by Daniel Suddes
King Kong (1933) – Directors: Merian C.Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher OSCAR COUNT (0)
King Kong virtually created the template that all modern Hollywood Blockbusters follow.
It depends on the effects (breathtaking at the time, and for all time) and the ability to transport audiences into new worlds. A world like the one in King Kongcould not exist. But then, film these days depends on exactly that – making the impossible a reality. King Kong was really the first film in sound to truly utilize and build these techniques.
But there is a reason for its enduring appeal. That is a central mystery of the film – why has it lasted for almost eighty years? Its appeal to a younger audience may be a part of it, but I know all types of people who enjoy it. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that the effects still strangely affect everyone who watches it due to their dream like quality. The second is that the film’s theme of man versus nature is a theme that has never really gone away. King Kong is a sort of revenge fantasy, in a way. King Kong, a natural wonder, wreaks havoc against man’s greatest creations and most triumphant achievements. He is nature trying to show civilization how easily it can be destroyed by the things man has spent centuries trying to tame.
Many would say that the stop motion effects look tame by today’s standards. It is true that Peter Jackson’s film looks far more realistic than this one. But I prefer the fantasy look that the more “primitive” effects in this film. It helps Skull Island actually feel like a fantasy world. Obviously dinosaurs and giant gorillas never got into fist fights (unless some paleontologists have been holding out on us) and Jackson’s version seemed to want to change that fact. The original does not bother with that illusion – it is like watching a magician on stage. I know that it is all just a trick, but it is one that becomes fascinating the more you watch it. It presents the idea of a land that time has forgotten – which is more honest than trying to make it real.
I can’t really talk about the performances, because they are not really that good. Fay Wray exists to scream and have her clothes peeled off by a giant ape, while the rest just exist to stop the ape. I didn’t really learn much about them beyond their base needs, but then again, the film IS called King Kong. These actors do fit nicely into the illusion of the world that has been created. Fay Wray being kidnapped by Kong was plenty effective, and the fact that the man who puts the expedition together is a filmmaker was a clever touch, to help create the fantasy world that the film depends upon.
Whenever anyone makes a film like this, they are following in Kong’s giant footsteps. The Godzilla franchise would not exist without King Kong (something that they are only too happy to discuss), and neither would Jurassic Park, Alien, the Lord of the Rings films, the career of Tim Burton, or any number of Roger Corman films. Kong was the most successful film at the time, and it is a success that every blockbuster is trying to emulate. Most cannot, because they are unwilling to admit the spectacle they have created. They are trying to be real. King Kong feels like a dream, and feels more like a film because of it.
What discussion of Kong is complete without looking at the infamous climb on the Empire State Building? That image seems to be just as famous as La Pieta, and has been emulated many times. It also acts as the culmination in the film’s themes. New York City, seen as the greatest accomplishment of man, is still just a jungle to Kong. To us, it is almost an insult the way Kong desecrates it. But what we see as a marvel, Kong sees as nothing more than his environment. Man had tried to claim Kong for themselves (why else refer to him as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” when the other seven were man made creations?) and Kong retaliated against that role. This was his ultimate rebellion, and teaches everyone a valuable lesson – nature is cruel, and despite your best efforts, you can never hope to conquer it.
DID YOU KNOW? The film was the first ever to receive an audio commentary on its video release. It is also the second film that The Criterion Collection ever released on laserdisc.