This year is the 85th anniversary of the release of the film King Kong. The film was a huge success when it was released, it made a great deal of money at the box office, and its success saved RKO Studios from falling into bankruptcy. Besides the spectacular Stop Motion effects that the film features, King Kong is probably best remembered for Fay Wray ripping her lungs out screaming in terror, as she is kidnapped by the giant ape of the title. The film is a great deal of fun. I really like the film but I do have some issues with it which I’ll get to in a bit.
King Kong really is a milestone in the history of Stop Motion Photography. The very clever process had been around for some years previously, but the way it was used in this film far eclipsed anything that had come before. Next to the work of Ray Harryhausen, I would say that this film is one of most significant and important stop motion films ever made.
Stop Motion Animator Willis O’Brien and his team of miniaturists, technicians and painters all worked marvels on this film. Their work made it seem like King Kong was a real giant ape. I love how they made it seem like Kong was far larger than his natural surroundings, and how he was also larger than any people he comes across and therefore he seems quite intimidating and frightening to them.
I especially love how Willis and his team managed to achieve medium shots of Kong in front of surroundings (be it jungles, cliffs or New York City)and made it look like he was bigger than everything around him. I also liked the shots where they also managed to make it look like he had Fay Wray (looking tiny in comparison to him) trapped in one of his hands. It’s incredible what they managed to achieve on this film in regards to the technical side of making the film.
I also love how they managed to make Kong’s face express a wide range of emotions. Kong is shown as being curious, sad, angry and scared at various points in the film. The emotions of Kong are what make me marvel at this film so much; Kong is made so much more than a mere wow factor special effect, his emotions mean that we connect with him and consider him to be real; therefore we also feel for him as the film goes on and he becomes hunted and harmed.
Kong wasn’t the only Stop Motion character in the film either. There are dinosaurs on Kong’s island and they too are made to come alive through the magic of Stop Motion. The scene where Kong fights a flying dinosaur on a cliff edge is one of my favourite scenes. I also like the scene where a man is attacked up a tree by a dinosaur and gets eaten in the process. The dinosaur sequences are just as impressive as the solo Kong shots. The scene where Kong and dinosaur fight in the swamp is a highlight of the film.
King Kong was directed by Merian C. Cooper (who also created the character of Kong)and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)has charted a ship under the command of Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher). The ship will take him and his film crew to the unexplored Skull Island. Denham wants to shoot his new film there.
Along for the ride is Denham’s leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray)a young woman left hungry and desperate due to the Depression. Denham sees potential in this gal and he intends to make her a star. On the trip to the island Ann falls for the ships First Mate, the rugged and gruff Jack Driscoll(Bruce Cabot). I love the scenes between them, but I dearly wish we could have had more scenes where we get to witness their relationship developing.
When the ship reaches the island the crew go ashore. There they find a tribe of natives who live in a village near a massive wall and gate built along the side of the jungle which lies beyond. They leave in a hurry when the natives spot them and head towards them. A few hours later some natives come out to the ship and kidnap Ann. She is taken ashore and tied up on the other side of the wall. She is prepared as an offering to the giant ape Kong, who lives in the jungle and is worshipped as some sort of god by the natives. Jack and the others head back to the island to try and rescue her.
Ann sees Kong. Screenshot by me.
Kong takes Ann through the jungle (fighting off dinosaurs along the way)to his clifftop home. When they are alone he becomes very curious about her and studies her, prods her with his fingers and handles her so gently. I love the scenes where he studies her because he is so fascinated by her. I also like how he is so gentle with her after we have just seen him kill and destroy in the previous scenes. There is something about Ann that draws him to her, and even though she is terrified of him, he can’t bear to part with her. Is it love on his part? Who knows, but there is certainly something that makes him desperate to keep her with him from now on.
Jack finds Ann and together they manage to escape from Kong by climbing down a vine. Kong goes crazy and chases them. He breaks through the wall and gate, destroys the native village, kills (in pretty graphic detail)many natives as they flee, and gets closer and closer to Ann and Jack. Down on the beach, the ships crew manage to stun Kong and they sedate him and put on the ship. Kong is then taken back to New York and exhibited as the Eighth Wonder Of The World. Kong breaks loose from the stage of the theatre where he is being held and stumbles around the streets of the big city looking for Ann.
