The subject of this article, King Kong vs. Godzilla, has always been a frustrating one for me – not because of the faults of the film itself, but rather because I’ve only had access to a compromised version of it. Up until now I’ve been watching these movies in more or less their original theatrical versions, albeit with subtitles since I can’t speak Japanese. This is the first movie where I’ll be working off the dub, simply because it’s the only one I have – which is a shame, because I kind of hate the American dub/recut of this film. I mean, I don’t think subtitles are necessarily superior to dubs all the time – really the only way to get a “pure” experience with these films is to actually know Japanese, and both subs and dubs have their strengths and weaknesses. No, it’s not the dubbing that grates me about the version of this film I own, but rather the scenes the film’s distributer decided to add to it, and how the inclusion of those scenes muddies the plot and characters of the film itself while also killing the pacing of the movie. It’s a shame, too, because what I can see of the original film is pretty good, and King Kong vs. Godzilla plays an extremely important role in the development of the Godzilla film series. By all accounts I’ve read, the Japanese version of the film is practically a masterpiece. Sadly, we’re going to be talking about the American cut instead.
We begin with a Shakespeare quote – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – to make this better fit the formula of the American monster movies of the time, which often began with such self serious narration. Then we cut to an American reporter at the United Nations News Organization, who basically sets up the plot for us. This framing device was added for the American cut, and makes the movie more stilted and frustrating than it needs to be. I am not a fan. He continues to tell us how a Japanese pharmaceutical company has discovered a group of intoxicating berries that only grow on one underdeveloped island, but the natives of said island refuse to give up the berries because they need them to sacrifice to a giant beast god. Having this information told to us in a lecture is just… not great for the story telling pacing. It kind of feels like someone reading part of a film synopsis to you before showing the actual film – all the mystery and wonder is spoiled because you’ve basically been told beat for beat what to expect.
Not. A. Fan.
When we actually meet the people of this Pacific Pharmaceutical company, they’re pretty likable! The boss in particular is a hilarious caricature, demanding that his employees bring him back the monster of this island to serve as the company’s mascots. His employees are good straight men for him to bounce off of, looking at each other with expressions that say, “Can you believe this jackass?” It’s relatable.
We get a fraction of a scene sort of establishing who our main characters are before… ugh, the goddamn news guy is back ALREADY. He tells us how there’s a submarine encountering weird stuff, and we then see said submarine. It turns out that a nearby iceberg is glowing with a strange blue light. As they come closer to get a better look, their geiger counter reports that they’re encountering a great deal of radiation. Sure enough, the iceberg splits open to reveal that Godzilla has broken free of his icy tomb – the same one he was left in at the end of Godzilla Raids Again! He destroys the sub, as per his idiom, and soon makes his presence known to the world.
And we know the world knows it because… sigh… we get another goddamn clip of the news guy telling us about it. You know, say what you will about the awkwardness of how Raymond Burr was inserted into Godzilla King of the Monsters, but at least his scenes had a narrative arc that flowed instead of grinding the movie to a halt. It added something to the story without killing the pacing entirely. This is just annoying.
The military mobilizes to the coast, and Godzilla’s landfall is immediately greeted by a storm of tank fire. The monster king proceeds undaunted, raining his own thermonuclear breath upon them and crushing all resistance in his path. It’s a pretty great rampage scene – A+.
Then we cut back to the news room. They tell us the attack was devastating and people are being evacuated. Thank god this scene was added.
On the plus side, we also get a reaction shot of the head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals having an absolutely hilarious freakout over how Godzilla is dominating the news cycle, and doubling down on his demand that his company gets its own mascot monster. I’ve heard the Japanese cut of this movie is FULL of intentionally comedic moments like this, and dear god do I want to be watching that version instead.
Our Pharmaceutical agent “heroes” arrive on the island, where all the Japanese people are in, uh, obviously dark makeup and headdresses made of craft store feathers – look, it’s not a Kong movie if there isn’t at least a little racism, that’s a bitter pill we just have to accept and acknowledge – and our heroes wow them with modern inventions like recorded music and cigarettes. One of our “heroes” even gives a cigarette to a kid, because this movie is kind of shameless with the fact that all the protagonists are basically amoral coporate shills. A thunderstorm starts and the natives begin bowing and singing in reverance, all while one of our heroes mocks them for mistaking the storm for a monster god. Then a very not-thunder-ish roar fills the air, and our “heroes” realize that maybe the natives are onto something.
We cut to two female characters in distress over a recent shipwreck, but because their introduction scene was either cut or raced through so we could get to more scenes of that goddamn white reporter we have no idea why this is relevant. On the plus side, the movie rushes through this scene to get to more scenes with that goddamn white reporter – this time joined by a paleontologist who will give us all the sci-fi technobabble explaining how monsters could exist using misinterpreted scientific facts and blatant lies. He tells us that “reptils” are weak to Electric type attacks, and that Godzilla could survive millions of years because, like, frogs can hibernate a long time.
