What's the big deal?
King Kong is an adventure horror film released in 1933 which was produced and directed by the duo of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Developed from a story by Cooper and English novelist Edgar Wallace, the film depicts the discovery of a remote island by a film crew that is populated by primitive natives, prehistoric monsters and a gigantic ape named Kong. The film stars Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong and featured many pioneering special effects for the time including stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien, matte paintings, rear projection and miniatures. The film was an instant success with critics and audiences alike with estimated takings around $5.3 million (this was during the Great Depression, remember - when nobody had any money) and has since been cited as one of the greatest films of all time. Controversially denied any Academy Awards at the time, the film was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1991 for its cultural, historic and aesthetic significance. The film has been followed by sequels and remakes in the years since while the character of Kong has become an international cultural icon.
What's it about?
Maverick filmmaker Carl Denham once again charters Captain Englehorn's vessel The Venture to help him make his latest picture. Denham's reputation for dangerous shoots in exotic and remote locations has hampered his search for a leading lady but he manages to convince the beautiful Ann Darrow to join him after meeting her on the streets of New York. Despite keeping tight-lipped about the nature of his next film, Denham sets off with the rest of his crew the next day and promises Englehorn further instructions at a future destination. During the long and uneventful journey, the ship's first mate Jack Driscoll falls for Ann despite his superstition about a woman on board the ship.
Eventually, Denham reveals that their destination is a previously uncharted and remote island off the coast of Indonesia dominated by a skull-shaped mountain and a vast wall built by a previously advanced civilisation. Denham has heard stories of a giant creature named Kong and intends to shoot footage for his film together with Ms Darrow. As the Venture drops anchor and the film crew approach the island through a thick fog, the sound of drums and the menacing appearance of the primitive natives gives everyone except Denham a deep sense of foreboding about the unimaginable horror they are about to find themselves in.
1938 Re-release trailer
John "Jack" Driscoll
Charlie the cook (uncredited)
|Directors||Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedback|
James A. Creelman & Ruth Rose*
Release Date (UK)
23rd June, 1933
Adventure, Horror, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
When you first start watching the original King Kong, there is an odd sense of being underwhelmed by the experience. For a while, the film seems trapped in a time of its own - Wray's wide-eyed performance and stunning beauty make the film feel reminiscent of classic silent films of the time but the rest of the cast seem to rush through their dialogue. It's diverting but nothing especially out-of-the-ordinary. Even when the film moves to the island and the screen is filled with scantily-dressed and uncredited extras, the most remarkable thing about the picture is the set of the native's village with the enormous wall protecting them from whatever lay on the other side. But even then, these were left overs from other films and based on the RKO set in Culver City, California. It teases you with its magic and is ready to let your imagination take over, filling in the blanks.
And then Kong appears and the whole film changes.
Naturally, the animation and model work are crude by the standards of today but even so, the quality of the effects is such that you simply don't care. As far as this viewer was concerned, once the sheer excitement of seeing cinematic history had passed then Kong was a living and breathing creation. Unlike the crispness of today's CG, there is something physical about Kong that is hard to ignore. When he picks up the screaming Ann or battles with a T-Rex, he comes across as much as one of the cast as any of his human costars. The effects are so good that there are able to portray different sides of the character - one minute, Kong is a vicious and violent force of nature with a shocking indifference to the damage he causes but the next, he is transfixed by Wray's beauty and becomes a gentle and caring presence. And despite the effects and the outlandish premise, you never question what you're seeing and feel the terror when Kong turns on his human captors and begins heading towards one of New York's most recognisable landmarks...
- Frankly, it would seem that you were lucky to get a credit for the film at all! Nearly all of the film's technical crew - from special effects to wardrobe to camera operators to most of the film's supporting cast - went uncredited as did Cooper and Schoedback as both directors and producers. However, the duo did appear on screen (uncredited, naturally) as the bickering pilot and machine-gunner of one of the biplanes used in the film's finale.
