by Jeric Llanes
You know, I’ve known about King Kong almost all my life without actually having watched the original film (or subsequent remakes) that made the name famous. The gigantic ape is an icon that is simply embedded in our pop culture. We all seem to know about him in some way or another!
So, let’s talk about the first film that burst this iconic character onto the scene. King Kong (1933) starts off as a story about an ambitious filmmaker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), and his crew’s attempts to capture groundbreaking footage of the legendary creature “Kong”, who is rumored to be on a mysterious island off the coast of Indonesia. After being pressured to add a female lead to his upcoming film, Denham reluctantly casts Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a poor girl he found on the streets moments before the voyage takes off.
What starts off as an adventurous journey slowly hints at the peril that is to come for the filmmaker and his crew. I’m sure by now audiences are going to expect the monstrous ape to appear in the picture sooner or later. But even so, it was neat to find subtle foreshadows in some of the dialogue and visual cues before the actual reveal of Kong. The film does a good job of teasing the audience enough to heighten our anticipation. It’s like a slow boil in a pot right before it violently explodes.
And when Kong finally appears, the action that follows is certainly that. Violent and explosive. The film becomes much more fast-paced, as Denham and the crew desperately try to retrieve Ann after Kong has taken her for his bride. And Kong isn’t the only giant monster on the island. Along with him are incredible creatures that appear to be from a prehistoric time. The other monsters definitely make the journey more dangerous for our crew. But more importantly, the other monsters are there for Kong to battle! There’s a unique blend of emotions when watching these battle sequences between Kong and the prehistoric beasts. On one hand, it’s easy to rave at Kong’s awesome power and feats of strength. But on the other, we are forced to watch in horror as the humans become helpless to the creatures that clearly outsize and overpower them. Either way, the film becomes much more thrilling as our characters try to survive and escape such a monstrous island.
Kong and the other monsters are portrayed on the screen with a nice mix of stop-motion animation and other practical special effects. Of course, for today’s day and age the effects are somewhat dated, but I still found it inspiring that the film was able create such characters from scratch despite the technology of its time. The production crew for the film still had a to find a way to edit and layer these stop-motion sequences with the actual footage, and they did so almost seamlessly without awkward cuts that distracted from the viewing. And the overall crudeness of the animation adds to the grotesqueness of the creatures. The way they move seem a bit unnatural, which in my mind made them even more terrifying! (Whether that was intentional or not!)
Interestingly enough, I found Kong to be the most dynamic character in the entire movie. The other human characters are fairly simple, more or less being the archetypes needed for this kind of action-adventure movie. It’s clear that Denham was the headstrong character hiding ulterior motives, and Ann was there to be the damsel in distress. But Kong is more of a mystery. Surely the creature is animalistic, but he has an attraction to Ann and goes out of his way to protect her in times of absolute danger, proving that there is some sort of consciousness and awareness in the great beast. The animators also did a good job by conveying Kong’s emotions through his eyes. For the majority of the time he is such a formidable force of nature, but there are brief moments that call for sympathy. It’s fairly easy to know what the motivations for the other characters are, but you never really know what Kong is thinking, or why he does what he does.
And that’s the magic of the film and the character of Kong. While the majority of the movie is relatively simple and straightforward, there are still some questions that are vague and unanswered, which gives way for audience interpretation. There is so much more to know about the character of Kong, and so much room for further exploration of the character’s history. But I guess, that’s why the film continues to be remade time after time, and why audiences are still up for another round of the chest-pounding king!
Where to Watch this Film:King Kong (1933) is available for rent/purchase on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix DVD.