Saturday, 11 October 2014

Review: King Kong

(Fig. 1) A 1933 poster
  • Native Title: King Kong
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Black and White
  • Year of release: 1933
  • Director: Merian Cooper, Ernest Shoedsack
  • Budget: est.  US$670,000
  • Film Length: 100 minutes
  • Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
   A landmark piece of film history featuring one of the most iconic monsters of film history. King Kong on the surface is a tale of an ambitious camera crew exploring the mysterious and largely-unknwon "Skull Island" and finding a gigantic apelike monster that kidnaps their star actress (played by actress Fay Wray). In pursuing her they encounter various dinosaurs and giant lizards that quickly prove how savage and dangerous this mysterious island is. Eventually capturing the beast after rescuing the girl, Kong is captured and taken to New York City for the entire world to see him, only for an unintended (or unavoidable given the time) mishap that sends Kong on a chaotic rampage throughout the city.

    Beneath the fantastical story however is a dark and disturbing message with heavily racist tones that serve as a reflection of the attitudes of the time. To a modern viewer the insensitivity is cringe-worthy: Africans are shown wearing grass skirts and feather headdresses, speak "Native" (based on the captain's understanding of a language spoken by a people living on an isolated East Indian island he's never been to before) and throw spears, the one Chinese character shown has a Fu Manchu beard, traditional Chinese coat and uses phrases like "me likey come too!" and women are shown to be submissive even to comments like "Women get in my way by virtue of being on board [the ship]" and are prone to fainting.

(Figure 2) The design of the head reminds
me disturbingly of Blackface
    The centrepiece of all of this however, is Kong, a 2 1/2 storey tall giant gorilla with a taste for human flesh. Many times does the camera focus on Kong's head an animatronic head for several scenes, showing large ivory-white teeth in an almost permanent grin and beady pupils it must have been very intimidating to the cinemagoer of the thirties.since it was the height of realism back then. As I experienced, audience members more accustomed to CG monsters and animation found RKO's attempt at a lifelike face found it more as goofy and amusing than scary.

(Figure 3) I don't think this dinosaur had any other reason to
be in this film than to be horribly murdered by Kong
    One of the most significant things I noticed about the film was its resemblance to other films that indicated how huge Kong's footprint is despite being a film that by modern standards should probably be buried for its inappropriate content. While Metropolis was the forerunner for the summer blockbuster, King Kong could be considered the forerunner to the action film and the battle film, the latter a format that became characteristic of Toho's Godzilla franchise. After kidnapping Ann Darrow, he takes her away somewhere with the camera crew chasing after him with guns. After he crosses a log he sees them coming and puts Ann somewhere safe, tosses most of the crew off a log and then runs to save Ann from a T-Rex looking to eat her in a long fight scene that puts her in a lot of danger. "From the moment Kong appears on the screen the movie essentially never stops for breath. In an astonishing outpouring of creative energy, O'Brien and his collaborators show Kong in battle with two dinosaurs, a giant snake, a flying reptile and a Tyrannosaurus rex" (Erbert, 2002). In the space of perhaps fifteen minutes, Kong  fought a single group of humans and at least three different monsters,with notable battles taking between one to two minutes and leaving you on the edge of your seat.

    Along with this there are other moments of more gratuitous violence demonstrated by Kong. When he rampages though the village, Kong kills a few people by either putting them in his mouth or impaling them on his canine teeth, in one scene he smashes into a stilt-house in order to grab and throw the occupants into the mud at his feet and tread on them, pressing them into the mud until they were either crushed or suffocated to death. During his New York rampage he derails a train, smashes it up then leaves it to climb a building behind him, essentially making the entire scene a moment of senseless (possibly calculated) rage.

(Figure 4) Kong's battle with a Tyrannosaurus Rex may have been
part of what popularised an entire school of action films.
    Perhaps the most iconic fight scene within the film and perhaps an forerunner to fight sequences in films made after such as the various Godzilla films or Michael Bay's Transformers films was Kong's battle with a T Rex. Two colossal beasts fighting in "a wrassling match the likes of which is never seen at the [Madison Square] Garden" (Bigelow, 1933) over the girl who Kong had placed on a tree (which is knocked over, and unlike other fights in franchises such as Transformers or Godzilla is the only visible form of destruction in the sequence), with perhaps an added effect that the local humans are powerless or insignificant before the two warriors. Early production images demonstrate that this was intended to be one of the high-points of the film from the early onset, cleverly using a long-popular dinosaur for one of the most intense battles in the film and portraying it as even larger than Kong himself (although ultimately not as strong as it spent a lot of the scene in a headlock, but was still able to both kick Kong into the air and support his weight in the second half of the fight). The battle's length compared to the other fights Kong engaged with - aside from his battle with the planes on top of the Empire State - is perhaps what cemented it as one of the great battles of cinema. Its not full of clear punches or fancy unbalanced moves, just grappling, practical punching, tackles, all crowned with a struggle atop the dinosaur's back and a rather gruesome end for the loser All the while the dinosaur was trying its hardest to gobble up Ann who was helpless in her safety spot. In effect, there is simplicity in the battle's execution as "the two rip, tear, punch and bite their way through a knock down, drag out fight that would make any professional wrestler proud" (Fasso, 2014). it was tense, it was balanced and in effect it was believable. These two are in effect animals, they act like them, so their fighting style is much more likely to be a pragmatic style despite Kong's more human-like image.

    It is difficult to sum up all that King Kong influenced - the tropes, the ideas, the connotations, the plot devices and so on - in the years after it was made in a single review but its impact despite being a cheesy film that established one actress who survived the transition to talking films as one of the early Scream Queens is unmistakable. It ushered in a Hollywood staple of big shouty setpieces, terrifying larger-than-life monsters and edge-of-your-seat action that could exhaust you simply by watching it there was so much going on.Above all there is the hollywood magic; "The film’s international success changed filmmaking forever and made Hollywood studios invaluable to the process. Special effects allowed fantasy to be visually experienced and altered the trajectory of movies - exploiting their escapist purpose" (Stand, 2013) be it an adventure to a forgotten land or a fight between two characters that you would never see in real life. Its hard to think of what Hollywood cinema would have been like if King Kong had never been made.

Image References


  1. Another enthused, enthusing and very readable review, Mark :)

  2. Hi there,

    It's really important that first years a) follow the group blog as a matter of habit and b) follow the blogs of year 2 and year 3 students, because we know that, by doing so, year 1 students develop more quickly and get more organised. You might have done all this already, but I know there are those who have not, and I'm keen to get everyone up to speed.

    If you haven't done so already, you need to add these to your Blogger reading list, by clicking on the 'ADD' button on your dashboard, pasting in the URLs and then 'following pubically'.

    Group Blog (You must be following this/checking this feed daily at least).

    Year 2

    Year 3

  3. see link:

  4. Not much to say, except - excellent, Mark! :)

  5. Mark,

    I completely agree with your assessment on the sexism within this film. Around King Kong's period films marketed women as commodities to men. Helplessly reliant on them for emotional, financial & physical support. The film is basically males fighting over a female (essentially taking her against her will).

    Its amazing how far films have come since but you still find instances of it the "damsel in distress" is one of the most common clichés out there.

    Very nice, very nice