Thoughts on ‘King Kong’

Chatting a little while ago with a friend (whose site you should definitely check out and whose work you should buy), we touched on the subject of the original King Kong and its relation to later versions of the story. It got me thinking about the film, and different aspects about it, and so I thought I’d give a rundown of my thoughts on it.

This is one of those films that everyone knows about, and knows the basic story to, even if they haven’t seen it, and Kong is arguably one of the great original creations of cinema. It occurs to me as I write this that it’s actually rather rare to have a genuinely classic story come out of the movies themselves; usually the truly great, pervasive works have their origins in some earlier work outside the movie screen. Even It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a short story, and Casablanca began life as an unproduced play. I’m certainly not going to say that Kong is the only such story, but it’s certainly one of the foremost examples (Star Wars would be another).

The story starts with Carl Denham, a motion picture director (heavily based on writer-producer-director Merian C. Cooper himself) who “makes motion pictures in jungles and places.” He has a unique idea for a new film and is under intense pressure to get started, as he is in a somewhat dicey legal position regarding the explosives he’s bringing. Trouble is, his agent can’t (or won’t) find him a leading lady, so he goes out to find one himself (“even if I have to marry one!”) and happens to run across Ann Darrow, a hungry, out of work actress as she considers stealing an apple. Struck by her looks and feeling for her plight, he offers her the job.

On the long voyage out (Denham doesn’t say where they’re going until well toward the end), Jack Driscall, the tough first mate finds himself reluctantly falling in love with Ann, who meanwhile easily befriends the rest of the crew. When they arrive on the island (“way west of Sumatra”), they find the natives in the midst of a ceremony to sacrifice a girl to ‘Kong.’ The visitors’ presence spoils the ceremony, but the chief spies Ann and decides she must be the new sacrifice (“Blondes are scarce around here”). The native sneak aboard the ship that night, kidnap her, and offer her to Kong, who carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscall, and a good part of the crew pursue him, encountering various dinosaurs and other dangers. Kong defends Ann from the other monsters and appears to be, in his own way, falling in love with her.

Driscall and Denham are soon the only survivors of the rescue operation and are separated. Driscall rescues Ann from Kong’s lair, while Denham regroups with the others. Kong pursues them to the village, breaks through the wall protecting it, and goes on a rampage until Denham stops him with a gas bomb. They take him back to New York and put him on display, but he’s enraged by the photographers’ flashbulbs and breaks free, pursuing Ann across the city and finally carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is killed in combat with airplanes.

I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this film, but rewatching it for this review I was struck anew by how good it really is. Sure, there are a lot of things you could pick apart, such as Kong’s deliberately inconsistent size, the question of just how they got him back to New York, and Denham’s laughably understaffed film (which consists of himself as director and cameraman and a single leading lady). The old-fashioned acting is another aspect that some might have trouble with (this was made only a few years into the sound era and the acting style hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Fay Wray in particular never stops moving whenever she’s on camera), though if you’re going to watch old films at all you have to take them in their own style.

But the interesting thing about those plot holes is that they all exist for a definite purpose; they aren’t things that the filmmakers forgot about or didn’t care enough to bother with, they are clearly conscious choices meant to streamline the story. Denham having a more realistically sized crew would have added a lot of extraneous characters (as it did in the Peter Jackson remake). Showing how they got Kong to New York would have stopped the story just as it was reaching its climax, assuming it could have been accounted for at all. And Kong’s size, of course, is just a matter of making him as impactful as possible in each scene. The filmmakers slur over these bits in order to have the story they want, but these don’t detract from the story the way that say a major internal inconsistency would be.

Call it special pleading if you like, but I think there is a difference. Partly because what the film does leave in all pretty much works and works well. Denham’s reason for needing a girl, and why he can’t just stay in New York until he finds one, Ann’s motivations for accepting a dangerous and unclear job from Denham (it’s the Depression and she needs work, not to mention he’s already shown her kindness by sticking up for her before he even saw her face), her interactions with Driscall and the crew, even things like Denham’s reason for bringing her along on their first landing on the island (he wants to be sure to have her on hand in case he can get some filming done). There’s a reason for everything the characters do, and a reason that makes sense and fits with the characters they’ve established. Crazy as the film gets, the plot works and the characters behave like human beings.

That’s really something that needs to be drawn attention to. This is a simple, straightforward adventure fantasy, yet the characters are all quite well drawn. With one exception they’re not super well developed, but they’re clearly people, with all that implies. Driscall’s character’s established right away with his sharp questioning of Denham’s theater agent, and his first interaction with Ann involves him accidentally hitting her on the chin (they laugh about it a moment later, establishing an emotional connection in spite of his gruffness). He’s a tough sailor who doesn’t like having a woman onboard, claiming they’re “a nuisance”. By the middle of the first act, it’s clear that Ann’s a nuisance to him because he’s falling for her (his way of talking to Ann without looking at her says as much as pages of dialogue might have).

Ann herself is a sweet, unaffected girl who seems to enjoy teasing Driscall and gets along well with the whole crew, chatting easily with anyone from the captain to the Chinese cook. I like how she starts off somewhat shy and uneasy (shown by her being bundled up in a jacket while they’re leaving port), but is visibly more relaxed once the journey reaches its end, signaling to the audience how much time has passed, as well as letting us see how the trip is doing her good. Their romance is very lightly sketched, but charming; like a kitten with a big guard dog (another great little detail is how he’s visibly uncomfortable in his tuxedo in the final act).  

Captain Englehorn’s a rather interesting departure from what one might expect, being a dapper elderly gentleman (Ann calls him a “sweet old lamb,” much to Jack’s amusement), but also a thoroughly in-control and experienced captain who knows how to approach native peoples and speaks their languages. That’s the kind of character you really don’t see much these days, but was quite common back then: what might be called the blue-collar gentleman, a sailor or soldier who looks and acts more like he’d be at home in an office or school, but who nevertheless knows his job and can command his men with ease.

 I also really like Charlie the cook, who is amusingly dour (“someday me go back China; never see no more potatoes”), but good-natured and plays a vital role in discovering that Ann’s been kidnapped (how simple is that: he finds native beads on the deck, a very little bit of thought tells him what this must mean and so he takes immediate action by arousing the ship, just like a sailor ought to do in this situation). I’m sure some people would call him a racist caricature because he speaks the way a recent Chinese immigrant working on a merchant ship in the 1930s might be expected to speak, but he’s a very likable character, able to banter with the rest of the crew and being eager to join in the rescue operation (he’s also one of the few characters who returned for the sequel, Son of Kong, which is a whole other story, but at least shows that the writers liked him as much as I do).

Denham’s the standout among the human cast. He’s an enthusiastic high-concept filmmaker who makes movies in remote corners of the world at great personal risk, who takes big chances for big gains, and who has a tendency to shoot off without considering how his actions will affect others (as shown in his first conversation with Ann where he starts talking about how she’s in for “money and adventure and fame…and a long sea voyage that starts tomorrow!” before he’s even told her his name or what kind of job he’s offering her). But the thing is, he’s reckless, slightly myopic, and a little crazy, but he’s not a bad man at all. He places people in dangerous situations without telling them all he knows, but he puts himself on the line to keep them safe and he’s honest as far as he goes; he’ll hold back information, but he won’t lie. After Ann’s kidnapped, he drops all talk of the movie until she’s safe and only then hits on the idea of catching Kong alive. He’s also well-portrayed enough that we can see money isn’t really his object; it’s the achievement that interests him, which is why we don’t doubt him when he promises to share the profits with the whole crew. There’s a good moment toward the end when they’re talking to the reporters. Denham starts by directing their attention to Driscall, who gives credit to Denham, who gives all the credit to Ann. Note the basic, easy decency involved; each character tries to draw attention what the others have done rather than trying to elevate themselves. Again, it fits with what we know of them and reminds us that, for all Denham is making a terrible mistake, he’s still a decent man. Note that he also tries to warn off the photographers when he realizes that Kong’s becoming enraged by their flashbulbs (and I like that he realizes why Kong’s so angry: “he thinks you’re attacking the girl!”).

Most people come away from the film rooting for Kong and hating Denham, but it’s not so simple as that. Denham’s not the villain by any stretch, he’s a basically good man with big ideas who let his ambition outstrip his common sense and created a tragic situation.

I also want to say a word about the natives. They’re what such characters usually were in those days of cinema; which is to say, they’re Black people in grass skirts and coconut bras, who are primitive and superstitious, able to be scared off by gunfire. At first glance, many would probably prefer the terrifying, Uruk-Hai-like natives of the Peter Jackson version, or the unsmiling utopian natives of Kong: Skull Island.

Me, I don’t like the natives in either of those films because I think they’re too simplistic and one-note. The ones in this film might be unlike any real native peoples, but they are people. They can be reasoned with, they have clear motivations, and they react to the things going on around them in an understandable way. There are little human details, like how when the chief marches down the steps to confront the visitors, a small child doesn’t get that he’s supposed to move until his parents yank him out of the chief’s way, or the behavior of the girl who was to be the original sacrifice; she isn’t struggling like Ann does, but she certainly doesn’t look happy and she kind of flinches whenever someone touches her. Contrast this with the Jackson film, where they natives are just movie monsters, or Skull Island, where they’re just colonial penance figures (oddly, the only other ‘Kong’ film I’ve seen that achieves something like this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, where the natives have a similar blend of primitive simplicity and frank humanity: “The chief says you can stay, but he will not be responsible if the monster comes down from the mountains and eats you up”).