- When the film was re-screened in 1938, the US had implemented the Hays Code - a guideline to film studios that prohibited (among other things) scenes of intense violence, profanity, sexual innuendo and promiscuity. Several scenes were cut including the controversial scene where Kong undresses Ann but all were ultimately restored by 2005 except one. There is a scene now considered lost where Kong shakes a log with crew members on and four of them fall into a ravine and are eaten alive by giant spiders. Cooper himself cut the scene from the film and it has never been seen again.
- Producer David Selznick, who left the studio halfway through the film's production, wanted to nominate O'Brien for a special Academy Award for the film's special effects but the Academy declined as O'Brien would only accept the award if the rest of his crew were awarded gold statues as well, which the Academy balked at. Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman, who developed the rear screen projection technique to allow actors to react to the stop-motion animation, were the only individuals awarded by the Academy many years later with a Special Achievement award.
What's not to like?
The film's story feels a little underwritten in places - take the film's reliance on Wray's near-constant screaming once the film introduces its simian star and lets the effects take over. I was also surprised at the film's lack of moral judgement on its characters. Denham is clearly a reprehensible and reckless director concerned more for box-office receipts than the safety of his cast and crew. Even Driscoll, the hero and romantic lead, has some notable flaws that haven't aged well in our apparently more accepting society. Crucially, it does pass judgement on Kong himself and it's easy to see why some have criticised the film for negative racial overtones. However, I'm not convinced - the film is naturally representative of the time it was made in and is certainly a lot more palatable than other films of the period like Gone With The Wind.
Hand on heart, I haven't been so impressed with a film - both in terms of its technical and story-telling brilliance - since I watched Metropolis or Citizen Kane. King Kong is decades ahead of other films from the era in its mastery of visual effects and is arguably the first modern blockbuster in the Hollywood sense of the word. It continues to captivate audiences all over the world and turned the character of Kong into a global icon. Despite the film being remade in 1976 and 2005, this is the version you need to watch - not just because of its cultural significance (is there any scene in cinema that has become as iconic as Kong atop the Empire State Building?) but because the film is still a great and entertaining watch after all this time. Who cares about the effects, really?
Should I watch it?
Whether monster movies are your thing or not, King Kong should be an absolutely essential watch for anyone with even a passing interest in cinema. The film is charming and amazingly innovative for its time and keeps giving the viewer moment after moment which have since become indelibly linked with cinema itself. The movie nerd within me is delighted to find the magic is still very strong with this original version of the story which is easy to watch and impossible to forget.
Great For: inspiring filmmakers, cinephiles, saving RKO Studios from bankruptcy, monkey lovers
Not So Great For: black-and-white snobs, cynical viewers, anyone cheering on the monster
What else should I watch?
Kong has appeared in so many sequels, remakes, spin-offs and TV shows that he remains a symbol of American culture to this day. The first of these, Son Of Kong, was released just nine months later and was greeted by more mixed reviews this time around. The same can also be said of King Kong, the first remake which arrived in 1976 and starred Jeff Bridges and a debuting Jessica Lange. It introduced a lighter and more comic touch to the story which wasn't to everybody's tastes and is generally considered the weakest of the Kong remakes.
Putting up a better fight in 2005 was Peter Jackson, fresh off his triumphant Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Jackson's King Kong was a much deeper affair, spanning a three hour running time and featured the digital performance of Andy Serkis as Kong as well as a cast featuring Adrian Brody, Jack Black and Naomi Watts. Critically lauded when it was released, the film would go on to become one of the year's biggest earners although the studio felt the film's ballooning budget meant that it ultimately underperformed against their expectations. Kong's next appearance is the forthcoming Godzilla vs Kong, a sequel to the 2017 reboot Kong: Skull Island, which pits Kong against his long-standing Japanese rival Godzilla, the pair first facing off way back in 1962.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox