This very famous and popular film, from 1933, isn’t exactly science fiction, but somewhat adjacent to SF: a variation of the “lost world” story popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when there were still unexplored areas of the world, and it was possible to believe that those areas held bizarre creatures from prehistoric times that had been driven away from civilization, or simply hadn’t been driven to extinction yet. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel THE LOST WORLD is the titular example; elements of the idea play a key role in the recent Pixar animated film Up.
So King Kong plays off this theme, by finding an obscure island containing an enormous gorilla-like creature, and a colony of primitive humans walled off from the creature at one end of the island.
Again, no need to recount the plot of such a famous film; it’s here on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong_(1933_film).
I watched this again, after many years, out of a sense of duty to revisit all the famous 1930s and 1940s horror and pre-SF films, not because I have any special affection for it. I’ve always found it implausible at its core, the way the creature is captured and somehow shackled aboard a ship for its return to New York, an event that is elided. (We never see the crewmen shackle the creature or get the beast to their ship on a, what, dinghy? How would that work?)
The whole premise is questionable as well. Why would such an enormous creature be found on this small Skull Island? Large mammals don’t live on small islands; ecology, and evolution. And how is there just one of them? That there’s just one plays to the notion of the individual monster, which just doesn’t exist in real life. (Science fiction indulges in this conceit at times; even Star Trek played with the notion of singular, unique creatures somehow existing and threatening the Enterprise, with out any justification for how they came to exist, or how a single creature survived the extinction of its race.)
Yes, yes, they’re not science fiction – as I said – they’re fantasy/horror stories about things people fear. And think they can subdue, to their misery; the recurrent theme of human hubris.
Still, I took notes as I watched and will record a few of them here.
- The premise involves a film producer who knows about the secret island and is leaving in the morning to make a film there. But he knows the public wants a love interest. So, on the night before his ship sails, he goes into New York to find a girl. He finds a girl at a fruit stand and, within an hour or so, convinces her to come overseas with him and star in a film. Wow! An example, it seems, of how easily women were manipulated by men, or were thought to be, at the time.
- Also, everyone smokes.
- It’s fascinating seeing how the director, Carl Denham, does film tests aboard the ship, literally cranking the camera by hand as his girl star acts, miming screaming.
- The natives are your standard Hollywood ooga-booga natives who sacrifice young women to Kong, to be his “bride.” Because of course they do.
- The bulk of the film is set on the island, as the natives capture our girl, Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray), and offer her to Kong, who carries her away. A bunch of the boat crew pursue, and there are endless scenes of tramping through the jungle, encountering various dinosaurs, most of them getting killed.
- For its time, it’s worth recognizing, this was a masterpiece of special effects – stop-motion animation, done by Willis O’Brien, which consists of models of Kong and dinosaurs physically manipulated, very slightly, for each frame to frame shot, and then combined against a realistic background. There’s a lot of this, with dinosaurs, snakes, pterodactyls…
- Still, the bulk of this part of the film is dominated by Fay Wray screaming, over and over and over.
- The last act of the film occurs after Kong has been (somehow) put aboard the ship and returned to New York. Now a theater marquee advertises Kong, and a huge, very-well dressed, audience files in to see. The audience oohs and ahs. But then photographers are brought in…and their flashbulbs drive Kong into a frenzy. He breaks free, escapes into the alley, and then into the city. Kong smashes trains, climbs a skyscraper and reaches into an apartment and pulls a woman out of her bed—and drops her to the street below. Undoubtedly scary, dramatic fare for audiences of 1933.
- And of course the very very famous final scenes show Kong climbing the Empire State Building, with Fay Wray in his hand. We understand that, like the Frankenstein monster, Kong isn’t evil, he’s a victim; he’s gentle and kind, to Fay Wray, with whom he is somehow in love. But the biplanes are called out, and attack him from the air, and drive him down. In a genuinely moving and emotional ending, Kong fades, growing weaker from the planes’ attacks, and slips, and falls, into the streets below.
- And in the famous final line, someone in the street below (where we see Kong’s bulk lying there) says, it wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty that killed the beast.
I’ve not seen any of the remakes.