Wednesday 29 September 2010

King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

Director: Inoshiro Honda
Stars: Michael Keith, Harry Holcombe, James Yagi, Tadao Takashima, Keji Sahaka and Ichiro Arishima
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

It's Toho. It's Godzilla. It's presented by John Beck. It stars three Americans. Hang on, what? Well, Godzilla has a strange legacy outside his native country. Gojira, the original 1954 film in a series that ran for half a century, was never officially released outside Japan, so the iconic monster with the atomic breath was first introduced to western audiences through the Americanised version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956. Jewell Enterprises cut the original film severely, dubbed it into English and spliced in newly shot scenes with Canadian actor Raymond Burr. Even with new footage, this version runs 16 minutes shorter than the original, but if you thought that was drastic, John Beck did more to King Kong vs Godzilla. He didn't merely add new footage but also stock footage from The Mysterians. He changed the comic tone, removed most of the character development and replaced the entire score. His film runs 11 minutes shorter than the original.

None of this helped the picture in the slightest but another factor that helps make this the worst Godzilla film for me is that neither lead character really appears as we expect them to. This was the third film for both of them, the first time either was seen in colour or in widescreen, let alone in the same picture, but this effort sits poorly in both series. While the spark for this film began in a concept for a third Kong movie, developed by Willis O'Brien who had animated the original, it had been 29 years since Son of Kong. This picture is really only related by use of the name of King Kong, who is a giant gorilla living on a remote island. It sparked much legal action, not least from Merian Cooper, who had masterminded the original and believed he still owned the rights. It was also seven years since Godzilla had been seen last and he was brought back by Toho only because they wanted to make a Kong movie and he was the most obvious adversary.

In Gojira and its first sequel, Gigantis, the Fire Monster, Godzilla was a force of nature, a dark and fearsome god. There was no perceived good or evil in his character, he simply was, serving as a metaphor for another atomic force of nature that had so devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a decade before. By 1962, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya wanted to broaden the audience for the character, especially to appeal to children, and from this point on throughout the Showa era of Godzilla films which ran until 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, the tone became progressively lighter and the character seen as more and more anthropomorphic. He became an outright hero in the fifth film, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, beginning his service as mascot and saviour of Japan, taking on all comers. This sits uncomfortably between those two ideas, the effects crew shocked at what Tsuburaya wanted, so it becomes neither.

It's hard to imagine exactly what producer John Beck, who drove the development of this picture, truly envisaged. He had bought O'Brien's treatment of King Kong vs Frankenstein, had it turned into a screenplay by George Worthing Yates, now titled King Kong vs Prometheus, then sold it to Toho, who brought in Godzilla and made it as a very Japanese kaiju film framed within a satirical bite at modern commercialism. Yet Beck retained the rights to make his own version of the film, a savvy accomplishment that saw him make some serious money out of the affair. He'd already been paid for the original script but now took the opportunity to spend $15,500 or so to turn the film into a more science fiction oriented affair before selling it to Universal for $200,000. I can only imagine that he aimed to repeat the success of what Jewell Enterprises had done to Gojira with Godzilla, King of the Monsters! However, he had precisely none of their subtlety.

In that film, the reporter played by Raymond Burr appears to interact with the original Japanese cast through clever editing and positioning of body doubles, as if he's right there in the story. It isn't seamless but it's an admirable attempt to extend the picture to include him. In this film, the added actors are spliced in without any real attempt to cover the seams. Michael Keith plays Eric Carter, a United Nations newsman who broadcasts his commentary on unfolding events through the ICS (or International Communications Satellite), external shots of which were taken from The Mysterians. Harry Holcombe, later to become Grandpa in Countrytime Lemonade commercials of the seventies, is Dr Arnold Johnson, an expert from the New York Museum of Natural History. The most amazing thing about this footage is that it didn't seem to annoy anyone the way it annoyed me, this version of the film even making it back to Japan, where these scenes were subtitled.
Surprisingly, the prior history of both creatures is ignored, even though the characters all know their names. How that works, I have no clue, but it's the least of the problems that this film has to deal with. One Japanese character even laughs at the mere idea of a giant monster! Godzilla appears quickly, broken out of a Bering Sea iceberg by a careless UN nuclear sub, the Seahawk. It's there on a scientific mission to check out the ice floes that Japanese fishing fleets report are breaking up, but for some reason it's run by morons. Seeing an iceberg glowing with an atomic light, it dives and promptly sails straight into it, to its doom. 'Oh great!' cries the captain, before ordering a mayday signal to be fired that looks like the contents of the head. A rescue helicopter locates this yellow stain just in time for the iceberg to split open in front of them. On seeing the unknown, unnamed monster that emerges, the cringing Liam Neeson lookalike cries, 'Godzilla!'

