Since I dug revisiting the original 1963 version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA I decided to watch the one other time Toho used King Kong, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. I consider this to be Godzilla stepping aside to let his co-lead take the spotlight, but I suppose it’s possible that he just didn’t want to do another one and this is like Paul Walker doing 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS without Vin Diesel.
Like the original GOJIRA, plus KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and many other kaiju classics, KING KONG ESCAPES is directed by Ishiro Honda, with music by Akira Ifukube and effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. But it has a little different vibe, seemingly influenced by spy movies. Tsuburaya’s great model work is used to create lots of cool helicopters, hovercrafts, a submarine, and a structure to house a giant robot. There’s a colorful villain named Dr. Who (Hideyo Amamoto, YOJIMBO, THE SWORD OF DOOM) who wears a cape with a Dracula/Dr. Strange collar and he has a base at the North Pole and an army of employees in nehru suits, white Mickey Mouse gloves and construction helmets. In the American dub he’s voiced by Paul Frees, so you keep expecting him to ask “is this room actually stretching?”
The thing about Dr. Who is that he has just completed Mechani-Kong (Yu Sekita, MOTHRA), a robot that he claims looks “exactly like King Kong,” which he demonstrates with a cool plastic overlay of the robot on an illustration of Kong. But it would be more accurate to say that he looks exactly like a metal robot shaped like a gorilla. He says Mechani-Kong can do things the real Kong never could, which turns out to mean drop some bombs into a crevasse and fall in to mine some “Element X” for him. In my opinion there are probly more efficient ways to do this, and also more effective considering that like a minute or two into this massive operation Dr. Who announces, “The magnetic mass has destroyed his circuitry. We will start again.”
The heroes of the movie are three U.N. officers, Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason, THE DELTA FACTOR), Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada, who had already played different characters in the original GOJIRA and a few other GODZILLA movies) and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller, THE GREEN SLIME). Reason and Miller are American, so they were dubbed in the Japanese version. For the American dub the producers had Reason dub his lines, but got someone else to do Miller, since she wasn’t in SAG and was still in Japan working as a model.
The three take their submarine to Mondo Island, where an old man (Iko Sawamura, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS) warns them that King Kong (Haruo Nakajima, who previously fought Kong as Godzilla) is coming. I think it’s great that Kong abandoned Faro Island after his battle with Godzilla but was able to find another primitive island to call home.
“You mean he actually exists?” asks Susan. Of course he fucking does! He attacked a major city just four years ago. He took a woman out of a subway car. The Japanese military confronted him and figured out how to knock him unconscious and remove him using balloons. He defeated Godzilla and got him out of humanity’s hair for a while. There are hundreds of eyewitnesses, surely plenty of footage and other documentation. And you work for the United Nations. What the fuck is your problem, Susan?
Anyway they see Kong fighting a dinosaur officially called Gorosaurus (played by the same actor as Mechani-Kong). Gorosaurus looks like an old school conception of a t-rex but he does some great kangaroo drop kicks that that punk in the JURASSIC PARK movies could never dream of. In my opinion Kong doesn’t look as good as he did in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. His eyes are kind of dead looking and his teeth are so long he can’t close his mouth all the way. But he’s a vicious fighter and he grounds and pounds this Goro. Then he does the trademark o.g. King Kong move of pulling his jaw so wide it breaks, and in this case a bunch of drool foam forms on the dino’s mouth.
Kong still has an eye for the ladies, so he picks up Susan for a while, but he seems to listen to her and puts her down. When the U.N. dorks escape to their sub and are immediately attacked by a sea serpent, Kong nails it with a perfectly thrown boulder and then comes out to give it what for. Look at this charming diorama of animalistic violence!
Commander Carl announces that they’re going back to the U.N. in New York to announce their exciting scientific discovery of Kong (who is already known to everyone in the world, despite Susan’s bizarre trutherism) and he does not seem to think anyone will care about the dinosaur or the sea monster.