Of course, the big story here is Kong himself, and my goodness; what an achievement he is! In reality an eighteen-inch, articular model covered in latex and rabbit fur, the genius of Willis O’Brien brings him to startling life, one frame at a time. This is less due to the seamlessness of the stop-motion (it isn’t seamless) than to the personality and expression captured in the character. Kong not only moves but acts. He conveys genuine emotions in his face and actions, showing everything from savage rage to innocent curiosity and playfulness to sadness and confusion (his final moments on the Empire State Building are heartbreaking). This emotive power and personality is a large reason why he remains essentially sympathetic, despite some of the frankly shocking things he does.

Which brings us to the effects in this film, which are truly amazing, not only in their skill, but their scope. Once the characters arrive on the island, the effects are deployed almost non-stop with a prodigality that rivals modern CG extravaganzas. There are scenes that are jaw dropping in their complexity, such as Kong’s lair, which features matte-paintings, two stop-motion characters, separate inserts for two live-action actors, super-imposed smoke, and more, all moving at the same time, and all presented so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even recognize the scene for the masterpiece it is. Or just look at the scene when they’re landing on the island, in a wide beach shot with the wall in the distance and animated birds flying by; quick, almost incidental, until you realize it required two or three different kinds of special effects to pull it off.

Also keep in mind that it took about fifteen hours of work to get a single minute of screen time from Kong, and they essentially had only one take per scene. That this film is so free with its effects, and that they are so intricate, and yet so effective, is nothing short of amazing, especially when you remember that this was made only a few years into the sound era. Every special effects driven film made since has been following in its footsteps, and in a way none of them have topped it since.

But technical skill only takes you so far. It’s the artistry, even more than the talent that makes this film. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and absolutely dripping with atmosphere and imagination. Consider the main setting; an isolated, uncharted island shrouded in fog. An island where the people live on a narrow strip of beach protected by a giant wall so ancient that the natives have “slipped back; forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” On the other side of the island is a mist-shrouded, primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, under the shadow of a mountain shaped like a skull. Once the expedition arrives at the island, practically every frame looks as though it could have been the cover of an adventure novel or a fantasy magazine. The film is truly a visual feast.

Most importantly, it’s quite simply a strikingly good story; one of those rare ones that feels like it could have come from mythology, except that its subject and ideas are so thoroughly steeped in the modern era. The whole thing is centered on the clash of nature and civilization, and it could only have come from a time when man had achieved sufficient and seemingly growing dominance over the natural world. Take the most spectacular creation of nature (a giant gorilla), shown to be able to master any other beast from a T-Rex on down and pit it against modern civilization, the world of movies, airplanes, and New York City.  At the same time, there’s the idea that beauty is the thing that masters both man and beast; all the strength and power of either side is directed for the sake of a woman.

These are universal ideas, appealing to the very nature of man and woman, and of man and nature, and they’re realized with skill and a surprising degree of nuance. Unlike the remake, the film doesn’t really take sides in the conflict; we sympathize with Kong and feel for his plight and even like him as a character, but he’s also a horrifying monster who brutally kills any number of innocent people. Right there is the ambiguity of nature captured with the subtlety and accuracy of those who actually knows her. Cooper, along his co-writer/director Earnest B. Schoedstack had travelled all around the world and had lived in worked in wild places, filming live tigers and elephants in the jungle. Nature was not merely a political cause to them, to be advocated for from the comfort of a news studio as it is for most modern filmmakers; they knew her intimately and had no illusions about her.

Thus they portray the conflict between nature and civilization with a fairness so rarely to be found today that some might not even recognize it. New York is established to be a dangerous and unpleasant place in its own right, as illustrated by Denham’s comments about there probably plenty of girls in more danger then they’d ever see in the jungle, the view of the women lining up for a boarding house, and Ann herself being nearly reduced to theft. The crowds flowing in to seen Kong are likewise portrayed with an amusingly cynical touch (“Gorillas? Ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”), and of course it’s the reporters, acting against Denham’s warnings, that cause Kong to go berserk and break free.

