Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Plot: An ambitious movie director (Armstrong) heads to an uncharted island for his latest motion picture only for his lead actress (Wray) to be captured by a gigantic ape.
To discover not just the origins of King Kong, but one of the greatest monster movies of all time, it is necessary to go back to 1933’s black and white classic. Only then can we truly get an understanding for how the often told tale truly was meant to be portrayed. A demanding director, Carl Denham, starts the story by taking a ship into uncharted territory to film his latest feature film. With him is a crew of nervous sailors purposefully kept in the dark about the destination of this trip as to not scare them away. Among the crew is the sceptical first mate, Jack Driscoll, Cabot boasting the kind of surly, handsome hero figure that most 1930s films had at the helm. Denham and Driscoll are joined by the beautiful Ann Darrow. Fay Wray is the unfortunate girl who is plucked off the street by Denham, when the agents blacklist any actress from going on his dangerous voyage. Right from the off, Armstrong’s Denham and Fray’s Darrow shrug off the kind of sizzling chemistry we would expect from our leads. Denham saves Darrow from a grumpy shopkeeper she is stealing from, but rather than have lovelorn looks exchanged, Denham coldly tells her the facts: in return, he wants her to risk her life on this trip. While Cabot is lumped with the stock hero role, Denham is a three-dimensional figure, a man constantly jumping from hero to villain, a selfish character who hides behind stoic heroism when really his only ambitions are to look after himself. As for Fay Wray, I think I might be just as in love as the titular monkey. Gorgeous to behold and played with surprising conviction by Wray, Darrow lays everything on the table for Denham, believing his impulsive hiring deserves her undying loyalty. It is a slight shame that her character stops developing as soon as Kong shows up. On the other hand, Wray’s scream of terror has become the stuff of cult cinema. Often imitated, never matched. As soon as our three heroes get to the island, they are snatched up by the natives and Darrow is kidnapped by a giant ape. The only known on the island as King Kong. Driscoll, madly in love with Anne, and Denham, ambition on bringing the giant ape back to civilisation for endless profits, launch a rescue party after the beast, braving the horrors of the prehistoric island.
And that’s when King Kong gets to feast the viewers on the breath-taking visuals. While the special effects have clearly aged and there is definitely a place for Peter Jackson’s fresh updating of the movie, there is still an undeniable charm to be had from Willis O’Brien’s animation. While the original adaptation kept its monsters to Kong and various dinosaurs, O’Brien has plenty of room to give the audience some great monster punch-ups. It is the kind of entertaining action stemming from the great Greek mythology movies of old. The heroes go from nightmare to nightmare, first taking on a rogue Stegosaurus and then ending up getting devoured by a predatory Brontosaurus (liberties are taken with the true nature of the dinosaurs, perhaps to highlight how little humanity knows about nature). If you excuse the dim-witted nature of some of the red shirts (an extra tries to escape the long-necked dinosaur by climbing a tree), there is glorious fun to be had, in watching Willis O’Brien assemble his creatures and unleash them on the poor humans. While Driscoll takes on all manner of beasts, the action cuts to King Kong who has his own share of monsters to deal with. One of the most iconic scenes in the film sees Kong take on a T. Rex while Ann writhes trapped under a tree trunk, at the mercy of both of the combatants. While dated, it is still a nail-biting moment in the movie. But it’s not just the animation that wows but some truly unforgettable cinematography as well. This is a movie that has been remade countless times and it is because that there are certain images that are so burned into our minds that we feel compelled to revisit them. The first appearance of Kong, as he emerges from the misty jungle to find himself faced with Ann, tied up as a peace offering to the almighty gorilla. It is a terrifying spectacle to behold, especially before we know the gentle side to the creature. This is the exact moment King Kong goes from a good movie to a great one. In fact, most of the following moments that have Kong in the frame are just as visually arresting. The battle on the log where he cuts through an entire group of armed men. The titanic showdown in the native village where he smashes through the unbreakable gate, filled with rage and desperation. And then there is, of course, his arrival in Manhattan where his barbaric savagery is unleashed on the helpless crowds of New York. Right from the moment the curtains open to reveal the chained, helpless beast to the chilling finale on the Empire State Building, we are transfixed at the stunning direction.
But it’s not just so pretty imagery that makes any scene with Kong so powerful. It is the fact that he is a character in his own right. In fact, he becomes more of a character than his human co-stars. O’Brien gives his monster enough personal flair, so by the midway point of the movie, we cannot help but like the ape. It is the smile he pulls, the way he plays with an enemy he has just killed to make sure it is truly dead… There is also a brilliant where he begins to undress Ann with a curious grin on his face. On a second viewing, it is easy to question who the monster is in this monster movie. Is it the confused ape dragged from his peaceful existence in the jungle? Or is it the humans who forced the beautiful Ann Darrow into his life and then dragged him into a world where his only response could be violence? It is no secret how this story ends and that is the true horror of the movie, as King Kong, from the moment he locks eyes on the human girl he falls in love with, the creature is doomed. Denham might be half right when he eulogises Kong with the immortal line “It was beauty that killed the beast!” but it was humanity as a whole that, in seeking entertainment and petty amusement, dragged the animal, kicking and screaming, into a setting he did not understand. While Peter Jackson was to later work that little bit harder on developing the emotional journey of the monkey, there are small beats present here. As Kong fights off the planes on the Empire State Building, it is that last lingering look he gives Ann, before he loses his grip and falls to oblivion. Very rarely does a film end with us loathing the leading hero, but King Kong hits us with an ending that will split the viewer’s emotions right down the middle.
Final Verdict: A classic monster movie that surprisingly maintains a lot of the stunning visuals and raw emotions, despite its age.