Of course Dr. Who needs to replace his robot that can do things that the real King Kong can never do by kidnapping the real Kong. So a bunch of very cool model helicopters fly around Mondo Island and Kong uproots trees to swing and throw at them, but they get the jump on him and bring him back to their North Pole base. They use flashing lights to hyptnotize him and attach some Bluetooth things to his ears to control him into the pit to dig for the Element X. And now Dr. Who changes his whole tune and marvels that “My Kong could never dig like that!”
I should mention that Dr. Who’s whole crazy project is funded by a really charming co-villain, and unfortunately they don’t make it clear that she has the cool-ass name of Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, ATTACK SQUADRON!). She represents an unnamed Asian country that is not any of the major ones Carl guesses. She has great outfits and and an amazing apartment where she makes everybody cocktails and honestly it just seems like it would be cool to be friends with her, so it’s nice that she starts to turn against Dr. Who. She also has a scene at the U.N. where she extrapolates that Kong listened to Susan because he likes women – this doesn’t lead to anything where she’s able to command Kong, so maybe it’s an in-joke about the same actress getting picked up by him playing Fumiko in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. (He certainly didn’t listen to her then.)
Anyway, the Bluetooth thing stops working so they kidnap Susan thinking she can control Kong, shit goes south and next thing you know Kong and Mechani-Kong (somehow working again) have an excellent climactic fight in Tokyo. I love the scene where Susan runs to him yelling his name and he looks down at her and he must be so touched that she came all the way to Japan looking for him. He picks her up and hopefully doesn’t have his heart broken when she starts saying stuff about “We’re friends!” She tells him he has to stop Mechani-Kong, which makes me wonder if this is an officially sanctioned U.N. intervention.
Mechani-Kong being shaped like a gorilla doesn’t seem to offer him any advantage over Godzilla or Gorosaurus or whoever, but he does have flashing lights for eyes, so that helps. The finale is a long chase with Mechani-Kong climbing up the Tokyo Tower with Susan in his hand and Kong trying to save her. It made me question the scale of all this but it’s so cool
1) that this very not-like-the-original-KING-KONG movie ends up going back to the roots with tower climbing and
2) just to see the guys in these bulky suits somehow climbing on stuff. That must’ve been pretty dangerous! I definitely don’t think Godzilla could climb anything.
You may notice on the credits that this one is produced by Rankin/Bass, the American animation company known for stop motion specials and movies like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the feature film Mad Monster Party, which came out a little before this. Strangely the script is loosely based on their cartoon The King Kong Show (1966-1969), the first anime series produced for an American company. Toho initially developed the idea as OPERATION ROBINSON CRUSOE: KING KONG VS. EBIRAH, in which Kong would’ve fought Mothra. Rankin/Bass wanted something closer to their cartoon, so Toho turned that idea into EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP with Godzilla subbing for his former co-star Kong and even picking up his love of throwing boulders and ability to be strengthened by electric shock.
In the cartoon, young Bobby Bond and his family befriend Kong on Mondo Island after he saves Bobby from a t-rex. His teenage sister is named Susan, who sort of becomes the adult Susan in the movie. More importantly, Dr. Who is the villain on the show and he creates two different Mechani-Kongs. I always saw him as the King Kong version of MechaGodzilla, but really it’s a straight up translation of the “cartoon evil scientist’s robot creation” trope, and predates MechaGodzilla by several years.
In the ’70s, Rankin/Bass co-produced the live action TV movies THE LAST DINOSAUR, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS and THE IVORY APE with Eiji Tsuburaya’s company, Tsuburaya Productions, but they were better known for animation including THE HOBBIT, THE LAST UNICORN, The Jackson 5ive and of course the cultural institution that is Thundercats (soon to supposedly be a movie from the director of the new GODZILLA VS. KONG).
Toho wanted Kong to return in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), but their contract for the character rights ended too soon. Gorosaurus did make it into the movie, with the same suit and actor. In 1974 this Kong suit returned as “Gorilla” in a three-parter of the show Go! Greenman.
The studio considered bringing back Kong to fight Godzilla again in the ‘90s, but the rights issues were too much. They considered just using Mechani-Kong, but obviously that brought up the same copyright problems. I mean, he looks exactly like King Kong! That was Dr. Who’s entire vision! Anyway, they need to straighten that shit out and get the robot ape on screen again.