Why yes, this is my favorite King Kong movie. Is my enthusiasm showing? Well, I’ll do my best to tuck it back as we explore this rarely-mentioned, esoteric bit of late-60s kaiju eiga. It’s about as far from Kong’s first adventure as you can get without being Mighty Joe Young…but that just means this movie’s escaped its prequel’s shadow…right? As far as my inner-twelve-year-old’s concerned, King Kong Escapes kicks ass. The rest of me would still recommend it to you…with the following 3000 words of reservation.
I mentioned how Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster began life as a King Kong movie, similar to how King Kong vs. Godzilla began life as King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which instead spawned Frankenstein Conquers the World). Behind Sea Monster and tonight’s film you’ll find a 1966 collaboration between Japan’s Toei Animation studio and America’s Rankin/Bass productions, The King Kong Show. As its title and production company credits suggest, the Show was a half-hour animated series reboot of Kong’s origin for an audience of mid-60s kids. So they replaced the ship full of filmmakers with a family of scientific adventures named…Bond…just not that Bond.
Whaddaya expect? Thunderball only came out the year before. And these Bonds were no spies, just wandering Super Scientists, straight out of the Quest family mold. After Kong became their unofficial mascot/bodyguard in the first episode, the Bond family traveled the world, constantly battling the sinister machinations of Dr. Who (just not that Dr. Who…) and his robotic creation, MechaniKong.
The series was just as campy and outrageous as you’d expect, becoming insanely popular in an America primed for it by years of Hanna-Barbara classics. A movie seemed both logical and inevitable. Certainly did wonders for Batman. But a cell-animated feature film would’ve been far, far too expensive for the Rankin/Bass of 1967. For one thing, they would’ve had to compete with Disney’s twenty million dollar Jungle Book movie, the first Disney animated feature in four years (by that point, even Disney started to slow down as audiences changed and economic recessions set in). So they did what smart people did in the 60s if they wanted a cheap monster movie and sold the live-action rights off to Toho.
As with any adaption, decay set in immediately. Like it’s big brother, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, King Kong Escapes has all the problems of a mid-60s Toho movie and all the problems of a trans-Pacific co-production. The dubbing in the English version is atrocious. The dubbing in the Japanese version (mostly of the two American lead actors) is alienating at best…and probably just as atrocious to native Japanese-speakers who can pick out bad lip-flap just as easily as we. The matte work, no matter which version you watch, is as wretched as it was 1962, when Mie Hama and Kong’s paw seemed to float against a flat backdrop of Tokyo. Still, this movie’s Kong once again prefers blonds, so in that sense Escapes marks a return to form.
And at least Toho brought its A-Game. Takeshi (H-Man/Mantango) Kimura wrote the script. Ishiro Honda directed the humans. Eiji Tsuburaya and Teruyoshi Nakano directed the monsters. The First Godzilla, Haruo Nakajima, donned the Kong suit, while Yu Sekida (fresh from playing that aforementioned Sea Monster, Ebirah) wound up playing both of Kong’s monstrous antagonists. Honda Repertoire Company vets Mie Hama and Akira Takarada lend their familiar faces, while Rhodes Reason (no, really…that’s his name) would’ve been familiar to U.S. audiences at the time thanks to his years of moderate success in various Westerns.
With all that, why isn’t this film remembered more often? Or at all? Isn’t it enough to say “It’s a live-action adaption of a cartoon show from the 60s”…? Clearly not, no. Poor material is no excuse for a bad movie. Just make the material better. And that’s exactly what everyone tried to do. But you can only polish a turd so much. And anyway, by 1967, the daikaiju genre as a whole was showing its age. It’s creators were getting older while its fan base continued to skew young. King Kong Escapes attempts to cross that gap…only to fall into it in slow motion, Cliffhanger-style.
Still, as live action Saturday morning cartoons go, this one’s a lot of fun. You could even break it into three segments and stagger them over a month of Saturdays, with built-in dramatic resolutions at the end of each act.