'The world is stunned to discover that prehistoric creatures exist in the twentieth century.' says Eric Carter, who also knows that it's called Godzilla, and he introduces Dr Johnson to explain the phenomenon by pointing at pictures in a children's book on dinosaurs. With Godzilla apparently heading straight for the Japanese mainland, we're treated to a rather confusing response from Dr Shigazawa, who has been meeting with the chiefs of staff. 'A national emergency may exist,' he tells the press, but if they don't destroy Godzilla he'll destroy everyone. So is that good or bad? I don't think we really care, because now, fourteen minutes into the film, we're treated to the best scene, exactly what we're here to see. It's an entire Arctic military base built in miniature by Eiji Tsubaraya and his effects crew, full of buildings and defence installations for Godzilla to stomp on and thrash to pieces with his tail and remote control tanks for him to melt. It's over too soon.

It takes a lot longer for us to be introduced to King Kong, though he does get more of a build up, as befits the real intended star of the show. After all, the film's title is King Kong vs Godzilla, not the other way around, though when Toho planned to remake the film in 1992 to commemorate their 60th anniversary, it would have been Godzilla vs King Kong. He's on the island of Faro, in the Solomons, though initially he's just an unnamed mountain tall god whom nobody has seen except the natives. Dr Akira Makino, a Japanese scientist on a field trip to the island, was first to hear about him, but he was more interested with the red berries called soma that he discovered there, berries that provide a non-addictive narcotic effect. It's only when Mr Tako, head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, wants to boost his TV ratings that the giant god becomes the focus, and he sends a couple of men to catch it. 'Find me a genuine monster, if he exists or not!' he orders.

Unfortunately this otherwise admirable buildup only serves to provide us with a knockoff version of Skull Island. Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue, the men Mr Tako sends to Faro, find a scene politically incorrect enough to have fit in thirties Hollywood and promptly make it worse. Having seen far too many white actors from that era in blackface or yellowface, it's surprising to see the opposite: Japanese actors in brownface. They're less overtly wrong and more surreal, ending up of no particular race in particular. Obviously oriental, they dance exotic dances in coconut bras around Tiki statues, as you might expect for the Pacific, but have very African looking spears and shields. The town cryer sounds like Tarzan. Into this bizarre mix walk Tako's men and their wild guide. The chief doesn't want them to stay so they turn on a transistor radio with reception good enough to pick up a Japanese station and hand out cigarettes to everyone including the children!

Well, this was originally a take on commercialism, though the American version cuts most of that out. Most of what's left centres around Mr Tako, who looks more and more like a Japanese Hitler as time goes by. He has no moral compass but has a one track mind that never shifts away from the fortunes of his company. He's sick of Godzilla, not because he's heading inexorably for Tokyo to stomp, maim and destroy, but because he's frustrating his attempts to improve his TV ratings with his own monster, one he hasn't even found yet. His men on the island are far more human, through characters drawn with a little more depth than the cartoonish Mr Tako, but it's still hard to get emotionally behind someone who gives cigarettes to kids. 'It's OK, they're all smoking,' says Sakurai, but then he admits that they're just 'ignorant primitive savages.' It's only when Kong roars in the distance that he begins to take them seriously.
We still don't meet Kong quite yet though because we have a metaphor to see come to life first. This rag on commercialism most obviously plays with an octopus metaphor through the name of Mr Tako, which means 'octopus' in Japanese. It isn't hard to imagine his tentacles reaching out in all directions to become as commonplace as the company names on Tokyo buildings later in the movie. Here on Faro, the first monster we see is a real octopus, one that raids the native village for the barrels of soma that they brew up. In an interesting touch, the octopus we see isn't a man in a rubber suit but a real creature placed onto a miniature set just as we saw in The Giant Gila Monster. Apparently there were four octopi used in these scenes, with octopus wranglers blowing hot air on them to direct their motion, along with two plastic models for fights once Kong finally shows up and saves his village. Three were released and Tsubaraya had the fourth for dinner.

It's also notable that one shot of the octopus was done with stop motion animation, the aim of the project back when it was only a script treatment put together by Willis O'Brien, the original master of that process. The cost of producing all the effects this way is the main reason it wasn't done, but director Ishiro Honda toyed with the idea during pre-production anyway. There are two examples visible in the film: the first when the octopus snatches up a native, the second during the final battle scene between Godzilla and Kong. Neither are particularly well done. Yet in their place, we get a Kong who looks like a retarded children's character. He takes 35 minutes to show up but then all of three to destroy the fence keeping him from the village, defeat the octopus, get high on soma and fall sound asleep. One native dance later and he's on a raft being carried back to Japan. To suggest that this is underwhelming is an understatement. Go! Go! Godzilla!

