An Appreciation – King Kong

The adventure film. Of all the genres and subgenres that movies incorporate, I feel that the adventure film is the one that excites people the most. It’s the kind of movie that can bring people to the theater in droves; it touches us in a way that no other film can. When we watch a really well-made adventure movie, it’s like being taken on a one of a kind ride. One moment, we are on the edge of our seats with suspense and anxiety; the next, we cover our eyes from the dangers that befall our heroes and heroines. Our eyes are glued to the screen as we are taken to exotic locations at the far edges of the world, meeting people of all different walks of life, our bowl of popcorn ready in hand. Of all the great adventure films that have been made, one of the first—and still one of the finest—is the classic film directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, King Kong (1933).

Perhaps no other screen animal is as famous or as recognizable as the giant gorilla known as Kong. He is the grandfather of all other movie creatures that go amok. Lines can be drawn from this film to other notable creature features, such as Jaws (1975), Alien (1979), or Jurassic Park (1993). Godzilla is a monster also of direct descent. Nearly any film in which an animal or creature terrorizes a civilization, with people running and screaming for their lives, owes a debt to this film. And with all of the notable influence that it has given, this still stands as one of the very best and well known of them all. It has entered popular culture perhaps for all time; those who have not even seen the movie know of the giant ape, clutching his female prisoner, standing on top of The Empire State Building as the planes fly all around him. And when you think about it, this is completely understandable, because the images and moments that this movie gives are so undeniably unique and creative that it has cemented itself as a part of classic film history.

It’s kind of amazing, really, because this movie was made in a time in which, thinking about it now, it’s kind of hard to fathom how they were able to bring such an epic story to the screen. With the limited amount of resources that the filmmakers had, they were able to construct so many of these unforgettable moments quite convincingly. Sure, in today’s high tech world, the visual effects that are shown would seem grossly outdated, and the look and feel of it would point towards that of a B-level monster movie. But I believe that the old-style feel of it is actually a part of its endearing charm. It was only made for about $600,000, but with that, Cooper and Schoedsack (along with Willis H. O’Brien, who spearheaded the special effects department), created a story that included a romance, a faraway island, dinosaurs, and New York City, all melding together and somehow working in a great and exciting way. It truly is an achievement of human creativity that this movie was made during the time that it was set.

Yes, the special effects are very noticeably fake and old-fashioned, but in its own way we accept it for what it is. In fact, I would argue that we would be much more easily forgiving of the special effects here than we would of a monster movie made today. Because the effects are so noticeable, we allow ourselves to use our imaginations to fill in the spaces that this movie leaves us. We watch the film knowing that we are not looking at a real giant ape; we are looking at a suggestion of a giant ape. Let’s compare this movie to Peter Jackson’s remake from 2005. In Jackson’s film, the special effects are much more advanced, but because of that, we think less of how convincing everything looks, and concentrate on the details that point toward how things are not real. We notice the glossiness of the CGI, and how everything doesn’t have the weight or presence of something that tangibly exists in the real world. When we look at a character that was created using a computer, we know this regardless of how sophisticated the technology is. Since this film is nowhere near being realistic, we accept those terms and go with it for what it is able to do. Yes, we can see that Kong’s fur is clearly moving because of the stop-motion animator’s fingers adjusting his position, but it allows us to use our imaginations to believe that something like this is actually happening.

In reality, it doesn’t really matter how superior the special effects are, because that is not what makes a movie good. What makes this movie such a success, apart from other monster movies or adventure films, is how well its story is told. Kong is one of the more unique monsters ever created, because he is very much a character that we can understand and side with. Unlike the creature in Alien or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Kong is not a being that attacks people simply out of a primal urge to cause destruction. In fact, Kong does not attack people until he is provoked, almost as if he was defending himself from the humans. He does not take Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) away as a prisoner with malicious intent, but because we sense that he feels intrigued by this person, almost as if he cares about her. We don’t believe that he would actually cause her any harm, and we root for him as he defends her from a T-Rex and other dangers. We could argue that Kong is not even the villain of the movie, but the protagonist, and it is the humans of the film who are the villains. They enter his home, trap him, bring him to a strange and unfamiliar place, and when he lashes out in fear and confusion, attack him with a hail of gunfire.

