Running time: 91 min.
Release date (US version): June 26, 1963
Editor's note: I received a request to review this film some time back and had just recently acquired the film. This is the US version of the film which varies greatly from the original Japanese version. So, Todd, if you're reading this, I hope you're happy.
When you check out a film with the title King Kong vs. Godzilla, you know what you're getting into. In one corner, an icon of American cinema and culture; in the other corner, an icon of Japanese cinema and culture. There is no bad guy, there is no good guy; just two gigantic beasts doing what they're primal instincts dictate they do: attempt to kill each other and destroy a lot of property in the process. This was the third film for Godzilla, a kaiju series from Japan's Toho Studios. Ishiro Honda was the man behind the helm for all three at this point, and it would go on to be the most successful film of the series, financially.
The head of a pharmaceutical company, Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), is disappointed in the television ratings of programs that his company is sponsoring and believes they need a boost. He is informed that berries have been discovered on Faro Island that contain a narcotic that might be valuable to the company, but that the island is dangerous as it is patrolled by a monster. Mr. Tako is intrigued by the idea of corralling the monster as a publicity stunt for his company. He instructs a crew to go there and bring the monster back at any cost. Meanwhile, an American submarine and crew are investigating the waters off the coast of Japan, attempting to determine why the temperature of the waters have risen. They crash into an iceberg and unleash Godzilla, who was frozen inside. Naturally, Godzilla heads to Japan.
The corporate crew arrives on Faro Island, where apparently the natives are Asians in blackface, Not only that, but a giant octopus is interested in the berry juice. King Kong arrives to fend off the attack and as a reward drinks the berry juice and falls asleep. The crew takes advantage of this opportunity by typing him to a raft and carrying him out to sea and back to Japan. You get where this is going, don't you? With the impending approach of Godzilla, Japan refuses entry to the raft, but Kong awakens, frees himself and makes a run for Tokyo. Kong and Godzilla meet head-to-head, where Godzilla holds him off with his dragon breath, but that forces Kong into the city on a path of destruction. The only thing that subdues Kong is the berry juice of Faro Island. Meanwhile, Godzilla is still on the loose and tearing this us as always. So someone has the bright idea to revive Kong and force the two monsters to kill each other, with thousands of fleeing Japanese as the victims. Who will survive this battle between the two biggest monsters in film history?
The version I watched was the American version, which had taken the original version and cut out many scenes, replacing them with scenes of an American news reports basically narrating the entire plot. This includes a talking head using a children's book to back up his facts. This took me out of what was an otherwise okay entry in the Godzilla series. Reportedly, the original had a much bigger budget than the previous films, so the special effects and battle scenes were much more effective than usual. Unfortunately, the editing used by the American version takes some of the narrative away and it was hard to decipher the motivations of some of the characters. There is a legend about this film concerning the ending. There was a popular myth that believed that the Japanese version of the film had Godzilla winning the final battle. In that time, the internet has provided access to both version of the film and both version end the same way.
One of the more difficult things to overlook (aside from the poor decision to edit the original version for American audiences) is the King Kong suit. It is historically one of the more unappealing gorilla suits and it does make suspension of disbelief a little impossible at times. You can still have fun watching the monster battle, but if you watch too closely, you're still looking at a guy in a gorilla suit. There was a little stop-motion in a couple of short scenes, but the majority of action is the usual suit-mation employed by Toho.
So in the battle between King Kong and Godzilla, the winners are the American filmmakers who got their final version green-lit at the expense of the original version. The losers are the audience, partly because the film did not live up to it's portential and partly because that was a horrible gorilla suit.