King Kong (1933). Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring Fay Wray (as Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (as Carl Denham), and Bruce Cabot (as Jack Driscoll). Special effects by Willis O’Brien. Musical score by Max Steiner.
King Kong is an adventure film about a director (Carl Denham) who enlists a down-and-out actress (Ann Darrow) to join a crew of men and sail to a mysterious island location, where he plans to make a film. He eventually tells his crew that the people who live on Skull Island, his destination, confine themselves to one part of the island, separated from the remaining territory by a large and ancient wall. It is not immediately clear what lives beyond the wall, but Denham plans to film it. We soon learn that the natives use the wall to enclose a monstrous, eighteen-foot-tall gorilla, whom they call Kong.
Early on in the film, Denham and his crew observe that the ancient forefathers of these island dwellers had the technology to erect the massive wall and functional gate that have lasted through the ages to confine Kong, but that whatever knowledge was present at the time of the construction has now been lost. This is an interesting point, as it suggests that the island is not perhaps the standard island of the typical adventure film, where to white explorers there is usually no trace of inventiveness or sophistication. The idea that the natives of Skull Island have become estranged from a former technological cleverness also makes them part of a more universal pattern in history, including European history: a pattern in which old technologies leave their mark in otherworldly ways on the landscape (as do Roman ruins, for example) but are incomprehensible to us in our modern state.
The characters’ brief discussion of the wall is representative of King Kong‘s tendency to create opportunities for an almost mythological richness but not pursue them. For my part, when I learned about the wall I had hopes that I might be treated to a somewhat nuanced take on island culture. It was not to be. The natives themselves are portrayed in a fairly cartoonish way. Primarily, they are shown executing the crucial ritual—who knows how often it takes place—of sacrificing a young woman to Kong. They appear in full ritual garb, of course, because that is how we are meant to think they must appear all of the time. Yet amongst all of the drumming and dancing that we hear and see, there is an unexplored story that is an example of the richness that the movie suggests and then retreats from: I mean the story of the young native woman who is being decorated with flowers to be given to what we later understand to be the gorilla Kong. She looks terrified, but she does not resist. There is an experience of fear and suffering that could be shared with us in greater detail here, but that we only catch a glimpse of; it is a sensitive moment in a scene that is not otherwise very subtle.
When we first see Kong, it is after the natives have kidnapped the actress Ann Darrow from Denham’s ship and taken her to the island to be sacrificed to the monster. In an iconic scene, she is tied to two tall stakes where she struggles to free herself until Kong appears and absconds with her deep into the island. A modern audience might chuckle a bit at the sight of the giant ape: Kong was animated with stop-motion miniature technology by Willis O’Brien, as were the many dinosaurs that Ann and the crew encounter in the wild. While today’s moviegoers might not find stop-motion miniatures to be particularly scary, they are at least effective in the sense that Kong and the dinosaurs look like physical, moving creatures. I mean to draw attention to this particularly in contrast with the flat CGI graphics that dominate special effects processes in movies today. I think there is an advantage to having physical creations on the set, and King Kong offers more in this regard than just stop-motion miniatures. For close shots, Fay Wray sits in an enormous, furry hand, and there is also a mechanical gorilla’s head that is filmed for close-ups of Kong’s face. While I cannot say that I am afraid of Kong, owing in part to the crudeness of the animation and even of the large face and arm props, I do still react to him with interest because he takes up credible physical space.
