The oddness doesn’t end there. In his later kaiju efforts, Honda opted for a lighter tone, filling films with aliens, space age 1960s designs, and other whimsical elements. King Kong vs. Godzilla is no exception, particularly in a Japanese cut that puts more of an emphasis on satire and the role played by a pharmaceutical company that hopes the discovery of Kong will boost ratings on its flagging nature documentary series in the ensuing monster clash. There’s a large, cringe-inducing stretch involving the Kong-worshipping customs of the fictional Faro Island, whose residents are played by bewigged Japanese actors with darkened skin. When King Kong vs. finally gets to the Kong/Godzilla matchup, it’s far from a memorable fight.
Still, the film became a hit, first in Japan then in the United States, where it played throughout the summer of 1963 in a dubbed version with added footage featuring American actors, much like the original Godzilla. Most newspapers didn’t bother to review the film, though the Oakland Tribune did run an angry letter from a nine-year-old reader named Payne Garrwood Jr. complaining about the lack of coverage, who wrote, on behalf of nine-year-olds everywhere, “We think you should write more about movies such as King Kong vs. Godzilla. Anyway, maybe people besides us nine year olds would be interested in reading more about King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / HBO Max
Garrwood had a point. King Kong vs. Godzilla has lingered in the cultural memory much longer than some of the other films playing Oakland at the time, like A Gathering of Eagles and Gidget Goes to Rome. That doesn’t mean it’s always been remembered correctly. For years, an inaccurate story circulated that Kong won the battle in the English-language version but lost to Godzilla in the original cut. In fact, they battle to something like an anti-climactic draw in both versions, with Kong swimming back to Faro Island and Godzilla disappearing beneath the surface of the ocean, where only a fool would presume him dead.
From there, Kong and Godzilla went their separate ways. Kong hung around Japan for a bit via the unrelated Honda-directed 1967 film King Kong Escapes, in which he fights a robotic version of himself created by an evil scientist. (Not done mining O’Brien’s original idea for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho also recruited Honda to direct Frankenstein Conquers the World in 1965, which featured a giant monster spawned by the heart of Dr. Frankenstein’s original creation.) Godzilla moved on to fighting other monsters, until the original series wound down in 1975 with the Honda-directed Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Both Kong and Godzilla have been revived in various forms in the years that followed, but have never met for a rematch until now. But their current conflict has felt inevitable ever since Legendary Entertainment acquired the rights to both characters. Whether the resulting film, directed by Adam Winged, will improve on the extremely OK 2014 Godzilla revival or the less-than-OK Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Kong: Skull Island remains to be seen. That almost seems secondary to the film’s success, however. In 2021 as in 1962, just the promise of seeing these icons duke it out will likely prove a good enough draw.
There may now be fewer and fewer stars figuratively big enough to open a movie, but some remain literally big enough. In some ways, the original King Kong vs. Godzilla anticipated our current moment, when recognizable intellectual property has become the main attraction of blockbusters films, with all other elements becoming secondary. A premise once dismissed as nonsense for nine-year-olds now serves as the backbone of the biggest movie around. Somewhere, Payne Garrwood Jr. must be smiling.