The scenes on the island do have some charm, partly because I'm always a sucker for exotica, especially when it's led by Akemi Nagishi, a sensual Japanese actress in a conservative era, who may be best known in the west for this role but in the east for serious work for Akira Kurosawa. It never fails to amaze me that Japanese actors could alternate B movie shlock with A list art on a regular basis without it even being notable. Nagishi kicked off her career in Josef von Sternberg's final film, Anatahan, and was memorable for Kurosawa in The Lower Depths and Red Beard, yet also starred in movies like Electric Medusa, Sex and Fury and Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. There's some insane dialogue to raise the stakes, like this magic exchange that makes the wild utterly routine: 'What's the matter?' 'Giant octopus.' 'What?' 'He's after the berry juice. Hurry!' Mostly they're a few mildly interesting scenes that we look back at wistfully as it all gets worse.

There are subplots but they're mangled by being mostly removed for the American version. We do end up with a beauty for our beast, future Bond girl Mie Hama (though Nagishi outshines her as both a beauty and an actress), but we lose her character development and connection to the rest of the film. We do get scenes with each monster separately, though there's a dearth of the miniature shots that I love so much in kaiju movies. Instead we get lots of electric wires and a pit full of flaming gasoline. We get plenty of Kenji Sahara and Jun Tazaki, future regulars of the series with twelve and five appearances respectively, but not in huge roles this time out. Sahara is mostly cut out of the American version, though he did come up with the magic wire that's both insanely strong and unable to cut through anything. Tazaki is Gen Masami Shinzo, who looks like a Japanese Clark Gable and is tasked with mounting defences against the monsters.
Of course, we really aren't here to see characters build and plots develop. We're here to watch two giant monsters go head to head and whale the crap out of each other, especially in the first Godzilla film to have a title that serves as billing for that fight. Dr Johnson notes early on that it's interesting scientifically that both Kong and Godzilla have reappeared at the same time, though of course it's sheer coincidence. He also explains that they're probably old enemies who can sense each other and are just itching to get back at it, even though one has been enjoying soma on a tropical island and the other has been frozen inside an iceberg since prehistoric times. They get two fights together, the first of which is utterly disappointing, because Kong quickly retreats when the atomic breath of his opponent scorches his fur. It can't smell pleasant when a monster gorilla is set on fire! The second is much more like it but it only goes so far to recover the film.

It starts well enough, with Kong sent to sleep by soma being exploded above his head, attached to helium balloons using Kazuo Fujita's magic wire and then dumped almost on top of Godzilla somewhere out in the wilds. Of course I'm not sure how two guys could get a knocked out Kong off an island and onto a raft back on Faro Island when it takes the whole Japanese army to take care of him in Tokyo but hey, we're heading into the main event so consistency be damned. The two men in the suits, Shoichi Hirose inside Kong and Haruo Nakajima inside Godzilla, were given free rein to handle their choreography. They included moves from professional wrestling as well as judo and more traditional animal actions, and they do a fair job. Unfortunately the script also had inspiration from professional wrestling, effectively introducing an illegal foreign object in the form of a convenient electrical storm to turn the tide of a very one sided bout.

When I first watched this film, years ago as a kid, I always saw it as a Godzilla movie. After all he was the star, right? He certainly appears to be in the film, trouncing Kong as solidly as any of the many other giant monsters he went toe to toe with in other movies. Sure, Kong manages a few good moves but he's quickly down and Godzilla just pounds on him with his tail. It's almost a no contest. Yet this was really a King Kong movie, Kong being far more popular in Japan at the time than Godzilla was, and sure enough he wins in the end, though what we see is less a victory for Kong and more a victory for coincidence, as he apparently gains strength from electricity. Most of the tectonic violence at the end of the film, these two behemoths understandably starting an earthquake, isn't in the original but spliced in from The Mysterians. To me, it's one of the lesser battles in Godzilla's career, certainly not up to the tag teaming in Destroy All Monsters.

The Japanese flocked to this film though, amazingly making it the most successful Godzilla film ever at the box office. Perhaps they went for Kong and came away with Godzilla. Something had to turn the tide, given that they made another 26 Godzilla movies but only one more with Kong, the dire and unrelated King Kong Escapes in 1967. Some of this surely has to do with the rights situation over the character of Kong, which was a soap opera for a couple of decades, but that hasn't stopped the Japanese before. Whatever the reason, this proved to be the real beginning for Godzilla as a personality. The rubber suit was altered from the previous films in a number of ways and was shown in colour for the first time. The roar we all know and love was first heard here, being the previous roar shifted up in pitch. To me, this is my least favourite Godzilla movie but perhaps an important one that sets the stage for all the glory that was to come.

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