’s history, but here’s the jist of it – John Beck approached Toho to create the effects for Willis O’Brien’s idea about Kong fighting a large version of Frankenstein’s monster (without O’Brien’s permission to ask Toho for help). Toho happily agreed but thought the movie would sell better if Kong fought Godzilla instead of Frankenstein’s monster. At this point, Toho was basically given free reign to do what they wanted with the Japanese version of the movie, and thus “King Kong vs. Godzilla” was born.
I should note this film is so much higher than films like “Destroy All Monsters” and “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster” mostly for nostalgic reasons. This is the first movie I ever remember watching. It is the movie that not only got me into Godzilla, but cinema in general. I must have been three-years old when I first saw “King Kong vs. Godzilla” on a television station (probably the Sci-fi channel) and not being able to take my eyes off the screen while Godzilla and Kong fought on top of Mt. Fuji. For me, this movie is what I watch if I want to feel like a little kid again, rooting for Godzilla to roast Kong with his atomic breath, only to immediately turn around and cheer for King Kong as he zaps and punches Godzilla.
Is the movie actually any good? I would say the Japanese version is a pretty damn good monster movie, but the American version can be skipped outside of the monster sequences.
There are three Godzilla films where the Japanese and American versions are so radically different that they might as well be different movies entirely. We’ll cover another one of those three next time, but “King Kong vs. Godzilla” is one of those movies, since the American version basically strips the plot, atmosphere, and music from the Japanese version in favor of it’s own dumbed-down narrative. As such, the plot description for this one will be kept smaller than usual.
One thing I will give “King Kong vs. Godzilla” credit for is being the one that started the trend. Even though it was not the first Toho film to pit two monsters against one another, with “Godzilla Raids Again” being the first to do that, every “Vs.” monster movie that came after would follow in this movies footsteps. Both monsters share the title, they get fairly equal screen time and development, and the majority of the third act is dedicated to their final battle. Without “King Kong vs. Godzilla” to set the trend, we would have the premise for the rest of the Godzilla series.
One thing that does bother me with this movie though is that it tries a bit too hard to be like the original 1933 “King Kong” with its Kong segments. Everything feels like a direct translation of the first Kong movie, from their journey to find him on a newly discovered island, to capturing him and bringing him back to civilization, to a rampage through a major city while clutching a woman in his paw. Granted, Ishiro Honda and Toho loved King Kong to death and this was their way of paying homage to the granddaddy of all giant monsters. Still, the only King Kong segments I enjoy in this film are the ones that stray from the first film, especially when he’s fighting Godzilla.
This version of Godzilla is a little different from most other interpretations. Instead of the walking nuclear weapon we got in the two previous Godzilla films, we get a more bestial monster. One with a more innate curiosity with the things he’s crushing or burning, but still just as unstoppable as ever.
My favorite use of Godzilla in this movie comes after he breaks free from his icy prison and makes his way towards the Russian mainland. It’s a series of three short shots that show the Russians firing at Godzilla with everything they have, but Godzilla repeatedly gets closer in every shot, unfazed by anything the Russians are doing to him. The first shot he’s so far away that you can barely see anything, but the final shot shows a terrifying monster with huge claws and teeth coming for you without any hesitation.
Part of what sells this version of Godzilla is the suit, which is far bigger and clunkier than any other Godzilla suit. While later Godzilla films would try to humanize him, this Godzilla is massive, like a big wall of radiated flesh and muscle. His spines are huge, but his head is pretty small, except for his eyes with are practically bulging out of his head. This is a Godzilla that finds a good balance between terrifying and beast-like.
The same cannot be said for the King Kong suit, which is pretty ridiculous. His fur is all mangled and messy, his face and chest looks misshapen and the prop they used for his close-ups is nightmarish. If they had a Kong suit that matches this Godzilla suit, this film would be much higher on my countdown.
