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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Keith’

I appear to have exhausted my supply of Heisei era Godzilla movies, which is a shame, as the ones I’d managed to find were mostly fun and interesting. Never mind. Let us now skip back in time 30 years or so, and leave the world of mostly credible, seriously-intentioned films, for that of… King Kong Vs Godzilla, a 1962 film from Ishiro Honda.

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This is one of the very early Godzilla movies (the first to be made in colour) and subject to one of the curious conventions of the period: not only was it decreed that Western audience would not be interested in seeing subtitled films (hence the rather variable dubbing which plagues many suitamation films to this day), but they would likewise be left completely cold by a film entirely populated by Japanese characters. Hence the bizarre phenomenon of the ‘American edit’, in which a Japanese film would be recut and have new footage added for its Stateside release. This happened to the original Godzilla, inserting Raymond Burr into the action – also to The Return of Godzilla in 1984. It’s a fairly central, not to mention crashingly obvious feature of King Kong Vs Godzilla.

The film opens with a rapidly-spinning globe and a voice-over intoning the ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…’ speech from Hamlet. You have to admire the sheer brass neck of opening a film called King Kong Vs Godzilla with a quote from Shakespeare, but the fun is just getting underway.

Most films have a protagonist. King Kong Vs Godzilla is no different, but it also has an anchorman: Eric Carter (played with an admirably straight face by Michael Keith), a news reporter who hosts the film from a studio. Every few minutes Eric Carter pops up to recap the action and comment on what’s going on, sometimes accompanied by his panel of fellow reporters and experts. (The actors in this scene are not being dubbed, which explains why their pronunciation of Japanese place-names is wildly different – and often better – than that of the Japanese characters in the film proper.)

It sounds like an incredibly clunky and primitive narrative device, and it is, but somehow it just adds to the fun of what is undeniably a very entertaining film. Anyway, as the film opens the Baring Sea is becoming clogged with icebergs due to an unexplained heat-source in the area, and a submarine is sent to investigate. The sub discovers an iceberg glowing with Cherenkov radiation, and, sure enough, Godzilla erupts from inside, destroying the sub in the process.

(The implication, for Japanese audiences at least, is that this is the same Godzilla who was buried in ice at the end of Godzilla Raids Again, but Carter and his colleagues talk as if Godzilla has been stuck in the ice for millions of years – despite the fact everyone already knows who he is. But then worrying about that sort of thing definitely qualifies as taking this film too seriously.)

Meanwhile, two employees of a big Japanese corporation (as usual, the boss is a tool, but played very much for laughs this time) have been sent to a remote island in search of narcotic berries and a mysterious monster reputed to haunt the mountains there. There is one scene in particular which is almost uncanny in its total incorrectness: the two men arrive (in pith helmets), to be greeted by a host of Japanese actors in blackface makeup. They proceed to buy the favour of the natives by handing out cigarettes to every man, woman, and child.

Back in the studio, Carter has been joined by Dr Arnold Johnson (Harry Holcombe), who purports to be an expert on prehistoric life, but actually appears to be some sort of escaped lunatic given his contribution to the discussion. Dr Johnson suggests that Godzilla is a tyrannosaur-stegosaur crossbreed, who is homing on Japan as it is his ancestral stomping ground. Carter does not have him thrown off the programme, remarkably enough.

Anyway, Godzilla carries out a bit of preliminary destroying in Hokkaido (horribly mispronounced in the dubbing), just to keep his hand in, while back on the island the two salarimen, Sakurai and Kinsaburo, are still looking for the monster. They are a bit distracted when a giant land-octopus attacks the village where they are staying, but this turns out to be a blessing in disguise as it turns out their quarry, King Kong, has a craving for takoyaki and turns up to fight the octopus (apparently special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya was feeling peckish too, as he ate one of the stunt octopuses once the scene was in the can).

As fate would have it, Kong is thirsty after fighting the octopus and drinks some of the narcotic berry juice, knocking himself out. This gives Sakurai and Kinsaburo just the opportunity they need to tie him up and claim him for their corporation. However, the Japanese government feel one giant monster on the loose in the country is enough and refuse King Kong an entry visa. He ends up destroying the rather rickety-looking raft he is being transported on and swims to Japan anyway. The prospect of a clash of titans looms large, which Dr Johnson finds ‘scientifically interesting’. Everyone else starts thinking of a way to keep Kong and Godzilla apart until the last ten minutes of the film…

The appeal of most of the Godzilla series, for me, is that while the films routinely deal with outrageous ideas and feature preposterous plotting, they are generally made with quite a straight face: there are certainly moments of broad comic relief, but as far as the monsters are concerned they are treated seriously. This is especially true of the two black and white movies from the 50s – Godzilla Raids Again may feature the first in a seemingly-endless series of monster tussles, but it concludes with Godzilla ripping Anguillas’ throat out and setting fire to his corpse, while the rest of the movie is a dour family saga about fish packing.

To go from this to King Kong Vs Godzilla is therefore a bit of a shock. The inserted American scenes with Carter and Johnson may be ludicrous, but they’re played much, much straighter than many of the Japanese scenes. Much of the original King Kong Vs Godzilla is actually pitched as a comedy adventure, very light-hearted in tone, with extremely broad comic performances (Ichiro Arishima as the boss would struggle to get into a late-period Carry On film, his mugging is so outrageously OTT). A lot of this has apparently been cut for the US edit in a vain attempt to turn this into a more straightforward monster movie, but the comedy runs too deep for this to be successful.

Perhaps this is why it feels vaguely dissatisfactory as a vehicle for King Kong in particular. The fact that the ape suit is rather dismal is a contributing factor, too, but above all one just gets a very strong sense that Kong is slumming it by appearing in this sort of film. The sight of Godzilla participating in a ridiculous film is quite a familiar one – it’s much less the case with the big ape.

There’s also the fact that doing King Kong via suitamation just doesn’t feel right, especially suitamation this primitive (people complaining about the Kong ’76 suit should watch this film and then shut their mouths). Apparently there were plans at one point to realise both Kong and Godzilla via stop-motion animation, which might well have changed the course of genre history, but of course the money wasn’t there. There is a brief flash of stop-frame animation during the octopus fight, and some genuine cel animation later on, but that’s all.

The climactic tussle between Kong and Godzilla is good fun, I suppose, even if the script has to resort to ludicrous contrivances to make it a fair fight – to counter Godzilla’s nuclear breath, Kong magically acquires the ability to supercharge himself by absorbing electricity. But it’s still entirely lacking in the grandiosity and sense of moment which – all joking apart – an encounter between the two biggest monsters in movie history should surely have had. You can kind of see why Toho decided to pitch this movie to the broadest possible audience, and they certainly reaped the financial rewards of that decision, but – certainly in terms of the majority of the Godzilla series – this film is a very peculiar anomaly, an exercise in intentional camp. But it is highly entertaining to watch, if perhaps not always in the way the makers intended.

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