One of those classic movies that establishes itself and its themes so powerfully and skilfully that almost every aspect of the production has become iconic in its own right, KING KONG (1933) was a seismic event in the history of motion pictures, from which the aftershocks can still be felt reverberating today.
When a film crew led by nature photographer Carl Denham travels to the forbidding and unexplored Skull Island, he has high hopes of capturing some spectacular footage. But on the island he discovers a tribe of savage natives who guard an even more primordial secret – the giant ape Kong. When the natives kidnap Denham’s lead actress to make an offering to Kong, Denham and his crew find themselves in a perilous and dangerous quest to rescue her and salvage their voyage.
KING KONG continued a long tradition of jungle adventure films which usually portrayed a team of explorers setting off into the dark heart of the jungle only to discover some ferocious beast waiting for them but dialled the spectacle up to 11 for audiences of the time. The special effects were both groundbreaking and breathtaking, not just for Kong himself but the other denizens of Skull Island and the skill with which the stop motion animation, matte paintings, miniature models and real-life cast were composited together and they certainly made an impression on a 13-year-old Ray Harryhausen when he was taken to see it at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Although the film is nearly ninety years old, the effects work still holds up to this day, albeit of its time, and all of its techniques have remained fundamental tools of cinema ever since.
Part rip-roaring jungle adventure, part monster horror movie, KING KONG – like its contemporaries at Universal – wasn’t interested in one-dimensional villainy and the direction, script and performances work to provide Kong with not only a sense of reality but also a personality and a soul of his own. It’s not coincidental that the character who starts out as the fearsome antagonist eventually becomes a tragically misunderstood anti-hero by the picture’s end. There’s also a nascent environmental underpinning to the whole story with Kong representing nature, red in tooth and claw, being trespassed against, exploited and, ultimately, destroyed by man’s greed and carelessness. Like Universal’s DRACULA or FRANKENSTEIN, KING KONG retains its power to impress, astonish and even move the audience even though time and technology have taken cinema to dizzying new heights.
Sure, by today’s standards some of the acting seems stiff and mannered at best and downright wooden at worst but in its era – made just before the Motion Picture Production Code started to bite – it was a daring and provocative movie in its own right. It made Fay Wray (second choice for the role after Jean Harlow became unavailable) an immortal Hollywood idol, the original scream queen and turned the Empire State Building itself into a movie star in its own right.
A massive box office hit at the time, perhaps the most potent symbol of KING KONG’s power is that despite its runaway success, so perfectly was the story wrought on screen that it would be over forty years before anyone would even think of attempting to tell the story again, although a sequel would follow swiftly when nine months later (appropriately) RKO welcomed SON OF KONG. Beauty may have killed this beast, but his legend was secured for all time.