Godzilla v King Kong
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The origins of King Kong and Godzilla's epic brawl

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Mar 29, 2021, 2:14 PM EDT (Updated)

For the past seven years, Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse series has been teasing a fight between the world's two most famous monsters. The post-credits epilogue for Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island (2017) presented a montage of cave paintings depicting a number of giant creatures, and climaxed with the off-screen bellow of Godzilla, who had been reintroduced to American audiences by director Gareth Edwards in 2014. 

Now, on May 31, Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong, the latest chapter in the MonsterVerse, is set to premiere in North American theaters and stream on HBO Max. Most exciting to monster movie fans is that this new film is something of a rematch. This is not the first time Godzilla and Kong have clashed on the big screen.

In 1962, Toho, the Japanese film company behind the classic Godzilla series, pit their famous monster against King Kong. Director Ishiro Honda mixed the kaiju spectacle with a satire on rampant commercialism, and the result was a widescreen color extravaganza that struck international gold. King Kong vs. Godzilla sold 11.2 million tickets on initial release (the highest attended of the Japanese Godzilla movies) before being extensively re-edited for U.S. audiences in 1963. Supervised by producer John Beck, the film’s American version cut down on the satire and replaced much of composer Akira Ifukube’s score with stock music. Less compelling than its Japanese counterpart, the U.S. re-edit of King Kong vs. Godzilla was nonetheless a hit in western markets.

Honda’s version went unreleased in the west until 2019, when it was included as part of the Criterion Collection’s Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975 Blu-ray set. Nowadays, fans outside of Japan can more readily experience King Kong vs. Godzilla the way its creators intended. And in anticipation of the new movie, SYFY WIRE looks back on how the original King Kong vs. Godzilla came to fruition. The idea of making a film with Japan’s most famous monster and America’s most famous monster would seem like a no-brainer today; so it is a tad amusing to remember the ‘62 film actually began as an entirely different project. One with no Japanese involvement and Kong in battle with another monster.

In 1958, Willis O’Brien, the head special effects artist behind the original King Kong (1933), proposed a sequel called King Kong vs. Frankenstein. To help sell his idea to producers, he wrote a story outline and drew watercolor storyboards depicting Kong in battle with a massive, gray-skinned humanoid. (In addition to continuing the 1933 film’s story, O’Brien’s project served as a follow-up to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.) According to John LeMay’s book Kong Unmade: The Lost Films of Skull Island, O’Brien pitched that the great ape actually survived his fall from the Empire State Building at the end of the ‘33 film, and was returned to his island. Meanwhile, in an African laboratory, the grandson of Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster of his own by stitching together human body parts. The new, twenty-foot Frankenstein monster (much larger than its Shelleyan predecessor) kills its creator before being brought to San Francisco. Kong is recaptured and transported to the same city, where a fight between the two creatures inevitably breaks out.

Due to uncertainty as to whether Frankenstein was owned by Universal (in fact, they’d only trademarked the makeup worn by Boris Karloff when he played the monster in the early ‘30s), O’Brien wrote a second draft called King Kong vs. the Gingko. (The enemy monster’s new name was formed by rearranging letters in "King Kong.") This draft was largely the same, although Kong’s rival was now a surgical composite of various African animals. Both monsters are put on display in a circus. During the show, an acrobat attempting to cross a tightrope suspended by the Gingko’s outstretched arms falls, and the beast catches her. Kong, believing the Gingko to be attacking the girl, breaks free of his cage, and a battle ensues. The story climaxed with the beasts falling off the Golden Gate Bridge.

O’Brien presented King Kong vs. the Gingko to Daniel O’Shea of RKO Radio Pictures (the studio which produced the original King Kong) with the hope that, should a movie get off the ground, he could helm the special effects himself. He was then introduced to the earlier mentioned producer John Beck and the story turned over to screenwriter George Worthing Yates. Yates—whose sci-fi credits include Them! (1953) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1958)—changed the title to Frankenstein vs. Prometheus and added a subplot wherein Frankenstein’s grandson plans to build an army of radio-controlled monsters. In this third draft, the Prometheus monster is revealed to be unusually intelligent: feigning obedience to its creator before turning on him when the opportunity to escape presents itself.

Working with O’Brien’s storyboards and the King Kong vs. Prometheus script, Beck shopped the project to various Hollywood studios. When none expressed interest, he pitched it to film companies in Italy before finding a backer at Toho. By this time, in the early 1960s, the Japanese studio had been enjoying a winning streak with giant monsters—beginning with Godzilla in 1954—and was eager to make their own version of King Kong. Tossing out Yates’s script and replacing the enemy monster with Godzilla, director Honda and writer Shinichi Sekizawa changed the straight-forward monster-versus-monster story into a lighthearted sci-fi romp that poked fun at television ratings wars (a phenomenon prevalent in early-‘60s Japan). In the finished movie, Kong is brought to Japan by a TV producer determined to steal ratings from his competitors and the spotlight from Godzilla as he ravages the country.

Although King Kong vs. Godzilla was a success around the world, making the picture came with some setbacks. In a 1996 interview with film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, actor Yu Fujiki recalled that the fee to use Kong ($220,000) made it necessary to cut back on Honda’s location shooting plans. “We planned to shoot the film on location in Sri Lanka, but because of RKO’s guarantee, we couldn’t afford to let Kong leave Japan! […] King Kong took all the money!” The picture’s island sequences were instead filmed off the coast of Tokyo, and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects were visibly hampered by the budget cuts. King Kong vs. Godzilla also marked the beginning of the goofier, more anthropomorphized depiction of Japanese movie monsters, which Honda remained disdainful of as the Godzilla series progressed. In the biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film from Godzilla, to Kurosawa, the director is quoted saying, “[T]he fact that [the studio] decided to make Godzilla act like a human, it was not a good decision.... This showed off the fact that it was a man in a suit. Bad idea.”

However, the person who ended up suffering the most was Willis O’Brien. Despite the hard work extending back to 1958, his project had been essentially stolen by John Beck, who left him in the dark while brokering the deal overseas. O’Brien wouldn’t learn about King Kong vs. Godzilla’s existence until he read about it in the trade papers. With the final movie being developed by a foreign studio, he would no longer be able to realize the special effects as he’d hoped. He remained uncredited (and unpaid) for his work; and his storyboards, taken to Japan by John Beck when shopping the idea to Toho, were never returned. In Steven Archer’s book Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius, O’Brien’s nephew recalled his uncle filing a lawsuit (possibly against Beck), but the case was ultimately dropped.

Willis O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962, several months before King Kong vs. Godzilla came to the United States. Given that he had painstakingly realized the stop-motion visual effects for the original King Kong, it is unlikely he would've been impressed with the Japanese film's extensive use of stuntmen in rubber monster costumes.

But it was because of O'Brien's imagination and his desire to return Kong to the silver screen that this monster movie hit became a reality and, consequently, a pop culture icon. While often dismissed by western critics, the original King Kong vs. Godzilla is one of the most famous cinematic clashes in sci-fi. In addition to the impressive box office earnings (the picture has been re-released several times in its home country), it has been written about extensively in cinema studies, spoofed by shows such as The Simpsons, included as a topic in board games such as Trivial Pursuit, and imbued with a lore of its own. (This includes the often repeated but untrue claim that the picture had two endings—one in which Godzilla won, one in which Kong won). It is unlikely any of this would've occured without O'Brien. And in that sense, Godzilla and Kong's upcoming second duel—complete with a big budget and modern special effects—is the latest chapter in the phenomenon started by this special effects visionary.