King Kong (1933) vs. Godzilla (1954)
King Kong (1933) vs. Godzilla (1954) 2-in-1 review
Released back in April, 1933, King Kong graced the screen. Twenty-one years later, another iconic movie monster made his debut in Japan: Godzilla. And while that may seem like too large a gap between the two films from two different countries, they were destined to meet. But we aren’t here to talk about their upcoming fight, nor are we here to talk about the time the two of them had one of the all-time lamest movie fights back in 1963. No we are here to put these larger-than-live icons against each other and see, looking at the first film from each, which comes out on top! (The movies, not the monsters. We know which monster comes out on top… Of course it’s Kong King after he gets hit with lightning that supercharges him.)
Let’s start with the initial underdog in the fight: Godzilla. Gojira follows a small team of scientists as they attempt to stop a giant monster that has emerged from the Pacific Ocean as a result of the American nuclear testing. Rewinding to King Kong, this film follows a film crew as they set out to a remote island where they discover a massive ape that captures the film’s lead actress. And SPOILERS for anyone who doesn’t know these two films, but Godzilla sees the kaiju rampage through Tokyo while Kong is taken back to New York City where he escapes and runs rampant. You know, two of the most iconic monster movie moments of all time.
Now I would LOVE to get into the history of these two films, but unless they aid a comparison, I am going to stick to the movies themselves, not the fact that Godzilla underperformed in Japan… Anyway, we will be looking at the film in categories that we will make up on the spot as we go! “Let them fight…”
Story and Themes:
When it comes to classic stories, nothing quite beats King Kong. (Okay that’s an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that the story works when we look at the success for the films that have retold this story, and failure of the films that have changed it. Greedy men go to a forbidden Island where they make less than friendly contact with the locals, get their star kidnapped by locals and then a giant ape who falls in love with her, then rescue her. And of course after Ann is safe, they decide to capture the Kong and take him to America to be an attraction for rich people to come see. What happens next? He breaks out and wrecks New York. What else? The story looks at the greed of man, dealing with anti-colonialism and racism in a way that was either very ahead of its time or brilliantly hasn’t aged well.
On the other hand, Gojira looks at the dangers of nuclear testing in a very anti-American way, while hitting home the dangers of using nuclear weapons in war so hard that nobody wanted to watch it when it came out. (Honestly understandable for the time.) Godzilla does take an interesting turn though, as the characters in the film want most of all to find a way to end the threat without killing the ancient monster, which honestly can also be seen as an analogy for the end of World War II.
While both films do feature very strong themes through stories that have held up fairly well, Godzilla’s themes have stood significantly stronger, thanks to the arguably racist undertones that somehow manage to work both for and against the original Kong. The fact that Gojira didn’t perform well shows just how hard this film hits, and even though the stories in subsequent films have become, let’s say absolutely ridiculous considering the humble origins, the moral conflict absolutely makes Godzilla the more interesting of the two films. Winner: Godzilla. (Godzilla: 1; Kong: 0)
Characters and Monsters:
When it comes to monsters, comparing the characteristics might not be as hard as you’d think, as the original Kong definitely has Godzilla on the ropes. While you certainly feel sympathy for Godzilla, driven from his sleep beneath the ocean thanks to nuclear weapons, he never truly displays emotions or characteristics. Kong however gets to showcase many emotions, turning the sympathy felt for Godzilla into empathy for anyone who has felt trapped by a feeling. Kong basically falls in love with Ann, and as they say in the closing line, “It was beauty killed the beast.” Both characters meet a tragic fate brought on by their circumstances, but somewhere between the more finite death of Kong and the emotional; complexity of the character, Kong certainly gets an extra point for this round. (Kong: 1; Godzilla: 1)
That said, the human characters in the films are a closer battle. In Kong, you have essentially three main characters: Ann Darrow, the down-on-her-luck girl who gets cast in a film based on her looks, taken to a remote island, captured by a giant monkey, forced to help partake in the capture of said monkey, and then forced to partake in Kong’s display, escape, and death. Jeez. Our antagonist comes in the form of greedy film director Carl Denham, a similarly complex character as his selfishness in wanting to complete his film at all costs turns against Kong, leading to his capture and death. While Carl does seem very regretful of these actions, it is at the expense of what latter Kong films will call the last of his kind. (Actually I believe this film does too.) And then there’s John Driscoll, the romantic hero who saves Ann, aaaaand that’s about it. Also deliverer of probably one of the worst timed professions of love in film history.
