How The Original 'King Kong' Influenced 'Godzilla' (And How Lesser-Known Dino Movies Influenced Them Both)

When Godzilla vs. Kong roars onto HBO Max and storms into U.S. theaters on March 31, it will mark the first full-fledged crossover in the seven-year cycle of shared-universe monster movies from Legendary Pictures. The current MonsterVerse is young, but for its giant denizens, it's merely the latest chapter in the history of two long-running, closely intertwined film franchises. Both Godzilla and Kong lay claim to the title of "king," which puts them immediately at odds, and it wouldn't be a fight unless you had spectators choosing sides, rooting for one of them to come out on top.

Let's not forget, however, that they share some DNA, having both shaken loose from the same family tree in the jungles of The Lost World. Kong was born first, in 1933. He was 21 and old enough to buy alcohol by the time his kaiju cousin arrived in 1954. You can tell Godzilla looked up to him (and down to other beasts 20,000 fathoms below). All you have to do is go back and watch the original King Kong and Godzilla movies back-to-back.

Cloned Dinosaur Eggs

Film genres have a way of building endless new configurations on a foundational formula, diluting it till it's played out or refining it till it's perfected. Something like that happened in the action genre with Die Hard. It happened in the serial killer genre with The Silence of the Lambs. Long before that, it was happening with vampires and giant monsters in '20s silent films like Nosferatu and The Lost World and '30s talkies like Dracula and King Kong.

Godzilla is considered the first kaiju film but technically, Kong is a kaiju, too, since RKO Pictures lent him out to Toho Studios in the 1960s and he went on to star in a couple of Japanese films. The original King Kong's 1952 rerelease was instrumental in popularizing monster movies in Japan, just prior to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon No. 5, incident, where a Japanese fishing boat and its crew suffered radioactive contamination from nuclear testing in the Pacific.

The earliest seeds of Godzilla were planted in producer Tomoyuki Tanaka's mind on a plane ride back from Indonesia (Kong's fictional Skull Island is located off the coast). Lucky Dragon No. 5 was still fresh in the news and Tanaka was also inspired by the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which involved a nuclear test awakening a dinosaur, the Rhedosaurus, from suspended animation in the Arctic Circle. 

Godzilla received the green light after special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya came on board. The American Kong had made a deep impression on him while he was working for a different studio. He later recounted how "King Kong came to Kyoto and I never forgot that movie. I thought to myself, 'I will someday make a monster movie like that.' "

Even to this day, Willis O'Brien's pioneering stop-motion animation lends King Kong a mesmerizing quality, and Tsuburaya wanted to bring Godzilla to life the same gnarly way. However, the timetable of the Toho production didn't allow for it and O'Brien's techniques were so specialized that there weren't enough trained local animators on hand. Since necessity is the mother of invention, audiences instead got to see the even newer, uniquely Japanese art of suitmation, whereby a performer in a creature suit slow-walks among scale models of cities.

Funnily enough, Tanaka first conceived of Godzilla as an octopus and pitched him as The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which just goes to show that squid attacks on submarines in Jules Verne novels (see, um, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) were another unlikely factor in the creature's genesis. Kong lives on dry land, of course, but his home is an island so ships seek him out in the middle of the ocean. As we will see, Godzilla borrowed these elements and aped King Kong in other respects, just as Kong aped at least one earlier, less famous creature feature.

For any student of giant monster movies, it would be educational to go back and look at The Lost World and see how it mapped out the future of its genre. This is the grainy 1925 adventure film, based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, where a team of explorers brings a Brontosaurus back to London on a ship, only to see it escape and wreak havoc against the backdrop of city landmarks like Big Ben and Tower Bridge.

If that sounds familiar, it's only because we've seen twists on the same scenario play out in numerous other films, including King Kong and Godzilla, which substituted New York and Tokyo for London. The Lost World features an apeman in a forgotten land full of dinosaurs and it's where O'Brien got his start with stop-motion. On an embryonic level, the film can be seen as a pre-evolved King Kong of sorts. Tree trunk bridges and love triangles would also find their way into Kong and Godzilla.

Gorillas don't lay eggs but it might be helpful to think of the giant monster genre as that lab in Jurassic Park where the humans huddled around and watched baby dinosaur clones hatch. Decades later, when he wrote the sequel to Jurassic Park, author Michael Crichton wasn't shy about trumpeting The Lost World's influence on him. He purloined the title and part of the plot for his book. The most memorable part of Steven Spielberg's 1997 movie adaptation remains the T-Rex tearing through San Diego.

For its part, the original Lost World lacked one key ingredient: specifically, a marquee-name monster with a winning personality. As the first sound film to feature a beast of that nature running amok in a metropolis, King Kong became a bigger hit and left a more lasting cultural impact. You could double-feature the first Kong and Godzilla in the time it would take you to watch all of Peter Jackson's 2005 Kong remake. Seeing the visual echoes play out onscreen in the same sitting also heightens one's awareness of the resemblance between the two characters.

