In the absolutely bonkers science-fiction film Pacific Rim (del Toro, 2013), the monstrous Kaiju first attacked humanity on 10th August 2013. The attack ended a few days later on August 15th but, in that time, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland were completely devastated and the Kaiju War officially began. Accordingly, August 10th became known as “K-DAY” and is, for me, a fantastic excuse to talk about some giant monster movies!
Released: 7 April 1933
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Distributor: Radio Pictures
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and Frank Reicher
Renowned filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) charters a ship to Skull Island in search of an elusive, prehistoric creature known as “Kong”. When Ann Darrow (Wray) is captured by the creature, Denham and first-mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) resolve to rescue her and capture the beast to showcase it as a Broadway attraction.
It’s hard to believe now but it was nearly a hundred years ago that filmmaker, adventurer, and former World War I aviator Merian C. Cooper first conceived of the iconic visual of a giant gorilla climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and being felled by modern technology. Initially wishing to produce a semi-documentary piece depicting a fight between actual gorillas and Komodo dragons, Cooper was inspired by the cost-cutting appeal of stop-motion technology to retool his concept using existing sets, props, and filmmaking techniques.
The various dinosaurs of Skull Island, and King Kong himself, were designed by Marcel Delgado and brought to life using painstaking stop-motion techniques under the supervision of Willis O’Brien. A revolutionary filmmaking technique known as the “Dunning process” was employed to combine stop-motion and miniature shots with live-action actors and a huge animatronic bust of Kong’s head and body was constructed to capture close-ups of the creature. Audiences were in awe of the film and its ground-breaking effects, lining up to see the film upon its release, which was both staggered and somewhat limited but still brought in a profit of $650,000, with subsequent re-releases bringing King Kong’s total gross closer to $5.3 million. King Kong’s legacy, of course, speaks for itself; it is widely regarded as one of the most influential movies of all time, has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance, and was one of the first and most prominent of the giant monster movies that would later be popularised by the Kaiju films of Japan.
The first thing to note about King Kong is that, yes, it is filmed in black and white; while colourised versions of the film do exist, I recommend sticking to the original monochrome version for the true authentic experience. I understand, however, that black and white films can be off-putting for some but you’re simply robbing yourself of a true piece of cinematic history. 1933 was also a very different time in human history, to say nothing of cinema; as a result, dialogue is often loud, full of clunky exposition, and largely a product of its time. This means there’s a great deal of conveniences, contrivances, and sexist comments levelled in the film towards Ann; as the only female on the Venture, Denham’s chartered ship, she’s seen as a fragile and desirable object by many and little more than a prop for Denham, who needs a “pretty face” for the public to look at.
Denham is an unscrupulous and demanding egotist whose obsession with creating spellbinding films and content drives him to launch an expedition into the dangerous unknown; seemingly blind to the risks that the journey may bring, he cares only for capturing amazing sights on film and purposely misleads his cast and crew regarding their destination. Upon seeing Kong, Denham’s curiosity and greed are inspired and, regardless of the lives that have already been lost and the immense danger to Ann, he is driven to a crazed obsession at capturing the beast simply to string it up for the amusement of the paying public.
Annoyed at backlash from the critics and the public for never featuring a girl in his films before, Denham is determined to silence his detractors but isn’t happy about it; he, like many of the Venture’s crew, see women as little more than a distraction. Driscoll echoes many of these sentiments, believing women to be a nuisance, especially out at sea. Despite his gruff demeanour and cynicism and believing her mere presence troublesome to the attentions of himself and the other men, he can’t help but be attracted to her and concerned for her well-being considering Denham is being disconcertingly secretive about their destination and intentions for them all. This, as much as anything, makes him incredibly protective of Ann and compels him to, begrudgingly and awkwardly, admit his love for her after her safety is threatened by the island’s natives.
Ann, for her part, is a gorgeous and fiery girl but does little to really assuage such preconceptions; driven to stealing to survive, she’s overwhelmed by Denham’s proposal for “money, adventure, and fame” and with little other choice, she signs on to the Venture out of desperation as much as the thrill. Her demeanour, however, is something of a handicap at best and a distraction at worst as she’s prone to swooning, screaming, and flights of emotional fancy. When captured by Kong, she’s, obviously, largely defenceless and helpless against his might and, yet, despite her traumatic experience with the creature, is truly heartbroken when he is killed at the film’s conclusion. Indeed, the savagery and primal nature of the beast may be frightening to Ann but she still has a respect and admiration for Kong’s uniqueness and the ferocity with which he fought to protect her.
The remainder of the Venture’s crew is largely expendable and inconsequential; of them all, only Captain Englehorn (Reicher) plays a notable role since he’s…well, the captain of the ship and acting as an interpreter to the island natives. The other crew members are simply bodies to cast lewd aspersions towards Ann, question their mission, and to fall victim to Skull Island’s many hazards and dinosaurs. Speaking of which, Skull Island is home to a primitive tribe who live in fear and awe of Kong, offering him sacrifices and keeping him at bay with a gigantic wall, and, enamoured by Ann’s stark contrast to their women, kidnap her in attempt to appease the God-like creature.
