One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.
Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).
With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.
In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.
The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.
Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.
Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.
There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.
Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.
The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.
Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.
In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.
King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009