To be fair: this kind of technobabble is in all sorts of monster movies, including many Godzilla films. The Godzilla movies tend to spend less time on it than this cut does, but still, it’s not an alien element. It’s still hilariously dumb though.
Meanwhile, our heroes on Faro Island are doing some exploring when one of them becomes exhausted and needs bedrest because of his “corns,” which his companion scoffs at. The kid they gave a cigarette to goes sneaking off for some reason, and a colossal octopus slithers out from behind a nearby boulder to devour him (and the barrels of Soma berry juice in the hut the kid has just snuck into). His mother tries to save him, and the villagers rally to fend off the enormous cephalopod. Gunshots are, predictably, inefffective against the giant monster, and its tentacles toss villagers around like ragdolls as it continues its rampage. Thankfully, King Kong finally appears and beats up the octopus, sending it retreating from whence it came. Kong then gorges himself on several barrels of sacrificial berry juice the natives prepared for him, until finally he passes out in a drunken stupor. The natives even sing him to sleep, which is pretty sweet of them.
To get serious for a moment: the relationship between Kong and the natives, while having some comedic overtones, is an important key into how these Godzilla sequels begin to form an answer formed to the question the first film solved – namely, how can humanity survive the wrath of nature? The natives live in harmony with their monster. They provide it sustenance and share their island wirth it, making accomodations that allow its continued existence. The monster, in turn, protects them from harm. When we view monsters like Godzilla and Kong as personifications of the natural world, the message becomes clear: if we live in harmony with our environment, rather than try to dominate, subjugate, and exterminate it, the environment will sustain and protect us in turn. This will be further elaborated on in future sequels, and was of course articulated very well in the film Mothra, which came before this one. From here, our question is less “how can we live with nature?” and more “how can we live with nature we’ve harmed?”
We cut to a scene of those goddamn white people, wherein the paleontologist tells the stupid reporter how Godzilla has a brain the size of a marble (despite being over 150 feet tall) and Kong’s brain is, by contrast, the size of several gorilla skulls. The paleontologist further elaborates on how Kong is so much smarter and cooler than Godzilla because that’s how science works, and that the two will definitely fight each other when they meet. I dislike this scene for several reasons – the blatant “reptiles are a backwards mistake compared to mammals” bit being a major player, but also for the fact that it so shamelessly tries to play Godzilla as the lesser monster.
Our Pharmaceutical heroes have captured Kong while he’s sleeping off his hangover and are shipping him to Japan, just in time for their wacky boss to arrive with theatrical applom. Seriously, this guy is basically the Japanese version of Michael Scott. He even almost explodes King Kong by accidentally resting his hand on a lever that detonates the emergency dynamite on Kong’s raft – in case they need to keep him from rampaging. Unfortunately for all, the navy arrives and tells them that King Kong will not be allowed to enter Japan. Our pharmaceutical executive balks at this, almost fainting when he gets the news.
Meanwhile, in Japan, some of the characters whos introduction was truncated so I’m not sure who they are or why they’re relevant are, uh, doing things, and one of them is on a train that’s accidentally heading into Godzilla’s path! Thankfully, we cut to… those goddamn reporters, who explain what is happening before we cut to the army meeting about how Godzilla is, y’know, around. Godzilla finally appears and menaces the train, and even though the pacing of this attack was thrown off a bit by that interruption, it’s still a pretty tense moment when all the people evacuate the train at Godzilla’s approach. Thankfully, one of those characters whose introduction was truncated arrives to save a lady who, I think, is also one of the characters whos introduction was truncated, so you know thank heavens for that. It’s a really thrilling and emotional scene that would be even moreso if this cut of the movie had clearly establish who these characters are and why we care.
Back out at sea, King Kong wakes up and struggles in his bonds. There’s a funny bit where the water he’s kicking up sends a spray over the side of the ship and the boss opens an umbrella to shield himself – it’s a fun character moment, especially when one of his workers then calls him a dumbbell for not letting them blow up Kong. They get into a fight over it and the boss accidentally falls on the trigger, but, in a stroke of luck, it doesn’t work, forcing them to set off the dynamite with guns. It doesn’t make all the dynamite go off, however, and ultimately just ends up setting a very pissed King Kong loose on Japan. Whoops!
We then cut back to those goddamn reporters, who helpfully explain Kong is heading toward Tokyo.
Anyway, Kong and Godzilla finally meet up for their first fight. Both monsters dramatically emerge from opposite sides of a valley, roaring and sizing each other before the fight. Our Pharmaceutical heroes watch the spectacle, with the boss saying, “Put my money on Kong!” He even does a coin flip – “heads for King Kong!” – but, hilariously, it ends up in Godzilla’s favor. Sure enough, Godzilla proceeds to royally kick King Kong’s ass, lighting the ape on fire and laughing as Kong runs way in terror. Seems a brain the size of several monkey skulls can’t do much if you’re a chump!