Climbing up the outside of a building he peeks through a window and sees a woman, thinking it is Ann he reaches in and grabs her; this lady isn’t Ann and she is terrified, he throws her and she falls screaming to her death. Kong continues his climb and finds Ann on another floor, he reaches in and grabs her. Then he roams the streets again trying to escape the noise of the city. He also attacks an elevated train and kills several people.
Then he climbs the Empire State Building and gazes down on the city below. A group of fighter planes are dispatched to shoot him. He places Ann down on the roof of the tower and stands to his full height and tries to grab the passing planes, but he cannot prevent himself from getting shot down and he falls to his death. The Empire State Building sequence is the real highpoint of the film and it has become one of the most famous scenes in film history. There is so much suspense in this scene and the whole thing looks truly epic.
The Empire State Building finale. Screenshot by me.
On the ground people gather around the giant body of Kong. Denham utters the famous last lines of the film: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast”. This line sums up the film really, it is one of the best takes on the beauty and the beast story out there. Kong loves Ann in some way, and when he is with her he is gentle and protective instead of ferocious and cruel. He never hurts her either. Kong is the real victim of the film, instead of Ann because he is used and persecuted. Also his affection for Ann wasn’t returned by her (unlike in the Jackson remake, Fay Wray’s Ann is utterly terrified of Kong throughout the film)at any time, so even the person he likes doesn’t return the same feelings he does. Poor old Kong, my heart goes out to him so much as the film goes on.
As a viewer I am always torn about just how I want the famous final scene of this film to go down. On one hand I really pity Kong and I want him to escape and be able to somehow live happily. I always wish that those bullets will miss him as they are fired. On the other hand he has killed many people in the city and done so much damage that at this point he is a major danger, menace, and he has become quite scary too, so part of me does accept and understand why he has to be stopped. This scene still packs quite an emotional punch today I think. The scene is so well put together and paced and it delivers a thrilling and suspenseful finale to the thrill ride we’ve been on.
As much as I enjoy the film, I also have a number of issues with it too. I really like the effects but I think the characters are very underdeveloped which is a real shame. I think a few more scenes on the boat would have been good to allow us more character development. I also think that the acting is pretty bad, some of the actors yell their dialogue, and some talk in quite a rushed way too. Reicher and Cabot deliver two of the better performances in my opinion, but even they are not as good as they could have been. Fay Wray spends more time screaming than she does delivering lines of dialogue! The cliché depiction of Ann as a helpless damsel in distress really gets on my nerves. All these things really annoy me because I don’t care about any of these characters at all, and I often cringe at most of the scenes featuring humans only. Kong delivers the best performances in the film in my opinion.
There are many films of this decade featuring far better acting and character development than what we see here. I worry that if any young viewers see this as their first foray into classic era film that they may (quite understandably )be put off. This may mean they won’t check out other classic films because they think the acting will be like this in all films from this decade in particular (we know that isn’t the case), and they may take one look at this film and never return to the classic film era again. I think it’s such a shame that the human side of this story got lost along the way somehow.
A few more scenes with Kong and Ann would have been beneficial too I think so there could have been more interaction between them. I think more scenes between them would have given us a chance to see Kong’s affection for her develop even more.
I do love how dark and graphic this film is. There are many scenes of Kong and the dinosaurs killing people and eating them. During the code era many of these scenes had to be cut from the film on re-release due to them being deemed to graphic. The scene where Kong takes off some of Ann’s clothes and examines them was also cut because it was sexually suggestive. I’d hate to have seen this butchered version because all those scenes are among the best in the film! The violence of Kong also serves to show how differently he behaves when Ann is around.
The depiction of the natives of Kong’s Island is also pretty bad. The native characters are even less developed than the main characters are. The natives are also dressed in the cliché native style of grass skirts and bangles. A few scenes that allowed us to get to know them and their culture better couldn’t have hurt.
85 years on from its release, and I think that King Kong still astounds viewers and has held up pretty well as a very enjoyable adventure film. I will take stop motion and practical effects over fake looking CGI any day of the week because they look so much better. I wish I could have been in the first audiences for this film to have seen how everyone reacted to Kong.
What are your thoughts on the film?