How many of you believe that the recent Godzilla and King Kong are original concepts? Probably not many of you, since the most recent iteration of them on screen is the ridiculous Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), or at least I hope this is not the case. I would think that those of you unfortunate enough to see it, like me, realized that it had been building on a number of previous movies. What you may not know is that, at least cinematically, the primate representative of that monster duo goes back nearly a century. That is right boys and girls, they have been making films for over 100 years. Crazy, I know. Still, if you are not familiar with the 1933 version of King Kong, which is the original and number forty-one on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list, then I wonder if you have been paying attention to cinema at all. It is one of the more iconic pictures ever made. You do not have to take my word for it. If any of you have a Roku device, let it go to sleep some time while the television remains on. Among the cinematic references you will see is the silhouette of the Empire State Building in New York City with a giant gorilla on top of it. This was not chosen at random.
Speaking of New York City, King Kong opens on a befogged harbor there, with producer Charles Weston (Sam Hardy) boarding a moored ship. On it is filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). Charles brings Sam the bad news that his favorite employee’s latest proposed picture is in jeopardy because he cannot find a leading lady for it. There are a lot of horrible things said about women at this point that need not be enumerated. Part of the reason for the string of denials is Carl’s penchant for making movies that involve risky shooting locations. His latest one is being kept secret from everyone, including the crew of the ship, and it is the one thing holding up their departure. Determined not to be delayed owing to the coming of monsoon season, Carl takes to New York City’s streets in order to, as he puts it, find a woman even if he has to marry one. It does not come to that, but he encounters Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple. Preying on her desperation, he takes her to a café for a meal before convincing her to be in his movie. What clinches it, aside from her need for a job, is his reputation as a director and the fact that she had previously been an extra in other productions. Thus, they leave for the islands of the South Pacific, though the crew is not a fan of having a woman aboard their ship. The first mate, John “Jack” Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), becomes the mouthpiece for these concerns. Nonetheless, Ann’s earnestness slowly wins them over, particularly Jack, with whom there is a growing attraction. It is not until they are in the area that Carl gives the skipper, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the coordinates of their destination. It is named Skull Island owing to the shape of the mountain at the center of it. This is also the moment that Carl reveals the legends of a giant monster kept on the other side of a tall barrier. This explains the gas bombs he included in their cargo. Upon reaching land, everyone goes ashore, including Ann, against Jack’s wishes. He is right to be cautious for as soon as the indigenous population (this is a polite description given how they are portrayed) sees Ann, they want her as a sacrifice to Kong. Acting as interpreter, Captain Englehorn tells them that they will be back tomorrow. The crew is able to leave, but that night a group of tribesmen sneak onto the ship and kidnap Ann. By the time those aboard realize what has happened, Ann is already back in the village and being prepared to be presented to Kong. The crew loads up all the guns and gas bombs they can carry and go after her. They are too late. By the time they get to the wall, Kong has already taken Ann. Carl and Jack, along with half of the other mates, plunge into the jungle to track Kong. Along the way, they encounter a number of beasts, mainly dinosaurs, with which they have to contend. After killing a stegosaurus, being overturned in a swamp by a ravenous brontosaurus (I guess they did not really understand these animals in the 1930s), and having Kong shake most of the rest off a log bridge, only Carl and Jack are left. Carl goes back for help while Jack stays behind, looking for an opportunity to rescue Ann. He is successful, but Kong comes after them, not wanting to be separated from his new prize in the golden-haired woman. Chasing them back to the beach and wrecking the native village along the way, Carl comes up with the idea of capturing Kong, bringing the monster back to New York, and making millions. What could go wrong? Everything, of course. As soon as Kong sees Ann on stage at his first public showing, he becomes agitated. The flashbulbs send him into a frenzy, and it is not long before he breaks free of his steel constraints. Finding Ann, he grabs her and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. This is the moment memorialized in Hollywood lore, with the giant gorilla swatting at biplanes trying to shoot him off the skyscraper. Eventually, the planes win, and Kong falls to his death. This is basically the end of the movie.
There is a great deal of racial subtext in King Kong, although that is probably obvious. The final line, said by Carl in response to a police officer summarizing Kong’s manner of death, says it all, “No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast.” The contrasting images of Ann and Kong underscore the point as to what is beauty and what is beast in the eyes of those responsible for this movie. Interestingly, Kong is also referred to as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” In Western culture, there has long been a fascination the so-called “dark” parts of the globe, the kinds of areas we find Kong. Culturally speaking, I suppose one could also lump Catholicism in with Western culture. I am uncomfortable with this designation for the sole reason that Faith is more than a component of culture, even though too many Western Civilization courses teach it in this manner. In this sense, the Catholic religion is reduced to a work of art, as if God could be framed and hung on a wall, never to affect our lives in any manner than to be occasionally glanced at whenever the fancy strikes. Another reason I would set Catholicism apart is because it seldom looked at the kind of locales like Skull Island in the same way as other Westerners, which has led to all manner of colonial abuses. Those attitudes inform much of what you see in the film. Do you think those behind the camera thought of the native peoples they portrayed as having souls? Or Kong? I am guessing not, but a Catholic missionary would, and therein lies the difference.
Having railed once more against racism in classic Hollywood with King Kong, it is still kind of interesting to see in regards to the early special effects. It uses some of the first examples of stop-motion animation, blending them into live shots. This is what brought audiences in droves to see it in 1933. If nothing else, this is kind of neat to note to see how far Hollywood has come.