Directed By: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Kong
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here tonight to tell you a very strange story... a story so strange that no one will believe it. But, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we, my partners and I, have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible death. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a God in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization, merely a captive, on show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"
Nearly 90 years have passed since Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) introduced an enraptured audience to the mighty King Kong, yet the passage of time has done little to diminish the ape's pop culture status. Though the titular beast lost his life by the end of his 1933 debut, his legacy has continued to live on over the last century in the form of a direct sequel, a number of remakes and reimaginings, theme park rides, video games, comic books, and so much more. He'll even be returning later this month – March of 2021, if you're reading this in the future! – in Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong.
All this is to say that Kong has an everlasting appeal, both the character and film inspiring generations of creative minds and influencing countless creations that followed in their wake (see: Godzilla). The impact of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong is so grand that it almost feels redundant to even try and review the film at this point, as it's been dissected and analyzed the world over for decades. However, with the impending release of Wingard's big monster mash-up on the horizon, I found myself eager to toss my hat into the ring of conversation anyway, to break down why, in my perspective, the film as a whole remains such a vital piece of cinema history despite how – for better or worse – age has affected some of its individual parts.
Before I get started, though, as usual, a quick refresher on the plot: Filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong), seeking to shoot an incredible new project, has the crew of the S.S. Venture – spearheaded by Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and his first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) – take him and his newly-discovered lead actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to a mysterious island, tempted there by a strange map given to him and the allure of a mysterious being known only as Kong. Upon reaching the island and encountering its natives, however, Ann is kidnapped and given up as an offering to the very real, very dangerous Kong, who takes Ann with him into the heart of the island, with Denham, Driscoll, and others setting out after them in an attempt to rescue Ann.
Of course, we all know what happens next, as the film races to its New York City-set climax, only ever stopping for a quick breath to set up Denham's big Broadway reveal, the quick pacing of its narrative playing a large role in how the very structure of King Kong has become just as unforgettable as the titular character himself. Only ten minutes into the film have the characters set sail, and only a half hour later does Kong arrive on screen; the next hour after that – from his initial taking of Ann to his tragic plummet from the Empire State Building – feels as though it whizzes by in half the time, the film tossing any pretense of character work over its shoulder in order to sprint to the finish line.
While on one hand this focus on action over character carries with it some unfortunate side effects, which I'll get to in a moment, I would still argue that the choice to do so is exactly why the film has so much appeal. Ask any stranger on the street what the basics are of the tale of King Kong, regardless of whether they've actually seen it, and they'd likely be able to tell you: People go to an island, capture Kong, and bring him to New York, only for him to get loose and ultimately be killed. In honesty, such a simplistic take on the narrative is not wrong whatsoever, but the fact that it can be streamlined so succinctly, almost like a fable, is one of the very reasons why the film has endured, something so readily digestible, a template so easily built upon by others in the decades that followed.
In turn, the adventure at the core of the film becomes so rewarding because said pacing is stripped down its barest, most efficient form. The first half hour-plus holds its breath, building mystery, mounting tension – we know something is going to happen on that island – and once Denham's entourage makes it to the island, said suspense doubles when they come across a towering gate that separates the village of the island’s only tribe from the rest of the island. Aside from being an impressive set from a design standpoint, the gate stands as an emblem of the film's secrets up to that point. At the foot of the gate rests the questions; beyond it lay the answers.
One of my favorite shots in the entire film occurs soon after Ann is kidnapped. As she is led through the village by the excited tribe, eager to serve her up as an offering to Kong, the camera tracks the journey from a vantage slightly above the throng, Ann low in frame as the gate looms above and ahead of her. As the march forward carries on, the gate opens, revealing an altar a stone’s throw inside, framed in the archway and wreathed in shadows, and once Ann is shackled to the altar, an unwilling gift, we watch with the crowd as the gates then slowly close behind her, isolating her entirely and sealing her – at least momentarily – from our view, any hope of safety well and truly off the table. It's a masterful shot, both for the artistry in front of and behind the camera and for how effortlessly the moment encapsulates the film's own shift from raising questions to giving answers, sacrificing its own air of mystery alongside Ann in the name of raw adventure.
