King Kong vs. Godzilla arrived in Japanese movie theaters in 1962 (and American theaters, in a considerably different incarnation, in '63) after a strange and tortured path through Development Hell that stands up with the greatest making-of stores in cinema history. As you'd expect, when the two greatest giant monsters were put onscreen together for the first and only time, involving not just the usual studio politics bullshit, but two entirely different nations having to synch up to make the project happen. I would say, "it ends up being more interesting than the movie that resulted", except that is not at all true here: King Kong vs. Godzilla has flaws aplenty, but being uninteresting is least among them. I will here give you only the very shortest version I can manage; it's easy to find more details, and well worth it.

It started when Willis O'Brien, who created the special effects for the revolutionary King Kong in 1933, wanted to make a new film with his most famous creation. There'd been Son of Kong, which was also released in 1933 and was not revolutionary in any way except in the unprecedented depth to which a first sequel was able to sink from a great predecessor, but O'Brien had more grandiose plans. Namely, he had a story idea for King Kong vs. Frankenstein, in which a gigantic patchwork animal corpse and the world's most famous gorilla would duke it out. Retitled King Kong vs. the Ginko along the way, the story caught the attention of a real bastard named John Beck, a producer who treated the effects legend with unbelievable back-stabbing curtness and removing him (and his expensive stop-motion animation) from the picture. Another draft came along, titled King Kong vs. Prometheus, written by George Worthington Yates, and this version Beck shopped all over the States, and then all over the world, where Toho found out about it.

Having a chance to make a film with the world's most famous monster was too much of a golden opportunity for the world's greatest monster-making studio, and the King Kong project was quickly slated to be the star attraction of Toho's 30th Anniversary celebration in '62. Moreover, such a splashy addition to the daikaiju eiga landscape seemed to be the ideal moment to resurrect the long-dormant franchise around Japan's most beloved home-grown monster, Godzilla, last seen buried under a pile of ice in 1955's Godzilla Raids Again. Frankenstein's monster thus ended up out of the picture (but not so far out that Toho didn't eventually find something to do with him). The film ended up costing quite a lot (acquiring the rights from RKO to use King Kong alone represented an astronomical sum of cash in 1960s dollars), and according to some stories, Beck left Toho holding the bag for a lot more money than their original deal, but King Kong vs. Godzilla turned out to be the highest-grossing Godzilla film in Japan, adjusted for inflation, and a major hit in the United States as well, giving audiences a chance to see the two monsters in full color and widescreen with absolute state-of-the-art everything.

That's the notion, anyway. Viewed from half a century on, King Kong vs. Godzilla frankly looks like shit. Time and budget conspired to make the King Kong suit one of the few outright failures of Tsuburaya Eiji's glorious career as Toho's best and brightest special effects designer: ratty hair, blinking eyes that look as mechanical and stiff and unpleasant as I could possibly imagine, obviously rubbery teeth, weird gray patches on his pectorals. Everyone knows this - the film is perhaps most famous, in a "so bad it's good register", for the outrageous failure of the Kong suit. What everybody does not entirely know, or at least nobody talks about, is that Kong isn't the worst thing in the movie. The matte work done to place humans in the same frame as Kong and Godzilla, to make footage of a living octopus look like a towering behemoth, and just to add glowing effects to Godzilla's dorsal spikes, is awful in ways that shouldn't have been possible for a man of Tsuburaya's demonstrated skills. It doesn't look bad for 1962; it looks bad for 1932, at least for a project with this much money being thrown at it. The one thing I can think to say in defense of the effects work is that it represents a quantum leap in ambition from any previous daikaiju eiga, and maybe the sheer scope of the work swamped Tsuburaya and his team. At any rate, there are some basic, amateur-hour mistakes (a tracking shot of the octopus plastered into a very much non-tracking shot of people watching it is particularly inept), and that bothers me far more than a dime store Kong costume ever could.

The flipside is that Godzilla - and whatever the case in 1962, here in the 21st Century we've had enough ghastly Kong vehicles that I assume we're all here for the big ol' lizard - looks amazing. The hinge on its jaw is a little loose, and its mouth never closes quite right, which is problematic any time it looks straight at the camera. But outside of that, this is my favorite of all the suits used prior to the 1980s reboot of the franchise: the musculature of the lower body is perfectly balanced, and the slightly redesigned spikes are terrific; but my favorite thing is the eyes. They're somewhat anthropomophised and more expressive (a direction Tsuburaya was keen to take the character, against director Honda Ishirō's wishes), but orange and reptilian in a way that just works better than most of the things that would happen to the character in the next 13 years.