Those goddamn reporters, of course, comment on this, saying Kong has retreated and that a new military defense is being organized. Hilariously, we even see scenes of the Japanese actors explaining these plans, but cut short and with the dialogue left out so we can hear the American reporter explain it in a truncated yet far more boring manner. Have I sold you on these added scenes yet?
The army lures Godzilla into an area that they then set on fire, unaware that, as a “reptil,” Godzilla is immune to fire type attacks. He does, however, fall into a pit trap they’ve laid and filled with explosives, which they then detonate. Unfortunately for the army, Godzilla survives the explosions, and lives to rampage another day.
Unfortunately for me, we cut to another news scene, where they tell us the army just failed to kill Godzilla, but now they’re going to use electricity, because, as we all know, “reptils” are weak to electricity. The paleontologist informs us that Kong, for some reason we don’t understand, draws strength for electricity (this was before 3rd generation revealed that Kong’s ability was “volt absorb,” which raises his attack stat with every electric attack he’s hit with).
Sure enough, Godzilla isn’t too fond of these electric wires, but the joy is shortlived, as Kong is now approaching Tokyo too! Kong attacks a different part of the electric blockade, and some guys talk about the possibility of using the Atom bomb. I’m particularly curious as to how accurate this bit was translated, because the Japanese characters seem far more open to using nuclear weapons than is normal for a Godzilla movie. Anyway, Kong runs rampant in Tokyo, picks up a train, and sees one of the ladies whose introduction was truncated. Since King Kong has to be kind of a creep to women, he picks up the woman in question and carries her around for a while. It turns out she’s the sister of one of the Pharmaceutical guys, and the Pharmaceutical group then talks about how they can safely resolve the situation by getting Kong drunk on Soma berry juice. Sure enough, it works, and Kong safely puts the girl down before drinking himself into a stupor. Once again, the day is saved by a giant monkey’s alcoholism!
Our heroes hit upon a plan, one so brilliant it would form the template for dozens of sequels to come: pit the monsters against each other! They airlift the unconscious King Kong to Mt. Fuji for his second round with Godzilla (one has to wonder how goddamn weird this movie’s events must be from King Kong’s perspective). This time things are a bit less one sided, as Godzilla and Kong wrestle for a good long time without Godzilla whipping out the “I can set you on fire” card too often. However, Godzilla proves to be a match for Kong in sheer strength and still has the fire breath to rely upon, and eventually Kong seems on the brink of defeat. Round two almost ends in Godzilla’s favor, especially when he tricks the “smarter” ape into rolling headfirst into some rocks like a stupid chump. Godzilla buries the ape alive and sets the woods near him ablaze, roasting the ape alive.
Thankfully for America’s ape, a thunderstorm conveniently appears, and Kong is miraculously struck with a thunderbolt. Reinvigorated and now sporting inexplicable taser fingers, Kong returns to the fight with new strength and proceeds to give Godzilla a good thrashing. One particular highlight has Kong try to stuff a tree down Godzilla’s throat, only for the king of the monsters to spit it out with a blast of nuclear fire. The two monsters wrestle anew as Mt. Fujir burns around them, before both end up tumbling over the side of the mountain and into the sea. Kong is the only monster to emerge, and is seen heading back home (as we are told by that goddamn reporter), while Godzilla supposedly disappeared without a trace.
Being one of the first cinematic crossovers as well as one of the best monster mashes of all time, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a huge piece of cinematic history, even for people who aren’t weirdly obsessed with monster movie minutiae. You can see its story structure being repeated in later monster mashes – both Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator had two boughts, the first of which was won by the least sympathetic monster, and the second of which was one by the more sympathetic one thanks to humanity throwing their lot in with it. It also cemented both monsters’ star quality – if King Kong and Godzilla weren’t big names before, this movie cemented them as being just as important as 30’s/40’s icons like Dracula and the Wolf Man. Of course, it also refined the monster vs. monster formula pioneered by Godzilla Raids Again, specifically by turning the monster battle into a climatic centerpiece of the film, rather than simply the end of the second act. The use of humor and further development of treating monsters as characters who personify mankind’s complex relationship with nature are also important to the film’s success, and would be built on even more in entries to come.
All of this is why I’m so frustrated by the American cut of this movie. All of this good stuff is there, but it’s held back by these pointless scenes of smug American actors commenting on the proceedings for no real reason. These scenes undercut the comedy, character development, plot, and worst of all, the pacing of the story, resulting in a story that is worse than its original version while also taking itself too seriously. For many Americans, this is the only version of this story they will ever see, and that to me is a shame – especially for a film that was so important not only to the Godzilla series, but to monster movies in general.