Gojira also features arguably three main characters, although four do work together to keep the plot going. While protagonist Hideto Ogata is certainly the John Driscoll of the film, his finance’ Emiko Yamane does the heavy listing when it comes to the heavier themes, much like Ann. While she is initially an observer to the events of the film, in the end she must choose the greater good and betray the friendship of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa in order to save Japan from total destruction. And while Emiko’s father Dr. Kyohei Yamane plays a key part in the moral argument in the film as well, it turns to Serizawa to decide whether to use the terrible weapon he has created to destroy a magnificent and ancient creature, or save Japan.
While both films offer genuinely compelling characters throughout, Godzilla’s exclusion of antagonist arguably makes it more interesting. That said, Kong’s characters directly influence the story, while Godzilla’s react. Honestly, I’m going to have to call this one a tie. Which if you are keeping count for this category, means Kong stays ahead here. (Kong: 2; Godzilla: 1)
Effects and Filmmaking:
Considering the times these films were released, they are both pretty incredible. However while both are iconic only King Kong has gone down as one of the most influential movies in history when it comes to its visual effects. The stop motion on display is- okay it’s old, but almost 100 years old. It’s incredible. More so than that (and every single closeup of Kong which is absolutely terrifying), the compositing is genuinely impressive. Alot of the film features characters and settings in front of screens that match, and its pretty remarkable how well they line up. But there are a few moments in this film that I genuinely don’t understand. There is a scene where you have Ann in a cave on a rock face, then in a layer in front of that, Kong fighting a giant snake. That’s fine, that makes sen- wait, is that ANTOHER layer with Jack hiding behind a rock in the front? And like, Ann isn’t just footage is she? Because Kong is stop motion! THE HECK? Anyway there’s another scene right at the finale where Kong (stop motion) takes stop motion Ann and sets her down and is is real like Ann when he lets her go. But it’s a wide shot. Without cuts. Honestly, no clue how they did it. Or why? It’s super far away! But the attention to detail? Gosh deserved an Oscar.
Godzilla? Yeah also pretty great! I mean it’s alot newer, so it honestly is a little less impressive, but there’s plenty of detail work that went into selling this film. The use of miniatures is pretty convincing at times, and the solid camera work, shot composition, and sharp focus for the miniature shots go a long way towards the surprising quality that this film holds up to. Heck even the way the saves whitecap while the guy in a Godzilla suit walks in a talk of water is impressive. But in the end, Kong is definitely more impressive on that front. Point to Kong for the effects. (Kong: 3; Godzilla: 1)
That said, let’s pick apart the quality just a little bit more so I can give Godzilla more points. Why give Godzilla more points? Well let’s see…
Effects aren’t everything, and when it comes to classic films, the score doesn’t typically stand out. That said, while Max Steiner’s score for King Kong is really great for an older soundtrack, Akira Ifukube is so iconic that Bear McCreary used the themes from it for King of the Monsters (2019). It is a wonderful score full of memorable moments, intense themes, and surprising emotion that you typically don’t find in older soundtracks. Absolutely a point to Godzilla. (Godzilla: 2; Kong: 3)
Another feat for the giant lizard movie over the giant ape movie are the really solid performances. Don’t get me wrong, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are great in Kong, offering the emotional layers that their characters have quite well for a 30s film. But while I love the way this film pokes fun at 30s filmmaking, it also devolves into it sometimes, giving Fay nothing to do but scream more than a few times. And that honestly didn’t feel like it was in her character by the end of the film. Godzilla on the other hand boasts Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who gives his performance as Dr. Yamane way more emotion than is even needed for the film. Throughout the film, you genuinely believe that this man feels an empathetic connection with a giant lizard puppet killing thousands of people, and that is NOT an easy feat. Toss in two equally convincing and layered performances from Momoko Kôchi and Akihiko Hirata as Emiko and Dr. Serizawa respectively and you’ve got an extra point for Godzilla! (Godzilla: 3; Kong: 3)
Pop Culture Influence:
This one is pretty easy. While the direct Kong remakes seem to be still a good 10-20 years ahead of the Godzilla remakes, that doesn’t ensure quality, nor quantity. There have been a handful of King Kong remakes and sequels and sequels to remakes, but Godzilla kickstarted a franchise that, if you are keeping count, is the longest running film franchise in history, if I’m not mistaken. On top of that, when the two monsters finally had their showdown, it was in Godzilla’s series on his turf. And now the most recent version of Kong came AFTER Godzilla’s series reboot in 2015. So while Kong might have started ahead, I think he’s a few dozen movies short of going toe-to-toe with this kaiju. Winner, and winner for this match, is the true King of the Monsters… Godzilla.
But both films are truly great. I have both at an 8/10, so this was a very tough match. But don’t let me have all the fun, what film do you think is better? Be sure to leave a like and a comment below and let us know your pick for this film-off and why! And if you liked this Kong vs. Godzilla, stay tuned for more from our Kongzilla series building up to next weeks’ release of, well, Godzilla vs. Kong!
-review by Ryan Prince