I figured what better place to start my giant monster movie blog than with the one, the only King Kong! While not the first monster movie (that would be the 1915 silent shocker The Golem), it is arguably the first giant monster movie (more on why it could be argued later), and undeniably the father of this crazy film subgenre that I love so dearly. Not only that, but it has absolutely earned it’s place among the greatest films of all time, regardless of genre. The flipside is that the movie is 80 years old: so for all the groundbreaking effects, powerful music, and solid story-telling, there’s also some shit that will seem either cringe-worthy, hilarious, or both to modern viewers. So beat your fists against your chest, uppercut a T-Rex, and take a trip with me back to mysterious old Skull Island!
How about a little music to get you into the spirit? For your listening pleasure, here‘s a suite of music from the film, by legendary composer Max Steiner (credits include Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and a shitzillion others). As you can hear, this score doesn’t fuck around. The first 30 seconds just throws you face-first into high-flying, thrilling adventure and never lets up. This was one of the first film scores to use leitmotifs instead of vague, atmospheric mood music. They pretty much invented the modern film score for this movie. Oh yeah, the movie!
The DVD I have actually started with a two and half minute overture, playing some of the most foreboding and exciting music from the score over a gorgeous title card. If the black and white picture didn’t transport you back to the 30s, this little detail did. I love watching trailers before a movie, but man it’d be cool if new movies played a couple minutes of the score first. But I’m kind of a score whore. After you settle in with your rock candy and parsnip pie or whatever 1930s people ate at the movies, you’re treated to the opening credits. I mention this not because I’m going to give you a play-by-play of every single thing that happens in the movie, but because these credits do one of my favorite things: they give the monster a credit! King Kong plays himself. Sort of like Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, I guess.
The movie proper opens with this old Arabian proverb:
“And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.”
And it probably won’t shock you too thoroughly that producer Merian C. Cooper pulled that straight out of his Merian C. Pooper. And you don’t have to worry about ever losing track of King Kong’s thesis statement, because you’re going to hear it two or three times before the movie wraps up. Everybody knows the somber delivery of the line after Kong takes his tragic tumble, but it loses some punch when you’ve heard it like five times already.
Shortly after we’re treated to that totally real quote from actual ancient Arabic folklore, we find ourselves aboard the S.S. Venture. One of our human leads, the notorious film director Carl Denham is discussing their journey and his latest project. While everyone seems a bit put off by the fact that Denham won’t fully disclose where they’re going or what he plans to do with crates of his specially designed tranquilizer grenades (just one can konk out an elephant), what really seems to cause a ruckus is that he’s putting “a girl” in one of his pictures for the first time. Denham grumbles that the audience demands a female lead, and it all comes across real weird. Throughout the first act, characters reveal to us that Denham is known for making exciting films that heavily feature intense wildlife footage. So knowing that, and how annoyed he seems about having to finally put a dreaded “girl” in his movie for the first time gave me the impression that all of his previous movies were jungle adventure films starring only dudes. And that said jungle sausage fests were wildly popular.
That said, I’m also willing to give Denham the benefit of the doubt: maybe his movies were just awesome nature documentaries (and not hot, sweaty, homoerotic jungle romps) and Hollywood was forcing him to shoehorn a bullshit love story in. Seeing how The Hobbit movies are turning out goes to show some things never change I guess.
Speaking of Denham, he’s a slightly fictionalized version of King Kong’s own Merian C. Cooper! It’s kind of a back-handed compliment: Denham is the ultimate showman, and will do anything to get the shot, but he’s also a bit of huckster, and not afraid to put other people’s necks on the line. Rumor has it that much like his silver-screen counterpart, Cooper used gas bombs to subdue and capture Fay Wray.
Denham isn’t the only one to lament the horrors of being near a woman, the S.S. Venture’s resident hunk Jack Driscoll also voices his qualms about the unimaginable burden of one small woman quietly taking residence on his precious ship. I get that in real life (even today probably) a crew of rough and tumble sailors would be more than a little annoyed with some oblivious movie star getting in the way of day-to-day operations, but it’s taken to ridiculous levels in some of the dialogue here.
