At the beginning of the year I did the obligatory blogger thing of making a “best of” list. In it I stated my guilty pleasure of the year was Kong: Skull Island. This is a clichéd giant monster movie filled with every trope of the genre you could possibly think of and yet I still enjoyed the ever-loving hell out of it so much I now own it on Blu-ray.
And as I sat re-watching that film with commentary and special features active I wondered to myself in true obsessive nerd fashion, just how many Kong movies are there? I assumed just a handful – the original, its sequel, the Toho knock-offs, and the Dino De Laurentiis and Peter Jackson remakes – but as I Googled boy was I surprised to find there are quite a few more including b-movies, animated TV series and several sequels and rip-offs. And again in my obsessive nerd way I decided I should watch them all. And to justify this colossal undertaking/massive waste of time I also decided to write about it – it’s the Internet, it’s what we do.
I call this project “Kong Hits” because I think I’m clever.
So what is there to say about the original King Kong that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of critics and reviewers hundreds of times over the course of 80 plus years?
The answer…well, nothing.
It’s a classic. Not only in its genre but in the history of filmmaking, so much so it has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. It is also a pioneer in special effects. A film that has influenced the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Rick Baker – that in and of itself would make it noteworthy. And it is also a proto-blockbuster long before that term was a common occurrence.
But again this is not adding anything new to the conversation. Anything I could say about the film’s creation or any critical analysis I could devise would only be a re-hash of ideas that better critics have already said. Because of this I was tempted to simply skip the original and move on to the sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs and call it a day. But how could I do a feature on King Kong movies without also adding the original? I wouldn’t be complete and as I stated above the completest nerd in me just could not allow that to happen.
So I’ve decided to talk about this movie in my goto fashion – nostalgia.
King Kong (1933)
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive–a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.” – Carl Denham
What I Remember
I first saw King Kong when I was about 8 years old – that is to say the entire film. I had seen clips on TV and pictures in magazines, by this point in the mid-70s King Kong had become a cultural icon along the same lines as Frankenstein’s monster and Lugosi’s Dracula. Even if you hadn’t seen the movie you had at least heard of it and most likely saw the final Empire State Building climb referenced on a TV show or another movie. This was at a time of course when home video was not yet a thing. There was no VHS to record, no DVDs to buy, no Blockbuster to rent from, and as for streaming…this was not even a concept that had occurred to anyone writing the most far-fetched science fiction. So in order to see an old movie like this you simply had to wait for it to randomly show up on TV or (if you were lucky) live in a town that had a movie theater that played classic films occasionally. In fact I had seen the 1976 remake of King Kong long before I saw the original.
So when I finally did see the original King Kong it was on a 10 inch portable black and white TV.
(As an aside that TV was one of my favorite possessions as a child. It was small enough to sit on my lap or rest comfortably on the pillow next to my head. It was with this device that my love of old/classic movies and TV began. I watched a lot – a lot – of late night TV on the local UHF channels. This TV will be mentioned again.)
And so one night a rebroadcast of King Kong was played and I watched with joyous anticipation. I was finally going to see the movie I had heard so much about. This was something special.
And the first thing I remember about watching King Kong for the first time was just how boring it was. At least for the first 20 minutes. And remember this was late night broadcast TV in the 70s so the commercials stretched this out to 45, 50 minutes. Also remember I was 8 years old and had been promised a giant ape and all I got was a bunch of people on a boat talking. And talking. I was a bit disappointed.
But when the boat does finally arrive at Skull Island and we finally do get to see Kong in full glory the movie shifts gears and continues a break neck speed. The action is relentless. Dinosaurs! Giant snakes! Monster battles! Mass killing! Exactly what a youngster was looking for in a film. And when the finale happens and Kong rampages though New York and climbs the Empire State I was hooked. The boredom of the first 20 minutes transformed to excitement and rapture at the endless stream of giant monster goodness. It was awesome.
How Does It Hold Up?
Quite well actually. I mean for a movie made over 80 years ago. The special effects – while groundbreaking at the time – do seem quaint and rough now in the age of CGI. But there is something eerie and off-putting about them. The fact that they don’t seem “real” makes the monsters look timeless and other-worldly. And Kong is somehow more alive, he simultaneously creepy and animalistic while having a strange humanity. It is hard to quantify exactly but the look of the film still has an ethereal quality (not sure if that’s the right word but it seems to fit for me) and it has a fantasy/fantastic overtone that is more compelling in many ways than films made with “realistic” CGI effects today.
There is one part in particular that stood out to me as a child and still affects me on a re-watch. It is when Kong fights the Tyrannosaurus (which is a wonderful thing phrase to write) and he pulls the T-Rex’s jaws apart killing it. For a moment after Kong seems confused. He continues to work the jaws back and forth as if expecting the T-Rex to continue fighting and there is a feeling that Kong is saddened by what he has done. That he is just now, just for a moment, contemplating death. It is a detail that was not necessary but adds much to the character of Kong. He becomes more than an animated lump of clay – he is a thinking, breathing creature and when his downfall comes it is not a triumph, it is a tragedy.
That sort of thing is what sets this movie apart from other horror/monster movies of its time.
Now not everything holds up mind you. Over the course of nearly 85 years some attitudes have changed and the way people and relationships are represented are…questionable…in today’s climate.
The biggest problem is of course the way in which the natives are depicted. 1933 America was not sensitive to racial equality (was enough of an understatement?) even so this is a bit over the top. The native are shown as stereotypical savages with grass skirts and literally spear-chucking. The women even wear coconut bras which to my knowledge was a look that was never used seriously and was reserved only for Abbot and Costello movies. So yes, that is a bit difficult to look at.
And the “love story” is…let’s say abrupt. It is basically an hour of a man saying, “I hate women,” and insulting the female lead to which the girl falls madly in love with him because manliness.
Now these problems do not ruin the movie. And while I don’t overlook them I do put them into context of the time the movie was made and acknowledge that we have – ever so slightly – grown as a society.
In the end King Kong was and remains a classic. Regardless of what you think of how the film has aged it cannot be disputed that it has an influence on how films were made and showed there is an audience for fantasy and spectacle.
And my 8 year old self still gets a kick out of giant monsters fighting.