Kong is the character that generates the most intense emotional reaction from me, primarily because of his relationship with Ann. I feel more engaged with the monster than I do with Ann, even though she is pitiable all throughout the film. While held captive on the island, she emits a near constant scream. It is good movie screaming, some of the best—but it is tempting to tune it out after a while. The screaming does not seem to bother Kong; as Ann shrieks in terror, he seems transfixed. While he holds her captive on the island, he plays with and manipulates her, even trying to undress her at one point (this scene and others were later censored). His attachment to her develops further when the scene shifts to New York. After capturing Kong and transporting him back to Manhattan, Denham puts him on stage, but on opening night, Kong, rather than behaving ferociously towards the audience as we might expect, becomes angry instead with the reporters who photograph Ann with the bright, obnoxious lights typical of 1930s flash cameras. He breaks free and pursues her through the neighborhood, locates her against all odds, and carries her off. He is destructive and cruel—I am thinking particularly of the way that he destroys the elevated train track and the train full of people that travels along it—but at the same time, he seems to feel something for Ann. The movie does not dwell for very long on articulating what that might be. Whatever it is, Kong is alone in feeling it: Ann is terrified by him and does not reciprocate.
The most moving part of all is when Kong has scaled the Empire State Building, clutching Ann in his grip. Once at the top, he places her on the building and battles with a squadron of airplanes that has come to attack him. He is shot many times, and soon we see his fatigue as he continues to fight while wounded. There is a particular injury to his chest that he puzzles over in a sorrowful way, confused by the blood and the pain. He even wipes his brow at one point—a decidedly human-seeming gesture, expressing perhaps weariness or confusion. Alone on top of the world, eventually he can hold on no longer and plummets to his death. It is a sad and lonely end.
King Kong strives, in a way that is typical of 1930s adventure movies, to encourage us to think of the strangeness and the exoticism of the island location, its inhabitants, and its monster. Yet there is something strange, too, about the American crew that has come to visit Skull Island. To begin with, director Carl Denham appears to be making a documentary of the island and the curious things purported to live there, but he is bringing along an actress. It is challenging to imagine what kind of film hybrid he has in mind–some blend of fiction and fact, perhaps. In light of what eventually transpires, however, it is disturbing to recall the scene on the ship where he asks Ann to dress in an elegant, medieval-style gown and then imagine she is in the presence of something truly terrifying. He directs her to scream as if she has encountered the most horrific thing she has ever seen. What could he have in mind for her other than endangerment? He never shares with the crew exactly what he knows about the island, but it is clear that he believes there to be something awful there, even monstrous, and he plans to expose Ann to it. True, once he and Ann’s beau, Jack Driscoll, discover she has been abducted, they both chase after her, but when Kong comes through the gates in pursuit of Ann at the end of the island sequence, Denham has his crew in place and is filming. In other words, although our attention is directed towards the primal, narcissistic, and inhuman behavior of Kong and the natives, nevertheless Denham’s behavior causes us to wonder how much of that attention is owed to Kong’s captor.
After Kong’s death, Denham appears on the street at the site of the animal’s body and pushes towards the corpse. The police officer on site explains that Kong died as a result of the airplane attack. “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast,” says Denham. This strikes me as an obnoxious comment to make, one that imposes a kind of fairy-tale reading on Kong’s death and removes Denham’s agency in bringing Kong to the city and endangering millions of lives. But it also seems rather cold, especially in light of what we have seen. The movie has done some work to suggest that Kong may have human feelings, whereas Denham at the film’s conclusion, rather than contemplating those feelings, seems to retreat into platitudes and showmanship. I think that if Ann, in particular, or any of the ship’s crew had to write the tagline for Kong’s death, it would be something decidedly different.
One last thing: King Kong offers many fast-talking, bossy, brassy voices—mostly male. Throughout, the men sound like a hybrid of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Cary Grant and are almost cartoonish in their assertiveness; they spend a lot of time ordering people around. It is amusing to think that men actually spoke this way in the 1930s, at least in movies. When I consider other models of speech in the film, I mostly think of Ann’s aforementioned screams. And then of course there are the long passages when no one speaks at all and the action takes center stage, such as the scenes spent hunting for Ann throughout the dinosaur-infested island. This is definitely a movie that relies on its characters to get work done by wailing and brutishly shouting, but it is possibly also a movie about the kinds of things that happen when that is primarily the mode in which we engage. There is not a lot of room amongst the humans of King Kong for delicate thought or speech. It is ironic to think that we have to look to the ape for hints of vulnerability.