Anyway, Godzilla and King Kong are both lovely elements in the film that bears their name, and all, but the really weird part is how much they're not the thrust of the movie. This was the first Godzilla film for Varan and Mothra writer Sekizawa Shinichi, who would become one of the guiding figures for the franchise for a long time (he contributed to nine of the next twelve entries), and the same silliness he brought to the latter of those is over every inch of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which isn't so much a monster movie that doesn't know how to be serious; it's an outright comedy that monsters happen to have stumbled into as the irritation for the protagonist to overcome. The story here is that Mr. Tako (Arishima Ichiro), owner of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, is angry that the very dippy TV shows his company sponsors don't have more interesting material to fill the airwaves with, and when he hears of a monster sighting on Faro Island, he immediately orders a pair of salarymen in his employ, Sakurai Osamu (Takashima Tadao) and Furue Kinsaburo (Fujiki Yu), to go to Faro to investigate and, if possible, bring the monster back, so he can make a TV special about it (as Carl Denham analogues go, he's about as Carl Denhammy as they get).

And that word, "salaryman", is what tips us off to what's so unusual about King Kong vs. Godzilla: for the salaryman, a uniquely Japanese form of middle-class existence in the burgeoning economy of the '50s and '60s, was a stock figure in a crazily popular genre of comedies in that country at the same time. I haven't seen a single salaryman comedy, not least because none of them were ever exported in a systematic way (I have, though, seen some of the edgier films made in defiance of the cheesiness of the salaryman genre, which is an entirely useless bit of background for our present needs), so I can't really comment on how this film speaks to the bulk of those movies, but make no mistake: this isn't a story about two big animals decimating cities. It's about two bumbling guys put into a ridiculous position of having to chase monsters, thanks to their asshole boss. I'm generally a fan of genre fusion experiments, and this is surely one of the most oddball ones that you're ever likely to stumble across; that the fusion doesn't necessarily work is a problem, certainly, but less debilitating than one might assume. Daikaiju eiga, as a population, already have a weird relationship with their human stories, so the disjunction between the two parts of the film along generic lines isn't necessarily that noticeable. And while the comedy is so culturally specific as to be like an artifact from another planet, there's a genial lightness to the proceedings, and a sheepishness about the most ditsy comedy (Tako and his put-upon employees pretending to be bushes to hide from the military is the example that leaps to mind) that makes it all easy to like, if not to love.

It does the film no favors that Honda palpably didn't give a shit about the story: the directing is slack anytime that anything is happening that doesn't involve mass destruction, and the only part of the entire film that really springs to life as cinema is a sequence in which Osamu's sister Fumiko (future Bond Girl Hama Mie) is missing in the path of Godzilla's inevitable rampage, and her boyfriend Fujita Kazuo (Sahara Kenji) is desperately looking for her. Not coincidentally, it's the darkest part of the whole film, tonally and visually, and the only time we come within light-years of the sobriety of the city destruction scenes in the original Godzilla. There are other nice touches, especially in the sound; the way that both monsters are introduced by their roars (Godzilla in particular first sounds off in a nicely tense sequence on an American submarine, perfectly timed to make it clear that Honda and Toho were more than a little proud to bring their big monster back out), and a brilliant score by Ifukube Akira, introducing a wonderful new theme for Godzilla that grinds along on the bass line, like an impending storm, or an earthquake.

But for the most part, this is all a bit frothy, and not in the delirious, agreeable way that Mothra was. The fight scenes between the monsters (once Kong is recruited by the humans to fight back against Godzilla, as the far lesser of two evils), though ebulliently played by the suited-up Nakajima Haruo (as Godzilla) and Hirose Shoichi (as Kong), lack anything resembling the brawling choreography of Godzilla Raids Again, without reaching the intriguingly theatrical staging of the best of the later films, and the scenes are just sort of insubstantial. The rock-throwing in particular just kind of... happens. Enough of the unexpected surrealism of later kaiju films crops up (for no apparent reason, Kong eats electricity and revives when he's struck by lightning) that it's fun more than it isn't, but the fact that the most appealing and memorable parts of the film - outside of Godzilla's design - come in the salaryman plotline, certainly doesn't speak all that highly of the film's achievements as a monster battle. But it could get worse, and would do so regularly in the years to come.

Besides, even the loosest parts of the film with the most checked-out directing still leave the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla an absolute masterpiece compared to the thing that was released by the American distributors...

