Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
King Kong is a marvel of a film. Sure just about every aspect of the film has become dated, from the stop motion to the rear projection screens to the racist imagery of a tribal population that sacrifices women to the monster known as Kong, and yet the special effects still seem to work. It’s possibly because of what now feels like a homemade touch, between the obvious seams of the work on screen and the shifting fur on the Kong creature as animators moved it in between each stop motion shot (the same type of fur ruffling in Wes Anderson’s The Isle of Dogs).
The story follows a group of men and a single woman into an unmapped island somewhere far from the rest of civilization. Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has heard of the rumored giant gorilla and wants to make a film with the creature and his new leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), whom he plucked right off the streets of New York. Along for the ride is a crew that has no idea of the wrath they are about to provoke and a ship captain named John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). He will fall in love with Ann and rescue her from Kong after the creature has taken her, with the help of the islanders who offer her up in sacrifice.
Denham’s cinematic plans fall quickly by the wayside when Darrow is kidnapped, but after Driscoll rescues her and leads Kong right back to them, he makes fairly quick work of the monster thanks to his armed crew and their gas bombs. They knock the creature out and take him back to New York to be displayed for broadway audiences paying exorbitant sums of money, even during the Great Depression. Who needs to make a movie, he figures, when you can just display the real thing?
It’s thus this capitalistic urge that brings the film to its destructive, iconographic climax, with Kong retaking Darrow and climbing to the top of the Empire State Building. Then he will be shot to his death by a swarm of buzzing planes and fall to the ground, where Denham strolls up to his kidnapped creature and says the famous final words, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
This final line speaks to a recurring theme of the film, the infatuation with beauty. It’s not just Kong with Ann Darrow but so too Denham with the things he tries to capture on film, and it’s even the subject of the film he originally set out to make. He lays out this movie’s finale early on when he tells one of his crew that his film is about a monstrous creature who loses its fury and bloodlust when it sees a beautiful woman. He has it in mind that beauty can waylay the worst impulses in a person or a creature.
And see, that’s kind of funny because he’s both wrong and he admits that he has no interest in putting a love interest in any of his movies, he’s just been ordered to do so by the studio for which he works. His idea of beauty is superficial and fleeting, just a means to a money grab.
So of course it’s Denham’s doing which incites every wrong turn in the film. They shouldn’t go to the island in the first place, he shouldn’t spy on the natives, and he should sure as sh*t not bring Kong back to New York. The fact that he’s not immediately handcuffed is a wonder.
So as a piece of text, well I think the film is aware of its irony here. Denham utters this memorable final line, but he’s the worst character in the whole film, and nothing he says seems remotely sincere. Is he right that beauty killed the beast? Perhaps, but his understanding of Kong seems off base.
Kong does care for Ann Darrow in his own way. He takes her as an offering from the natives, but then much of the film’s spectacle comes in the way of fights between him and the myriad of creatures who try to consume her. This is, of course, where the film shines.
These are a series of absurd, wonderful fights between Kong and multiple dinosaurs as well as a giant snake. They are filmed predominantly through stop motion, and once the initial awareness of the artifice wears off, they are quite entertaining. From what I recall they unfold mostly in a wide shot, so that none of the movement is cheated or hidden. Those movements may be awkward and sharp, but it helps contribute to the overall mood, both disturbing and eerie. There are even a few touches of humor, such as when Kong plays with the limp, broken jaw of the T-Rex he just killed, like a toddler flinging about a teddy bear.
Such a moment and others like it help us sympathize with Kong. He’s a graceful sort of violent creature who only fights to defend Darrow before wreaking havoc in New York. By then, however, he’s essentially playing with house money (in terms of audience empathy) because he’s just been kidnapped and essentially enslaved. It’s a tragic journey for a character defined by a brute force which is purely a defense mechanism, brought on by those who have kidnapped the gorilla.
So is the fact that Denham gets the last words subversive in any way? He slowly becomes the film’s antagonist, particularly as Driscoll’s rescue of Darrow shoves him into the hero role, but he’s never punished in the ways movie antagonists often are. If anything he is only celebrated, by audiences and the press, and though things go so drastically off the rails, his role in the matter is never pointed out by those around him and he never shows any regret on his part. He just says those final lines with the tone of a thoughtful poet, and you get the sense that he will do just fine going forward, moving onto his next business endeavor without a second thought for King Kong.
Up Next: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Godzilla (1954), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)