Entering April, we’re set for a long-awaited showdown between household names. Folks starved for sporting spectacle studied their brackets all through March. Now, as we await the final battle, the world wonders who will come out on top: King Kong or the King of All Monsters.
Oh, also, apparently there’s some college basketball going on.
In the fight between the Giant Ape from Skull Island and Godzilla, the Pacific-born lizard birthed from nuclear angst, we in fact have a rematch. While it would appear that a semi-aquatic T-Rex would have the clear advantage, Kong appeared to best him in their last bout (1962’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla”) when he used heretofore unknown lightning powers on his scaly foe.
But let’s not waste too much time on who will win here. Forget the over/under; who should be first in our hearts? Here’s what Jews should consider when “Godzilla vs. King Kong” hits theaters and HBO Max March 31.
King Kong first appeared in 1933 in his eponymous film as an imposing primate who favors blondes and swatting at biplanes. Kong was the creation of Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, neither of whom was Jewish.
Yet Cooper, who co-directed “King Kong” with Ernest P. Schoedsack, had a 1920 encounter with Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel in a Soviet POW camp. Author Elif Batuman discovered that in his diaries, Babel wrote a record of his interrogation of a “shot-down American pilot” named Frank Mosher, who, it turns out, was an alias of Cooper. “Mosher” and Babel had an “endless conversation” where the Yankee pilot kept asking “frantically what Bolshevism is.”
Babel was apparently quite taken with Mosher, writing that he left him with a “sad, heartwarming impression.” It seems that Babel, likely the “unnamed English-speaking Bolshevik” mentioned in an Associated Press story about Cooper’s near death by Cossack cavalry, saved his life — and thus, Kong’s.
Godzilla’s origins have shifted over the years since Toho Studios introduced him in 1954. But it’s undeniable that the monster’s rise is linked to the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sadly, Jews had a part in this massive loss of civilian life. J. Robert Oppenheimer was instrumental in the Manhattan Project. Einstein’s discoveries played a pivotal role in Oppenheimer’s work, and the German-Jewish physicist signed a letter encouraging FDR to support research into chain reaction, fearing the Germans would succeed in developing the atomic bomb. Both men had regrets — Oppenheimer for how the U.S. failed to explain the true power of the bomb to Japan in their ultimatum, Einstein for the carnage he helped inspire. We’ll follow their example.
King Kong is a hirsute beast with an affinity for uber-Aryan women. He plays into some ugly and recognizable stereotypes when a Jewish lens is applied. It doesn’t help that he had a stint on the Great White Way. While we’re often likened more to rats and other vermin, there are instances of Jews being antisemitically compared to apes. It could be hazardous to identify too strongly with him.
Godzilla is a mammoth reptile of variable scale and skill sets. He’s a fantastic swimmer who is alternately a savior or a wanton force of destruction. Sometimes he is a loving father and sometimes a mother. On other occasions, he’s a wrathful leviathan awakened from a deep sea slumber. Godzilla’s fungible character traits make him hard to pin down, but it’s because his associations are so slippery that he may be the monster to back — if only because King Kong brings to mind some less than welcome baggage. At the risk of being labelled Lizard People, root for the G-man.
Godzilla is the favorite when it comes to all the stats, perhaps having one major setback: his ability to move through a metropolis without being impeded by a skyline. Which is a pretty major gripe, come to think of it. Let’s stick to a town both brawlers paid a visit to. When Godzilla visited New York in 1998 it ended poorly for the city, whereas Kong’s method of swinging and scaling is far more measured in its destruction of property. In fact, one could argue that even Kong’s fatal plummet in Midtown helped cement the then newly-erected Empire State Building’s status as an icon, drawing tourists to this day.
If Godzilla wins, he should be stuck with the bill. Kong at least tries to minimize the havoc, and for that, he should be commended.
King Kong may have won the last round, but that was a long time ago, and it seems unlikely that his electric powers — which make little sense given his fatal affair with a lightning rod — will come back to save him from becoming scorched bushmeat. Even overlooking Godzilla’s radioactive breath, Kong is in another height and weight class than his competitor. Godzilla’s a good 56 feet taller; the precise difference in tonnage is unknown but we can bet that this Godzilla, thicc as he is, has the scales tipping in his favor. Kong can be nimble and has wits to outsmart the hulking irradiated iguana gunning for him, but will it be enough?
Kong appears to be the David in this fight, and Jews always stan an underdog.
Reputation and Outreach
Godzilla has worked closely with Members of the Tribe, most notably in what may be his worst appearance in over 60 years of films, 1998’s “Godzilla.” The titular kaiju split billing with Matthew Broderick, character actor Michael Lerner and a good chunk of the voice cast of “The Simpsons,” notably Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer.
While there weren’t many reports of the monster being difficult to work with, the end product doesn’t speak well for this collaboration. Ben Shapiro once likened his appearance at U.C. Berkeley to a Godzillian rampage. All in all, not the best optics, especially when we consider how the fearsome behemoth disrupted the Knicks’ ‘98 season by laying eggs at Madison Square Garden.
King Kong is often framed as a misunderstood creature who learns something of humanity through a flaxen-haired damsel. His story has had fewer opportunities to grace the screen than his opponent’s, but the results have been more consistent in quality (forgetting the one from the 1970s).
2005’s Peter Jackson remake was a wondrous, if bloated, re-visitation helped along by performances by Adrien Brody as a nebbish screenwriter and Jack Black as a manic film director. “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jewish auteur Jordan Vogt-Roberts, brought some much-needed levity to the MonsterVerse, which began with the dour 2014 “Godzilla.” Kong also has extensive musical connections to the People of the Book. Craig Lucas and Michael Mitnick penned the early lyrics for “King Kong” the musical. Max Steiner composed music for the first film and James Newton Howard did the score for Jackson’s remake which, itself, spawned this Jack Black song about napping in his trailer on the set of said film.
Things appear to be copacetic between the oversized gorilla and the Jews, from his incidental affiliation with a Russian-Jewish luminary up to his most recent revivals. But there is one giant caveat we must attend to in the way of a problematic fan.
Depending on your source “King Kong” was either Adolf Hitler’s favorite film or one he very much enjoyed. Yet, great art can have troubling admirers and vice versa. (I mean, the original film — and many of its successors — is incredibly racist when it comes to Skull Island’s inhabitants; one could see why Hitler might dig it.) And the author of a book on Hitler’s cinematic proclivities says there’s no hard proof that the Führer ever even watched it.
Looking at the score card, we have a clear winner in our hearts — even if he’s probably marked for a horrible death.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.