Eighty Years of King Kong: Spectacle or Story?

On good days I consider “Citizen Kane” the seminal film of the sound era, but on bad days it is “King Kong.” That is not to say I dislike “King Kong,” which, in this age of technical perfection, uses its very naivete to generate a kind of creepy awe. It’s simply to observe that this low-rent monster movie, and not the psychological puzzle of “Kane,” pointed the way toward the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction, and nonstop shocks.

Roger Ebert
King Kong (1933) Review 02-03-2002

WARNING:  Spoilers for all King Kong movies in this review.

I want to be the guy who values story and art and integrity. But in truth I LOVE spectacle and I love style. And sometimes style IS substance.  And I wonder:  Can I have it both ways? I am fascinated by the evolution of Kong in both realms. This character starts at one place: Monster. And ends in another spiritual realm: Savior. And through this history, I have been able to watch some of the most amazing, creative, inventive images on screen. The tapestry lives inside of me, and with each new chapter I get to see more, feel more, and see a character grow with our societal evolution and consciousness.

I came to King Kong in 1976, by way of the Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange version featuring Rick Baker in a horribly awkward monkey suit. But as a kid it didn’t feel awkward or horrible, but amazing and thrilling. Granted, I was only nine, and Star Wars was still five months in the future. It took close to thirty more years before I saw King Kong ‘33.

This 1933 work of art created the foundation for everything I loved as a kid (and kinda still love now!), from superhero comic books, to sci-fi & action extravaganzas and most importantly the anti-hero who becomes the actualized hero. I have often told my own kids that growing up, I always wished for movies like we get today.  To really see Spider-man swing from his web, or Batman bounce across rooftops, or Captain America fight Iron man in a way that feels real and justified. But King Kong achieved all this some 67 years before the modern action era (X-Men 2000.)

Let’s take a quick stroll down King Kong’s eight decades of thrills.

King Kong (1933) — Introduces us to the original monster. And he actually is a monster.  I saw this film on an eleven foot screen, so I feel like I had a pretty authentic experience.  I was both in and out of this film at the same time — a sense of “how did they do that” awe, while simultaneously fearing a personal encounter with the monster. Kong is rage, and desire, and fighter … all while showcasing impossibly alive dinosaurs and creatures. But he felt above those creatures … there existed an intelligence within that high-ridged forehead. His leering gaze directed at Ann Darrow is in no way a love affair, but perhaps is an illustration of the fears of interracial relationships. Watching this film, I did not feel like I was sitting in my basement in 2005, but transported in time. It is definitely a setup for the next 84 years of monster — and all action adventure — movies. This King Kong led us on a journey to uncover what else lurks in the mist and undiscovered places … can our imaginations make us believe the past is alive, right here, right now?

Son of Kong (1933) — Carl Denham and Captain Englehorn are back with a new damsel, no social commentary and not an ape or creature to be seen until 43 minutes into to is’t scant 69 minute runtime. Lots of talky, meaningless exposition bringing us to a friendly dog-like ape who sacrifices himself to save our hero’s. This movies contribution to the pantheon of Kong is the anthropomorphization of the creature.  The turning of the monster into a pet. This idea persists through all incarnations of Kong since, including Skull Island.  

King Kong (1976) — Critics panned this big-budget retelling of the classic, and it pretty much deserves all the hate. Despite efforts to comment on Big Oil in the midst of the 70’s energy crisis, it comes across as silly, trying to do it all and succeeding at nothing.  While my nine-year-old self loved this movie, watching it today I see it’s attempts to be modern and conscious, yet it contains unforgivable stereotypes and sexism galore.  The crew randomly rescues Dwan (Jessica Lange, future two-time Oscar winner) while floating in the middle of the ocean. That’s it — no explanation. She suddenly acquires an array of skimpy clothing to parade around the ship. The motivation for her character seems to be, well, they needed a pretty woman for Kong to lust after later in the movie. A mutual love (if not quite a love affair) between Kong and Dwan develops in the third act.  It’s pretty weird as Kong creepily smiles at Dwan while he pulls her dress down and fondles her.  Literally … I’m not even kidding. I imagine catching that glimpse of nipple was exciting to pre-pubescent me, but watching today it just feels weird. Towards the end of the film, Dwan begs Kong to keep holding her so the bad men in helicopters won’t kill him, in a completely mishandled “victim-now-protecting-the-attacker” cliche. Despite it’s overall failure, the film did contribute a number of ideas which Peter Jackson would steal and use to great effect, not the least of which is the love affair between the ape and the captive woman.

In the original King Kong, our monster was just that … roaring, angry, randomly chewing  people between his teeth as a battle tactic, and taking what he wanted — namely the original Scream Queen Fay Wray. Kong was one scary, unforgiving creepy dude. And the fact that he only vaguely resembled an ape contributed to his monstrousness.  By 1976 he was a monster monkey with a heart.

King Kong Lives (1986) — Some people say this movie is so bad it’s good.  Not me — this movie sucks.  The short form  idiocy list: Lady Kong, artificial hearts, ape blood transfusions, an army that hates big animals, etc etc etc. And Sarah Connor from Terminator and Charlie Banks from One Life to Live try to save the apes.  Oh, and Lady Kong has a baby. Whatever. I wasted my time and money so you don’t have to. Chris told me to think about cutting this section since it is basically all plot description… sorry but there is literally no spectacle and nothing further to say.  Ugh.

King Kong (2005) — I have watched this film between 10 and 15 times, and I have to say I pretty much love all of it.  Well, except the Brontosaurus stampede, which looked like bad effects in 2005, and still looks bad. Whatever — the movie is so awesome that I forgive this unnecessary set piece. This picture grabs me and makes me believe.

When Kong died at the end of the original, well — he was a monster and he was supposed to die.  When he died at the end of the ‘76 version … well at 9 years old it felt pretty sad in an “I love my dog” kind of way. But Peter Jackson’s opus delivers a Kong with life and emotion and the instinct of all creatures in nature … to survive and protect; to live in the world and the moment arriving with each rising sun. I also understood why Ann Darrow would want to protect him, and why all the other characters think she is crazy.  It doesn’t even seem weird that an ape and a human woman are falling in love with each other, because that love represented purity and emotional protection rather than something weirdly sexual.

The film gives us eye candy aplenty, including the initial fight with the natives on Skull Island, the spider-pit, the T-Rex fight in the vines, the capture of Kong, and certainly the disaster movie segments after Kong has escaped in New York.

Yet the bigness of the movie is overshadowed by something far subtler:  the best scenes literally feel like paintings in motion. The opening montage of a depression-era city, Ann performing for Kong, Ann and Kong watching the sunset, our giant  hero carrying her up the side of the Empire State building … somehow this too is peaceful and beautiful.

But the absolute tops for me —  just about the best four minutes ever put on film — are the shots of Kong and Ann reuniting in New York and going for a little slide on the ice in Central Park. It takes my my breath away every single time. Spectacle of an entirely different variety. Fear has scurried away, and he ceases to be a monster at all.  The emotional epicenter of this motion picture steals my heart, and brings me to the edge of tears.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) – John C. Reilly.  John C. Reilly.  John C. Reilly.  Did I mention the great John C. Reilly?  And Kong – he is our savior, including saving us from a Samuel L. Jackson who hasn’t been this bad since Star Wars. Skull Island represents something different entirely, and only thinly connected to all these other films.  Lot’s of blowing stuff up … Of course, sometimes we just can’t help blowing things up. Think about the end of another movie featuring monkey’s. No grand ideas like that old movie, but it was a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and it’s what started my journey down this rabbit hole. See it for fun and for thrills and action, not because you want a work of art, or even a good story. This movie has some good ideas, but really only succeeds as a showcase for a bunch of cool digital effects and the aforementioned John C. reilly.  If like Kong’s of the past, maybe some future storyteller will pick up these ideas and put them on a canvas for us.  For now, watch with full knowledge that you are playing into the hands of the studio and not the artists … they want you back for King Kong vs Godzilla in 2020.

Even though I didn’t like all these movies, all most definitely have historical significance. Viewing them all as pieces of a larger work has been a lot of fun. The experience also has shown me a lot about how we get ideas, and how ideas grow and change. Beginning a mere nine months after the original we got our first glimpse of making the monster more likeable, more identifiable.  

As humans there is a primitive part of us that loves to be scared, that loves to see the unseeable, and we love to explore the evil of bad men. But we also love to find meaning within ourselves through all kinds of lenses, and we want to make ourselves more likable. Can we find empathy, and care about life different than ourselves? We want to be socially responsible; we want to protect the environment; we want to love and be loved. King Kong offers both a wide angle lens out onto the world, and a close-up macro view into our own souls.  

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