Godzilla may be the King of the Monsters, but 1933’s King Kongshall forever remain the king of monster movies. With its state-of-the-art special effects, entertaining story and a touching climax,King Kong has rightfully earned its coveted label of “a classic”. The forerunner of event cinema and one of the first productions to blur the line between fantasy and reality, the picture is a thrilling relic of old Hollywood filmmaking. Additionally, more than an early creature feature, the film actually has a message to convey. In the decades following the release of King Kong, several rip-offs, remakes, and movies such as Jurassic Park have come and gone. Thus, due to advances in filmmaking technology, aspects of 1933’s King Kong have admittedly aged. Nevertheless, while watching the old black-and-white images which were assembled long before the advent of computer-generated imagery, it is impossible to not feel a sense of awe at the effects which were accomplished so many decades ago.
Whether you’ve grown up with King Kong, unearthed it from the annals of film history, seen Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, or simply caught most of the film’s famous scenes in passing, chances are everyone should be acquainted with the tale. But for the uninitiated, a brief overview is in order. A documentary filmmaker named Carl Denham (Armstrong) wishes to run across the map to the uncharted Skull Island which is said to be inhabited by a ferocious demon. Sensing the chance to film the island and show it to the world, Carl hires a crew and charters a ship to the location. But he needs a beautiful female lead for his picture, too. While searching on the streets of New York, Denham meets Ann Darrow (Wray) whom he hires as his leading actress. On the voyage to Skull Island, Ann falls for the ship’s tough-but-likable first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot). However, on the island, Ann is kidnapped by the island natives and sacrificed to the giant gorilla known as Kong. Kong becomes utterly fascinated with the fragile female, though, and he kidnaps her himself, all the while a search party ventures into the jungles of Skull Island to rescue her.
The seemingly simple story was padded out with continual scenes of thrilling conflicts and chases, all set at a breakneck pace by directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Cooper and Schoedsack had a great eye for visuals, and consequently Skull Island feels like a real location rather than a studio set. The best-known part of King Kong is, of course, the climax set atop the Empire State Building after Kong runs rampant on the streets of New York City. The image of Kong grasping the top of the Empire State Building while attempting to swipe the attacking bi-planes makes a powerful statement regarding humankind’s indiscriminate nature on the road to technological mastery. On Skull Island, Kong is king. In New York, though, he’s a rampaging nuisance. In this sense, it’s not so much beauty that killed the beast, but the inescapable march of progress. Kong has no place in the world of man.
It’s easy to see why King Kong was such a success back in 1933 and why it’s still hailed as a timeless masterpiece – it has lost little of its power to astound and astonish. However, viewers weened on slick contemporary cinema may not be easily wooed by the old-world cinematography, stop-motion special effects and stagecraft performances. Admittedly, these aspects make the film less accessible and less enjoyable for those unable to shed their contemporary sensibilities. Yet, all of these trivialities do not undermine King Kong‘s resonance and importance, nor do they diminish its value as a film. In an age of CGI-infested blockbusters, King Kong is an action-adventure with heart and soul that moves at an enthralling pace. Max Steiner’s accompanying score is one of the best, most engaging and most influential movie scores ever written. In fact, Steiner’s work for King Kong is often cited as the first full-length film score containing musical cues to underline specific segments of the story. It’s also interesting to see just how shocking some of the content is – Kong stomps on people, puts people in his mouth, and drops a woman off a tall building. A sequence was even filmed in which a few of Carl’s crew-members are attacked and killed by a bunch of spider-like creatures. This sequence – known as the legendary “spider pit sequence” – was excised, though, as it was deemed too shocking and it slowed the pace.
The performances, effective as they may be, are beholden to their specific place in cinematic history, and their grandiose gestures and theatrical expressions are barely acceptable in comparison to the top performances of today. Still, the lead three actors remain impressive. Robert Armstrong is solid as the excitable Carl Denham, with grand gestures and a booming voice. He actually feels like a film director, which is the greatest compliment one could pay the performer. Bruce Cabot is a tad wooden, but he’s nonetheless a convincing Jack Driscoll – he absolutely nailed the dashing hero persona. Completing the trinity is Fay Wray, who died in late 2004. Wray shrieked her way into the history books as Ann Darrow, and it’s consequently her most recognisable role. As with the rest of the cast, she largely went through the motions, but her innate beauty made her perfect for the character.
However, the real star of the production is the titular giant ape which was brought to life by special effects technician Willis O’Brien. Stop-motion animation and convincing rear projection was used to bring the creatures of Skull Island to life, with O’Brien refining the techniques he used for The Lost World back in 1925. Kong may not display the fluidity or grace of modern digital inventions, but this is compensated for in sheer personality – there’s more character in the gorilla’s eyes and facial expressions than in many of today’s live actors. Kong’s struggles, his capture and his eventual death all trigger staggering gut punches, and his love for Ann is so convincing that it’s easy to overlook his waxy eyes and puppet fur. During the moments in which Kong sniffs Ann’s clothes, touches his own blood in shock, swings angrily at the attacking bi-planes and takes one last longing look at his bride, he is intrinsically human. When the beast falls from the Empire State Building, he takes us with him. Kong is not a mere special effect or a puppet, but an actualcharacter. The other creatures on Skull Island are equally impressive. While it is possible to see minor faults in O’Brien’s effects, it barely matters.
After watching 1933’s King Kong in the 21st Century, one question springs to mind: if you put aside the film’s reputation in history and treated it as a piece of entertainment, does it still work? In this reviewer’s humble opinion, it does. Be it the grandiose scale, immaculate pacing, charming performances, enthralling score, or Kong’s undeniable humanity, this is a classic which deserves to be treasured. Watching King Kong reminds us of what blockbusters once were and what they had the potential to be. Cinematic special effects have improved over the years, but rarely are the effects complemented by the same amount of emotion or humanity that characterised King Kong. The film was a huge success back in 1933, to the extent that the studio – RKO – rushed out a hastily assembled sequel called The Son of King, which was released just nine months after the original.