When the ship does arrive at Skull Island, it’s with one of the films many fantastic composite shots. We have the actors on deck, a gorgeous matte painting of the island, and animated birds flying by in the middle distance. I also got nervous when the S.S. Venture got to Skull Island, in a good way and a bad way. In the good way because King Kong is an expertly crafted movie and the tension has been building effectively since frame one, but in a bad way because… well if Peter Jackson took a little heat for his portrayal of the natives in his 2005 King Kong remake (seriously they are ghoulish monsters in that one), how rough would they be in the 1933 original?
And the answer is, not too bad really! As far as I could tell nobody was in blackface, and while the natives are primitive and practice human sacrifice, they’re not cartoonish or monstrous. When the shit really hits the fan and King Kong tries to break down the door later on, the natives stick around and help the S.S. Venture Crew hold it shut. I was also nervous about the S.S. Venture’s Chinese cook Charlie. He does do some “Engrish” but I was happy to find he wasn’t a white dude in yellowface. Plus Charlie’s the first one to notice Ann has gone missing, and volunteers to join the rescue party. He was originally only meant for a single scene, but producers/directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Willis H. O’Brien liked him so much they beefed up his role and had him come back in Son of Kong. Overall King Kong feels progressive as fuck for 1933. Well, racially that is. If you’re a woman, you’re still clearly a Menace II Society.
The wall set is massive and totally convincing, and they make damn sure to get the most out of it. You have natives and later S.S. Venture crew climbing up the side, watching from the top, and at different times opening the door, or trying their damnedest to keep it shut. The wall had seen some action before its tour of duty on Skull Island as the Temple of Jerusalem in The King of Kings in 1927. It was later used in The Garden of Allah in 1936, and then dressed up as a Civil War Fort and blown the fuck up for Gone with the Wind in 1939. So yeah, a fake wall got more juicy roles than most aspiring actors. Must have had a bitchin’ agent.
Awesome as that wall set is, we all know we’re here for what’s behind it. The wall teases us, and when those gigantic-ass doors open we see Ann chained to some ornate sacrificial posts, and naturally she is shitting bricks. We get a bit of her perspective. Trees shake and out comes KING FUCKING KONG. The composite shot is just terrific, Kong couldn’t be any more bad-ass, and Fay Wray’s reaction of pure horrified disbelief is perfect. She totally sells it, and now the movie really takes off. Kong steals off with Ann into the deadly depths of Skull Island’s mysterious jungle, and the intrepid crew of the S.S. Venture gives chase.
So my next note (yes I take notes while watching old monster movies. ladies) verbatim is this: “FUCKING DINOSAURS!!” And no, I don’t mean this, I just mean that I was already so amped up by this movie, that I spazzed even more than you already should upon viewing a dinosaur. This movie’s view on dinosaurs is that they are all bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters. It makes for a great monster movie, but knowing what we do now about dinosaurs makes some of these scenes as hilarious as they are thrilling. Our first run in with a terrible lizard is a gigantic stegosaurus. While today we know stegosaurs were big plant-eaters, essentially scaly cows with bitchin’ dorsal plates, it decides to charge at Dehnam and co. The crew hit it with gas bombs to knock it out, which makes perfect sense. But then they murder his big sleepy ass! It’s an amazing, priceless living specimen, that they’re fully capable of knocking unconscious, but it’s the 30’s so our heroes have to kill their way through the jungle I guess. I wonder if it was intentional, but this made me sympathize less with Denham and his crew. We are treated to another fantastic composite shot, as the crew steps around the massive body of the stegosaurus, and further into the jungle.