The story of the movie is as simple as it gets. Carl Dehnam (Robert Armstrong), a film director well known for going to exotic places to film his movies, picks up a poor and hungry Ann from the street, and casts her in his latest production. They set sail to an unknown destination, where Denham believes he can capture the uniqueness of a different place to help enhance his picture and gain more of an audience. During this voyage, Ann meets first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). What begins as a rocky beginning soon blossoms into a romance, as Ann and Jack quickly begin a new relationship together. But that bond is soon pushed to the side, as Denham unveils their mysterious destination, Skull Island. There, they encounter a native tribe, which Dehnam feels would be perfect to add as part of their film. However, the natives have a different idea in mind, in particular regarding the blond-headed female of the crew. Under the cover of night, the natives enter their ship and kidnap Ann, bringing her to their village, where Kong waits behind their enormous gated wall, seeing who they have chosen as their human sacrifice.

(Cont.)

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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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  • John

    I love King Kong. One of the great movie monsters. And this original film is still the best telling of the story.

  • Edmusinc

    I heard a great question once. Apparently Fay
    wray starred in something like over 100 films. Name 2.

  • Anonymous

    Great ‘re-review’. But be warned, there are a lot of people that love the 1976 version as well, even more than this version or the 2004 version.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickbman Rick Bman

    King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game, Count of Monte Cristo… and yeah, that’s all I got without looking her up.

  • Galaxiefilm

    There are also people who voted for George W. Bush the second time around, too — so, there’s no accounting for lack of taste…or lack of intelligence for that matter.

    Let me assure you that Dino’s version of KONG is in last place if you count the three versions’ fans.  The original probably still has the most supporters, followed by Jackson’s version, and then the Dino/Guillermin film.  In fact, if you’d be amazed at the number of people that hold Dino’s version in utter contempt.  It just doesn’t count.  (And the day after 9/11, I turned to a friend and said, “Well, the only good thing that I can see coming out of this is that Dino’s version of KONG is now obsolete.”)

  • Galaxiefilm

    Off the top of my head, I recalled KONG, MOST DANGEROUS GAME, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and THE VAMPIRE BAT.

    But what’s your point?

    She was a star years ago.  If she was a contemporary actress, we’d all recall more titles.

  • Galaxiefilm

    I agree with your observations, Allen.

    After seeing Jackson’s remake twice in a theater and in an even longer version on the DVD, I then rewatched the original KONG from my LaserDisc  and had a much better time.  Even for all of its slowness at the beginning, once we arrive at Skull Island, the thing just moves!

    The Jackson version suffers from being over-designed.  Even in the theater, I was starting to turn off when we got to the multiple Rex battle while falling down the chasm grasping at vines.  It was too much overkill.

    Furthermore, no matter how good Weta’s CG performance capture & animation was, it STILL moves like like a CG matte-painting in motion instead of something physically tangible.

    Also, I’m sorry, but there was more than just a little contempt for the original film on display in Jackson’s version — no doubt inputted from Jackson’s wife, who is a known hater of the original film.

    And finally, someone should tell Jackson about Alfred Hitchcocks rule that “the running time of any movie should be no longer than the endurance level of the human bladder.”  (Either that or he should learn to build in intermissions.)

    Give me the original any day.

  • Edmusinc

    I always forget Most Dangerous Game. Good call on that one.
    It was a trivia point that I heard a long time ago and just thought it was funny. The main point is that Fay Wray will always be indelably linked to King Kong. The image of her being tied up on that ceremonial pedestal in the jungle screaming her lungs out is burned into our collective memory. Yet as big a moment in cinema history as that is, most people don’t know her for anything else.
    It’s mainly just meant to show how our memory of history works. That’s all.

  • John

    I think a lot of people hold the 70s version in high regard because of memories from their childhood. I’ve seen it maybe a hundred times because it was on TV constantly in my youth. But when I watched it as an adult, I see all the bad effects, over the top acting, and cheesy dialog. With how much Dino De Laurentiis was promoting the movie to be the biggest thing of all time, it’s one of the more spectacular failures in the history of cinema.

    On a side note, Kong fans should be sure to read the very entertaining book King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson by Ray Morton. It covers behind-the-scenes info on every Kong film including lesser known entries like Son of Kong, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, and King Kong Lives.

  • Somewhatbob

    I saw the restored DVD a few months back. Fay Wray looks absolutely radiant.

    The only scene that really struck me as out-of-date was the battle with the biplanes, as they seem so primitive compared to modern aircraft.

    The movie still was exciting after 80 years.

  • Edmusinc

    It also holds the distinction of being Jessica Lange’s first on-screen nudity. So there’s that.