Monster Movie Mondays looks at King Kong Escapes…
In the early 1960s, Toho struck a deal with American producer John Beck (who was representing Willis O’Brian) to make a movie based on the King Kong character which would end up being 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. The film was one of the most successful entries in the Godzilla franchise and is a beloved movie by fans of the King of the Monsters. Toho were keen to produce another Kong movie while they still had the rights and the character was set to star in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep only to be replaced with Godzilla as the movie rolled into production. He would return to screens though in the 1967 movie, King Kong Escapes.
King Kong Escapes brought together the most influential elements from the early Godzilla movies with Ishiro Honda in the director’s chair, Akira Ifukube scoring, Tomoyuki Tanaka producing, Eiji Tsuburaya providing the special effects and Haruo Nakajima doing the suit-acting as Kong. The idea of the movie was to pit King Kong against a mechanical version of himself, something that would happen to Godzilla a few years later in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.
Since the movie’s release, there have been several claims that King Kong Escapes was a sequel to King Kong vs. Godzilla, but the movie is actually a live-action version of The King Kong Show, an animated series which was also put out by Rankin Bass Productions. The Bond family in the show are replaced by a submarine team including Commander Carl Nelson (an homage to A Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), the beautiful Susan Watson (model Linda Miller) and Jiro Nomura (kaiju movie legend Akira Takarada). The movie does however feature a big screen version of one of the show’s recurring antagonists Dr. Who, which is not a reference to the BBC TV show which had started broadcasting a few years earlier. This Dr. Who is instead a combination of James Bond villains Dr. No and Blofeld as the movie played with the then-popular spy genre.
But even with a good cast and great suitmation work from Nakajima and Yû Sekida (who would later play Godzilla in Son of Godzilla), King Kong Escapes just doesn’t live up to the reputation of those putting it together. As a piece of 60s spy-fluff King Kong Escapes is rather enjoyable, but it doesn’t hold up very well with some of its effects looking more dated than the 1933 original.
Like British monster movie Konga, one of the biggest sticking points of bad effects is Kong holding Linda Miller in his hand. In close-ups, Miller is superimposed into his hand with not brilliant technique and in wider shots of Nakajima in the suit, he is clearly holding a lifeless doll that doesn’t move. As with Toho-produced kaiju movies like Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan, the miniature work is brilliant and this is again on show with King Kong Escapes, but they really struggle with monsters interacting with humans – which is quite important for a King Kong movie.
But everyone gives it their all. Even Rhodes Reason, who called the film “kind of lousy” (he only accepted the movie as it contained a free trip to Japan), really puts 100% effort as Carl Nelson and Hideyo Amamoto, who had starred in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, is joyfully goofy as Dr. Who.
The King Kong suit is a vast improvement from the one used in King Kong vs. Godzilla and it would be used again in Toho-produced TV show Go! Greenman. The Gorosaurus suit had great features like the lashing tongue and the suit (along with stock footage of this movie) would be used again in the 1968 monster-rumble flick Destroy All Monsters. Mechani-Kong would nearly see the light of day again, but for this one-movie appearance, it’s a lot of fun with a good design.
The movie was a moderate success for Toho and, despite wanting to make more films with the character’s likeness, this would be the last Toho movie to feature King Kong. There was a draft of Destroy All Monsters that had King Kong as one of the movie’s many kaiju but the rights had expired. When Godzilla would enjoy a second revival during the 1980s and early 90s, there was a plan to remake King Kong vs. Godzilla after Godzilla vs. Biolantte didn’t light up the box office as Toho would have wanted. Sadly again, the rights issue held them back. The movie was changed to Godzilla taking on Mechani-Kong, but Toho discovered that even using the likeness was an issue and so all plans were scrapped in place of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah – widely respected as one of the best movies of the entire franchise. According to several sources, the plot for Godzilla vs. Mechani-Kong would have seen a team of scientists injected into Godzilla, akin to the movie Innerspace, which had been released in 1987. According to Koichi Kawakita, a special effects worker at the time, the scientists would have gone to “different strange worlds inside Godzilla” while he did battle with Mechani-Kong in the outside world.
Despite King Kong being a huge influence for both Honda and Tsburaya, Toho could never seem to nail the Kong character. Both King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes are both fine films, but neither hold a candle to the original 1933 classic. King Kong Escapes sadly suffers from being a cartoony spy movie homage with a goofy plot that plays along with Toho’s wish to appeal to younger audiences. A 1990’s Toho King Kong would have been interesting as they were producing some fantastic movies at the time, but the proposed plot for Godzilla vs. Mechani-Kong sounds like it would have been on the wrong side of wacky. Not that the time travel story of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was any better.
With that said, it’s not like any of the American produced King Kong sequels were any better.
Luke Owen is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.