Like I said, the story between the Japanese and American versions are fairly different. The Japanese version focuses more on a failing television studio, run by the over the top Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), that wants to focus more on children friendly content, but learns that most kids find their shows boring and dull. The company learns of a recent voyage by a pharmaceutical company to an island in the south Pacific, named Faro Island, where they found a bunch of natives that worship a giant creature as their god. Upon hearing this, Mr. Tako says this god could be just the thing to boost their ratings and orders two of his lackeys to go to Faro Island and bring back this monster god.
Some of these points are still the case in the American version, but they glance over the whole failing television studio problem, skipping straight to the meeting with the scientist returning from Faro Island. In the Japanese version, we witness first hand how bad things are going and how desperate Mr. Tako has to be to save his company. The American version regularly cuts to the United Nations in New York to tell us about what else is going on in the world, as well as analysis’s to tell us about why Kong and Godzilla are coming back now, why they’re so inclined to fight each other, and who might win.
This leads to some ridiculous notions that still stick to Godzilla to this day, like his brain being the size of a marble or that he’s a fusion of a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus, neither of which is the case, especially since Godzilla’s spines look nothing like that of Stegosaurus’ dorsal plates. The acting in these segments is also not good and it all comes across as pretty pointless since they’re so far away from the action and never contribute anything outside of dumb observations.
With Mr. Tako’s lackeys off to Faro Island to find King Kong, the rest of the world turns its attention to the Bering Sea where many large icebergs have started popping up. They find the sea is much hotter than it should be and send in a United States submarine to investigate. They find an iceberg that is glowing a strange blue color. Like a bunch of idiots in the Godzilla universe, they approach the iceberg and crash right into it. And before they’re able to do anything outside send up an emergency flare, they submarine is engulfed in flames and we hear a familiar roar.
As a rescue helicopter spots the submarine’s emergency signal, they notice the iceberg they crashed into starts breaking apart to reveal Godzilla, who makes his way back to land. This is a great reintroduction to Godzilla. The scene takes its time to build up the mystery of the many icebergs, the desperate attempt to save the sub from flooding, only to be set on fire instead. It feels like a classic submarine battle from films like “Das Boot” or “The Hunt for Red October,” only these guys don’t even realize they’re in a battle or that they’re fighting a giant monster.
After this, the film spends a lot of time on Faro Island, rehashing the 1933 “King Kong” until Kong finally shows up and does battle with an actual octopus. Once Kong has defeated the octopus with some boulders, the special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya has the octopus for dinner, and Kong finds some berry juice made by the natives and immediately falls asleep. Tako’s explorers use this opportunity to snatch up King Kong and send themselves back to Japan while towing Kong.
One thing I never thought about “King Kong vs. Godzilla” when I was a kid is just how silly and comical the film feels. Tako’s explorers befriend the natives with radios and cigarettes, the whole idea of tying up a giant monster to a boat and towing him back to Japan (yet he doesn’t wake up until he end of the journey), and the concept that a failing television studio is responsible for all of this. Part of the reason I never saw this is because the rest of the film takes itself rather seriously, especially the scenes involving Godzilla which go into gruesome detail about the carnage he is inflicting across the land.
It’s like “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” which has a ton of silly and ridiculous stuff in it, but otherwise takes itself rather seriously.
As soon as Mr. Tako arrives on the ship towing King Kong, they engage in comedic hijinks, flailing themselves around a lever that will ignite all the dynamite around Kong. After the Japanese defense forces tell Tako that Kong isn’t allowed to enter Japanese waters, Kong of course starts to wake up and they try to light up the dynamite anyway, which only results in letting Kong run loose on Japan.
This leads right into the first confrontation between King Kong and Godzilla, and it is an extremely short fight, mostly to show how different these two monsters are, as well as how Kong will be fighting an uphill battle against a monster that’s just as strong as him and can breathe fire. Kong throws a couple of boulders at Godzilla, he retaliates with his atomic breath, Kong doesn’t know what else to do and leaves.
After that, the two monsters go their separate ways and we watch the defense force try to combat both of them. They come up with an incredibly complex plan to deal with Godzilla, including fill all the rivers around him with gasoline to lure him into one spot, drop him into a giant hole they dug and set off lots of dynamite. It goes about as well as you think it would, but it is nice to see the defense force thinking outside the box.