In the first, the UN Submarine Explorer under the command of Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes) is forced to stop off at Skull Island (here renamed “Mondo Island” for no good reason) after an underwater rock slide damages their engines. Being a King Kong fanboy, Commander Nelson can’t waste the opportunity to explore such a legendary locale. His XO, Lt. Comdr. Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada), and ship’s
Token Girl and therefore coffee-server nurse, Lt. Susan Watson (played in body by Linda Miller and in voice by Julie Bennett – I’ll explain later) tag along because the UN navy of this universe operates on Star Trek rules. (Oh, and this UN has its own navy.) Presumably to appease US fears that the UN’s actually a stalking horse for the Anti-Christ, poised to enslave us all and burn numbers into our foreheads.
It’s not long before Our Heroes encounter Kong, who takes an instant liking to Susan after saving her from the best looking new kaiju of his generation. Fans call him Gorosarus and, even though the movie might as well call him “cannon fodder,” I always like the simplicity of his overall design. It stood out in an era where giant monsters (of every nationality) only became weirder in the name of becoming distinct.
Like this film – which visually chest-bumps the original by having Kong kill this Gorosaurus the same way he killed that ol’ T-rex. Then the distinctiveness creeps in. For one thing, this Kong seems to understand English quite well, so long as a hot girl’s speaking to him very…slowly…and VERY…LOUDLY, like she’s trying to insult his intelligence (and ours). Also, this Kong’s smart enough to know “no” means “no.” After a brief kerfuffle (where Kong wades out to Mondo Island’s bay and shakes the ship), Kong even allows the Explorer to depart, carrying news of his existence to the world.
All of which condenses the first hour of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong while simultaneously presaging Dino De Laurentiis’. Hell, the Explorer only fell prey to that rockslide because they were skimming the ocean floor looking for oil. This has nothing to do with the rest of the film – I just found it a creepy coincidence.
Or maybe I’m not giving this movie enough credit. International competition for global energy resources seem to underlay everything like a stealth MacGuffin. It certainly underlies the Arctic base of Dr. Who (famed character actor Eisei Amamoto), established to mine the highly radioactive and rare “Element X”. In the grand tradition of lazy sci-fi plots since time out of joint, we’re never told what “X” is (looks like a bunch of glowing ice cubes to me) or what it does. But it can apparently make you one hell of a bomb. That’s enough for Dr. Who to get some national backing for his Arctic Base, though that nation remains tactfully anonymous.
At least I don’t have to wonder where Dr. Who got the cash for that MechaniKong. He certainly didn’t raise it himself. Hell, he didn’t even dream it up: he stole the plans for it from one Commander Craig Nelson of the UN Navy (told you he was a fanboy). So we know Dr. Who is both dastardly and devious, earning the sobriquet Nelson gives him later on of “that international Judas.” I wouldn’t trust this guy to lead an online Call of Duty squad, much less a full Bond villain set-up.
But I’m not Mie Hama’s commanding officer. (And thank God – I’d get drummed out for sexual harassment faster than you can say “Tailhook scandal.”) She plays Dr. Who’s handler and liaison with…let’s just call it “Not-China,” Madame X. In a neat set-up for her eventual face-turn, she begins the film impatient with what she considers to be Who’s diversion of precious resources into wasteful vanity projects…like the giant, mechanical Kong. Sure, it’s impressive, but as a mining tool it falls flat. Especially after exposure to Element X burns out its circuits.
Not to worry: news of a real-live Kong shocks the world. Between Madame X’s manpower and Dr. Who’s self-described “genius,” it’s not long before they’ve kidnapped Kong and brain washed him with…a series of flashing, multi-colored lights. Suspended from a crane, or from the crown of the MechaniKong’s head, one glance is all it takes to send Kong into a trance. And, should he ever break that spell, Dr. Who arranges to have the now-world famous Lt. Susan Watson (along with Jiro and Nelson…just because, I guess) on hand to relay the big ape’s marching orders.
