King Kong (1933)

I knew going into this film that it simply couldn’t be that good of a film. It was something people just loved more for the movie history and the fact it was one of the first big movie special effects spectacles. It certainly couldn’t be that good given that it’s a film about a rampaging giant ape. That’s the stuff of b-movies. But perhaps I was a bit biased in since I saw the Peter Jackson remake when it came out and found the picture to be lackluster. In any case, I was completely wrong. King Kong is a fantastic picture.

Sure, the screenplay certainly isn’t going to win any awards but it sets up the idea well. An ambitious director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), has hired a crew to take him to a distant island where he will film his next big picture. But he’s without a leading lady the night before the ship is to take off. He searches the city streets and picks up Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). While on the way, Darrow falls in love with one of the crew hands, a John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). From there I imagine you know the rest of the film, which involves the discovery of a humongous ape known as King Kong.

Going in I expected the film to be hammy and sentimental, attempting to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Once again, this is probably me setting my expectations from the Jackson remake. However, the film is much more of a straight up monster film. King Kong in some ways is tragic, but for the most part he’s a real brute who goes about destroying everything and killing people left and right.

And the violence is one of the main things that surprised me. It’s not graphic, but King Kong kills a lot of people onscreen in gruesome ways. He tosses them to their death, crushes them with large objects and even bites one man to death in his large jaws. I knew it was all fake, it was even a bit apparent from some of the ragdoll movements that the bodies were fake, but there’s something so immediate about the violence and the fact that pretty much none of it takes place off-screen that makes it shocking.

And I think part of this has to do with how impressive the film’s visual effects are. I’m still left wondering how they made such a visually impressive film back in the thirties given the complexity that is crammed into every single frame. Not only is there the actual movement of King Kong, which is articulate and expressive,  but also there are often various visual elements at play such as a backdrop and action happening with actors in the foreground surrounded by pieces of sets. There’s a lot more depth and complexity to the frame than I’d expect and that helps make the world feel real.

It’s clear that they must have melded various shots together at some point, especially when there is any shot of King Kong interacting with humans–given that the Kong model was no larger than the typical action figure–Yet I’d swear it’s near impossible to tell where one ends and where the other begins. Even today filmmakers have a problem of melding two elements together, such as CGI and film footage. It’s usually apparent what is made up and what isn’t but not in King Kong.

But beyond just being impressive, this technique helps set this fantastic island mood. Misty caverns and dense woods transport us into the world of King Kong. On some level, that’s the simplest thing a film needs to succeed and in the case of King Kong it’s masterfully done. And once in that world, the action just flows until the climax. It’s a bit slow on the front end but as soon as they get to the island, the rest of the film glides.

And in some ways I’ve just proven the assumption I had coming into the picture. It’s a fantastic CGI spectacle. But where I’d separate it from similar films is that it truly does take us to another place and convinces us on some level that it’s real. Sure, it could do with a stronger narrative, but the images and actions are so strong that they really do sustain most of the film. It may not be a perfect film but it certainly is one of the most impressive pieces of film history that every fan of movies should watch.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing