August 29, 2011

Classic Review: King Kong (1933)

King Kong
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writers: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Merian C. Cooper, Leon Gordon, Edgar Wallace
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson, Sam Hardy

King Kong towers amongst the greatest movies of all time, a parable of the consequences of hubris run amok. According to my dad, King Kong was also my grandfather's favourite movies. Obviously, grandpa had good taste in film.

Huckster film director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has managed to obtain a map which shows the location of the mysterious Skull Island, a land shrouded by myth. When he is unable to find a female lead to star in the movie he wants to make on the islond, he turns in desperation to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a poor woman he finds while she's in the process of trying to steal an apple. While Ann is initially reluctant, Denham convinces her to come with him on the voyage to the island. When the Denham and the film crew arrive on the Skull Island, they find the natives preparing a sacrifice for their god, Kong, a giant ape who lives on the island. Later, after the film crew has returned to the boat, the natives kidnap Ann to use her as the sacrifice instead. What follows is a thrilling adventure through Skull Island as the crew try to rescue Ann from the giant ape, while he battles many of the fantastic creatures native to the island. Denham eventually manages to capture Kong and transport him to New York City, where Kong will make cinematic history.

The Queering
King Kong is an obvious allegory about humanity's destruction of the natural world. On Skull Island, Kong is a feared god. Once within the realm of the civilized world, he is reduced to a pathetic curiosity and even when he attempts to ascend the Empire State building, he is still easily put down by man's technological prowess. The Empire State building here serves as a symbol of man's dominance that no beast can challenge.

Surprisingly enough, the special effects work holds up well today, outside of a few close ups of Kong's face, that I found jarringly comical. The effects work in King Kong represent many painstaking hours of stop motion manipulation of miniature figures. From the scenes where Kong first appears to his battles with the mythic beasts on Skull Island and final stand on the tallest building in the world, there is a magic that no CGI can even attempt to replicate.

The acting however, is just bad, which causes the early scenes building up to the arrival on Skull Island to drag a bit. It's also hard not to notice the underlying racism inherent in several scenes, particular concerning the presentation of the human natives of Skull Island. During one scene, a character even refers to the "n***** races". Even Peter Jackson's remake struggled with this aspect of the story and not entirely successfully either I might add.

Criticism aside, once the crew lands on the island, the film gains a momentum as unstoppable as it's rampaging star. The battles Kong engages in with various dinosaurs, while Denham and company attempt capture him are the stuff legends and myths are made of.

Of course, a few words must be spared for the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow. It is clear that once Kong meets Ann, he is a changed beast. Or if the opening Arabian Proverb that Merian C. Cooper wrote, is correct, Kong is "as one dead". There are many different ways to interpret the Ann/Kong dynamic. One can see them as a gentle woman and her uncivilized lover. On the other hand, with Kong's massive size, Ann is almost like a pet who he must protect and she must obey, thereby switching around the usual human/animal relationship dynamic.

At the end of the day, King Kong is not just another antiquated monster flick. It is the grandaddy of all monster movies that came after it, it's shadow stretching longer then the Empire State building over all those that followed in it's immense wake.

Strongly recommended. Kong is King for a reason.

The Rating


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