For last month’s double feature we took a look at the unnaturally small, and now we turn around to look at the unnaturally huge. King Kong and Godzilla, the most iconic giant monsters in movie history, have endured for several generations in pop culture, with more than a few sequels and remakes between them. The original 1933 film King Kong celebrated its eightieth anniversary recently, and the original Godzilla turns sixty next year. The two movies make a natural fit for a joint discussion. In fact, these monsters are already acquainted, having appeared in a Japanese film of which this post is a namesake (although, it should be noted, the Kong of that film is several times bigger than the original, whom I’d estimate is around twenty feet tall, whereas Godzilla stands over 150 feet tall). I haven’t seen that film, and the Godzilla sequels I have seen don’t offer much to chew on, but the original films absolutely do. Both stories involve the title characters being discovered by humans after living in seclusion, then finding their way to large urban centers — the largest city in the world in 1933, New York, and a city well on its way to becoming the largest in 1954, Tokyo. The creatures find that they don’t really fit in there, cause some damage, and get attacked by humans in our machines. Looking back on these movies from 2013, we see something else they have in common: the use of forgotten special effects techniques, specifically stop-motion and rubber monster suits. If it takes some mental time travel not to be distracted by those techniques, trust me when I say that it’s worth the trip.
The contrast between these stories makes for an interesting illustration of the character of the nations from which they sprang. In King Kong we see the United States as an explorer, young and curious about the world. In Godzilla we see Japan as a besieged community, self-reliant and wary of new dangers in the world. These movies were made by people, not nations, so I don’t want to read too much into cultural differences, but there’s no denying the differences in tone. King Kong, after all, is basically an adventure film, a travelogue, but ultimately a tragedy. Godzilla, from beginning to end, is a disaster film. Between two world wars, the United States was taking its first steps toward a leadership role in the world. After the second war, Japan had a national trauma to heal from.
I like both remakes of King Kong. It seems to be a story to which I naturally respond. But yes, the original is the best. It clocks in at 100 minutes in length, compared to the 1976 film at 134 and the 2005 film at 187 (Peter Jackson post-Lord of the Rings). Sure, there is enough dramatic material here to expand on the film’s length, but the original’s economical storytelling and brisk pace remains an excellent model for popcorn cinema. With a premise this silly, it’s best to keep the thing moving, communicating the thematic undercurrents with images and snappy, epigrammatic dialogue. It might take multiple viewings to peel away all the layers of King Kong‘s brilliant script. However, one thing that should be noticed right away is that this a movie about making a movie. Carl Denham, the director character, is very much modeled after Kong‘s director, Merian C. Cooper. So the film can be seen as a self-critical look at the business. When the stage curtain pulls back, revealing the captured Kong to the New York audience, it’s an ironic statement on the failure of film to match the experience of actually “being there.” There is a great deal of intelligence behind every shot in the film — certainly including Willis O’Brien’s meticulous stop-motion animation of Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island. As adventure-fantasy concepts go, I don’t think it’s possible to improve on a giant ape fighting a T-rex.
The original Godzilla is a good film, although its message is fairly obvious. In fact, it’s hardly even a metaphor. The monster does to Tokyo exactly what an atomic bomb would do. Kong, famously, becomes a sympathetic figure: captured, enslaved, tortured (“we knocked some of the fight out of him”), and put on display before escaping into an impenetrable maze of a city and being shot down from the top of its tallest building. Godzilla, on the other hand, is an angel of death and really nothing more. Poisoned by H-bomb radiation, the creature begins attacking ships that approach its underwater home. Understandable enough. But then, completely of its own will, it moves onto dry land. No manmade weapon can even slow it down; presumably, it only returns to the ocean after a while to take a nap. Despite the simplicity of the concept, however, the film contains some stunningly moving moments. After a few quick shots of deserted streets, showing that a particular section of town has been successfully evacuated, the movie cuts to a mother and her children who have not escaped. The movie is free of graphic carnage, but the human toll of Godzilla’s attacks is frequently described. There’s a sorrowful dread about the movie’s ending that sneaks up on you: many of the main characters have made it out of this catastrophe alive, but in stopping one weapon of mass destruction they have only discovered another. Where will it all end?
There is a warning embedded in these two films that I think remains relevant today. Kong and Godzilla are prodigious wonders of creation, one of them formed on a hidden island far from civilization and the other affected in powerful ways by technology. When human beings try to control or subdue them, we fail completely and are left with no alternative but to kill them. Denham, of course, wants to make Kong the show of the century. Dr. Yamane, played by the great Takashi Shimura, hopes to study Godzilla to learn how it has survived the H-bomb, but the rampant and uncontrollable destruction quashes that plan. Even so, Yamane seems to reflect the conscience of the film’s director, Ishirō Honda, in some way. Life being better than death, the use of technology to save lives rather than destroy them is the movie’s fleeting, but ultimately crushed, hope. Kong, meanwhile, falls victim to greed, misunderstanding and fear. Beauty didn’t kill the beast; that explanation is too much of a cop-out for Denham. On the contrary, she took him to the top of the world.