As a kid, I didn’t understand why anyone could cite King Kong as their favorite monster. If monsters were like a box of toys, Kong would be the one I would always pick last. (Like how my sister constantly neglected imitation Barbie dolls that weren’t manufactured by Mattel.) Because I was born in 1981, I could watch every classic monster movie ever over the course of a summer on VHS. Compared to his peers, Kong wasn’t outrageous enough to be cool. A famous monster needed powers, fangs, scales, fire breath, transformation powers, or at the very least should have looked like something you’d never see in a zoo. Because apes are real, I wasn’t convinced a giant one might not exist somewhere in the world. Plus, there were just too many human characters in the movie, and the money shots I craved of an over-sized monster tearing up a city didn’t come until the very end.
However, I was wrong! King Kong works because its premise is (mostly) convincing and perhaps even plausible. This film was a talkie made for grown-ups who may or may not have been ready for the meta-fictional meditations of a giant ape who loved a woman and the film director who needed them both.
Unless you’re an impatient squirmy-pants who needs explosions on the screen every 30 seconds to keep your attention, then you’ll probably agree that the pacing of King Kong is pretty damn good. (Considering the movie was made in 1933.) From the first shot the mood is established: a theatre agent walks along the foggy New York docks and controversy surrounds the impending departure of a certain ship. Is the trip doomed? Has egomaniac movie director Carl Denham gone too far this time? Where is the ship headed, anyway? Right away, a plot-driven movie is being presented to the audience, which is actually a little misleading, because King Kong’s story is actually a little more complex than that.
Here’s the set-up of King Kong in brief: film director Carl Denham embarks on a mysterious journey to an island not plotted on any western maps. With him he takes Ann Darrow, a beautiful down-on-her-luck girl who he finds on the streets of Manhattan attempting to steal some fruit. With Ann and a motley crew of for-hire sailors including “The Skipper” and the square-jawed handsome, (supposedly) dashing first-mate Jack, Denham sets out for the mysterious island where the film director is sure he’ll find some totally crazy shit that will serve as the subject of his next film.
Some of the writing is little rocky at first, and the clunky, outdated warts of the film are visible mostly in these early scenes. Denham wants the ship to leave the dock ASAP, either because they’re carrying a bunch of illegal explosives or because of an impending monsoon storm. But which is it? The plot device keeps changing. Denham also keeps the location of the island a secret from The Skipper and Jack until they’re practically five minutes away from it. Why? He’s already loaded a bunch of gas bombs and guns onto the ship, why not let them in on the rest of the plan?
When he does reveal that they’re headed to an island no one has ever heard of, everyone stands around and says that they’ve never heard of it. But then, the Skipper randomly has heard of the “native” legend of Kong. Which natives are these? Natives of what exactly? The sort of racist caricatures that pervaded Johnny Quest cartoons are on full display in King Kong. It’s pretty sexist, too, with Jack actually accidentally slapping Ann in an early scene, and apologizing several minutes later. Then, you’ve got Charlie, the “oriental” cook who is clearly not played by an Asian man, and is doing a terrible Charlie Chan sort of faux-accent while peeling potatoes. Luckily, the movie isn’t about any of these things, and if you’ve got your wits about you, you’ll recognize these are just unattractive byproducts of the era in which the film was made. Also, the movie is doing so much work to remind you what you’re watching is a MOVIE that the meta-fictional aspects almost excuse some of the cultural insensitivity.
Seen from what I think is the correct vantage point, King Kong isn’t the story of a monster abducting a woman and traipsing through Manhattan, but instead a story about how artistic expression can bleed out into the real world. Carl Denham is dead-set on making a movie about whatever monster or monsters lurk beyond Skull Mountain. Because he’s a hacky filmmaker (and rightfully portrayed as one) he’s slapping on a simple “Beauty and the Beast” metaphor to the movie he’s trying to make. He’s so sure of this simple premise that he even has Ann practice screaming at the sight of “the beast” before they reach the island.
This is perhaps the most perfect moment in the entire movie because the scream Fay Wray’s Ann emits on the deck of the ship is identical to the scream she ends up emitting over and over again once Kong shows up for real. This doesn’t make the structure of the movie determinist or sloppy, but instead highly theatrical and smart. From above the deck, the Skipper and Jack talk. Jack (a total bro and a moron) says in reference to Denham “Think he’s crazy?” to which the Skipper replies “No, just enthusiastic.” It’s at this point the audience should realize that none of the characters are all that bright. They’re all average, dull, maybe even dim-witted people who are on a collision course with total disaster. And I believe this is the movie’s intention. Smart people wouldn’t have gone out in search of Kong to make a hacky movie. Instead, this enterprise is being lead by a lunatic and supported by people who are ignorant, desperate, or on his payroll.
Imagine a reality show about a bunch of idiots going to try and make a movie about capturing a giant ape. They’re asked to come up with some kind of premise as to what they’re movie would be about. Even without King Kong sitting in the collective unconscious, our potential group of idiots would likely come up with Carl Denham’s hacky “Beauty and the Beast” premise. The reason why the movie is thematically awesome is because it’s realistic. Did Denham actually want to abandon the film project and bring Kong back to New York as a live act? Probably not initially because such a thing, for a rational mind, would have been too costly and dangerous. But post-island danger, Denham and Ann and Jack all start to believe in their own mythology. (To be fair, Ann is probably the smartest person among all the characters, insofar as she’s not in denial of her fear. Any reasonable person would be screaming for the entire movie, too.) In any case, the belief in this self-mythology is what leads to terror descending upon New York. Denham’s final line “it was beauty who killed the beast” is ironic because Carl Denham killed Kong by bringing him to New York AND by being an egomaniac who allowed his insane concept of blending art with real life to put a lot of people in danger. This to me is why the movie is brilliant. The monster is Denham.
But this is a monster movie, with a proper monster, so what about the visuals? Once we start to see the interior of the island, the gorgeous stop-motion monster stuff will delight anyone how has an appreciation for the craftsmanship of this wonderful lost art. As a child I remember loving the scene where Kong fights the T-Rex and I’m happy to report it is still gripping and looks perfect. The thing I think people tend to forget about this scene is how brutal King Kong is when he finally kills the T-Rex. Kong pulls open the jaws of his enemy until he literally BREAKS HIS FACE. The cracking sounds are chilling. King Kong is a killer, far worse than anything the characters could have conceived of. Willis O’Brien was of course the stop-motion maestro responsible for King Kong and his apprentice was none other than Ray Harryhausen. Though Harryhausen didn’t work on King Kong, he would later meet Willis O’Brien and even collaborate with him on the original version of Mighty Joe Young in 1949. It could be argued that the world would not have been given Harryhausen’s brand of stop-motion if it were not for Willis O’Brien’s work on King Kong. Indeed, the visual effects of Kong also inspired Eiichi Tsuburaya, the man responsible for Gojira (Godzilla) who, if Tsuburaya had had his way, would have also been rendered as stop-motion monster.
The influences King Kong has precipitated on movies and the cultural are probably too numerous to actually catalogue but I think it’s easy to assert that none of the sequels or various remakes are remotely as brilliant as the original. (For one thing the Peter Jackson version is just too long.) But in this 1933 film, all of the meta-fictional jibes and dramatically ironic punches land perfectly. For a movie about a giant ape, it’s all fairly elegant.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.