KING KONG VS GODZILLA: The Inevitable Battle

Trans-Pacific smackdown.

Let's face it: King Kong and Godzilla were always going to fight each other.

Two giant monsters from giant global powers a giant ocean away from each other, Kong and Godzilla are icons of American and Japanese cultures. Godzilla is, of course, central to the kaiju genre, but he’s also representative of a larger history of monsters in Japanese folklore. The sheer weirdness of monsters in the Godzilla series reflects the supernatural elements of the culture that spawned them. Many Japanese cryptids come from the sea, like Godzilla, and many are characterised as angry demons with specific agendas, like his foes and allies. Meanwhile, America’s giant monsters tend more towards giant versions of ordinary creatures. You see this in films like Them, the career of Bert I. Gordon, and even films like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, arguably more about tiny things becoming giant than its characters becoming small. The American obsession with scale extends to everything - architecture, food and drink portions, potentially presidential penises - and Kong, a giant gorilla, is no different.

King Kong and Godzilla both tell stories of their respective countries. King Kong mirrors the ugly side of American history: taking life from elsewhere and imprisoning it for profit until it revolts. It demonstrates a particularly American sense of bravado: we can bend the world to our will, and by God, that’s what we’ll do. Godzilla, however, was a direct response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a symbol for the country’s fear of and inextricable ties to nuclear destruction. That he became a beloved icon after his initial villainy reflects Japan’s attempts to understand the horrors that had been visited upon it.

Both characters also represent their respective cinema cultures. Kong is arguably, one of the more enduring and iconic characters in American cinema, bringing audiences to theatres in the ‘30s, ‘70s, and ‘00s, while Godzilla has starred in dozens of films and become shorthand for giant monsters. Kong might not have stayed in the picture as continuously as big G, but each incarnation coincided with significant changes in how motion pictures were made. You can follow the growth of cinema technology in how Kong was realised in each outing, from stop-motion to suits and animatronics to CGI. Conversely, Godzilla’s been a man in a suit all along (discounting the American versions of the character). He’s nothing if not consistent.

When you factor in the history of rivalry between the two countries - especially the fact that Godzilla was invented as a direct response to American bombing - you come to realise just how much subtext there is in a meeting of King Kong and Godzilla.

1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla, then, is more significant as a cultural event than as an actual film. It’s a brief, strange movie, the first of many “versus” movies to jump through ridiculous hoops to match up its principal combatants. This time, it’s the Japanese who come to Skull Island to kidnap King Kong (much larger here than Willis O’Brien’s creation, so that he might pose a credible threat to Godzilla). As novel as it is to see Japanese actors in island blackface instead of white actors, it’s one of the many times the film apes the iconography of the original (continuing into the film, when Kong kidnaps a principal character’s sister and climbs atop the National Diet Building). The final Mount Fuji showdown - in which Kong and Godzilla are pitted against each other in an attempt to force mutual annihilation - plays somewhat tame today, largely made up of Godzilla thumping Kong with his tail. But it’s got enough solid wrestling moves and silly elemental attacks (King Kong gets his power from electricity) that it satisfies our desire to see the icons fight.

Predictably, the version of King Kong vs Godzilla released in the United States differs considerably from that released in Japan. The original script (from an idea by original Kong director Merian C. Cooper that would have seen Kong fight Frankenstein's Monster) was sold by producer John Beck to Godzilla production company Toho in return for the rights to adapt the resultant film for international territories. Scenes got cut, new scenes got shot, and others were moved around to produce the shorter American edit released by Universal. In an attempt to make a cast of Japanese actors more palatable, sequences were added of American UN reporters narrating the movie from a cheapo studio. Like the changes made to the original Godzilla, the American scenes stick out like a sore thumb. Even the ending was changed subtly from the Japanese original: Kong defeats Godzilla in both versions, but the Japanese version leaves an opening for his return, while the American version has Godzilla disappear “without a trace.” 

King Kong vs Godzilla is actually the most successful Godzilla film to date in Japan, selling over 11 million tickets and doing much to kick off the main series of films. It marked a change in tone for the films, which became sillier and sillier in an attempt to court young audiences. Though director Ishiro Honda would later regret making monsters “comical characters,” the move worked, resulting in a lengthy film series that continues being produced to this day.

Now we find ourselves at a curious juncture in the sagas of King Kong and Godzilla. Warner Bros and Legendary are building a shared universe with the two characters, supposedly aiming at facing them off against one another in 2020. It’s a testament to the enduring popularity of both characters that a major studio is engineering another showdown more than fifty years after their first meeting. Even in today’s environment of multi-million-dollar rights disputes, it just seems inevitable.