Our crew heads into what is clearly the spookiest swamp of all time. They paddle across on a makeshift raft, when an apatosaurus (a.k.a brontosaurus) rears his head up out of the murk. Again, likely filling their bloomers with fright-fudge, the crew opens fire. Except this time, the gentle giant dino-cow isn’t going down without tearing shit up. He chomps into bitches, flings them around, and even chases them onto dry land before giving it up. I like to goof on this movie for making presumably chill dinosaurs into murderous beasts, but the definite flip side is that a bull will charge your ass if you make it mad, and that’s just a man-cow. Hippopotamuses are big fat dumpy salad eaters, and oh yeah one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. You know, the continent with lions, crocodiles, rhinos, etc. So yeah, maybe an apatosaurus would chomp into you and choke slam you if you got too close?
Our crew has dwindled significantly now, but they’re getting close to Kong and Ann. Denham and pals have to crawl across a huge log to cross a deep, dark ravine. Kong, being an awesomely smart movie monster, waits until our boys are about halfway across, then rocks the shit out of the log to shake those poor suckers off. Again we’re treated to an insane composite shot, as the stop-motion King Kong uses movie magic to rock the live-action set. I was pretty shocked that we actually see some of those poor bastards hit the ground. The dummies they use are decently convincing, especially compared to a particularly hilarious shot later. But this takes us to a neat little movie legend. In the original cut of King Kong, those sailors fall down the ravine, but they’re not killed by the impact.
If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Kong, you have a good idea of where this is going. PJ didn’t just arbitrarily pull that spider pit scene out of his Hobbit-hole, but from shaky accounts of a lost scene that was only aired once for a test audience. That picture above is an approximation of what happened to the poor bastards that fell off the log: they got eaten alive by gigantic crabs, spiders, and other hellish Skull Island-styled arthropods. Supposedly the scene was so frightening and gruesome that audiences freaked out and either ran out of the theater, or couldn’t shut up about it through the rest of the movie. Cooper wasn’t happy with the response, so out it went: “It stopped the picture cold, so the next day back at the studio, I took it out myself.” Sadly, footage of the scene has never been recovered, but there are a couple stills and a shot of one of the spider models.
But whether the S.S. Venture’s hapless red shirts fell to their deaths or were devoured whole by ghoulish arachnids (or both! We live in a world of limitless potential gang!), we come to one of the coolest scenes in the film, which at this point is saying a lot. Again I went a little bonkers in my notes and just scrawled: “T. FUCKING. REX.” It’s amazing the movie can top this scene later (it totally does, spoiler alert) because it is just pedal-to-the-metal bad-ass. King Kong gently places Ann in a nearby tree, and proceeds to wrestle and fist-fight the bejeezus out of the king of the dinosaurs. By beating the piss out of the tyrant lizard king, Kong reasserts himself as the absolute king of Skull Island, but we also see his curious and playful side when he goofs around with the dead dino’s busted jaw.
Now most of the movies I’ll write about in the future are Godzilla movies, and you better believe I’m excited to talk about King Kong vs. Godzilla in the not-too-distant future. I bring it up now because I think Godzilla’s own legacy owes a SHIT-TON to Kong rumbling with the T-Rex here. Monster fights are the bread-and-butter of the giant monster sub-genre, and there’s no way Godzilla would have clocked almost 30 sequels without them. Hell, plenty of Godzilla’s movies just have “vs” right there in the title. I like to think that this scene sets up that Kongs and dinosaurs (or dinosaur-like monsters) just naturally hate each other, hence why they’re so eager to knock each other’s teeth out in King Kong vs Godzilla.
So shortly after one of the most exciting, bad-ass scenes in film history, we’re treated to this:
That would be the huge, live-action Kong head they built. I… don’t find it as effective as the stop-motion miniature. It works in some shots but looks accidentally hilarious in others. I super applaud the effort though, and it’s arguably worth it for giving Kong the ability to graphically chew up some poor souls:
But compare that slightly derpy, slightly rapey face with what we get with the miniature:
The life-size prop looks stoned and horny 24/7, but the miniature is capable of a range of emotions, including but not limited to, “OH SHIT RUN FOR YOUR LIFE THAT THING IS HUGE AND SUPER PISSED OFF.”