Our Heroes’ kidnapping is a perfect example of the gap this movie fell into. Basically, Who’s backers land a sea plane next to the Explorer, claiming they have pick-up orders from UNHQ. Yes, we’re pulling the two highest ranking officers off a ship at sea, along with its only medical officer. No, you don’t need confirmation from New York. Just get in the plane! Jiro even voices his suspicions to the two dumb gaijin he’s forced to share the back seat with: “I don’t think [the sea plane crew] are Japanese.” Well don’t go with them then, ya dumbasses! Not even Admiral Ackbar would be surprised by a trap this obvious.
And side-tracky, since this is the second act, where most movies go to spin their wheels for about thirty minutes. There’s a bit of intrigue as the presence of prisoners heightens tension between Dr. Who and Madame X…especially after the later starts to cozy up to Commander Nelson, obviously hoping to save face no matter the outcome of events. I suspect she already knows things will end disastrously. That comes through Hama’s performance, which I always preferred to that other movie of her’s from 1967, You Only Live Twice. She’s got more to do as Madame X than look good in a bikini…though she does rock the enormous amount of outfits she packed for this mission:
This really should’ve been Madame X’s movie. She always fascinated me for reasons beyond the obvious. A female superspy in the Golden Age of James Bond, just trying to do her bit for…um…whatever…and country. Sometimes this means forking oil tankers full of cash over to a made scientist. She doesn’t like it, but orders are orders…even though her years of superspy experience allow her to know a potential train wreck on sight…especially when she’s in the middle of it. Maybe that submarine commander/kidnap victim down in the sub-zero dungeon (because Dr. Who has one) wants to reenact some key scenes from From Russia With Love…Hell, Madame X certainly does more than any of the so-called “heroes.”
All of whom are so blandly, impersonally good, even I don’t want to talk about them. Jiro’s the same Akira Takarada hero we’ve seen in the last two Godzilla movies (and Mothra vs. Godzilla before that). This time, he just happens to be on a boat. I could totally see Yoshimura the burgler changing his name and joining his fellow man in the UN Navy after escaping that business with the Red Bamboo. Just like Eisei Amamoto, Takarada’s co-star from Sea Monster, who played a Red Bamboo officer on that ship Ebirah smashed in the last act (spoiler alert). I suppose getting bitch-slapped by a giant lobster would drive anyone to Mad Science…assuming they survived the Godzilla battle the followed.
As for Commander Nelson and Lt. Watson…yeah, screw them. They don’t even have the good fortune to star in other kaiju movies I’ve reviewed. Nelson’s a walking brick while Watson is…downright freaky for reasons that aren’t her actress’ fault. The dubbing company that localized this flick decided to redub her performance…even though Linda Miller spoke perfect English. The result is as uncanny as any valley I’ve ever come across, made worse by the fact I recognize the voice actress, Julie Bennett. Who, among many, many other things in a career that spanned decades, played the two-headed vulture in Transylvania 6-5000. No, not Jeff Golbume’s; Bugs Bunny’s.
Worse still, Lt. Watson keeps running to Nelson whenever she has the chance, despite the fact Jiro does all the human-scale heroics in the last act…probably because Takarada was the only actor available to film in Tokyo, where (of course) the final confrontation takes place. Not for any particular reason – Japan’s just the first archipelago Kong swims to after escaping Dr. Who’s base. He could’ve just as easily turned left instead of right and wound up fighting his robot doppelganger in the streets of…I don’t know, Anchorage, or something.
Instead, Kong and the MechaniKong duke it out in Tokyo, with Lt. Watson inadvertently-but-inevitably snatched up by the robot so she can attempt to blow out our ear drums with her constant screams of “KONG!” Because this Kong is at least fifty feet shorter than his last Toho incarnation, the Tokyo sets are some of biggest, most detailed work Tsuburaya Studios ever turned out. Hell, its so well-constructed, it’s almost as if the filmmakers feared to destroy too much of it. There’s none of the aggressive wrestling that so endears everyone to the previous year’s War of the Gargantuas. The Kongs battle quickly moves up the side of Tokyo Tower…which you’d think Tokyo would just stop rebuilding at this point, since every giant monster in the Pacific Rim seems magnetically drawn to it…and Kong eventually peels MechaniKong off the side. It might be strong enough to mine ore or go toe-to-toe with the Eighth Wonder of the World…but a few hundred feet at free-fall velocity will screw up your circuits worse than any radioactive rock.
