Giant Monstershow: King Kong

And so it begins. The leaves are turning (later and later every year, it seems), the air is grown crisp, the skies are beginning to cloud, and the sounds of the wind at night evoke creatures dastardly and dark. It is October, that sacred month which ends with the day of the dead. That also means it is time for another installment of the October Horrorshow, when Missile Test is devoted to horror film reviews. In the past, that meant ghouls, ghosts, zombies, slashers, vampires, and even the occasional werewolf.

This year the Horrorshow is going in a slightly different direction. There will be plenty of reviews of straight horror films, but the theme for this month is giant monsters.

Welcome to the October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow!

Every day will feature a review of a giant monster film, spanning decades of film history. Not exactly horror, and not exactly sci-fi, these films crossed genres in carving out their own space in film, and their bizarre pretensions make the Horrorshow a ready home for them, even if there is a distinct lack of blood in these features. So, behold, as we start the month with, perhaps, the greatest giant monster film of all time…King Kong.

From way back in 1933, King Kong is an adventure film par excellence. It was groundbreaking upon release, both in its visual effects, and in its pacing. It is a relentless film that, even after 85 years, is a guide to current filmmakers on how to build and then release tension in their storytelling. It is packed to the gills with cliché, but that’s only because it used techniques and tropes that have been ground into the dirt in the ensuing decades since its release. It’s a simple story of heroes, a gigantic villain, and a damsel in distress. It grates against 21st century sensibilities, and requires of viewers a massive amount of suspension of disbelief. But, it’s totally worth it.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a successful filmmaker. He’s about to take a voyage into unknown seas to make his latest adventure film. But, he doesn’t have a female lead. He heads off into Depression-era New York City in search of a leading lady, and finds her in the form of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in her most famous role). Denham has an entire King Kongship and her crew at his disposal to aid in making his film. Commanded by experienced merchant officer Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), alongside first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the ship is a collection of cartoonish sailors. Driscoll is gruff and superstitious, not letting a single moment go by without commenting on the trials and travails of having a woman aboard ship. It’s a glimpse back into older social mores, and those mores are both terrible and hilarious.

The ship has set out for a mysterious, uncharted island in the Indian Ocean. There, Denham hopes to find the mythical Kong — a beast or pseudo-god whose legends have spread throughout the region from time immemorial. The expedition discovers the island, and finds the native population engaged in a ceremony preparing to sacrifice one of their maidens to Kong.

It’s impossible to reach this point in the film and not have some thoughts about it. According to directors/producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, there is no racial subtext to this film. It was only their intention to tell an adventure story. For decades, I’m sure that was enough. But through the lens of time, this scene, and the symbolism of Kong, smacks right up against current culture wars. It’s a folly to impose our morality on the past, but it is something that must be gotten past to enjoy the film.

The native chief (Noble Johnson) sees Ann, and attempts to purchase her to be the sacrifice to Kong, as he is enamored with her light skin and blonde hair. His offer is refused, but that night, some of the natives sneak aboard the ship and kidnap Ann. Denham and crew find out about the abduction and set off to rescue Ann, but the natives have already given her to Kong.

And what is Kong? Kong is a gigantic gorilla, standing about the size of a three-story house. His first appearance, approaching Ann as she’s tied up and writhing in terror, is an iconic moment in film, and laughable if one isn’t prepared for it. Remember, this film was made in 1933. Special effects have advanced light years since that time. Kong consists of a few different models. One is a gigantic animatronic head built at full size for closeups, and another is a small stop motion model. Neither of them looks real, but they were the best available at the time, and even today, with filmmakers such as David Fincher taking CGI to astounding levels of realism, it’s still awesome. Every movement, every tick, every moment when Kong raises an eyebrow was manipulated by hand, one frame at a time. Considering how much screen time Kong, and other creatures in the film, receive, the sheer amount of man-hours put in by effects legend Willis O’Brien, Buzz Gibson, and the rest of their team to create these sequences is worthy of applause.

Driscoll and Denham lead a rescue party into the island’s tropical jungle, and discover that Kong isn’t the only giant creature. The island is awash with dinosaurs, and they exact a heavy toll on the rescue party. Driscoll steps forward as the film’s hero, tracking down Kong and Ann. In the interim, audiences are treated to scenes of incredible violence.

King Kong was made before the Hays Code came into place in 1934, in which Hollywood began to self-censor its productions. None of the violence is real, of course, and there is none of the viscera that one gets from modern horror or war films. But it’s still intense. The shots of men falling into a ravine, only for their screams to be cut off sharply upon impact, was enough to make me gasp.

And then there is the sequence where Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus. It’s another iconic scene in a film full of them. This extended sequence must have been incredibly taxing for the effects team, and their hard work paid off. Even after 85 years, it’s still a gripping action scene.

I’m sure there are those out there who haven’t seen King Kong, or one of its numerous remakes, so I won’t spoil any more, except to say that the film ends up back in New York City, Kong in tow, and audiences are treated to a swift and spectacular final act.

One of the pleasures of watching King Kong is seeing how film has progressed since it was made. Styles have changed dramatically. There is still narrative simplicity in film — stark moral black and whites — but there’s something innocent about Jack Driscoll’s two-dimensionality. One won’t find the same mix of bravery and ‘aw shucks’ mannerisms in Dominic Torretto, for instance.

Whether or not the acting from Cabot, Armstong, and Wray is any good is hard to assess without a lot of knowledge of the work of their contemporaries. What I can say is that they didn’t blow any of their lines, which couldn’t be said for other members of the cast.

King Kong is a classic of American cinema. But it’s not timeless. Narrative complexities continue to change, as does our culture. There’s a chance that, within a matter of decades, this film’s casual misogyny and racism will make it unwatchable as we continue to grapple with our demons. Until then, however, enjoy the spectacle. King Kong is an incredible adventure.