King Kong Escapes – 1967, Ishiro Honda – Japan
Don’t bother trying to type cast King Kong- this dynamic star of the silver screen will not be limited by the restrictive boundaries of your feeble imagination. No, he’s not all about swatting at biplanes, screaming woman in hand, whilst perched atop the Empire State Building. On the contrary, he does it all! On occasion, he might wrestle a dinosaur, or engage in a deadly battle with an android replication of himself while clinging to an enormous radio tower, screaming woman in hand. I’ve even seen King Kong swim! He’s like a giant, furry chameleon who can be anything you need him to be, and outside of the RKO original, there is no one movie that displays why Kong is so special more than this film, King Kong Escapes, Toho’s giant ape/kaiju romp follow up to it’s cash cow crossover King Kong VS Godzilla. This time they’ve really pulled out all the stops, and the result is one of my favorite kaiju films ever.
THE PLOT~ Deep beneath the icy surface of the North Pole there is a great abundance of a valuable and highly radioactive substance called Element X. Dr. Who (?!?!?), international super-villain of James Bond proportions, wants to mine these resources and sell them to the highest bidder- and he happens to already have an interested party footing the bill for his efforts. Now, retrieving this resource is difficult- humans can’t do it, because of the radiation. Obviously, if we were to try and think of the best method for retrieving radioactive minerals from beneath the icy strata of the North Pole, the very first, and best option would be to make a giant ape do it for you. Everyone knows that nobody digs stuff up out of ice better than giant apes do, that goes without saying, but apparently the giant ape store was sold out, so Dr. Who instead designs a robot which is shaped like a giant ape, because that would definitely be the second option you’d pursue in that situation. Long story short- this ape’s circuits fries from exposure to Element X, and it’s time to formulate Plan C.
Meanwhile, a U.N. Submarine, carrying our three protagonists (Commander Carl Nelson, Lieutenant Susan Watson, and Commander Jiro Nomura), docks in an inlet off the coast of Mondo Island for repairs, a coincidence which leads to the rediscovery of big ol’ King Kong, who lives on Mondo and spends his days clobbering the hell out of a variety of awesome, dinosaur type monsters.
He does this all day every day.
Kong, upon seeing Lieutenant Watson, immediately falls in love with her the way only a giant, three hundred foot tall ape can. He certainly has a type, and that type is impossibly small women. For real, he’s friggin’ giant, and she’s tiny even by human standards.
Look how little she is! She’s like a hobbit.
The three sail their sub right on back to civilization to spill the beans about Kong, and the news rocks the scientific community, which, I imagine, is made up of at least 80% mad scientists. One of these deranged, and learned men just so happens to be our very own would be Element X distributor, the vile and diabolical Dr. Who, who views the discovery of Kong as a fantastic opportunity to do some more shady shit, because he’s a man with vision and priorities.
Who has no trouble kidnapping Kong and transporting him to his Top Secret Ice Station Hideout, and he similarly manages to kidnap Nelson, Watson and Nomura without much fuss, thinking that he may be able to use them to control Kong, since everybody knows that big monkey is sweet on Watson. We quickly learn, however, that while Dr. Who must have gotten an A+ in Kidnapping 101, he’s actually really shitty at executing pretty much any other aspect of his evil schemes, and once again everything falls apart on him really bad. How hard is it to force a giant ape to dig up radioactive minerals?! Really hard, I guess. In the end, we wind up back in Japan with Kong and Mecha Kong slugging it out on a giant metal tower of some kind, which is at least nineteen different varieties of awesome simultaneously and I love it so much.
There are a few special things that really work in King Kong Escapes, and I want to go over them each individually, list style, as is my preference. Here we go:
1. Dr. WHO- Oh, hell yes. This ain’t your daddy’s Dr. Who. This guy is your proto-typical comic book super villain, which is just so great. At one point, Who busts a cap in the ass of a Javanese Island Priest just because guns are awesome and this guy was there, so of course it was going to be murder time. Hours later, as this mortally wounded priest lay clutching his chest, moments from death, he describes his killer to Commander Nelson as “An oriental skeleton, a devil, with the eyes of a gutter rat.” Upon hearing this, Nelson knows exactly who we’re talking about. “It must be my old friend, that international Judas; DR. WHO!” That’s an actual line from the movie, dude.
