With Kong: Skull Island expanding on a universe developing from 2014’s Godzilla, there is no greater evidence of a desire to be true to the nature of these monsters.
With Kong: Skull Island upon us, we are about to be reintroduced to the first giant monster of the silver screen. King Kong was the original in a long line of monsters too great and too powerful to be of this world. Kong has always been from a bygone era where dinosaurs and worse roamed the Earth and, while later films in what would expand into an entire genre would become more and more derived in science fiction, the first films were routed in facts and the horrifying speculations which those facts implied. If dinosaurs and gigantic apes and mammals had once roamed the Earth, might they still exist in some undiscovered pocket? And how would those pockets figure into an advancing nuclear age?
The original King Kong has been preserved in the National Film Registry since 1991 for the primary reason that since its debut in 1933, it has had a profound affect on every movie ever made afterwards. Produced by Radio Pictures as a movie about a film crew trying to get the perfect shot, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) was whisked away by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) to an uncharted island in the Pacific. Skull Island proves more than the perfect shot and Darrow is captured by the natives of the island and sacrificed to the God of the island, Kong, a 28-foot tall great ape. Rescuing Ann from the prehistoric world beyond the towering gates of the natives, Denham returns to Driscoll with Kong in pursuit. With gas they are able to subdue Kong and in the age of unrepentant show business, they put him on display in New York. Kong escapes in terror, captures Ann once again and climbs to the pinnacle of the Empire State Building. The rest, as they say, was history.
However, the reason for its truest and infinite influence on the movie business was the special effects, which brought Kong himself to life. Willis O’Brien, who had previously worked on the Lost World, shattered every notion of how far you could really push stop-motion filming. From the scene where the men are charged down by a stegosaurus to the classic showdown between Kong and the T-Rex, each frame was so meticulously tended to. This, the puppetry and tricks of the camera which they were able to capitalize on would eventually give us everything we know today, from Ray Harryhausen’s innovations to the CGI of the modern blockbuster. But the good must come with the bad and after the hastily made sequel, Son of Kong came out just 9 months later (that’s weird), King Kong would simply just be re-released and redistributed for almost 30 years.
During that time we would be introduced to another monster of a much larger scope. While this could easily be a reference to the dawn of nuclear armament, we’re trying to stick to movies. And nothing says monster movies and nuclear armament better than Godzilla. Bigger, badder and with worse breath, Godzilla roared into Japanese movie theaters back in 1954. While there are many ways to take Godzilla into account now, the release of the original marked a very dark tone. The 50 foot cross between a T-Rex and a stegosaurus, Godzilla was a living nuclear weapon. A dinosaur made huge by nuclear testing that would irradiate everything that came into its path leaving fire and destruction. Like a dragon, Godzilla can spew a radioactive flame from its mouth and devastate everything. Released just 9 years after the nuclear devastation that would end World War 2 in the Pacific, Godzilla was made with a much clearer message than King Kong and would utilize a drastically different approach towards their special effects.
While Kong’s stop-motion puppetry had become the golden standard in movie making, the original Godzilla had neither the budget nor the time. Relying on miniature sets and men in suits (a tradition that had been kept alive until 2004), Eiji Tsuburaya would demonstrate that even with the bare minimum, a movie of utmost quality could be put together. From here, he would go on to work on the special effects of nearly every major Toho movie release for the following 20 years.
Like its predecessor Kong, Godzilla was the subject of a hasty sequel that would not even be known by its original title abroad for decades. Known around the world in very small circles as Gigantis the Fire Monster, Godzilla Raids Again (1955) would introduce a theme that continues to this day and is the underlying subject of this article: The monster battle! However, this idea was quickly scrapped. It made money but it lacked the integrity of the message entirely. While the idea to keep up with other giant monster and sci-fi films had been given a thumbs up, like King Kong in the United States, Godzilla would be put to rest. Ironically, in their attempt to further the burgeoning kaiju (giant monster) movie industry, Toho had purchased the rights to King Kong himself, which would in turn revive Godzilla.
So in 1962, both Godzilla and King Kong were chosen to give the kaiju battle another try. Scaled to Godzilla’s height and given electrical powers because he was Frankenstein in the original script, King Kong was ready to meet his Japanese nemesis. King Kong Versus Godzilla became a huge success both in Japan, and one year later, abroad. It holds the record to this day as the most theatrically attended Godzilla film during its release and is the first time either monster is in widescreen and in color.
While Kong would be victorious at the conclusion of this film and get his own Toho sequel (King Kong Escapes) in which he faces off against MechaniKong, Godzilla would star in 28 sequels and remakes after this. The inference that homegrown is more reliable is not lost but sadly that has not always been the case for Kong in the United States. While the 1976 remake was a commercial success, it was a critical failure. Worse yet, a sequel was made ten years later (King Kong Lives) in which Kong survived the fall of the ’76 film off of the World Trade Center, gets a heart transplant, has a family and dies in a showdown with the military. It wouldn’t be until 2005 with Peter Jackson’s true-to-heart remake of the original that King Kong would regain much of the integrity that was lost.
Going into a new era of Kong, supported by a new era of Godzilla and kaiju films as a whole, I believe that integrity is what is going to be most sought after by the filmmakers themselves. With Kong: Skull Island expanding on a universe developing from 2014’s Godzilla, there is no greater evidence of a desire to be true to the nature of these monsters. Even further, Shin Gojira, the latest Toho film, introduced a new and profoundly disturbing Godzilla just last year. With Kong: Skull Island, the contenders will be laid bare.
May the true King of the Monsters reign.