Blog Directory CineVerse: Kong still strong after 90 years

Kong still strong after 90 years

Thursday, March 30, 2023

While the visual effects can seem somewhat antiquated today, King Kong serves as a constant reminder to filmmakers and viewers alike that imagination, creativity, ingenuity, talent, cinematic audacity, and spectacle can create a lasting work of pop art that deserves to be continually appreciated by new generations. Nothing like Kong existed before it, but the countless copycats, homages, remakes, reboots, and derivative works in its wake speak volumes about the pervasive reach and impact of this 1933 classic.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film

Why Kong remains worthy of kudos

A case be made that King Kong is quite possibly the most influential film ever made. This work essentially created two subgenres: the giant monster movie, and the fantasy/horror epic. It also debuted a transcendent horror and fantasy character that continues to be reinvented by filmmakers and reintroduced to new audiences. Only Godzilla is as ubiquitous a mammoth monster in pop culture, which helps explain the recurrent fascination with pitting these two giant creatures against each other in a handful of films.

In the words of DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson: “King Kong is a good, old-fashioned American creation. He emerged from the gloomy bottom of the Great Depression to reinvent film Horror as a modern item unrelated to ancient superstitions or primitive folklore… Skull Island is a truly magical land lost in time, a place synonymous with the dream of adventure…There's no substitute for an original work of popular art. The '33 Kong is the one that activates the subconscious, stirs one's imagination, and remains a masterpiece of spectacle, horror, and adventure.”

“By taking their audience to the brink of the unknown, the filmmakers invented the modern concept of the showman’s spectacle, which has inspired countless directors from Jackson to Steven Spielberg,” posited Deep Focus Review’s Brian Eggert. “Within its splendid sense of awe and its ability to involve the viewer emotionally through its technical innovations, King Kong provides the underlying ambition of Hollywood cinema. The film brings the movies to a colossal and iconographic highpoint of entertainment, acknowledging within the narrative and its symbols how eagerly audiences seek out diversion, and how amusement, if visionary talent assembles the production, can have greater significance than mere escapism.”

Filmmaker Peter Jackson credits Kong with being the first time visual effects would drive the story in a feature film. Ponder how Kong elevated the stature, importance, and recognition of special-effects artists, including stop-motion animators. Willis O’Brien wasn’t exactly a household name after Kong was released, but history has shone a stronger light on his name and talents in the years and decades following 1933 (let’s also not overlook the ingenuity of artist Marcel Delgado, who is credited with designing the Kong miniature). O’Brien inspired Ray Harryhausen, who achieved even greater fame and attention, and these two influenced a whole new generation of effects wizards, including Phil Tippett, Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, and Kenneth Ralston.

Furthermore, King Kong brings needed cachet and kudos to the horror and fantasy genres, many films of which are often devalued by critics and scholars as lesser entertainment. Kong has been ranked as the greatest horror movie of them all by Rotten Tomatoes, it places #41 in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and it is widely considered the finest monster movie and giant creature film ever made.

Ruminate, too, on how King Kong contemporized horror by placing the setting in a modern thriving metropolis with skyscrapers, not in a gothic European landscape where old-school monsters tend to dwell.

Additionally, it’s no small point that Kong’s story was an original and fresh horror narrative not sourced from popular genre books like Frankenstein and Dracula or works by Poe and H.G. Wells.

Kong also expanded and popularized the “lost world” and jungle adventure fare explored in previous pictures like The Lost World (1925), Cooper and Schoedsack’s Chang (1927), Ingagi (1931), Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), and The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – many of the stories of which originated from esteemed authors like Jules Vern, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

This certainly would have been a graphically violent, sexually suggestive, and disturbing movie for early 1930s audiences. Let’s not forget: King Kong is a horror movie; there’s a monster; its body count is high, especially victims trampled on, bitten, dropped from tall heights, and slaughtered by giant creatures; dinosaurs shed blood and Kong cracks open the jaw of one of his vanquished foes; Fay Wray’s feminine form peeks through her garments, she’s partially nude in the swimming escape scene, and there’s the scene where Kong peels off some of Ann’s clothing and smells his fingers afterward. Many of these scenes were truncated or excised from later prints by censors. Also, this picture contains some of the most memorable screams in horror film history. Fay Wray’s piercing shrieks and convincing howls for help continue to unnerve modern viewers.

The movie avoids taking shortcuts to get to the crowd-pleasing elements. Kong doesn’t even appear until the 47-minute mark, nearly halfway through the film. That means audiences are given a solid setup and decent character development before the titular character emerges.

Kong also deserves to be celebrated as a meta-film, meaning a movie about the making of a movie and also about its makers. Carl Denham is attempting to film an exotic adventure film starring Ann Darrow, and King Kong also reflects the adventurous backstory and sensibilities of its co-director/co-producer Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was famous for being one of the first bomber pilots in World War I, exploring exotic locations, and filming documentaries and fictional movies in faraway lands like Africa, Iran, and Thailand that often featured dangerous wild animals, ferocious warriors, nomadic tribes, and indigenous people.

Tracing Kong’s path of innovation

Give pause to the influence Kong has had on cinema. By improving and inventively combining different special effects and techniques in one film – including stop-motion animation, miniatures, rear projection, optical printing, models, and matte paintings – it revolutionized the field and raised the bar for visual and audio effects. Murray Spivack, responsible for the sound effects, combined different animal noises, slowly played backward, to create Kong’s distinctive roar, and employed an air compressor and his own vocals to produce many of the dinosaur sounds.

It was the first feature-length Hollywood talkie to be graced with a musical score written specifically for it; Max Steiner’s score for Kong inspired many subsequent filmmakers and composers.

Kong has debatably remained the most famous and instantly recognizable movie monster in history. The popularity of video games like Donkey Kong and Rampage speaks to the enduring influence of a giant ape as a crowd-pleasing character.

Additionally, Kong stands as the first animated leading character to be a hit for a Hollywood studio. The colossal ape is infused with personality and remains sympathetic and entrancing as a larger-than-life character.

“No other monster movie has succeeded in depicting the relationship between the ferocious yet strangely sympathetic monster and the innocent heroine as King Kong does,” wrote reviewer Richard Scheib. “In fact, few other monster movies succeed in investing the beast with any character, in doing anything other than simply regarding it as a marauding monster.”

Kong’s success and 1952 reissue catalyzed the giant monster movie craze of the 1950s, including the debut of Godzilla and the Japanese Kaiju pictures. Among the imitators and coattail riders in the years after Kong’s 1933 debut are Cooper and Schoedsack’s Dr. Cyclops (1940), White Pongo (1945), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Konga (1961), and Kong Island (1968).

The movie’s lineage and Kong’s longevity as a cultural icon are impressive. Its sequel, Son of Kong, was released the same year in 1933; in the 1960s we got King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes; a first direct remake came in 1976; Peter Jackson’s acclaimed 2005 remake proved popular; and Kong: Skull Island, from 2017, rebooted the character, followed by its sequel Godzilla vs. Kong.

Although King Kong wasn’t the first live-action Hollywood film to use animated dinosaur characters, it can likely be credited with motivating future filmmakers to make fantastical features showcasing dinosaurs. King Kong boasts several memorable dinosaur battles. In Kong’s wake came memorable prehistoric creatures in Fantasia, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years BC, The Valley of Gwangi, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, The Land Time Forgot, and of course the Jurassic Park films.

Aspects that have aged well and not so well

Some of King Kong’s thematic underpinnings, like the negative consequences of man’s exploitation of the natural world and our fascination with the exotic and undiscovered, continue to resonate in the 21st century.

The look and nature of Kong as a gigantic beast with intelligent qualities remain distinctive and captivating, even if some of his visual idiosyncrasies were unplanned. His fur seems to “crawl,” for instance, he likes to toy with his conquests (recall how he removes Ann’s clothes and tickles her, and the way he plays with the dinosaur’s broken jaw), he rubs his eyes and shakes his head, and he’s capable of feeling and expressing different emotions – including affection, anger, curiosity, and pride – and his size changes throughout the story (because differently sized models and miniatures were used).

In his Great Movie critique, Roger Ebert wrote: “In modern times the movie has aged…but in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images. In “Jurassic Park” you are looking, more or less, at a real dinosaur. In “King Kong,” you are looking at an idea of a dinosaur, created by hand by technicians who are working with their imaginations. When Kong battles the large flesh-eating dinosaur in his first big battle scene, there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.”

However, the subtext of female and racial inferiority, imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and the subjugation of animals, ethnic minorities, and defenseless, wild, and untamed territories is all the more evident in 2023. In addition, the black natives on Skull Island are depicted as ignorant, primitive heathens, and there’s an unfortunately stereotypical representation of a Chinese cook among the crew of the tramp steamer.

While the filmmakers may not have intended it, there is an uncomfortable thematic element that seems to disparage black power and interracial relationships, with Kong, in this interpretation, representing black “otherness.” Once Kong falls from the skyscraper and dies, white dominance and racial order are re-established. Brian Eggert described this black otherness as “preying on white women that was rampant in the early decades of cinema, codified by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)…Among the advertising campaigns used to promote King Kong, many of them focused on the idea of a ‘black monster’ and a ‘white captive,’ juxtaposing the formidable gorilla as he holds the innocent ‘girl’ in his oversized hand.”

Lastly, the acting is sometimes ham-tastic and the dialogue is often trite and groan-worthy, such as Driscoll suddenly telling Ann with the most unenthusiastic delivery imaginable: “Hey... I guess I love you."

Giant monster, giant messages

This is certainly a man versus nature story that explores, even if inadvertently, our attempt to take advantage of and profit from the natural world and vulnerable populations. It’s doubtful that the filmmakers intended this subtext, but King Kong works today as a scathing critique of the so-called-civilized white man’s hubris in attempting to conquer the unconquered, plunder the planet’s natural resources, and capitalize on our instinctive enthrallment with never-before-seen, wild, untamed, and captured creatures. In this story, nature gets its revenge for a while by wreaking havoc upon civilization, but the dominant species – Homo sapiens – ultimately prevails. As phrased by critic Richard Scheib, “Civilization corrupts the greatness of the jungle beast.” Kong was a proud and mighty king in his native land, but man remains monarch of the developed world.

Beauty killed the beast is further subtext fodder. Kong succumbs to his attackers because he tries to protect Ann from getting hurt by the planes and is distracted by this goal while atop the Empire State Building. Ultimately, the animal’s humanlike emotional attachment to Ann proves his undoing. But this theme also can be construed as sexist and misogynistic if you conclude that Ann’s feminine allure had the power to inadvertently slay a creature imbued with hyper-masculine and patriarchal qualities.

King Kong is also a loose reflection of the beauty and the beast myth, but this reading only serves as a superficial one, as this is not a retelling of the French fairytale published in 1740; instead, the film clearly juxtaposes an attractive but helpless female with a gargantuan monstrosity whose affection for and devotion to her is unrequited.

King Kong’s greatest gift to viewers

The 1933 iteration of King Kong, despite its flaws—including special effects many would find quaint today, bouts of mediocre acting, and occasionally campy dialogue—remains quite possibly the most seminal and momentous cinematic text of the 20th century. Why? Because, like the massive gate on Skull Island that Kong bursts through it opened up a doorway to a whole new stratum of larger-than-life entertainment that each subsequent generation since has increasingly demanded: the fantasy/horror/adventure epic, a subset of which is the giant monster movie. Consider the extent to which such genre fare rules the box office today. King Kong proved that extraordinary visions of imaginative fancy could be effectively conjured, that mythical and historical beasts alike could come alive and intermingle with live-action human beings within a narrative wonderfully punctuated by riveting action sequences.

Kong’s mammoth movie footprints were felt everywhere in the years that followed—from the exotic adventures of The Thief of Baghdad in 1940 to the great run of Ray Harryhausen movies that began a few years later and the Toho cycle of Godzilla and Kaiju films launched in the mid-1950s to the Star Wars franchise to the Jurassic Park films and full circle back to new big screen Kong creations made over the last 18 years. Any contemporary film with dinosaurs, supersized animals, colossal creatures, horrific antagonists that wreak mass destruction upon a teeming metropolis, or voyages to mysterious realms where fantastic forces and astounding organisms dwell owes a debt to the original King Kong. And that’s a gargantuan gift.

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