The King of Monsters is back! After a seven year furlough following the less than stellar box office returns of Godzilla Raids Again, Toho resurrected their most popular monster in 1962 as part of a celebration of the company's 30th year anniversary, even managing to bring King Kong - the only monster potentially more popular than Godzilla - along for the ride. Unfortunately, what sounded like an exciting idea in theory does not work as well in practice and King Kong vs. Godzilla stands as a testament to the old saying that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
Although the film itself is something of a disappointment (more on that shortly), King Kong vs. Godzilla's production does provide an interesting story in of itself. The movie actually began as an entirely different project, proposed by Willis O'Brien, the chief animator for the original King Kong. After his career took a downturn following the production of Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien, increasingly overshadowed by his protege Ray Harryhausen, hoped to reignite some of the prior interest in his work by revisiting his most famous creation. With this in mind, O'Brien produced a script proposal for King Kong vs. Frankenstein and began to shop it around, before grabbing the interest of producer John Beck, who hired George Worthing Yates to flesh the script out.
After obtaining the rights to O'Brien's idea, Beck began to approach several studios with the idea of producing the film. The estimated costs deterred most studios from greenlighting the film but when Toho, who had long desired the rights to make a King Kong movie, caught word of O'Brien's project they offered to foot the bill. After some rights' wrangling with Merian C. Cooper (part of a greater dispute over King Kong which would not be resolved until the 1980s), Toho and Beck went into production together.
As the film's chief financiers and producers, Toho quickly obtained effectual control over its production and decided to dump Frankenstein's monster for their own proprietary beast, Godzilla (though they'd retain the idea of using Frankenstein's monster for a later film). Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, both immense fans of the original King Kong, leaped at the chance to get involved and were quickly signed as director and special effects supervisor.
Shinichi Sekizawa was hired to flesh out and revise the original script by George Worthing Yates, implementing the light and comedic tone he'd later become known for. Tsuburaya was supportive of the change and deliberately increased the campiness of several effects sequences. However, Honda was reportedly unhappy with this move and fought against it, later telling an interviewer that he didn't believe "a monster should ever be a comical character" and that people are more entertained when a monster is frightening than when it is funny. Ultimately, Honda lost that battle as well as his attempt to implement stop-motion effects similar to the original King Kong, which proved too expensive. These problems (and others which plagued the production) may go a long way to explain why the film didn't work as well as it might have.
The film opens with the intro of an in-universe television show, sponsored by the company Pacific Pharmaceuticals. The show, a kind of Bill Nye the Science Guy (or Watch Mr. Wizard) style production, has suffered continuously declining ratings, which agitates the company's president, Mr. Tako (we never learn his given name), who believes the show's unpopularity is hurting the company's bottom-line. It is this which motivates Tako to seize upon rumors of a giant monster on the distant Faro Island, located in the Malay Archipelago, and send two of his employees, Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue, on a mission to capture the monster in a massive (and very risky) publicity stunt.
Anyone who's familiar with the original King Kong (or, for that matter, Peter Jackson's remake) will immediately recognize some similarities between that film's plot and this one's. Mr. Tako is an analog to the reckless Carl Denham, Faro Island is a stand-in for Skull Island, Fumiko Sakurai is a Japanese Ann Darrow, etc. These shout-outs are actually, in some ways, a problem: the desire to pay tribute to the original film sometimes interferes with King Kong vs. Godzilla's ability to tell its own story. In particular the Godzilla and King Kong narrative threads feel at odds with one another and there is a distinct feeling that they only coexist in order to set up the film's climax. While this is undoubtedly true, later crossovers (like Mothra vs. Godzilla) disguised this better and it does not serve King Kong vs. Godzilla well to be so transparent.
Speaking of the King of Monsters, we get our first glimpse of him not long after. While Sakurai and Furue head south, our attention turns north, where the USS Seahawk, an American nuclear submarine, runs into an iceberg. By unhappy coincidence this iceberg happens to have originated from the island upon which Godzilla was trapped some seven years earlier and the accident frees the monster from his prison. His time on ice has not improved Godzilla's mood and he destroys the submarine (perhaps feasting on its fuel the way he would in later films) before proceeding onward towards a nearby military base and wrecking it as well.