Kong’s presence hangs in the air like an ominous cloud; his mere name piques Denham’s curiosity and he and the crew are puzzled by the constant chanting of his name when they reach the island. This builds the tension to the creature’s eventual, memorable reveal to a crescendo since the size of the walls imply a gigantic creature but the result is somewhat almost unimaginable: a monstrous, twenty-foot-tall ape who becomes besotted by his latest prize and flees deep into the jungle with Ann as his “bride”. As protective and smitten by Ann as Jack, Kong exhibits a playful curiosity towards her and is especially taken by her golden hair; so infatuated with Ann is Kong that he rampages through the natives’ village after she is taken from him, destroying their homes, crushing them beneath his massive feet, and biting them in two and also engages in brutal combat with the dinosaurs of Skull Island to both keep her safe and to assert his unmatched dominance.
Indeed, as impressive as Kong is, he’s not the only giant on Skull Island; dinosaurs still walk the Earth on its hidden lands, challenging Kong’s position as “King” and killing many of Englehorn’s crew. Even traditionally omnivorous creatures like the Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus are monstrous, dangerous killing machines on Skull Island but, of course, none are more formidable than the Tyrannosaurus rex. The battle with the T-Rex is especially brutal and impressive and shows off not only the film’s impressive stop-motion effects but also Kong’s versatility and unnatural capability as a fighter by overpowering the T-Rex and snapping its jaw. Clearly, Kong is not just a giant gorilla as his dimensions, form, and movements indicate he’s something truly unique even on an island of giant monsters!
One of the things I enjoy about King Kong is that it, like the old Universal Monsters films from back in the thirties, is a brisk and entertaining film; clocking in about around one hundred minutes, the film wastes little time in getting to the meat and potatoes of its concept (Skull Island). This is in stark contrast to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, which spent what felt like two ice ages aboard the ship (I still feel like they’re travelling there even now…), and which convoluted the simple premise of the original by trying to be bigger and better. In truth, this had already been accomplished by the impressive John Guillermin’s 1976 remake, which sported an incredibly extraordinary animatronic version of Kong, but even that has its slower, more laborious moments. The same can’t be said about the classic original, which establishes the suggestion of personality for its three leads and then promptly focuses on the remarkable creatures of Skull Island.
Naturally, King Kong’s biggest appeal is in the painstakingly realised stop-motion effects that are used to bring these to life; thanks to arduous time, effort, and clever filmmaking techniques, the film is able to blend together stop-motion models with live-action shots or depict battles between monstrous creatures while characters look on in awe and fear. Obviously, some of these aren’t as impressive as they once were and it’s easy to see how the shots have been blended or merged together; the stop-motion is also noticeably jerked and somewhat crude at times, especially when depicting Kong’s facial expressions and emotions, and yet it’s still an incredible achievement for the time, impressive to behold, and extremely ambitious considering the restrictions and that the techniques were still new and being developed during this era. It would have been easy to simply focus on one beast, the titular Kong, but the filmmakers opted to go all-in and showcase a variety of complex dinosaurs on Skull Island, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldliness of the location, and the film does a pretty decent job of showing Denham, Driscoll, and the Venture’s expendable crew members battling with the various monsters of the island.
Of course, it’s one thing to see Kong in the deep jungles of a fantasy island that time forgot but it’s another thing entirely to see him first bound and then tearing through the streets of downtown New York City! Once a king, now reduced to a mere spectacle to be ogled at, Kong’s escape and subsequent rampage is a stark reminder of the brutality and fierceness of nature as Kong steps on pedestrians, crushes cars, destroys trains, and even devours humans in his relentless pursuit of the object of his affections. Love, tragedy, and the brutality of nature are prominent themes throughout the film; Driscoll is driven to read head-first into the unknown to rescue Ann, just as Kong is when he ends up in New York. As iconic and timeless as King Kong is for its effects it is, perhaps, equally as memorable for its tragic ending; so obsessed with holding on to Ann is Kong that he is forced into climbing the Empire State Building in an attempt to get up high and in a position of dominance. Unfortunately, while the human characters are able to adapt to and conquer Skull Island with their weapons and fortitude, Kong is ultimately overwhelmed by the modern world and unable to probably navigate, respond to, or combat it and, as a result, he is gunned down and meets an inauspicious, tragic, and unforgettable end in his efforts to protect his “bride”.
Undeniably, King Kong is an absolute classic and near-timeless movie; it’s one of those films that everyone should take the time to watch simply for its contribution to cinema through its ground-breaking and incredibly ambitious special effects. Obviously, there are elements of the film that haven’t aged too well thanks to how society has changed and the effects look rather primitive compared to what Hollywood is capable of today but many of those techniques would not have been possible without King Kong, which still holds up remarkably well thanks to the impressive way that it blends live-action shots, sets, and stop-motion techniques together to create a truly moving and emotional tragedy about a misunderstood and savage beast being smitten by a gorgeous and emotional beauty. As creative as subsequent Kong films as been, and for all the monster movies that have followed, few have the spectacle and timelessness of King Kong, which continues to impress through its ambition and is well recommended not just for fans of monster movies but for fans of cinema in general.
Have you ever seen the original 1933 version of King Kong? If so, what do you think to it and how do you think it holds up today, especially compared to other monster films and subsequent remake sand interpretations of Kong? What did you think to the stop-motion effects? Do you think they were the best option available or would you have preferred to see a man in a suit or some other technique used? What’s your favourite version of Kong, or your favourite Kaiju movie, and how are you celebrating K-Day today? Whatever your thoughts on King Kong, Kaiju, or monster movies in general, please do leave a comment below and be sure to check back in for more giant monster content in the near future!