This is daunting… what can I say about King Kong vs. Godzilla that hasn’t been said ad nauseum? I’ll strive not to be just the 453rd doofus this week you’ve heard say “actually, the US version doesn’t have a different ending”, but with a work this beloved, this core to the very genre, this may not be novel information or a fresh perspective. I even toyed with the idea of making a case that it’s overhyped, just to be contrarian, but decided that would be disingenuous. The film is wonderful, and its impact immeasurable.
Mothra might have gotten the ball rolling on the lighter, more anything-goes tone for the science fiction oeuvre at Toho, but the studio’s 30th-anniversary celebration runs with it. Even the first shot makes this clear: Panning through space with ominous narration is something you’d expect from one of their SF flicks, but upon revealing that this set-up is just a show the characters are watching on TV, you’re simultaneously hit with a punchline and a revelation that this movie will be much more in line with their salaryman comedies (Ichiro Arishima’s performance as Mr. Tago is particularly deserving of every gif that’s been made of it). This keeps up throughout, including the climatic battle being more of a fun wrestling match than the horrific deathbattle in Godzilla’s previous outing. Mothra set up that it was okay for kaiju to make it through a movie alive, and King Kong vs. Godzilla codified it.
This brings us to the film’s next revolution: It’s a “vs” movie. While not the first ever cinematic universe or crossover (see Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man), it was certainly a shake-up for Toho, leading to the nigh-standardization of monster movies as a title bout (Mothra vs. Godzilla, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Sanda vs. Gaira), which of course continued out of the sixties and into the works produced by other studios as well. It also re-introduced Godzilla for the modern age, after seven years out of the spotlight. It’s hard to imagine, but without this film, there might be no “Godzilla series”, just an awkward duology along the lines of The Amazing Colossal Man; heck, we might have never even known his beam is blue! This film set Godzilla in place as the studio’s headline monster, as its cheif representative when doing business with the foreign agent that is Kong.
That international aspect is another element of King Kong vs. Godzilla that changed the game. Toho’s previous partnerships with Hollywood hadn’t gone that fantastically (e.g. Varan the Unbelievable), but a mash-up of Toho and RKO’s headliners was a sure-fire way of drumming up interest on both sides of the Pacific, and it’s hard to not see this as a factor directly leading to American co-productions like Frankenstein Conquers the World, Invasion of Astro-Monster, War of the Gargantuas, King Kong Escapes, and Latitude Zero (what is it with co-productions and giant octopodi?), and by extension the later Gamera films as well (heck, even You Only Live Twice!). Those movies were produced utilizing western actors, and thus helped nearly end the practice of American companies doing reshoots with their own actors after the film was licensed (well, aside from the later exceptions like Godzilla 1985 and Power Rangers).
That brings up the unfortunate aspect to this being an international co-production: the distribution. It seems like once a week or so, there’s a post on social media asking if we’ll ever get a complete box set of all of the Godzilla films, and we have to give the same disappointing stock answer: no, because Universal has perpetual rights to King Kong vs. Godzilla. To make matters worse, they have perpetual rights to the US version, which inserts awkward American actors, tries to be a non-comedy, and swaps out Ifukube’s music with library stock (notably including Creature from the Black Lagoon). Universal can’t put out a subtitled version without licensing the Japanese cut from Toho (which they have no incentive to do; they have thousands of their own movies that they haven’t released, why license other people’s?), yet other companies can’t license the Japanese cut without getting Universal’s blessing (which they have no incentive to give), so we have a stalemate.
At least Universal takes good care of their prints, so while their Blu Ray is an inferior cut, it looks great. Toho, conversely, destroyed the King Kong vs Godzilla negative for the 1970 Champion Matsuri edition (losing a third of the movie), and as a result home video releases have been a mess ever since, and pretty much every one has been some mix of 35 mm, 16 mm, original negative, and US version sources, with distracting missing frames exacerbating the changes in footage quality. Japan only last year finally got a proper version, rather than a reconstruction, so hopefully this one becomes the new standard and doesn’t get lost or damaged, but it seems the English-speaking world will forever be limited to imports and fansubs if they want to see it… while I don’t watch tokusatsu dubs often, I do wonder if a proper one for this film could raise its esteem in the west? It might be too late for that, though.
So, yeah, if you’ve only seen the American version, I’d implore you to track down the Japanese cut, especially now that we finally have a reasonable transfer (I imagine that anyone reading this would already have the Japanese version, but you never know). Hopefully this was a little helpful in understanding just why this movie is such an instrumental classic. Legendary has pulled off a miracle in clearing things up for a remake in 2020 (there have been numerous attempts in the past), and it has the potential, if the 1962 version is any indication, to spur on something enormous.