But by the time we’ve seen Kong slay a T-Rex, Driscoll still hasn’t quite caught up yet. Skull Island is a seemingly endless funhouse of primordial horrors, and dear reader, it is not done with us yet! When Denham makes it back to the S.S. Venture crew holding watch back at the wall and explains everything that happened, they hang their heads and state “There’s still a chance for Driscoll.” I took that one of two ways: either it’s more weird misogyny and they don’t give a sloppy dino-turd about even mentioning Ann’s name, or they’ve already given up hope that she could possibly survive whatever horrors Skull Island and Kong have in store for her. I think the latter explanation plays a little more ominously, so let’s go with that.
I don’t want to just give a play-by-play of the whole movie (if you’ve never seen it, give it a look!), so I’ll just say that Kong trashes some more dinosaurs before Driscoll and Ann make their daring escape from Kong’s mysterious mountaintop lair. After failing to sneak away from the Kongster, they take the ultimate chance and plummet into the lake below. And for a movie busting at the seams with still-terrific effects shots, this one looks crazily out-of place, as they appear to drop a pair of Barbie dolls into a miniature lake. I wish I could find a picture, because it’s nuts.
So by now it’s probably not an M. Night Shymalan-level plot twist that Denham wants to use his crates of knock-out gas bombs to make a 30 ft. tall, T-Rex punching rage-juggernaut into his own personal dancing monkey. And I can’t really fault the dude for trying, after all the shit that’s gone down on Skull Island, his movie shoot is pretty solidly boned, so might as well get something out of the trip, right? But I can’t help but wonder, why not try to bring home LIVE FUCKING DINOSAURS too? Did Denham really come face to face with living, breathing, terrible thunder lizards and say “Nobody’d pay to see this crap”? Is he high? Did people in the 1930s see dinosaur skeletons and say “what a fucking snoozefest”?
And hey, maybe it’s best Denham only brought back King Kong. Opening night of “come see King Kong chained up on a stage in the middle of the biggest city in the world” goes about as well as you’d imagine, even without a bunch of hungry, confused dinosaurs in the mix. Despite Denham’s claims that the “chrome steel” (you know, that indestructible material they make soup spoons out of) chains will keep Kong under control, the 8th Wonder of the World throws the awesomest shit-fit ever and goes on a rampage around the city, looking for Ann, and trashing anything that isn’t Ann. And this is where the movie’s tone changes for me in a really interesting way. Maybe it’s because I have such a boner for monsters, but I really start sympathizing with Kong. He was the undeniable king of his own world, and he’s pissed to even be considered anything less in NYC.
I don’t know if I just got used to Kong tear-assing around Skull Island and wrecking everybody’s shit, but when you see him lashing out in New York, it’s so impressive and surreal all over again. And whether you’ve seen the movie or not, you know where it goes from here.
Desperate, freaked out, and still just balls-to-the-wall pissed, Kong takes tiny, screaming Ann Darrow to the top of the world. His mountaintop lair on Skull Island was a (mostly) safe haven, so surely the top of the Empire State Building will be too, right?
What follows is the one of the most exciting, iconic action sequences ever put on film. Watching it again, I can’t help but think of that other famous fantasy film finale, Star Wars‘ Death Star trench run. They’re both exciting, tense, and feature old timey flying ace dogfighting in a batshit crazy setting. But the mood is a lot different here. Kong is so wonderfully animated that you actually see the fight go out of him as the swooping biplanes pepper him with bullets. Kong doesn’t go down without a fight though, and he manages to knock some of those punk-asses out of the air. He gives a couple more languished swings at the planes before finally giving up and taking a gruesome, unceremonious tumble down the side of the tallest building in the world. And guess what, even though we saw him literally chewing people alive just a few minutes ago, it is fucking sad to see him fall.