It is from this point on that the film becomes, essentially, one long action sequence, as the rescue operation maneuvers its way through the violent landscape of the island in Kong’s wake. They cross paths with a Stegosaurus and a Brontosaurus, as well as an angry Kong, who himself does battle with a giant snake, a Pteranodon, and even a Tyrannosaurus rex in order to protect Ann. Surprisingly, too, the film is rather explicitly violent along the way, something that's easy to forget between rewatches. Aside from the crew's over-the-top execution of the Stegosaurus, we explicitly see people get eaten alive, crushed underfoot, and fall screaming to their deaths only to be silenced upon impact. Kong even rips the T-rex's jaw open, blood visibly pouring out of the dinosaur's mouth, and plays with it afterwards! (Peter Jackson's 2005 remake also recreates said moment by having Kong do essentially the same thing, but there's something to be said about the creativity of it nearly a hundred years ago.)
Up through and including the climax, the whole package is propulsive and fantastical once the rescue mission begins, but, again, that journey into adventure comes with a price: The characters become props within the scenes rather than the scenes informing the characters. Denham, for instance, has little to do between Kong taking Ann and the capture of Kong, and even once the action shifts to New York City, Denham ready to show off his prize to the world, there's no payoff to his turn from optimistic artist to reckless opportunist. In a way, the deaths of everyone on the island can be laid at his feet for his refusal to use better judgment and leave for good once the tribe has warned him off, and his decision to bring Kong to the mainland, one that ultimately costs even more lives, carries with it no real penalty for his hubris. (To be fair, the sequel, Son of Kong, casually touches upon his character suffering legal consequences, albeit still without any ultimate penalty when all is said and done, but taken only within the context of this film, his arc feels somewhat incomplete here by not holding him explicitly accountable for his actions.)
Not faring any better is Ann Darrow. Fay Wray certainly earned her title as the mother of all scream queens, but it's unfortunate that that's essentially all her character is reduced to. Once Kong initially takes Ann, Wray's dialogue in the film is swapped out almost entirely for shrieking, fainting, and more shrieking, which almost undermines the weight of Denham’s famous closing line – “It was beauty killed the beast” – simply because said beauty really has no characterization of her own in any way that isn’t superficial at best. Even worse, the film thrusts a love story upon her with Cabot's Jack Driscoll that is one of the film's most egregiously aged points.
Driscoll, presented as the dashing, heroic leading man, is – for lack of a better way to phrase it – a pretty sexist piece of shit. For the first forty or so minutes of the movie, all he tends to do is complain about women. They're a bother, he repeats, but "they can't help it." Ann is a nuisance to him simply for existing. At one point, he even accidentally backhands her – after demeaning her, no less – yet an entire conversation goes by with her afterwards before he even attempts a half-hearted apology, all while Ann naively swoons over him anyway. In context of the period of time in which the film was released, of course, such sexist ideologies and lamentable views on masculinity were considered nothing out of the ordinary, with King Kong being neither the first nor last film to embrace it all, but it makes revisiting the film – at least the first act – a bit of a rough experience when said social tropes serve as the bedrock of the only real characterization we do get and the bulk of the film that follows is then built on the idea that we're supposed to root for this guy, of all guys, to rescue Ann from Kong and "get the girl."
As written and through Cabot's performance, Driscoll just isn't likeable, and when he tells Ann, "I love you," to which she peculiarly responds, "But, Jack, you hate women," only for the two to passionately kiss, the result is less a moment of romantic triumph and more something that falls completely and utterly flat, especially so when we learn near the end of the film – once the action has skipped several months and shifted to NYC – that the pair got engaged off screen during the time jump. Unfortunately, it also serves to underscore the notion that Ann has no real agency of her own; she's simply an object, a pretty face for Denham to pluck off the street and put into danger or for Driscoll to incessantly belittle until his hormones get the better of him.
