King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World in Retrospective

‘I’m going out to make the greatest picture in the world. Something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of!’

When Kong: Skull Island hits the big screens next week it’ll be a CGI behemoth taking centre stage, quite some distance from the 18” metal mesh skeleton of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original: King Kong. This month marks eight-four years since the first appearance of everyone’s favourite eighteen-foot ape and it would be fair to say that times have changed rather a lot in the meantime. For one thing, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ reboot is unlikely to see Brie Larson subserve to the damsel in distress role of Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow. On the other hand, you might be surprised as to just how well the original stands up even today.

King Kong is the story of a filmmaker’s ambition to voyage to the distant Skull Island in search of a prehistoric being of the likes that none have ever seen before. His ambition is to ‘make the greatest picture in the world’ and, as such, he convinces a young, penniless woman, Darrow, to join him on the journey and, in doing so, become a star. None but this director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), have any inkling of what lies ahead, casting each as the perfect surrogate for Cooper’s audience on this ‘adventure of a lifetime’. When they arrive, they discover a tribe living in the shadow and awe of the almighty King Kong, a giant ape who is, true to form, like none have ever seen before. It’s a ‘beauty and the beast’ tale that Denham hopes to capture and that’s exactly what he gets.

Often considered to be the film that saved RKO, the legend of King Kong is one that holds almost as much mythology as the ape himself. It was supposedly a childhood obsession with gorillas that would lead to Cooper producing his seminal monster movie, whilst that iconic name came from the phonetic harshness audibly associated with the letter ‘K’. Cooper’s ambition was to produce a creature that would intimidate and excite the imagination of his audience whilst feeling viscerally real and threatening in Depression-era America. Sound cinemas, or ‘talkies’, were still a relatively new phenomenon back in the early thirties but it was Cooper’s innovative employment of animatronics that really would set Kong from the crowd.

An aluminium skeleton was the starting point; ball bearings would enable movement in the joints, whilst foam and rubber stuffing was to give form to the puppet, coated in rabbit fur for the effect of realism. When it came to bringing Kong to life, the production team used a combination of stop-motion animation, miniature models, matte backdrops, and the technique of rearview projection – finally enabled by technological advancements at the turn of the thirties. Allowing for its primitive experimentations, it is genuinely striking as to just how successful the final product is. The modern digital age has brought a mixed bag in effects-simulation through the lead up to the present day. Early attempts were often stuck in the uncanny valley and even with the recent, breathtaking, examples of 2016’s The Jungle Book and Rogue One, there can often be a fine line between our perception of the real and computerised. No such line exists in the pictures of 1933; not even the most Platonic of cave dwellers would require much convincing that Cooper’s construction is anything more than just that: a construction. However, whereas contemporary works strive so meticulously to achieve a illusory feat of hyperreal authenticity, King Kong wears its art majestically upon its sleeve. The ever-so-slightly broken motion of the puppets – Kong being joined by lizards and dinosaurs on the island – grants the creatures a threatening eeriness amid the beauty of their spectacle. Set pieces, including a beast-battle to rival that at the climax of 2015’s Jurassic World, are as involving as they are frightening, whilst the film’s brutal violence is paradigmatic of a pre-code Hollywood cinema that so horrified the moralists at the Motion Picture Association of America. Indeed, one rumour tells of a scene, comprising arachnid-based mutilation, which proved so traumatising to a test audience that it didn’t even make the final version. Whilst re-releases would prove hugely profitable for RKO, each screening projected an increasingly sanitised cut following the 1934 enforcement of the Hays’ Code. It was only as recently as 2005 that the full 104 minute feature has been restored to its entirety with the addition of an overture by Warner Bros, coinciding with Peter Jackson’s remake.

Nowadays, the film, whilst not exactly tame, is a small fry in the horror world – current releases list it as a PG. That said, controversy still hangs over Kong with many declaring the film racist propaganda. Certainly it’s hard not to feel the twinge of a politically correct eyebrow in some of the earlier scenes’ gender dynamics and the representation of the ape-worshiping tribal inhabitants of Skull Island. Allegations of almost D. W. Griffith degrees of bigotry, however, are somewhat less convincing, if not wholly implausible. Such a reading sees Kong as the bipedal embodiment of the ape stereotypes historically labelled to ethnic minorities. In this light, the kidnapping of Darrow becomes as problematic as the attempt of Gus to rape Flora in Birth of a Nation (1915). Moreover, in one scene, naturally one that MPAA was quick to have exorcised, Kong removes layers of clothing from Darrow, presenting an uncomfortable layer of perversive voyeurism; it is also true that the plot sees Bruce Cabot play Driscoll as every bit the white savour. These are, however, more symbolic of the film being ‘of its time’ than anything else and should in no way take away from the thrill of the experience. The inhabitants of Skull Island may come straight from the sketchbook of Christopher Columbus, but Cooper is quick to sideline these incidentals (who are later disposed of just as mercilessly as the majority of Denham’s white crew anyway) and it’s the might of his ‘eighth wonder of the world’ that is his omnipresent attraction.

When that oh-so-iconic conclusion does come around, King Kong clutching his prize astride the Empire State Building, it does so providing immense satisfaction. King Kong is not a complex piece, it barely hints at the potential for a Frankenstein discourse in interfering with nature, but it is to this day an eminently watchable one and one which as spawned an eighty year franchise and an impressive seven sequels and remakes. Vogt-Roberts’ film is merely the latest in the lineage so evidential of Kong’s ongoing endurance and adoration from audiences.

The last line of King Kong is a famous one, but it’s a total misnomer. Denham states that ‘It was Beauty killed the Beast’ and he’s quite wrong. The beauty of Kong is that he is a beast that will outlive us all.

T.S.

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