For so many reasons, King Kong (1933) is one of the great films in cinema history. For a vast majority of film fans, including myself, I think the film captures the innocence and wonderment that made a lot of us addicted to this art long ago.
There is I guess a sense of innocence about the film itself too. During the opening credits, as the cast is being listed, King Kong himself gets a mention. I’m not sure why, but I found that just utterly endearing when it popped up watching it through this time. Also suggesting some form of innocence is that this is a straightup adventure flick. An old fashioned genre in some ways and I think one that taps into some sort of base innocent longing in all of us, to both journey and to belong. And I guess for some of us, to conquer. The final aspect of King Kong that influences my view of this film as some sort of blast from the past that can never be repeated is the first time I saw any of it. I remember as a child walking out of my room because I couldn’t sleep. It felt like the latest time in the world but more accurately it was probably like 10:30pm. And I recall my parents were up watching King Kong on telly. I was just blown away. I was not into old movies at the time, but I just remember being so blown away by what I was seeing, so enraptured in the wondrous images that were in front of me. I don’t remember what part of the film they were up to, but it was on the island and I distinctly remember Kong being on screen.
But in addition to all this supposed innocence arising from my relationship to the film and that is in its actual makeup, this is also a stunningly good film. A great adventure flick is bloody hard to make, hence there are so few of them. The film focuses on Carl Denham, a John Huston-esque (although of course Huston wouldn’t appear on the scene for quite some time) director who films his movies in exotic far off locales. Bowing to pressure from the studio and the public, he casts Ann Darrow played iconically by Fay Wray as a love interest in his latest flick. Humourously, none of the agents in town trust him with their female clientele, so Ann is a woman on the street that he finds the night before they set sail, selling her on the promise of “money, adventure and fame”. It is just such a purely great tale of adventure. The cast and crew sail to an unchartered distant island, where they run into Kong, a humungous ape. I never realised just how many decidedly awesome monsters there were in this film. A stretch through the middle plays like an (awesome) video game, as our fearless heroes are pitched into boss battle after boss battle – a freaking plesiosaur, a stegosaurus, a pterodactyl, a t-rex, that huge scaryarse snake thing (that I think technically may have legs) and so on. That battle with the t-rex is one of the greatest set piece battles of all time, and is so well choreographed as well. It manages to seamlessly blend boxing and wrestling moves into the action and does so without looking completely silly.
Of course it is impossible to talk about this film without talking of the design of the creatures and the effects work that brings them to life. The character of Kong is clearly the star of the show here and the effort that has gone into his design reflects that. So much skill and detail has gone into the character, even the close-ups of his face look great today and they look different each time the shot is shown. He is just such a menacing presence that has been brought to life. There is no doubting aspects of the effects are dated. But most importantly they work. So many contemporary films spend too much time making effects look all glossy and perfect whilst totally forgetting to have them make me actually feel something. These effects, the best part of 80 years old, really made me feel emotion. I felt a whole heap of emotion when that stegosaurus is shot in the head early on. Did I mention it has dinosaurs yet? Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs make everything better… hell even The Tree of Life (2011) was made vastly better because of the presence of dinosaurs. Outside of the effects, the film just looks great overall. The ocean set sequences, even to this day on the DVD I bought at Salvos years ago, these parts of the film still really pop.
Like so many films of this vintage, there are some aspects that are not exactly in tune with a contemporary sensibility. Attitudes toward women and the depiction of the ‘natives’ are the two that immediately spring to mind. Most everything else still works exceedingly well though. The early on part where it appears Anne will be sacrificed is still genuinely effective at creating great tension. Wray gives a really wonderful performance in this film, she grabs your attention as the viewer early on and never really lets it go. The scene where she lets out her first scream is a bloody great moment. The sound of the scream and the reaction of the rest of the characters is just great and sets the tone for the numerous other screams that are to follow. I guess there is a counter argument or another side to the film to the innocence that I associate it with. Aspects of the film are rather brutal. The rampage that Kong goes on just before his capture, in which he quite mercilessly grinds a couple of locals to death slowly and methodically for example. Then obviously there is the fate of Kong which is a cold moment I feel. Although I think that his capture and eventual death do also say a lot about the suppression of Kong, who was once a king or even a god in his own land but is now enslaved. I think there is a definite subtext there. Also a more obvious allusion is the effect of attempts to tame or domesticate what is wild.
Sorry for the long review, I just kind of got on a bit of a roll there. In any case, when I try and think of a greater adventure film in history than King Kong, nothing particularly springs to mind. For good ol fashioned filmmaking that still works 100% today, this is your film.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter