Come Join the Fantasy World of Kong
A Film Review of King Kong (1933) by Christopher Wostenberg
In this installment of “Dr. Wostenberg’s World of Cinema” we will be looking at a film from the fantasy genre. One of the powers of cinema over some other art forms is the ability to clearly show the audience a truly imaginary place that was originally only in the mind of the creator. This was realized early on in film history, most notably by the great filmmaker and magician George Méliès’s works in the early part of the 1900s. I love seeing these worlds come alive on the big screen. One fantasy movie that always astonishes me is King Kong (1933), I think because I had such low expectations when I first watched it. I thought it would just be a typical horror monster movie with cheesy special effects. How wrong I was; in fact, I consider it a part of my long list of greatest films of all time. In addition, it got me to watch and enjoy many of the monster movies from the golden age of American horror cinema (1930s to 1950s).
The film starts out when filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters a ship to take him to the exotic Skull Island for his next film because of rumors that a gigantic ape inhabits the island. Before leaving, he hires Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as lead actress. En route to Skull Island, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the first mate, falls in love with Ann. Upon arriving on Skull Island, the crew witnesses the natives preparing to sacrifice a young woman. The sacrifice is interrupted when the villagers notice the crew of the ship and Ann. Ann is captured by the villagers and put up to be sacrificed to the mysterious Kong. Kong, who falls in loves with Ann, takes her into the jungle, while volunteers of the ship pursue Kong in order to save Ann. The volunteers face many dangerous dinosaurs long thought extinct along the way. Eventually Ann is saved and Kong is captured and brought back to New York to be promoted as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. Kong escapes captivity and rampages through the city.
While some consider King Kong a horror movie because Kong is viewed as a monster that terrorizes New York, I instead see it more as a fantasy film that happens to have a mythical monster in the form of a giant ape. Skull Island functions as part of the “Lost World” sub-genre of science-fiction/fantasy where a previously unexplored world is found that still have ancient creatures like dinosaurs. This is exactly what happens in the first part of King Kong, where all forms prehistoric beasts roam. Out of all of the creatures that occupy Skull Island, Kong is the undefeated King, and to the natives he comes off as a god, which adds to the mythological aspect of the film.
The fantasy world created on Skull Island is well crafted for 1930s cinema using stop motion animation mixed with live action to create a world that the film as well as the audience steps into. Based on today’s standards, stop motion animation mixed with live action is a dated special effects technique, but in 1933 it was quite revolutionary and was still used into the 1980s in such films as Clash of the Titans (1981) and The Gate(1987). The animation style brings realism to the creatures as there is clear texture and depth in the models’ features, which is lacking in early computer-animated creatures. This is important in the case of Kong because he is the centerpiece of the film and becomes his own character that shows feelings and emotions. The end of the film would not have the same impact if Kong was just viewed as a monster in the same way as a vampire, a werewolf, or a mummy. It is Kong’s humanism, due to the special effects of the film, which really moves the film from the horror genre into the fantasy one.
Finally, once you see the humanity within the Kong character, it is easy to view the film not only as a fantasy but also as a fable/parable. Through the storytelling, the audience is introduced to Kong, who is king of his domain and viewed as a god on Skull Island. Kong’s status is overthrown by modern, urbanized culture, in the form of the New York promoter and film crew that brings him to the city. This is a common theme within Romanticism era art during the Industrial Revolution where there was a call back to nature over the city life. Since its initial prominence in the Industrial Revolution, the theme has continued to come-up in the arts. Kong is literally destroyed by modern society and its ways out of no fault of his own or how much he tries to prevent it. If it was not for the interloping of the ship and her crew, Kong would have remained in his natural environment, worshipped by the natives and feared by all other creatures.
Favorite Scene: While the scene at the end of Kong on top of the Empire State Building fighting the airplanes is the most iconic moment in the film, it is not my favorite scene. I personally love the Skull Island scene of Kong fighting the Tyrannosaurus rex. The fight itself is quite long and gruesome for the movie, but shows Kong’s dominance over the “King of Dinosaurs”. The fight is juxtaposed by his playfulness and caring for Ann as he saves her from the T. rex. This scene along with the other jungle scenes flush out Kong’s character from one of a horrific beast to almost a gentle giant that the audience can start to relate to. Of all of the jungle scenes and fights, the fight with the T. rex to me, captures this best. It is astonishing how well executed the fight scene with the T. rex is in the original movie and how it gets forgotten next to the famous final scene.
Everyone time I watch King Kong (1933), I am just amazed at what was possible in 1930s cinema, especially considering cinema as a whole was only forty years old and sequenced sound and film was only half a decade old. Currently, I have only seen the original, 1933 version of King Kong. I love the storytelling and special effects of the original that I don’t want it ruined by remakes, thus I am not interested in watching the newer versions no matter what critical praise they get. But because of my love of cinema, someday I will get around to watching them. I suggest regardless if you have seen the newer versions or not, you should set aside some time to watch the original King Kong with an eye for when it was made and not compare it to the standards of today.
Next time I will look at a movie from the very small genre of anthology films. I end this film review with these lyrics sung by Cinderella in the 1950 Disney animated film, “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”