Their other plan exploits one of Godzilla’s weaknesses in this movie – lightning…even though in subsequent films it’ll either wake him up from a long nap or turn him into a magnetic pole. The defense force strings a massive electrical fence around all of Tokyo to prevent Godzilla from getting inside. It works and Godzilla retreats to Mt. Fuji. However, the electrical fence is their undoing when fighting King Kong, who gets stronger through electricity.
Part of me thinks this was originally a concept from the first draft of the movie, when it was King Kong fighting Frankenstein, where Kong shied away from lightning and Frankenstein grew more powerful by taking it in. Otherwise, it always felt like the lightning was a deus-ex-machina to help Kong in his final battle against Godzilla.
Anyway, Kong tears through the electrical fence and rampages through Tokyo for a little while as they reenact more of the 1933 movie, with Kong even climbing to the top of a famous Tokyo landmark with a woman in his hand. The defense force calls upon Mr. Tako and his explorers to use the same berry juice that put Kong to sleep on Faro Island. It succeeds and Kong passes out in the middle of his rampage.
But the defense force gets word that Godzilla has been spotted on Mt. Fuji and they’re exhausted from fighting both monsters. Their next best idea is to bring Kong to Godzilla and have the two of them fight each other, hoping that they’ll destroy each other. And of course, they do this in the most ludicrous manner possible, stringing together around six hot air balloons to Kong and a couple helicopters and carrying him from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji like he’s a puppet performing for a stage show.
I’ve never had that much of a problem with this sequence, mostly because of what follows it – the climatic battle between two titans on top of Mt. Fuji. This battle is just as fun to watch as the final monster battle at the end of “Destroy All Monsters,” if not more so because of how creative Kong gets during the fight. It’s over-the-top while still being grand in all the best ways. From the start as Kong uses the mountain side as a slide to ram Godzilla, the tone and mood are set immediately.
When I think of an all-out brawl, this fight is the first thing that comes to mind as the two monsters throw everything they have into their attacks, throwing each other down the mountain side, with Kong grasping at anything he can and Godzilla lighting his opponent up with his breath. The fight gets even more crazy when Kong gets a power-up from a lightning storm and starts pounding Godzilla with his electrically charged fists.
This is the fight that all other kaiju battles strive to be.
The battle even ends on one of the most iconic shots of the entire series – the two monsters standing on opposite ends of a pagoda and tearing it apart to get at each other, as if they’re fighting over who can tear down this ancient building first, before they both fall off a cliff and into the ocean together.
For a while, there was a controversy over the ending of “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” It was believed that, in the American version, King Kong is the first one to surface and is the victor. While the Japanese version had Godzilla rise out of the sea and he was the winner. I remember for years people spread rumors about the alternate endings to this movie, but it turns out it’s all fake. In both versions of the movie, King Kong is the only one to rise out of the ocean after the battle and is declared the winner of the battle.
I’d just like to take a moment to call BS on this ruling. Just because Kong was the first to come out of the water doesn’t mean he won. Godzilla could still be down there waiting for Kong to keep fighting. If anything, Kong is retreating so he should be the loser. Maybe Godzilla just hit his head on some rocks and he’ll be ready to fight again in a minute. This fight is so good that I don’t want it to end right there, I would have loved to see this fight continue in the ocean, so it sucks that they just ended it right there.
Overall, I love “King Kong vs. Godzilla” but the Japanese version is superior to the American. The film is silly but not overtly silly that you cannot take it seriously. Most of the sequences involving Godzilla are terrifying and suspenseful, especially when he’s the only monster around. The characters are likable enough, especially Mr. Tako and his explorers who add some much needed levity to the scenes on Faro Island. Of course, the highlight of the film is the final battle and it is still just as satisfying and exciting now as it was when I was a kid. If you’ve never seen the Japanese version of this movie, I highly recommend that version for its improved story and soundtrack.