Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gorilla at large: King Kong Vs Godzilla(1962) - revisited

I saw many Showa era Godzilla films when I was a kid, including Godzilla King Of The Monsters(1956), Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster(1971), Godzilla Vs The Thing(1964) and Monster Zero(1965). Many I wouldn't see until much later after I was an adult, most of them beginning in the late 80's and through the mid 90's as I managed to catch them on TBS's "Super Scary Saturday"(hosted by Al Lewis of the 60's The Munsters TV series) and then after buying bootleg VHS tapes from a now defunct catalog order company called "Vicious Video". I first watched King Kong Vs Godzilla in 1987 with a co-worker and friend in his attic apartment. I managed to record the movie on VHS tape. The tape is long gone but my memories of watching this film are still around.

King Kong Vs Godzilla was produced by Toho and released theatrically for the first time back in 1962. Released in 2:35.1 "Tohoscope" widescreen, this film was Toho's means by which to re-introduce their "star", Godzilla back to the big screen. Recall that Godzilla had not been seen theatrically for seven(7) years since 1955's Godzilla Raids Again, the quickie sequel to Toho's highly successful film Gojira(1954).

Interestingly enough, the 1962 film was originally conceived(by Willis O'Brien) as a "King Kong Vs Frankenstein" film. I'm not going to get into how Godzilla came to become Kong's co star in this movie. I am going to submit some more observations about this film, referencing both the American and Toho versions. As always some of my musings may look familiar and some will, hopefully be new additions to my continuing diatribe about the movie.

Thumbs up:

1. the "Kingoji" Godzilla suit used in the film. Godzilla looks more reptilian with beady eyes on an alligator-like head and has bulkier legs and arms, more rounded, maple leaf shaped dorsal fins and a long, powerful tail. Godzilla is treated as the "heavy" in King Kong Vs Godzilla and this suit is IMO effective at perpetuating that role

2. the original score by Akira Ifukube is superb. It's too bad only those owning the Toho Region 2 DVD or a R2 DVD-R copy can listen to this score because much of it has been replaced in the American version of the film, which was released in 1963

3. Godzilla's entrance in the film is outstanding: the monster's presence is preempted by the glowing, radioactive light coming from inside the iceberg. Godzilla emerges from the iceberg while simultaneously destroying the U.N. nuclear submarine Seahawk (the sub's destruction is implied). The helicopter crew spots the monster below and we see a panoramic shot of Godzilla emerging from the iceberg.

4. Godzilla's attack on the arctic base: it's not without its flaws but overall the scene is rendered well, shots of Godzilla moving through the icy water as he approaches the base, then the monster making landfall and immediately opening up a can of whoop ass with his oral beam, torching some buildings and demolishing the bases' control tower with his tail. The base's defense forces wisely retreat, another nice effect rendered through tanks withdrawing back to their underground bunker.

5. actors Yu Fujiki and Tadao Takashima: I'm never enamored with a glut of humor in kaiju films and while I think the humor was poured on thick at times in this movie no one could have done it better than this pair who had previously worked together on a Japanese TV show called "The Crazy Cats". The shenanigans between these two characters is amplified by their boss "Mr. Tako"(played by bespectacled Ichiru Arashima). Tako is a nervous, jittery man who, given to sudden and periodic emotional outbursts always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tako's buffoonery during the film reaches its apex when he fancies himself, to the point of absurdity, as King Kong's official "sponsor". Over time I have come to appreciate the antics by these human characters in the movie.

6. Godzilla's attack on the train: a well rendered scene which affords the viewer a nice point of reference to Godzilla's size and power as the monster derails and destroys several train cars from the abandoned train

7. the heroics of actor Kenji Sahara's character in rescuing his girlfriend after she's unceremoniously left behind after abandoning the train...and with Godzilla approaching nearby. Give the guy credit for having some serious testicular fortitude in this scene.

8. King Kong's brief foray into Tokyo. I wish this scene had been longer. Even better would have been the two monsters hashing it out in town. Still, the sequence where Kong hammered off a corner section of a building and then ripped a train car off the tracks to inspect the people inside it served as a good reminder of the power and undeniably intimidating presence of the creature

9. the final battle between King and Godzilla in and around Mt. Fuji: this battle is absolutely an imperfect venture with a brief an ineffective "stop motion" sequence and brief sequences utilizing hand puppets which looked poor on screen. Overall the battle choreography was IMO quite good: the monsters grappled, vigorously blasted each other as Kong used his hands and Godzilla his tail to do the damage. Both creatures threw each other to the ground and Kong evened tried to jam a tree in Godzilla's mouth as well as hurling boulders at his rival.

Thumbs down:

1. I've seen some intellectually challenged characters in many monster movies but the commanding officer of the U.N. submarine "Seahawk" may be the biggest buffoon I've ever seen: this guy allows his submarine, equipped with presumably quality radar and sonar, and operated by competent equipment operators, to plow into the side of an iceberg all while knowing in advance his vessel is surrounded by them. I also noticed that the Seahawk captain didn't know, at least in the English dubbed version of the film, what a "Cerenkov light" was. A scientist nearby explained to the captain that it was a light generated by nuclear reactors...and since the Seahawk is a nuclear sub it seems reasonable to assume that the Seahawk captain would know what "Cerenkov light" is. The befuddled look on the sub captain suggested, to me, that he may have thought it meant a brand of Russian beer or vodka.

2. the general lack of high speed filming used during many of the kaiju action sequences and during the final battle between the monsters

3. the Kong suit looked atrocious. This has been stated ad nauseam. Still, had the suit looked better this film might not receive as much criticism as it does. Kong in this film looks more like a "sasquatch". I thought I read somewhere that Eiji Tsuburaya wanted the Kong in this film to look friendlier. I don't think the garish facial features, hunched shoulders and generally neck-less look project that quality. Add to the suit's terrible look some of the antics by Kong in the film, including getting drunk in island red berry juice and scratching the top of his head after his fur is singed by Godzilla's oral beam and there are now even more reasons to bash the monster. All of that said I've always liked Kong in this film, more his actions than appearance. He did, after all, drive off a giant octopus and manage to defeat Godzilla while likely still experiencing the effects of the red berry juice.

4. in the American version the running analysis by "Dr. Arnold Johnson" was laughable at times, especially when the old geezer used a children's dinosaur book as a visual aide to his explanation and analysis of Godzilla's origin and behavioral habits.

This is an at times wildly uneven film regarding effects. No doubt the film has a strong satirical element as well and that may be a big turn off for kaiju fans. From what I've seen from internet reviews and message board discussion King Kong Vs Godzilla is either really well liked or despised. In any event this film should be in every kaiju film DVD collector's collection!