But then, Skull Island is a pure nightmare; no fit place for human habitation. Even the savage natives who have “slipped back” from their own civilization can only survive by huddling behind a massive wall, one that they couldn’t have built and can only maintain. That is to say, even the natives are dependent upon such scraps of civilization as they have to keep nature at bay. There is no sentimental idea of ‘living in harmony with nature’ here. Kong may be capable of benevolence, and he’s a magnificent and even likable creature, but he is still a monster who could never possibly co-exist with people. Appealing as his pseudo-romance with Ann is, he’s incapable of considering her wishes or needs or comfort, and while his love for her makes him sympathetic, it can’t make him human. Once Kong has encountered civilization, his very nature means that sooner or later he will have to be destroyed.

That is precisely the tragedy. Kong’s fate isn’t the result of one or two bad actors, which might have been avoided had they been removed; it’s how things must play out due to his nature and that of civilized man (even if Denham had left him on the island after knocking him out, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else came along). If we’re to ask what would have been best, it would have been best if Kong had never been discovered. But then, we can only know that after he’s already been found. We see and admire the majesty and wonder of Kong, but only for a moment as our very meeting with him heralds his doom. Civilization, in its very admiration of nature, cannot help but destroy the thing it admires (note also the arrogance of Denham’s assumption that they can ‘teach him fear’ and so control Kong).

In the end, though, tragic as it is, there’s not really an alternative, because of the key figure of Ann. She’s both the most thoroughly civilized of the main cast (being a New York actress in a crew of sailors and explorers) and Kong’s first and chief link with civilization. The conflict with Kong is precipitated by the fact that he wants her, and obviously no one’s about to let him keep her if they can stop it.

So, what draws Kong into the conflict is his desire for beauty, and for that particular kind of beauty that only civilization produces. And of course, as a woman, Ann also conveys ideas of domesticity, home, stability, future generations, and so on: the things civilization is meant to guard and provide for.

While modern audiences may find it irritating, it was thematically necessary for Ann to be an extremely feminine, gentle type, in contrast with the strong masculinity of Driscall, the sailors, Denham, and of course, Kong himself. The former direct their strength and skill to her safety and comfort, while the later protects, but also grasps at her. She is ultimately the thing everyone wants and what they’re fighting over, and if we could sum up the point of the film in one sentence, it would be that men are strong and build civilizations all for the sake of keeping women safe from the wild dangers of the natural world.  

But of course, that same beauty is also the great weakness of pure masculine strength, precisely because it commands and directs it. However strong a man or a monster may be, his desire determines how he will use that strength. Thus is the great and startling balance of the world; lover and beloved, man and woman. The lover, the active principle, is in a sense dominant as he initializes the action, but the beloved, the receptive principle, is what draws that strength and so could equally be said to be dominant because she commands his power to the extent that he loves and desires her. The very act of desiring something means that the things desired rules over you to the extent that you desire it. This motive power of loving and being loved was how the Medievals understood God to move the universe, Himself unmoved. Hence, “it was beauty killed the beast.”  

There is a narrative going around that films of the past were simplistic affairs, black-and-white in more ways than one, and that modern stories have a more sophisticated, nuanced view of the world. I find myself that it’s often (not always of course) the opposite: modern stories tend to have a sheen of cynicism or complexity that makes them appear nuanced, but on closer inspection turn out to be rather crudely simplistic bluntly pushing a few ill-considered ideas and claiming sophistication on the grounds of they’re not being what you’d expect to find in an earlier film. There’s no ambiguity at all in, say, Avatar: natives are good, humans are bad, live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile John Ford was showing the ugliness and ambiguity of conflicts with American Indians back in the 1950s (see Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers, all of which, incidentally, were produced by Merian C. Cooper).

The 2005 remake of Kong is another good example (I don’t hate that film, by the way, but it is a massively inferior work), where the whole point basically amounted to feeling bad for Kong and disgusted with civilization. There’s a surface level verisimilitude in the dialogue and characters, but there’s none of the mythic grandeur or sophisticated storytelling or richness of the original. The characters themselves make far less sense (I don’t believe that Denham ever had the clout to film in wild, dangerous places or to have men follow him) and there is no ambiguity to it. The film practically hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to think about the whole thing.

As I’ve tried to show above, the original Kong, for all its gleeful silliness, is a very mature piece of work. It presents its story fairly without giving any easy or comforting answers to how we ought to feel about what happens, touching upon rich, deep themes in the process; ideas that, one way or another, have been with mankind from the beginning. And it’s just plain a really good story told in a very entertaining manner, not to mention being a technical masterpiece.  

There is a reason why the film sticks with you afterwards, and why it’s become such a classic.

I’m going to introduce a new feature with this review, what I call ‘canon status.’ A film or book or game receives this when I think it is not only a great work in itself, but also deservedly part of our culture’s storytelling lexicon. Canon status means that the work ought to be seen and understood and passed on to the next generation as a worthy contribution to the stream of human culture.

King Kong is undoubtedly a Canon film.