Well, I don’t know about the eyes of a gutter rat, but I kind of get the skeleton bit, Who’s physique is decidedly tall and gaunt, but the first things about him that catch my eye are his eyebrows- which are flamboyantly evil in nature, and his teeth, all of which appear to be at war with one another. Honestly, his mouth is like The Thunderdome- twenty eight teeth enter- one tooth leaves. Note to Dr. Who; instead of focusing on conquering the world or building giant robotic apes, maybe brush your fucking teeth now and again, because your smile looks like a damn orphanage fire.
Your teeth are gross, dude.
- Mecha Kong- Initially, I assumed that Mecha-Kong was just a lame Mecha-Godzilla rip off, after all; Toho ain’t afraid to reuse ideas, we know this. But here’s the catch: Mecha Kong came first! Total mind blow! Mecha Godzilla is the rip off, and NOT the other way around! Behold, the true original giant robot doppelgänger! Mecha-Kong is super cool, too, and I really wish he’d been in the movie more. His battle against Kong at the end of the picture is awesome, but you can never have too much Kong on Kong violence, that’s what I always say.
Also, this scene never actually happens in the movie, and that is inexcusable.
- King Kong- This is the best job Toho has done with King Kong by far- Which, sadly, isn’t saying much. Their take on the big hairy galoot back in King Kong Versus Godzilla basically sucked out loud, looked like a sack of shit, and had little to no charm or personality to him at all. This Kong still looks super frumpy, but there’s something so much more endearing about it this time around, and probably that’s a reflection of how much fun the movie is overall, coupled with how refreshing it is to again have a monster with such a soft side for petite, human women. I can relate to that. Toho really establishes Kong as being a “good guy” monster with this movie, and this is long before Godzilla had quite turned the corner into the heroic antics he’d be known for in his later movies, so in a lot of ways, King Kong Escapes is actually leading the trend ahead of Big G, even though the casual observer would likely assume the exact opposite. For me, that gives this movie even more street cred.
If I were to point out any downsides to King Long Escapes, I guess I could say that perhaps the biggest problem with the film is it’s portrayal of Lieutenant Susan Watson, a whimpering, simple-minded female and potential future bride to a towering Javanese ape monster, who is herself essentially helpless. Toho, on average, was actually markedly less sexist than most studios back in this golden age of monster cinema, but with King Kong Escapes, they certainly muddy their track record. It’s weird, all the Godzilla films are all littered with strong, intelligent female characters, both as protagonists and antagonists, but this movie is a major departure from that progressive attitude. This therefore begs the question; is this 180 specifically meant to be a slam on American women? Watson is, I believe, our first white, American woman to have a major role in one of these films, is her race or nationality the reason she’s been painted in such an unflattering light? Or could it be a result of Toho’s effort to replicate the feel of RKO’s original King Kong film from 1933? We may never know, but either way, Watson is completely helpless, and basically a fool, which is definitely a shame. We’re used to seeing better from Toho.
…But I would call that the one flaw here. King Kong Escapes is otherwise a home run, and probably Toho at it’s wackiest, with the exception of the certifiably insane Frankenstein Conquers the World. There’s a lot to love here, without question. Dr. Who is, for sure, the single greatest human villain in the expanded Godzilla cinematic universe, and he leaves the aliens Godzilla keeps clashing with in the dust. It’s a shame he doesn’t pop up again, or that Toho didn’t lean on this idea more often in it’s giant monster films. Even better, probably because of Toho’s attempts to retrerofit Western ideas from the American Kong franchise into it’s own universe, King Kong Escapes comes across feeling different and distinct from other films under the Toho banner, but not so much that it feels like it doesn’t belong. On my list of Toho favorites, this one lands pretty near to the top.