By Jerry Chandler
If you’re reading this on the day it goes live, then you’re within hours of being able to drive on down to your local movie theater and watch Kong: Skull Island in all of its big screen glory. This is the latest big budget, big screen telling of King Kong’s story, although this time they’re setting out to make it a franchise starter set in a shared universe and changes to the traditional narrative have been made. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything about the ending by saying Kong avoids falling to his death in an American city this time since it’s widely known the goal here is to get Kong and Godzilla together again in a few short years.
But there are other Kong films out there where they changed the script up a bit as well as giant ape films where the star wasn’t Kong. Some were great fun. Some others were... what they were. Let’s look at one of the better ones here.
Probably one of the best known King Kong films not made in Hollywood is the film that Hollywood now wants to work towards remaking. This would be the gloriously stupid but fabulously fun Japanese creation known as King Kong vs Godzilla. I won’t get into that one here because I’ve already done so on Needless Things. You can check it out HERE.
But I mention it here because this film was important. How was it important? It was successful enough to ensure we got another Japanese Kong film that might actually have been more goofy fun at times than the first one.
King Kong Escapes
I love this film. One day my children will use this fact as part of the evidence required to have me committed. This 1967 gem of a film finds Kong being the king of his island domain again some time after the events of King Kong vs Godzilla. Meanwhile, at the North Pole the evil Dr. Who- this time Asian, without his TARDIS, looking very much like his Valeyard incarnation, and sounding (with good reason) amazingly like Boris Badenov –has wasted the equivalent of a small nation’s wealth building a giant, robotic doppelganger of King Kong in order to mine the key to world domination, Element X, from under the frozen wastelands. The problem he runs into is that Element X tends to burn up the computer in Robot Kong’s brain and shut him down the moment he gets near it.
This greatly angers Dr. Who, and he decides the easiest solution for their problem is to head off to Mondo Island, capture the real King Kong, bring him to the North Pole, hypnotize him with a blinky light, and fit him with an earpiece so they can tell him what to do. Yes, ladies and gentleman, King Kong understands English (or originally Japanese) as good or better than you and me.
Before Dr. Who and crew can head out to capture the big ape, a submarine captained by Commander Carl Nelson arrives at Mondo Island. Here we get to see Kong battle it out with Gorosaurus, one of the few Toho monsters to knock King Ghidorah on his butt in Destroy All Monsters, and hand Gorosaurus his ass. The crew almost have some bad run-ins with Kong and others on the island, like a giant snake, but they fortunately brought an attractive blonde along with them as a member of the crew. Kong once again finds love, and that lets the crew say their farewells to Mondo Island in one piece.
Dr. Who arrives with his minions, one of whom is his faithful female traveling companion Madame Piranha, and knock the big lug out. They then drag him back to the North Pole to enact their evil scheme to have him dig up the Element X. Everything goes according to plan right up until Kong gets to the Element X and the flashing light emitted by Element X releases Kong from his hypnotic trance. King Kong then, spoiler alert for those of you who have ignored the name of the film, escapes.
I should mention that I’ve left out a lot of stuff about how Commander Nelson and crew head off to rescue Kong, get captured by Who & crew, banter about international politics, watch as Who tries to get Kong’s new love interest to talk him into digging up the Element X, and finally escape in large part due to the damage Kong causes while escaping. It’s fun and watchable, but, and let’s be honest here, it’s not that important to the film. We’re all waiting for the big event that we know is to come the moment they put Kong and a robot Kong into a film together- the ape vs robot battle royal.
Everyone heads off to Japan, because, for whatever reason, Kong decides to swim there rather than to Mondo Island. Our men in rubber suits beat the snot out of each other in what’s actually a really fun kaiju battle. Their back and forth ultimately ends with the two Kongs climbing and battling on the
Empire State Building Twin Towers Tokyo Tower
and the mechanical monster doing his best Humpty Dumpty imitation. Enjoying his
triumph over his doppelganger and enjoying a few kisses blown his way by his
new girl, Kong decides to head back to Mondo Island and await his next
adventure in the kaiju filled lands of Toho.
These adventures never came.
It’s kind of sad that this was Kong’s last outing in Japanese filmmaking. While a fun bit of popcorn munching fluff, King Kong Escapes wasn’t up to the quality of the previous King Kong vs Godzilla in a number of ways. This may be in part due to it being a joint production with Arthur Rankin Jr.’s company and being a loose adaptation of the concepts in their short lived King Kong cartoon. It certainly wasn’t the final film many at Toho had wanted for Kong.
Toho had put into production before this film King Kong vs The Sea Monster. They finally switched gears on that one just before production got underway and replaced King Kong with Godzilla. This is why you have the very odd bit with Godzilla acting like Kong around the pretty girl, seemingly acting rather less than Godzilla-like in some moments, and having to have a prolonged fight with a big crab most people would expect him to beat in no time flat.
Even after King Kong Escapes, Toho wanted to use Kong at least one more time in that era. Kong was included as a major player in the early drafts Destroy All Monsters. He was ultimately written out of the film because Toho realized they were due to lose the license.
Even decades later, the appeal for using at least some part of these films remained strong with some at Toho. Toho wanted to remake King Kong vs Godzilla in the 1990s, and after that fell through they wanted to revive the idea of the Mechani-Kong and have Godzilla face off against Mechani-Kong. This fell apart when they learned that even using the altered likeness of Kong was nightmarishly difficult to get legal permission for. One might have thought they could have simply dropped the Kong name and gone for it, but the name value would have been lost at the box office and, perhaps more importantly, the existence of a robot Kong in the Toho library made such a move more legal trouble than it would otherwise have been.
Ultimately, Toho’s Kong’s only appearance outside of the two films they gave him was in Japanese television. The suit was recycled for the foe “Gorilla” in the 1973 TV series Go! Greenman. They had a Sumo match. It was an inglorious end to the career of such a huge star.
King Kong Escapes is a fun kaiju film, it’s a nice little bit of Kong’s cinematic history, and it’s an enjoyable popcorn film romp. The no frills Blu-Ray that’s out there has a beautiful transfer, and a nice price. Both it and King Kong vs Godzilla are Kong films that deserve a spot in everyone’s film library.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.