King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933)

A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

Producer Carl Denham and his film crew head off to an uncharted Pacific island to finish shooting a movie amongst the superstitious natives who worship a huge gorilla named Kong. What they don’t realise is that Kong is real and the gigantic beast abducts lead actress Ann Darrow after she is offered up as a sacrifice. Setting off in pursuit of her through the perilous jungle, Denham realises that there would be more money to be made if they could capture Kong alive and put him on show in New York.

 

What can anyone say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said? Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles ever made, King Kong has stood the test of time as an iconic, landmark film in history. Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows how it pans out. Even if you haven’t seen the original, the two remakes, countless imitations and numerous spoofs and references will have mapped out the film from start to finish. I suppose the attraction of watching King Kong nowadays is to become a part of history by immersing yourself in a film that transcends time.

I think people forget when this was made whenever they launch into criticism. King Kong was made in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression and only six years before the start of the Second World War. Countries were broke. People were penniless. It’s amazing to ponder the mindset of anyone trying to make something as grand and as spectacular as this during that time given how much of a financial risk it would be. Even the limited technologies available to filmmakers back then failed to deter Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack from attempting to break the mould and make a film that would be like nothing else that had come before. One can only imagine the reaction of being alive in the 30s and being used to the sort of films that were being made back then only to be confronted with King Kong on the big screen. The cultural impact is just too immense to even consider.

The likes of cutting-edge effects-driven spectacles such as Jurassic Park and more recently Avatar have rivalled King Kong‘s screen impact for newer generations but never topped it. There is just something awe-inspiring about the way in which this was all put together back in the 30s – a real labour of love for the cast and crew. Sadly, there is no question that King Kong has dated. From the Orientalist caricatures of the indigenous natives to the 30s fashions and the chauvinist sense of place that men and women both held in films right to the crackling sound and speeded-up action sequences, King Kong has seen its best days long, long gone. The acting by the three leads is of the old school ‘larger than life’ mould where they’re not so much as portraying characters but blustering through theatrical dialogue with all of the determination of a Renaissance dramatist. The script is full of schmaltzy old fashioned macho hero/damsel-in-distress nonsense but given the time period, it’s all perfectly acceptable.

Willis O’Brien deserves a lot of the credit for the success of King Kong. His legendary stop-motion special effects still hold up extraordinarily well today, turning Kong from a special effect into a fully-fledged character. Kong is invested with more heart and soul than 90% of human characters in every other film made. His mannerisms, expertly rendered by O’Brien, such as rubbing his eyes, shaking his head or pounding his fist instil the monster with a scary sense of humanity. He may be a thirty-foot ape but that still doesn’t stop the audience from immediately warming to him and eventually feeling sorry for him when he’s treat the way he is by mankind. The infamous, surprisingly poignant ending, atop the Empire State Building must rank as one of cinema’s greatest climaxes, both tragic and awe-inspiring at the same time. Equally as impressive is the fight between Kong and a T-Rex which finishes up with Kong breaking the jaw of the dinosaur in a show of raw, brute strength. To today’s audiences, the special effects will seem ‘fake’ but suspension of disbelief isn’t hard when the film is this good. O’Brien’s landmark effects paved the way for the likes of Ray Harryhausen to go further in pushing the boundaries of technology and in turn he influenced the next generation of artists like Spielberg, Jackson and Cameron. No King Kong, no cinema as we know it today.

The beauty with King Kong is that it’s not just visually impressive but it tells one hell of a story. People forget how well it plays out, full of thrilling action scenes, heart-stopping chases and romantic sub-plots. The build-up to Kong’s first sighting is skilfully manipulated. The dangerous trek through the jungle, featuring all manner of dinosaurs to pick off the crew, is as exciting as it is scary. Anywhere between thirty and forty of the crew are killed off during the film which is pretty horrific by today’s standards, let alone the 30s!

King Kong also saw the first time that an orchestral score was used to enhance the images on screen rather than have stock music run randomly alongside it without any sort of presence or purpose. Max Steiner’s score for King Kong saw the introduction of leitmotifs, where one recurring piece of music would be attached to an idea, person or place, saw its birth here. These ‘theme tunes’ could be sped up, slowed down or slightly altered given what was happening on-screen – think of the Imperial March theme from The Empire Strikes Back and how that was re-used in different forms across the series, or the shark’s theme in Jaws which was slowed down or sped up depending on the situation. It is a pivotal ingredient that we take for granted in film nowadays but something which saw its genesis back in 1933.

 

I could go on forever about King Kong and haven’t even scratched the surface in regards to the relationship between ‘beauty and the beast’ which led to the film’s most famous quote. I can’t say that it’s one of my favourite films because it’s not. But there’s no denying just how big of an accomplishment this film was and how much of an industry-defining impact it had. Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles of all time, King Kong is quite simply put one of the greatest films ever made. It truly is the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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