BY JOHN BILLINGER
Fun fact: This month marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most influential films of the 1930s. I am, of course, referring to The Invisible Man!
No, just kidding (that particular anniversary is in November). This March marks 90 years since the premiere of the original King Kong. In today’s world, some probably just regard it as just a monster movie, but that hardly scratches the surface of its influence. The film was basically the Star Wars of its day. It inspired many future filmmakers, revolutionized special effects for years to come, was one of the first films with a full soundtrack, saved RKO Studios from bankruptcy, and apparently inspired some Scottish hoaxers to fabricate sightings of a monster in Loch Ness Lake (really).
In honor of the big man’s birthday, we’re going to cover one of his other films. When compared to Godzilla, King Kong doesn’t have as many to choose from, but I think that the film that will be discussed here today is about as weird as some of Godzilla’s films. That film is 1967’s King Kong Escapes.
First, a little background. King Kong Escapes was produced by Toho Studios, the Japanese company best known for the Godzilla series. In 1962, Toho (through the course of a very long, complicated story) got the license from RKO Studios to make their own films involving King Kong until 1968. With this license, they released King Kong vs. Godzilla (we’ll cover that film one of these days). It was a big hit, and Toho immediately greenlit a sequel titled Continuation: King Kong vs. Godzilla, which weirdly never came to fruition. Instead, Toho greenlit more films starring Godzilla, which needless to say, has been going very strong. As for King Kong, Toho still had the license to use him for a few more years, but how?
Enter Rankin-Bass, best known for their stop-motion Christmas specials. Those specials were not the only thing that they produced. They also produced a bunch of other cartoons during the 60s, and among them was a show called The King Kong Show, where King Kong fights a mad scientist named Dr. Who. Arthur Rankin (head of the studio), saw the success that King Kong vs. Godzilla had, and went to Toho with the idea to adapt his King Kong cartoon show to the big screen. Since Toho still had the license to use Kong for a few more years, they agreed.
Toho sent their writers to work, and they came up with a script called Operation Robinson Caruso: King Kong vs. Ebirah. It involved King Kong on a tropical island, fighting a giant shrimp monster named Ebirah (and also fighting Mothra, another Toho monster). When Toho sent the script to Arthur Rankin, he was not pleased, as it included almost none of the elements that were in his cartoon, and told them to try again. Toho, though, liked the original script, and replaced King Kong with Godzilla, and released it in 1966 as Godzilla, Ebirah, Mothra: Big Duel in the South Seas, later released in the States as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (if you watch that film with that mindset that it was originally Kong, a lot of the elements included make sense, such as Godzilla falling in love with a human female).
Eventually, Toho sent Rankin a script titled King Kong’s Counterattack, which included elements from the cartoon, such as Dr. Who and Mechani-Kong, which pleased Rankin, and he greenlit it. The film was made and released in Japan in 1967, and saw a successful release in America under the King Kong Escapes.
The plot for this film is as follows:
U.S. Navy Commander Carl Nelson (played by Rhodes Reason) is on an expedition in the pacific ocean. Along with him for the ride, are Lt. Susan Watson (played by Linda Miller) and Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura (played by Godzilla series regular Akira Takarada). They come across Mondo Island, which legend says is inhabited by a giant ape named King Kong. Sure enough, they come across Kong and a bunch of other prehistoric monsters, and Kong (as in tradition) develops an attraction for blonde Susan Watson.
Meanwhile, in the arctic, there is an evil mad scientist named Dr. Who (played by Hideyo Amamoto) and his benefactor Madam Piranha (played by Bond girl, Mie Hama). They’ve built a giant robot replica of Kong, dubbed Mechani Kong, who they use to mine for the dangerous Element X. Unfortunately, the robot doesn’t work well, so they decided to just nab the original Kong from his island to mine for them instead (because that’ll work). This puts them on a collision course with Nelson and company, and needless to say, there is a big climatic showdown between Kong and his robotic counterpart that is the highlight of the whole show.
Yeah, quite the plot, right?
I think the first thing about this film’s plot that’s obvious, is that it doesn’t follow any previous Kong continuity (despite the fact that the film was called King Kong’s Counterattack in Japan). To be fair, I’ve only seen the English dubbed version, so perhaps in the original Japanese version, there was some reference, but from my research, there wasn’t any reference in that version. The events depicted in this film are the world’s first encounter with the ape.
The plot is also all over the place. At first, the parts with Nelson start out like a loose remake of the original Kong, with them finding the island, encountering Kong, Kong developing an attraction to Susan, Kong fighting with a dinosaur named Gorosaurus (who also appears in the Godzilla series). It all generally hits the same beats.
Then there’s this plotline involving Dr. Who and his giant robot Kong, then it kind of becomes a weird James Bond-type film when Who kidnaps Nelson and friends, and then it ends like a Godzilla film with Kong and the Robot doing battle in Tokyo. It’s insane but really fun. It has this comic-book feel to it. This isn’t the kind of film where you need to think. Just sit back and have a good time, unless you’re like my sister who worships Jane Austen. If that’s the case, then this isn’t for you.
When it comes to judging the actor’s performances, well that’s a bit difficult. Since most of them are dubbed, you can’t really judge the way they originally delivered their lines or acted. I suppose they did a good job, but you can’t tell or take most of them seriously because the lines don’t match the lip movements for most of the characters. I say most of the characters because there’s an element that makes this film different from most other Japanese monster movies.
This film is part of a small circle in this genre that featured American actors in lead roles. Most of these films just featured Japanese actors, but American distributors felt that more people in America would see the films if they starred familiar actors. As a result, you got Nick Adams in Invasion of the Astro-Monster and Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Russ Tamblyn in The War of the Gargantuas, and Rhodes Reason and Linda Miller in this film.
The way they shot these movies with American actors was that when they filmed it, they had the American actors speak their lines in English and the Japanese actors in Japanese (obviously). Then when the film was initially released in Japan, they would dub the English-speaking actors in Japanese. When the film was released in America, they would use the original English voice lines, and then dub the rest of the film.
However, in this particular film, they did a complete redub of the entire film, including the English speaking actors. Of the two main American actors, only Rhodes Reason was brought back to redub his lines. I’d say he did a good job. His voice just screams 1960s, cool american hero. On the other hand, Linda Miller, who loved the voice they gave her in the Japanese version, hated the voice they gave her in the dub, and this was apparently one of the reasons she later quit acting, only appearing in a few more films afterward. Watching the dub, I agree with her. The voice they gave her was really annoying.
Two of the original monsters had a legacy. Gorosaurus later appeared in the Godzilla film Destroy All Monsters, and Mechani-Kong inspired the creation of Mechagodzilla
The monster scenes and special effects are always the real highlights. The film was directed by Godzilla veteran Ishiro Honda and the effects were done by another Godzilla veteran Eiji Tsuburaya. The two men had been working together since the original Godzilla in 1954, and by 1967, the classic era of Godzilla films was at its peak, and this film showcases it. The effects, while some would call silly, are very fun to watch. I’m a practical effect over CGI kind of guy, so seeing these monsters duke it out over a giant city is pretty cool to see, and Mechani Kong is an interesting enough design.
Although, I will say that the Kong suit used in the film looks pretty rough. If you’ve seen 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, the suit is definitely an improvement. The suit from that film looks like they started with a design, but then the suit got run over by a steamroller and ended up looking like Kong was going through drug problems. The Kong suit in this film looks more like Kong just got out of rehab. So it looks better, but he still looks like he’s seen better days.
Overall, King Kong Escapes is a fun enough monster movie. It certainly may not reach the level of the original King Kong, and it might not be the most notable of the other monster movies that Toho has produced, but it still has a comic-book feel to it that makes it enjoyable. In the words of Rhodes Reason in an interview, “It’s just a fun movie.”
Got two side notes today
Side Note #1: The two King Kong films produced by Toho in the 1960s were not the first Kong films made in Japan. There were two unofficial Japanese Kongs in the 1930s. The first was a comedy short released in 1933 that was a parody of the original. The second was released in 1938, and was titled The King Kong That Appeared In Edo, and was made to cash in on the 1938 rerelease of the original.
There’s been some debate about whether or not the titular monster featured in the latter film was a giant ape or not, as in some pictures on the poster it appears he might’ve been human-sized but in other pictures on the poster, he’s a giant. Additionally, an interview with effects man Fuminori Ohashi (who claimed to have worked on this film, and later worked on the original Godzilla) revealed that the monster in this film was “a giant gorilla.” Both of these 1930s Japanese King Kong films are lost today, most likely destroyed during allied bombings during World War II, a fate shared with many pre-1945 Japanese films.
Side note #2: As stated earlier, Bond girl Mie Hama is in this film. I read an article once, claiming that King Kong Escapes was the worst and most embarrassing film a Bond girl ever appeared in. It isn’t. This (https://tigermedianet.com/?p=70569) is the worst and most embarrassing film a Bond girl ever appeared in.