“They have an ancient rivalry,” Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Ilene Andrews says gravely in the trailer to Godzilla vs. Kong. Undoubtedly, the movie will flesh out just how ancient and fierce this rivalry is, but its film version is far from new — if not exactly ancient. Godzilla and Kong first clashed onscreen nearly 60 years ago in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a 1962 film that might have taken a different form if it weren’t for a shady deal that cut the man primarily responsible for creating King Kong as we know him out of the picture. But it goes back further still, to the pre-Godzilla era, when King Kong invaded Japan in the 1930s.
Unless he didn’t. No one really knows for sure. There’s a lot of strange, tangled, sometimes foggy history behind Godzilla vs. Kong, much of which has nothing to do with the fisticuffs and blasts of atomic breath that will erupt when Godzilla vs. Kong hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday. It involves cultural ping-pong between America and Japan, special effects geniuses on both sides of the Pacific, and an endless series of eccentric, often wildly successful movies.
Kong made his debut in the 1933 film King Kong, a film born of producer and co-director Merian C. Cooper’s boyhood fascination with apes and stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s ability to bring animals to believable life. O’Brien had even set a giant dinosaur loose in London via a 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.. He took those skills to a new level in 1933’s King Kong, however, which allowed him to use every special effects trick in the book (and invent some new ones) in order to bring the massive gorilla and his world to life.
The film became a huge hit across the globe, including Japan, where the prolific comedy director Torajirō Saitō sought to capitalize on its popularity via the 30-minute short film Wasei Kingu Kongu. That title can be translated as “Japanese-Made King Kong,” but, by all reports it was less a rip-off than a comic riff on Kong’s popularity. The plot, evidence suggests, concerns an entertainer inspired by the original film to wear an ape suit but, like many Japanese films made before 1945, Wasei Kingu Kongu is now lost, leaving little behind but intriguing promotional images. Sometimes those images provide more questions than answers, as with the fang-toothed, vaguely gorilla-like creature seen in ads for 1938’s King Kong Appears In Edo. Was this a film about a giant ape or a film with an ape made to look giant in order to draw in customers while the original Kong was enjoying a re-release? We’ll never know, and even the firsthand accounts of those involved with the film contradict each other.
Kong’s reptilian antagonist didn’t show up until 1954 in the Japanese film Gojira, which quickly reached American shores under the name Godzilla, but he also had American antecedents in the form of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which a nuclear blast revives a giant, frozen dinosaur that then makes its way to New York–with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, who idolized O’Brien’s work. Its success in 1953 helped create an appetite for giant monster movies and directly inspired Godzilla.The plot was derivative, but Godzilla was inventive in every other way, drawing on the national traumas of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and a more recent incident in which fallout from a U.S. nuclear test had irradiated a boat filled with tuna fishermen.
The film’s director, Ishirō Honda, didn’t set out to make giant monster movies–he’d worked as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa among others. (Eventually he served as Kurosawa’s eyes on his final projects as the great director’s sight failed.) Honda threw himself into the assignment, however, using a stark style inspired by war footage to create a sense of dread. There would be no mistaking what Godzilla stood for, even without touches like hospital shots of the monster’s victims inspired by footage of Hiroshima survivors.
Godzilla established the monster as a serious threat in a serious movie, aptly described by Andrew Lytle, co-author of Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, as a “lament for the nuclear age.” It didn’t stay that way. Godzilla’s success kickstarted the kaiju genre: Suddenly giant monsters were everywhere and the prolific Honda became the most in-demand kaiju director around, alternating between straightforward dramas and films like Rodan and Mothra. Honda wouldn’t return to Godzilla until the franchise’s third film, the one that brought him face-to-face with Kong.
Kong was supposed to have a different sparring partner, however. Frustrated by a series of cancelled projects, O’Brien decided to return to the creature that made him famous in the 1950s, working up a treatment that gave him a new enemy in the form of Victor Frankenstein. Contrary to what its original title suggests, King Kong vs. Frankenstein would not have pitted the ape against a giant Boris Karloff but rather a creature called “the Ginko,” described in David Kalat’s A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series as “a pastiche of elephants, bulls, and other jungle animal parts.” Producer John Beck liked the idea enough to buy it from O’Brien — then cut O’Brien out of the project without his knowledge, took it to the Japanese studio Toho, and agreed to sub out the Ginko and sub in Godzilla, Toho’s resident star.
