Written by: James Creelman & Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper & Edgar Wallace (idea)
Directed by: Merican C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World."
If there’s any justice in this world, then giant monsters will be a big deal with the imminent release of Pacific Rim. With that in mind, it seems like a perfect excuse to delve into the world of Kaiju flicks (not that we ever really need an excuse to watch movies featuring giant fucking monsters), where the logical starting point is 1954’s Godzilla (they don’t call him the King of the Monsters because he wears a crown). However, it really makes more sense to go back two decades to King Kong, who is really the godfather to every giant monster who ever terrorized humanity. Without Kong, one wonders if there would even be a Godzilla, and this is not to mention the other stuff sprung from his ample loins, such as all the affection that would be garnered by Willis O’Brien’s incredible effects work. Most famously, that affection begat Ray Harryhausen, who in turn begat The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which begat Godzilla, so you can see that King Kong is essentially the Abraham of the Kaiju.
He’s a big, big deal who most importantly starred in one of the most awe-inspiring films of all-time. King Kong didn’t just eventually inspire generations of filmmakers—it unlocked entire worlds and stretched the limits of what cinema could be. These days, big, effects-driven movies are sometimes dismissed out of hand as empty spectacle, but that’s exactly what Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were out to deliver: good, old-fashioned spectacle wrapped up in a huckster’s charm.
In fact, that’s what drives the plot of the film itself, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a showman known for delivering strange sights and sounds on screen, gathers a crew and heads off in search of Skull Island, a remote locale that may only exist in myths and legends. Whispers abound about the island’s natives, which are said to number both humans and monsters, and it’s the latter that obviously interests Denham. After plucking Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from the streets of New York City, he’s found his beauty, so all he needs is the beast. The ship’s approach to the island is masterfully economical and builds dread, anxiousness, and romance within the span of minutes. Ann begins to fall for the ship’s first mate (Bruce Cabot) as fog curls up into every frame and the specter of Skull Island hangs in the distance—it’s both spooky and exciting, like the old-fashioned pulp adventure tale that it really is at heart.
And yet, it’s also something of a modern fable, a morality tale highlighting the encroaching power of progress. In 1933, it would have been easier for audiences to believe that there was still a remote, unchartered corner of the globe that could have held wonderful terrors, and, while King Kong taps into that contemporary fear of exoticism (much like Island of Lost Souls), it turns that xenophobia inside-out by revealing mankind to be the true monsters. Carl Denham might not be as overtly monstrous as his overly ambitious contemporaries (read: Frankenstein, Henry), but he’s just as clueless as any of them, a two-bit sideshow act that doesn’t know when to quit. We don’t lump King Kong in with the parade of empty spectacle it eventually inspired because it’s an argument against empty exploitation since the film becomes a bizarre tragedy that positions the monster as a victim once he’s ripped from his natural habitat, where it seems like he’d be content to hang out without bothering anyone (compare this to Godzilla, who would emerge 20 years later doling out fiery vengeance in direct retaliaton of mankind’s sins). When Denham somberly insists that it “‘twas beauty killed the beast,” he’s just as clueless as the gaping onlookers that he’s supposedly correcting.
As such, King Kong is not only an early prototype for blockbuster filmmaking, but it’s the blueprint for doing it the right way: with heart, and there’s a huge one beating inside the various apparatuses bringing the title character to life. O’Brien’s technical wizardry is obvious and has been recounted for decades because his achievements were astonishing back then. Save for his own work on 1925’s The Lost World, no one had ever created anything quite like this yet, but the sheer size and scope of King Kong is even more miraculous. Modern audiences will no doubt hurl the “dated” accusation at it, which is technically true—because the movie is 80 years old and was produced at a time when pictures were just learning how to talk (both literally and figuratively). To say King Kong is “dated” is to state the obvious because it displays tendencies we don’t see much anymore, like stop-motion animation and stagey acting techniques. Nothing about the sheer wonder is dated, though. King Kong is a film that stretches across the years and still inspires awe; even if one isn’t aware of its context, it’s impossible not to marvel at how a ragtag crew (on a relatively modest budget, even) molded one of the most fantastic cinematic worlds of all-time out of clay.
They also breathed life into that world. Sure, the various set-pieces that see Kong and company plowing through Skull Island and New York City are thrilling and mesmerizing to this day, and the film moves with a spirited, two-fisted purpose, but there are actual characters here. Both Wray and Cabot might be playing stock characters—the doe-eyed damsel and the square-jawed hero—but they do so with a convincing earnestness. Of course, the real star is Kong, who is one of the most distinctive and magnificent monsters ever created; however, he’s also a truly distinctive character himself. O’Brien and company infuse Kong with an incredible amount of personality. Forget believing that he’s real and existing right there with the actors—it’s easy to believe that he’s something more of a beast, as he conjures up a palatable sense of pathos once he becomes the film’s victim. Without that, King Kong would be just another romp ‘em-stomp ‘em giant monster movie where the destruction takes center stage; instead, the destruction here is felt because it’s the result of a confused, almost childlike rage that eventually leads to his doom.
The film wisely doesn’t completely forego Kong’s more horrific elements. As expected, 80 years and several other iterations have turned Kong (and his pseudo knock-offs) into a cuddly giant monster mascot, so I assume some might fuss at even considering the original movie a horror film. However, Kong is downright scary, particularly in his habitat on Skull Island, where he’s considered a wrathful god lording over the island. Hidden behind the natives’ protective fence, he only emerges for the ritual sacrifice that offers up one of the island’s girls. His first appearance is both creepy and awesome all at once: as a result of Denham’s intrusion, the natives kidnap Ann and sub her in for the ritual, where she dangles in terror until Kong creeps through the tree-line and clutches her, an act that produces unholy screaming from Wray (making her the godmother to scream queens, surely?).
Contemporary audiences might have especially gasped at the horror of this exotic beast clutching this pure, lily-white representation of culture (and the unseemly, quasi-racist depictions of the natives would have aided in such a feeling), especially once Kong begins to practically unpeel her clothing like a banana skin (a scene that was eventually removed by Production Code censors). King Kong proves to be more progressive than to wallow in such indecorous baiting, though, as he does becomes both a gentle giant and a ferocious protector all at once—this is a film that features a beast with a confused, adolescent infatuation and a penchant for shoving people into his giant maw and crunching them between his teeth.
That ample mix of awe and terror best captures the wonder of King Kong. It’s a cliché to say this, but it’s a film that really grabs our imagination as young kids because Kong himself kind of feels like one of us—just a misunderstood creature prone to lashing out. He’s certainly proof that’s it’s possible to love monsters, and he’s the one that awakened an infatuation that’s ongoing. Two years later, Dr. Pretorius would toast to “a new world of gods and monsters” in The Bride of Frankenstein, but it was King Kong that truly ushered us there. I’d hate to know what a world without Kong would look like because “monster movies” may represent the purest form of horror movies in their ability to both scare and delight. Whether it was Kong, Dracula, or even Freddy Krueger, I’m guessing most of us owe our fascination of the genre to one monster or another. As Guillermo del Toro himself said, “the first thing you love is monsters,” and the world got a hell of a one to fall in love with in King Kong, a film that doesn’t just work as a curious relic that’s been calcified in a museum. Rather, it’s still potent—you don’t even have to meet it halfway to feel both its horrors and its charms. Essential!
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