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 Sure, in today’s high tech world, the visual effects that are shown would seem grossly outdated, and the look and feel of it would point towards that of a B-level monster movie.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.