And it's not just sexism that has dated the film, either: Unsurprisingly, there are some issues with regards to race that are impossible to overlook nowadays, too. From the presence of Victor Wong's Charlie the cook, an indefensible caricature that spouts lines like "Me no like" and "Crazy black man been here," to the presentation of the island's tribe as stock savages with no definable characteristics or culture to the subtext many have found in Kong's immediate attachment to a "golden woman," there's certainly a pin pushed through the film's soul that inherently locks it down to the time period of its release, one where the sorts of racism and sexism present within were viewed with little more than indifference.
Much has been said about these problematic tropes, and while I won't go further into them for the sake of brevity, they are an inseparable, inexcusable part of the film. As I set forth at the start of this review, to not acknowledge and assess them as part of how the film has aged would be irresponsible, though to use them to minimize or entirely dismiss the film’s legacy would be just as misguided.
In other technical ways, certainly, the film has also long been showing its age. Close-ups of Kong's face, for example, brought to life by a large animatronic, usually as he is chowing down upon an actor feebly pretending (and failing) to be in insurmountable pain, are woefully cheesy and thoroughly unnecessary, completely incongruent with the ape’s stop motion appearance. A shot late in the film, as Jack and Ann escape Kong's clutches by letting go of a vine they had been using to climb down a cliffside, is laughably bad, featuring two miniature dolls simply tossed into frame and into a pool of water.
That said, there's a difference between the natural aging of special effects and the evolution of regrettable cultural values; as such, it's impossible to hold the former against the film to the same degree as the latter. While King Kong owes a lot to the groundwork laid by his accomplishments with 1927's The Lost World, Willis O'Brien, his entire special effects crew, and the cinematography team made history with this film. From the stop-motion techniques and usage of miniatures to the numerous in-camera tricks employed to bring Kong’s world to life, it remains astoundingly impressive what everyone involved pulled off with this film, their work a marvel of ingenuity and creativity that has not lost an ounce of tangible passion, coursing through the veins of each and every frame, right down to the bubbling mud pits in Kong's cave.
Though Kong, a tragic figure in his own right, a symbol of nature and purity destroyed by needless greed, is iconic, so, too, is the mythology around him, and that's only possible because of the special effects work and the previously discussed mystery at the heart of the film's world-building. Like some of his less-bestial contemporary movie monsters, whether it be Dracula or Frankenstein's monster, the iconography of Kong is more than just the king himself. Like the mythos of Dracula, replete with everything from his brides and castle to his abilities and supporting cast, Kong has an entire mythos that has endured around him; even though Skull Island earned its name outside of this film, for instance – only "Skull Mountain" is referenced here – it's become a core part of who he is and what he represents, present in some way in every incarnation of the character to date.
Even Kong's heart is a staple of his mythology; he may be a "monster," but he's never exactly monstrous. He repeatedly fights to protect threats both direct and perceived to Ann throughout the film, whether it be his fellow island inhabitants or other humans he misconstrues as harming her, and even when he is under attack atop the Empire State Building by a squadron of biplanes, he chooses to set her down for her safety rather than bring her down with him. Where the admission of romantic love between Jack and Ann fails, this act of childlike love works because Kong is objectively innocent. Even though he had killed people, he was nothing like a sexist Driscoll or a greedy Denham, and what fuels the tragedy of his death is that it is flatly unfair, the king falling victim to a world he did not ask to be part of that chooses to punish him for being in it anyway.
That notion, the very essence of Kong's character and the allure of his story, is what has continued to keep the character and this film resonating in the cultural consciousness after nearly a hundred years. Despite some of the overt problematic faults present within the film, there's still a sympathy here for the titular figure that helps the film overall overcome them in terms of securing its place in the annals of film history, even if they shouldn't be outright forgiven. It's a landmark work – even composer Max Steiner changed the game by being the first person to create a feature-length score for a talking picture, setting a monumental precedent that cannot be overstated – and there's little wonder why the Eighth Wonder of the World remains an icon, one that will undoubtedly continue to endure through another century.
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