Denham makes his way through the crowd gathered where Kong kissed the concrete, and some guy tells him that the planes took the monster out. And even though we’ve heard it like four times before this, it does still resonate when Denham says “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Did you see Quentin Tarantino’s excellent World War II revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds? If you did, you already know what I’m about to talk about. If not, here’s a quick primer. About halfway through Basterds we find some German soldiers playing a cool party game where you have the name of a person or character written on a card and stuck to your forehead. You don’t know who is on the card, but your friends do, so you get to ask them 10 questions to try and guess it. We watch a Nazi officer take his turn. He asks:
1. Am I German? (No)
2. Am I American? (No… you weren’t born in America)
3. Ah… but I visited America? (Yes)
4. Was the visit fortuitous? (No, not for you)
5. My native land, is it what one would call exotic? (Yes)
6. Hmm, that could mean the jungle or the Orient… Am I from the jungle? (Yes)
7. When I went to America, did I go by boat? (Yes)
8. Did I go against my will? (Yes)
9. On this boat ride, was I in chains? (Yes)
10. When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? (Yes)
So: Am I the story of the American Negro? (No!)
Well, then I must be King Kong. (Yes!)
I enjoy King Kong as a thrilling fantasy adventure and the as the father of the giant monster movie subgenre, but the parallels to American slavery are also clearly there (intentionally or not) and open for interpretation. When asked about it later in life, Cooper stated he intended for King Kong to be a simple, straightforward adventure film, and despite the striking historical parallels, I don’t find that hard to believe. King Kong is one of the biggest (pun intended) movies ever made, so it’s only natural for it to be examined and interpreted in a lot of different ways. Other interpretations cast Kong as a symbol of repressed sexuality, economic upheaval, and political rebellion. It’s a deep rabbit hole, a lot has been written about symbolism and subtext in King Kong. I say this one’s in the eye of the beholder, dear reader.
When we first started, I mentioned that it’s “arguable” that King Kong was the first giant monster movie. Why? Because of 1925’s The Lost World. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel of the same name, The Lost World hits many of the same beats as King Kong. Namely, “adventurers go to a mysterious place where dinosaurs live and foolishly try to bring back a dangerous live specimen” (See also: The Lost World: Jurassic Park). Also notable is that King Kong’s special effects wizard Willis O’Brien also did the visual effects for Lost World.
So at the moment it might sound like King Kong is just a flashier rip-off of The Lost World, but there are a couple of important differences. In Lost World, the creature our heroes bring back (to London, not NYC) is an apatosaurus, which while awesome, is a creature that really did live on and roam the very same planet your non-dinosaur ass is sitting on right this very second. After trashing jolly ol’ London the apatosaurus just swims away. I’m all for letting dinosaurs live out their lives somewhere in the UK (perhaps in a cozy Loch? WINK), but that ending has NONE of the drama or pathos of Kong’s tragic rise and fall.
Speaking of Kong: while there is fossil evidence of huge, prehistoric apes that stood almost 10 feet tall, the first fossil wasn’t found until 1935: two years after The Eighth Wonder of the World took cinemas by storm. Why does that matter? Because that means Kong is truly a monster: a fictional creature dreamed up by story-tellers. Lost World is a dinosaur movie, King Kong is the first giant monster movie.
King Kong went on to inspire sequels, remakes, reboots, cartoons, cross-over films, homages, and blatant rip-offs (which I’ll definitely be exploring in later entries). Not only that, but as the father of the genre, every giant monster movie that has come since owes at least a little bit of its existence to the fallen king of Skull Island. And while Kong had his sequels and remakes, I think the ultimately tragic nature of the character is why we never saw 20+ sequels like we did with Godzilla. Maybe we would’ve gotten those fun, campy sequels if beauty wasn’t such a blood-thirsty, beast-killing bitch.