O’Brien would die in late 1962, a few months before the American release of the film now known as King Kong vs. Godzilla, but not before learning that it would eschew stop-motion animation in favor of an actor in an ape suit, per the kaiju style. That’s the first choice that makes King Kong vs. Godzilla feel odd to anyone expecting a clash between film’s most famous giant monsters. Godzilla looks like Godzilla, and sharper than ever thanks to a redesigned suit. But Kong looks like he’s been left to melt in the sun. The problems go beyond an ugly design. Classic kaiju creations can be wonderfully expressive, but that expressiveness comes mostly from body language. The original Kong inspires empathy with a face that shifts between puzzlement, rage, and fear. His kaiju equivalent in King Kong vs. Godzilla has the emotional range of a drug store Halloween mask. Godzilla should have the dead eyes of a terrifying reptile. Kong should not.
The oddness doesn’t end there. In his later kaiju efforts, Honda opted for a lighter tone, filling films with aliens, space age 1960s designs, and other whimsical elements. King Kong vs. Godzilla is no exception, particularly in a Japanese cut that puts more of an emphasis on satire and the role played by a pharmaceutical company that hopes the discovery of Kong will boost ratings on its flagging nature documentary series in the ensuing monster clash. There’s a large, cringe-inducing stretch involving the Kong-worshipping customs of the fictional Faro Island, whose residents are played by bewigged Japanese actors with darkened skin. When King Kong vs. finally gets to the Kong/Godzilla matchup, it’s far from a memorable fight.
Still, the film became a hit, first in Japan then in the United States, where it played throughout the summer of 1963 in a dubbed version with added footage featuring American actors, much like the original Godzilla. Most newspapers didn’t bother to review the film, though the Oakland Tribune did run an angry letter from a nine-year-old reader named Payne Garrwood Jr. complaining about the lack of coverage, who wrote, on behalf of nine-year-olds everywhere, “We think you should write more about movies such as King Kong vs. Godzilla. Anyway, maybe people besides us nine year olds would be interested in reading more about King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
Garrwood had a point. King Kong vs. Godzilla has lingered in the cultural memory much longer than some of the other films playing Oakland at the time, like A Gathering of Eagles and Gidget Goes to Rome. That doesn’t mean it’s always been remembered correctly. For years, an inaccurate story circulated that Kong won the battle in the English-language version but lost to Godzilla in the original cut. In fact, they battle to something like an anti-climactic draw in both versions, with Kong swimming back to Faro Island and Godzilla disappearing beneath the surface of the ocean, where only a fool would presume him dead.
From there, Kong and Godzilla went their separate ways. Kong hung around Japan for a bit via the unrelated Honda-directed 1967 film King Kong Escapes, in which he fights a robotic version of himself created by an evil scientist. (Not done mining O’Brien’s original idea for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho also recruited Honda to direct Frankenstein Conquers the World in 1965, which featured a giant monster spawned by the heart of Dr. Frankenstein’s original creation.) Godzilla moved on to fighting other monsters, until the original series wound down in 1975 with the Honda-directed Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Both Kong and Godzilla have been revived in various forms in the years that followed, but have never met for a rematch until now. But their current conflict has felt inevitable ever since Legendary Entertainment acquired the rights to both characters. Whether the resulting film, directed by Adam Winged, will improve on the extremely OK 2014 Godzilla revival or the less-than-OK Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Kong: Skull Island remains to be seen. That almost seems secondary to the film’s success, however. In 2021 as in 1962, just the promise of seeing these icons duke it out will likely prove a good enough draw.
There may now be fewer and fewer stars figuratively big enough to open a movie, but some remain literally big enough. In some ways, the original King Kong vs. Godzilla anticipated our current moment, when recognizable intellectual property has become the main attraction of blockbusters films, with all other elements becoming secondary. A premise once dismissed as nonsense for nine-year-olds now serves as the backbone of the biggest movie around. Somewhere, Payne Garrwood Jr. must be smiling.