Gods Among Insects

Godzilla's very name is a testament to Kong's influence. It smooshes together gorira and kujira, the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale." It's as if his creators were sitting around playing poker in post-war Japan and they thought, "I'll see your gorilla, Hollywood, and I'll raise you a gorilla whale."

In English, the resulting portmanteau, Gojira, took a turn for the quasi-religious, becoming the "Godzilla" we all know and love. It characterizes the King of the Monsters as a godlike force and that, too, is something that King Kong did with its title character. 

Both creatures have island inhabitants who worship them. There's a tradition of ceremonial dances on Skull Island and Odo Island. Each place withholds sight of its monster at first, staging it as a big reveal, with Kong eventually coming through the trees behind a massive wall and Godzilla popping up over a hill.

Outmoded social mores are on full display in both settings as well. Skull Island, as seen through the lens of white colonialism and Pre-Code racial stereotypes, is a less civilized culture where Black natives offer up a screaming Caucasian woman to their gorilla god. Odo Island, as seen through a more ethnically homogenous Japanese lens, is a higher evolved patriarchy where fishermen sit around, lamenting the lost rituals of human sacrifice on their island. They say things like, "In the old days, if the catch was poor for a long time, we'd offer up a young girl."

Maybe part of the reason why our sympathies, as an audience, lie more with Kong, the ostensible monster, is because of how small-minded the men in his movie are. It's fun to see him chomping dudes like candy bars. If you think about it, he does a lot of defending and is just trying to be left alone when a bunch of backward human interlopers show up in his jungle paradise and start causing trouble with the local dinosaurs. First, they kill the Stegosaurus, which resembles nothing so much as Godzilla on all fours. 

Sculptor Teizo Toshimitsu and art director Akira Watanabe did, in fact, combine the armored dorsal plates of a Stegosaurus with the attributes of a Tyrannosaurus rex and Iguanodon when they were designing Godzilla. Their reference material reportedly included an issue of Life magazine with dinosaur illustrations. Yet it's impossible to watch the Stegosaurus die in King Kong without seeing an early ripple of Godzilla in the waters of world cinema. The two male leads walk the length of it, watching its spiked tail flop around as it's in its death throes; and if you listen to their dialogue, they're obviously brainstorming the idea for something else "from the dinosaur family." A "prehistoric beast." Perhaps irradiated?

In Godzilla, you'll also see a Stegosaurus skeleton model on the desk of Takashi Shimura's professor. In King Kong, an in-universe T-rex does show up later, too. It does battle with Kong, paving the way for future reptile–primate showdowns, such as 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, which adheres to a familiar template, spearheading yet another island expedition but switching out a publicity-seeking pharmaceutical head for the fame-hungry movie director.

There's a moment in King Kong where said director, Carl Denham, is speaking on stage back in Manhattan. He says to the crowd that Kong, his eighth wonder of the world, "was a king and a god in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilization, merely a captive." The curtain goes up and unveils Kong tied to a cross in a Christlike pose. 

Call it The Passion of the Kong. If the gorilla in Kong and the one-eyed Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla died for our sins, then the King of the Monsters represented the apotheosis of them. He was the result of humankind playing God by splitting the atom. It's worth noting here that Godzilla, despite being bipedal, has a less humanoid face, and he doesn't have the love connection of Ann Darrow to ground him in the same relatability as Kong. Stripping him of these features, having him come ashore in a typhoon and leave extinct trilobites in his radioactive footprints, amplifies his primordial power to where he is more like Mother Nature.

Jets fly in, firing at Godzilla the way the biplanes did with King Kong. The image of Kong atop the Empire State Building, with the Chrysler Building in the background, is an indelible slice of Americana. If you ever visit Tokyo (unfortunately, foreign fans won't be admitted for the Olympics this year, due to the ongoing pandemic), you may also have fun spotting the landmarks Godzilla destroyed, like the Wako clocktower in Ginza, the National Diet Building, and the Kachidoki Bridge. Just don't go too picture-crazy, especially not if you're a journalist. Like Kong, Godzilla is driven to violence by the flashbulbs of press photographers.

When Kong comes to town, he attacks an elevated train, derailing it and pummeling it. Godzilla also puts his foot down on the railroad tracks, stopping a speeding train and rearing back with one of its cars in his mouth. They're both glimpsed from inside building windows as looming monstrosities that dwarf human-sized spaces. (Kong, the rear-projected peeping Tom, reaches in and drags women from their beds like a feral boy invading a Barbie dollhouse.) 

These visual echoes show how the gorilla's genes carried over into the gorilla whale. More than anything, what has given King Kong and Godzilla such staying power is how they both strive for a certain thematic heft over and above their city-leveling monster rampages. In Kong, Denham repeats his beauty-killed-the-beast idea so much that he becomes self-conscious about it, quipping, "I'm going into a theme song right here."

Godzilla's subtext is even heavier: he's an A-bomb emblem. Having the weight of a real war behind him helped him distinguish himself as something more than a mere imitator. One thing's for sure, whoever wins the bout of Godzilla vs. Kong, we ant-like humans are probably the real monsters.