In the end, Our (human) Heroes stand around observing things from the Minimum Safe Distance of Tokyo’s dockyards while Kong, the movie’s real hero, gets his vengeance on Dr. Who. For the second time in two years, Eisei Amamoto goes down with a ship sunk by a giant monster. Then Kong swims back to Mondo Island while Commander Nelson gives us our coda,
“I think he’s had enough of what we call ‘civilization’.”
Yeah, who hasn’t. Kong’s has always been the story of human beings raping and pillaging the world’s wonders “for your own amusement.” Making the Cold War competition for energy a natural “updating” of Kong’s core idea. Too bad no one had the capability to take this seriously. To my mind, giant monster movies should play out on a grand, international stage. (That’s why I like Godzilla: 1985 so much.) King Kong Escapes sets that kind of stage…but the closer you look, the more two-dimensional the trees become. It’s hard to suspend disbelief with so many damn questions threatening.
Why build a giant robot when a giant crane will do the same work and save you a hell of a lot in labor? Why kidnap Nelson, Jiro and Lt. Watson when Watson’s all you really need? Why kidnap Kong after the robot failed? Why not just retrofit the robot? It’d almost have to be an easier job than flying all the way to the South Pacific and kidnapping a real-live giant ape (the kind you have to feed and clean up after at a cost that would quickly become astronomical). Why take the three UN navy officers with you to Tokyo (chained up in the hold, no less) when you could’ve just thrown them out into the Arctic wastes and been done with them? You already caught Madame X cozying up to them. And she’s the only one on the ship with the balls to question your grand “have two vaguely-gorilla shaped giants fight in the middle of a crowded city” plan. You know she’s just going to let Nelson and his friends loose the first chance she gets…
Other than Kong, Dr. Who’s the one carry-over from the cartoon series…and for good reasons. As villains go, he’s the kind of anonymous asshole you’d see Sean Connery kill in the intro segments of his 007 films. Not that I want to spend a movie’s length of time with the Bond family (of the series). Hell, I can barely stand spending twenty-minutes with them. So we dodged one bullet only to catch two more that seriously wound this movie: a limited budget and limited ambitions.
They were making a simple film for simple people, falsely believing that children less inclined to go, “OK…what the fuck was that? C’mon, movie, that was just stupid.” Maybe they were in 1967…but I sincerely doubt it. If they’d made the movie four years earlier, everyone behind the camera would’ve been fresh and flush with success, enthusiastically pushing the boundaries of their genre out of the cities and all the way to the stars. But everyone was a little older and a little sick of doing the same damn things over again. According to legend, Honda only got this job by going to his long-time producer and Godzilla co-creator Tomoyuki Tanaka in 1966 and asking (to paraphrase a great man) “Jesus Christ, I just did two Godzilla films back to back, plus the Frankenstein picture. Can we work on something different around here, for a change?”
Tanaka apparently thought about it before asking his co-worker and friend (with as much sincerity as a movie producer can muster, I’m sure) “Well…how about a sequel to the Frankenstein movie?”
I can imagine the wheels turning in Honda’s head, making a sound very much like, “Oh…okay…I know where this is going…no wonder you turned Sea Monster over to that Fukuda guy.”
Still, as far as Toho’s “island” era goes, King Kong Escapes has more scope than, say…Son of Godzilla. By creating a new cast of adults for Kong to interact with, the movie becomes less of a transparent ploy to appeal to The Children. Too bad it refracts all these “adult” themes and issues through the prism of a cartoon universe. It’s a crazy, half-baked, superspy-plagued world that’s a lot of fun to visit. I just wouldn’t want to live there. Too many giant monsters. And, more importantly, too many things that don’t make sense.