An Appreciation – King Kong
Now, the beginning of the film is the weakest part of it. The movie is not known for its great acting or its well-written dialogue. In fact, the acting here is quite poor, especially in the opening passages. Everyone’s performances feel flat and stilted, and each person speaks as if reading from a cue card. This was Bruce Cabot’s first film role; he was cast without having any prior professional training, and it clearly shows in his performance. There are also quite a few inconsistencies that can be pin-pointed (if the captain of the ship has no clue where they are heading or has never been to this strange place, how can he all of a sudden be able to communicate with the natives almost as if he knew their language fluently?). Today’s audiences could see the depiction of the natives in their tribal outfits, face paint, and ape costumes, as being borderline offensive. Even Fay Wray, who has been the most remembered person associated with the film, spends much of it screaming at the top of her lungs. But as soon as Kong arrives on screen, the film slams on the gas pedal and does not let up until it is over. From that classic moment where we see Kong push through the trees with Ann tied up in front of him, the film is a non-stop action extravaganza, with Jack and the rest of the crew running into the jungle in an attempt to rescue her.
There are a number of memorable scenes that we remember distinctly after seeing the film. One such moment is when the men, already suffering losses from encountering other beasts of the forest, get stuck on a log bridge with Kong on one end. Kong picks up one side of the log and begins to toss and turn it, with the men clinging for dear life, some falling deep into the cavern below. This is a noticeably unrealistic scene, involving stop-motion animation and back projection, but I found myself riveted by how well they were able to pull this off. There is a famous cut scene in which the men who fell into the cavern are attacked and eaten by a giant spider. This scene, although not as shocking today, was considered much too violent and gruesome for the time, and was removed. The scene had been lost for years, but a recent DVD release includes a very authentic recreation made by Peter Jackson. The style and tone in which Jackson recreated the scene almost feels like it could be integrated into the movie without anyone noticing the difference. It’s very well made and provides a glimpse into how the scene could have been, and we sense how unnerving it could have been for audiences at the time.
I think what puts the film on such a high pedestal is the final act of the movie, where Kong is brought to New York City and goes on his final rampage. After Jack rescues Ann, Kong is brought down by Carl and the rest of the crew with the use of smoke bombs. I was actually kind of surprised by how effective the scene is with its action and violence. We have Kong stepping and crushing people, eating them, and destroying their huts. But once Kong is brought down, Carl, in all of his greed and lust for fame, decides to bring him to New York and display him as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Once we see Kong displayed, shackled in front of that large audience, flash bulbs going off all around him, we feel that the film has taken a step toward its iconic status. Not only do we get this bigger-than-life creature, we now have him in the middle of a bigger-than-life city. We know and anticipate that Kong will break out of his braces, storm out of the theater and into the streets, tossing over cars and subways, people running away for their lives. It’s an incredible scene, really, to see this ape going haywire in between the tall skyscrapers, reaching into apartment buildings to grab people, wanting nothing more than to find Ann and escape to safety.
Of course, there is only one place where the end of the film could possibly be set, and it is the top of the Empire State Building. What a perfect set piece this is, having Kong carry Ann, climbing up one of the world’s tallest buildings. Once he reaches the top, up amongst the clouds, we get the final showdown between Kong and the planes. Such a memorable image this is, one that people can still recall today and one of the timeless moments still associated with the building itself. I think what makes it so memorable is just how odd and absurd the idea is. To have this huge gorilla standing on top of an actual real life building is strange to even comprehend, but that’s what makes it so easy to place in our minds. Even the size of Kong increases when he gets there. When we first see him, he’s the size of a house, but by the time we get to The Empire State Building, he’s almost 50 feet tall, but it contributes to the scene’s effectiveness. Also, what adds to the scene is the tragic aspect of it. Kong never wanted to be in this position, and he never actively searched for it or wanted to cause mayhem. But his fascination with Ann, combined with the greed of man, brought him here, and I wonder if Kong realized that his fate was sealed the moment he started climbing that building.
Taking a step back, I found myself surprised to be thinking about how Kong felt during the events of this story, but that’s what makes King Kong such a great movie after so many decades. Because we can somehow sympathize with Kong and his situation, we become attached to this film despite its faults and shortcomings. Once we understand the monster, we realize that the movie is more than just a scream fest. This film is one of the great achievements of the action-adventure genre, showing that no obstacle is too hard to overcome if human creativity and willpower is there to make it happen. Yes, there are movies that are much more advanced, bigger, and more realistically convincing, but this film still works as the standard that all those should look to follow. It is the epitome of what great filmmaking should be, where technology and money take a backseat to storytelling, emotion, and character.