The media becomes consumed with interest in Godzilla's return, which infuriates Tako, who has not yet heard back from his team on Faro Island. We quickly learn, however, that Sakurai and Furue are hard at work and have managed to convince the island's natives to let them capture King Kong, largely through offering them modern consumer goods like cigarettes and photographs. After some time waiting with the natives, Sakurai and Furue are finally introduced to King Kong, who arrives just in time to save the village from a giant octopus. Drugging the monster with psychoactive berries, Sakurai and Furue fasten King Kong to an enormous raft and prepare to return him to Japan, much to Tako's delight.
Considering how close this film's production was to Mothra's this is more than a little striking: both films feature greedy industrialists seeking to exploit a cryptozoological find for money and fame as well as an island full of inhabitants who worship giant monsters. However, while Mothra treats its subject as a morality play and portrays Infant Island's natives as aggrieved victims of the modern world King Kong vs. Godzilla plays the situation for laughs and the inhabitants of Faro Island are, at best, naive. In some ways its better than the original King Kong's depiction of Skull Island's inhabitants as bloodthirsty savages, but it's still a downgrade from the more sympathetic picture painted by Mothra.
The JSDF, which is already occupied fighting Godzilla, is not the least bit amused by Pacific Pharmaceuticals' attempt to import another monster into Japan and intercepts the company's ship in order to board it and turn it back. Unfortunately for them, King Kong wakes from his slumber whilst they are busy doing so and escapes from his constraints in order to swim to the shore. It is not long after this that King Kong and Godzilla first meet, although the initial battle goes poorly for Kong, and the two monsters soon part company, only to reunite for the final climax.
It is sad to say that all of this feels very incoherent and more than a little uninteresting. The Godzilla segments of the film are far more serious than those focused on King Kong and as previously mentioned the two plots seem to intersect more coincidentally than dramatically. The special effects aren't particularly good either, even by the standards of the time: the King Kong suit looks remarkably unimpressive considering the prevalence of much more convincing gorilla suits and the giant octopus battle is extremely unconvincing. The battle sequences are at least competently choreographed and performed, even if they are a bit cheesy, and they're probably the highlight of the film, but they're also surprisingly sparse. The only strong positive in favor of the film is the soundtrack by Akira Ifukube, which is a vast improvement over Godzilla Raids Again and features for the first time some of Godzilla's more iconic themes as well as a pretty good track for King Kong. Unfortunately, the U.S. dub removed even that from the film.
There's a lot of reasons King Kong vs. Godzilla doesn't work. As I mentioned earlier, the film's insistence on being a tribute to and remake of the original King Kong works against its purpose as a crossover film, since it makes Godzilla's presence incidental and the film's climax an odd (if pleasant) distraction from the film's main plot. It doesn't help either that none of the characters are particularly interesting or sympathetic: Mr. Tako and his employees have an entirely self-interested (and completely idiotic) goal, which was deconstructed just one year earlier in Mothra, none of the JSDF characters stick out as memorable, and Fumiko is presented as bizarrely apathetic to the monster action unfolding around her (that is, until King Kong abducts her). All in all, you don't really get a feel as to why you should care about what happens to any of them.
Despite the film's problems King Kong vs. Godzilla was a big success at the box office and revitalized interest in both monsters. Godzilla would return just two years later to face another monster, this time Mothra, and King Kong would himself appear in one more Toho production, 1967's King Kong Escapes, before the rights to the character slipped outside of the company's grasp. The film's success would also encourage further co-productions between Toho and Western companies. O'Brien's King Kong vs. Frankenstein project would be used again as the basis for a Toho production in 1965, with Frankenstein Conquers the World, which would even feature a Western actor as one of its main characters. For those reasons alone it's fair to say that King Kong vs. Godzilla remains an important part of Toho canon, even if it is one of the company's weaker productions.