King Kong

Tagged: Film

1. Film (1933). RKO. Directed by Merian C Cooper, Ernest B Schoedsack. Written by James A Creelman, Ruth Rose, from a story by Cooper, with credit also given to Edgar Wallace. Special effects designed and supervised by Willis H O'Brien. Cast includes Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray. 100 minutes. Black and white.

The classic Monster Movie. On a remote island inhabited by unfriendly natives, prehistoric Dinosaurs (including a Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex) and other Monsters, of which the most powerful is a giant ape called Kong, a young actress (Wray) from a visiting film unit is kidnapped by tribesmen and offered to Kong, a gift which he eagerly accepts. She is rescued; Kong is gassed, captured and taken to New York, where he is exhibited, escapes, rampages across the City, recaptures the girl (for whom he appears to cherish strong if inexplicable feelings), and makes a last defiant stand on top of the Empire State Building before being machine-gunned down by a squadron of biplanes. The famous tagline spoken by film-maker Carl Denham (Armstrong) is: "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes ... it was Beauty killed the Beast."

Although King Kong is an early film, its special effects are still remarkably convincing today, many being the product of the technique of stop-motion photography that had been pioneered by O'Brien in The Lost World (1925). The classic status of King Kong, which has become one of the great mythopoeic works of the twentieth century, has probably to do with the ambiguous feelings – much as with its fairy-tale model, "Beauty and the Beast" – created by the film towards Kong himself: terror at his savagery; admiration for his strength, naturalness and effortless regality in his primeval surroundings; and pity for his squalid end – the most memorable of all cinematic images of Nature destroyed in the city. This ending is also an image of the great destroyed by the small: the humans are dwarfed by the ape and indeed by the City they have created, a feeling emphasized by the ambience of the Great Depression, with a bored, impoverished populace ready to grasp at any ersatz marvel but panicking when it finds itself faced with the real thing. Yet another polarity is that of innocence destroyed by sophistication, a feeling enhanced by the crucial story-element of Kong's capture being to do with the shooting of a movie. The narrative moves with élan, and the film has been almost as popular with critics as with the general public. The novelization is King Kong (1932) by Delos W Lovelace, though its subsequent magazine serialization (February-March 1933 Mystery) was bylined Edgar Wallace. There is a Graphic Novel version of the tale: King Kong: The Greatest Adventure Story of All Time (graph 1970) illustrated by Alberto Giolitti.

The disappointing sequel was Son of Kong (1933). Another Willis O'Brien giant ape, not quite so big, starred in Mighty Joe Young (1949; vt Mr Joseph Young of Africa). An early Japanese spoof of the original King Kong is Wasei King Kong (1933 Japan), of which it seems that no copy survives. In Konga (1961) a similar giant ape ravages London. [JB/PN]

2. Film (1976). Dino De Laurentiis/Paramount. Directed by John Guillermin. Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, based on the 1933 screenplay. Cast includes Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange and Ed Lauter. 134 minutes. Colour.

In this lavish and heavily publicized remake, it is an oil-company executive who leads the expedition to Kong's island. Kong is taken back to the USA in an oil supertanker. His last stand is on top of the World Trade Center, and he is shot dead by a group of helicopter gunships.

This version did not use model animation and was therefore more restricted – and indeed more primitive – in its effects: most shots of Kong show a man in an ape suit. The original set-piece battles between Kong and prehistoric monsters are gone. The vigorous narrative of the original is here slowed down by didactic, moralizing scenes in a manner which suggests that the new Hollywood has a much lower opinion of the intelligence of the public than the old one did. The delicate balance of the original between pity and terror is here shifted towards pity, and Kong is softened. Tragedy becomes at best pathos, yet many scenes remain moving, and the startlingly vulgar heroine (now feminist and tough, no longer a limp screamer) has a more interesting role than her original. In a flurry of self-contradiction, King Kong seems designed to be spoof, tragedy, nostalgia-epic, spectacle and allegory about "the rape of the environment by big business" – all rolled into one. [JB/PN]

see also: Cinema; Great and Small; Walter Wager; Lost Worlds.

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