The AFI Top 100 Films: King Kong (#43)

Entertainment 150King Kong (1933)
Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace (story)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

I think most people from my generation know all about King Kong but haven’t actually seen it. We know about the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, or the huge eye looking through the window followed by a giant hand grabbing at a shrieking woman. We know about Kong fighting giant dinosaurs, and Fay Wray tied up on the pillar and screaming her head off. And really, that’s all you need to know, right?

Well, somewhat. Most people from my generation got their first exposure to the full King Kong experience through Peter Jackson’s loving 2005 remake. And I have to say, most of the time I watched the original I was comparing it to that film. I’m not sure that really helped my appreciation of the 1933 classic, really, but I couldn’t quite help it.

Here’s the story: filmmaker extraordinaire Carl Denham (Armstrong) has an incredible idea for his next project, but needs to find a leading lady for it. He eventually finds down-on-her-luck actress (Ann Darrow), and just like that he’s sailing through the South Pacific to his top-secret location. Both Ann and the ship’s crew get more than they bargained for when she’s offered up to the mysterious island god Kong, a giant ape who falls for her exquisite beauty. The ship’s crew go after her and encounters the jungle’s oversized prehistoric wildlife, falling to horrible deaths. The ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham manages to bring Kong down after the ape smashes through the village of the local tribe. Kong is brought to New York, where…things work out about as well as you expect them to.

The special effects get most of the attention here, and a surprising number of retrospectives claim that King Kong was the first true effects-driven blockbuster. I could totally see that, come to think of it. Moviemaking was still in its relative infancy, and these guys were trying things that had never been done before. The models and effects were extensively detailed, and the soundtrack was the most advanced in all of movies at the time. The writing wasn’t very subtle, but I don’t think that’s the fault of its age; there are tons of movies from that period capable of playing soft notes or letting moments land. But I think that the dialogue was crafted to be as big and overwrought as the monsters in it. There’s a lot of hammering home the motif they’re working with, and the foreshadowing comes across a little ham-fisted. I’m sure it only seems that way because we know the beats that follow so well.

Still, what impresses me is how brutal the movie is. It takes a little while to get going (Kong doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in), but when it does the film more than makes up for lost time. The dinosaurs are as impressive as Kong, and the sheer immensity and power of them come across very well. The crew’s search for Ann is a litany of horrors as they encounter monster after monster, losing men every step of the way. They can’t even stop to wonder at what they’re seeing because they’re far too busy trying to stay alive.

Kong is at its most graphic when innocents are involved. The scenes where the big ape trashes the jungle village and rampages through New York in search of Ann are surprising in just how careless and cruel he can be, stomping, biting and throwing people without even slowing down. I think this is the biggest change between the 1933 original and the 2005 remake. Jackson takes great care to make Kong a lot more sympathetic, and the affection between him and Darrow is actually there. But in the original, their relationship is a lot simpler — Kong desires Ann, but not in a way that anthropomorphizes him. She’s a prize, a toy, and there’s nothing in his actions to indicate something deeper than that. Ann, for her part, is horrified and traumatized by the ordeal. It comes across much more as Kong being a force of nature, and his brief reign of terror is a reminder of what happens when mankind tries to harness forces it cannot control or understand.

It may be just a little dated, and it comes across as a bit melodramatic (even considering its age), but King Kong is still an enormously impressive movie on its own. When you consider just how much it influenced movies of its time and going forward, it’s definitely earned its place in the annals of film history. I think these days it’s more to be enjoyed as a cinematic cultural touchstone than anything, a pivot point in the history of moving pictures.

Rating: 8/10.

One thought on “The AFI Top 100 Films: King Kong (#43)

  1. Something I did not appreciate — or know — about King Kong until recently was that the depicted producer, Carl Denham, is really not very far removed from the movie’s producer, Merian Cooper.

    Cooper — who was shot down over enemy lines in World War I, survived his time as POW, then joined the Kosciusko Squadron of Americans serving the Polish air force for that war with Russia, and shot down again and held as POW for nine months, until his escape — really did go trotting around the world for footage for documentaries or quasi-documentaries, plunging into dangerous situations at considerable risk to life and limb, often his own, as his own writer/producer/director/cinematographer and sometimes actor.

    So now I realize that it’s a surprisingly just-off-autobiographical movie, which makes at least Denham a more interesting figure.

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