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When the time came for John Beck to bring King Kong vs. Godzilla to the United States, its most unusual trait had to go, obviously - salaryman comedies being such a singularly Japanese form of storytelling that they really don't even have an American analogue. The problem being that this wasn't a movie where those comic elements were lightly laid atop the plot, they were the plot, and it was the monsters that were barely threaded into the whole. Nor could Beck simply pull a Varan, and use only the effects footage with an entirely new story shot from scratch, since the introduction of Kong into the movie was buried so deep into the salaryman material - there literally wasn't enough footage to bring the ape into the film if it didn't include Sakurai and Furue and their trip to Faro Island.

The result is one of the most convoluted American re-edits of a Toho daikaiju eiga in history, second perhaps only to Varan itself - even the American Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and Gigantis the Fire Monster at least capture more of Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again in terms of tone and sensibility. King King vs. Godzilla U.S. recreates the broad narrative of the Japanese cut in pretty much all the major beats, doing very little besides shuffling some footage around so that the encounter between a thawed-out Godzilla and a submarine crew is presented as one mostly continuous sequence, instead of being intercut with the salarymen on Faro Island. But the newly written dub script, by Bruce Howard and Paul Mason, changes the emphasis around completely, while newly shot footage with Michael Keith and James Yagi as news reporters and Harry Holcombe as paleontologist Dr. Arnold Johnson builds a framework story completely different from the situation presented in the Japanese original, while adding enough bulk to let Beck remove every scrap of the human plot that wasn't absolutely essential to telling a coherent story (at least we should praise the American version for being coherent, perhaps).

The Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla has issues, and is more "weird" than "good", but the U.S. cut is a screaming disaster, a monster movie so full of miscalculation that it instantly established a reputation for the Godzilla films in the U.S. that they were outrageously campy, so-bad-its-good B-movies of the first order (Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, after all, though certainly no Godzilla, is hardly campy or bad). And it is so bad it's good, one of the most fun awful Godzilla movies of them all. For one thing, it becomes a lot harder not to notice how shitty the visual effects are when there's absolutely nothing pulling focus from them; and the opening even makes things worse, with a terrible spinning planet that looks like a kids' art project. In the first cut, this was a deliberately crappy prop, used to signify a junky TV show; in the U.S. version, this is actually supposed to be the Earth in space, and thus the literal first thing we see is a terrible special effect.

The new story is both a little bit more sensible (it involves the UN as a prime mover, making it less about a quixotic CEO - though Mr. Tako could not be removed entirely), and a lot more unclear in its presentation. The material with Sakurai and Furue makes almost no sense here: reduced to a subplot, they take up far too much time for the little value they contribute, and if you don't know the film's backstory (as I had not, on the two previous occasions that I'd seen the American cut), it seems like willfully random, pointless screenwriting with no focus or point. Just stuffing characters in for the hell of it.

This is hardly as big a problem as the dialogue, which is absolutely mind-blowing. The famous example is Dr. Johnson's sage observation that giant reptiles - a word he unyieldingly pronounces as "rep-till" - and giant apes are instinctual enemies, which is why Kong and Godzilla would rather fight each other than humans (he presumably got this out of the children's picture book that he brings to the news program as a reference text), but it is not lonely in being an absolute howler of a bad line. In fact, despite the overall attempt made to strip the flimsy, light tone out of the film, the attempts to make it serious end up resulting in a far, far funnier American movie than the culturally-specific Japanese comedy it replaced. It's absolutely terrible, but it's too inane to be less than fun.

And in the interest of honesty, I should call out the film for the two things it does right. Or one of them isn't "right", but could have been worse: scrapping Ifukube's score for stock music was a dumb decision, but at least the stock music is well-chosen and fits the mood the new film is trying to craft. By no means is it even close to as effective as the score it's replacing, but if you didn't know that, it's not the kind of thing that would ever be a problem. The other thing, that is genuinely good and smart, is that the monster fight at the end is shortened up a bit, and though it still includes the single worst moment of their battle (Godzilla swinging his tail and hitting a boulder like a baseball), it's not quite as stretched-thin as the equivalent moment in the Japanese cut, and it doesn't feel like quite as big a waste of the monsters' time. It's not much, but it's a little something, and for a film as endlessly defective as this one, the little things need to be praised.

A final note: it was once a piece of conventional wisdom that Godzilla won the fight in the Japanese cut, Kong won in the American cut. This was absolutely never the case, and grew out of a rumor that was born among the fan magazines that were what film culture had instead of an internet back in the day. Ever since the Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla became more readily available on an international scale in the back half of the '90s, this misconception has largely died off, but just in case anybody reading this happens to be laboring under that misconception, I wanted to do my bit for education. The More You Know.