While on the ship that will carry our cast to Skull Island — the home of King Kong — Carl Denham prepares the star of his show, Ann Darrow, in front of his camera, for the horror that she will encounter. He instructs her to gaze into the distance, and then to suddenly look up, and then to look up higher and higher until she sees what she’s supposed to see. He tells her to shield her eyes and scream for her life. The ship’s first mate, Driscoll, turns to his captain and says “What do you think he expects her to see?”
Carl’s preparation of Ann is preparation for us too. He warns us that what we will see will be terrible, but we don’t know what it is, and actually neither does he. He’s a filmmaker who is drawn to Skull Island after hearing rumours of a mysterious entity that exists as a god among the island’s tribal people. I am reminded of Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds: “I love rumours! While facts can be misleading, rumours are often revealing” What’s different is that the rumours in King Kong don’t reveal anything until it’s too late.
The movie is first and foremost an adventure, but directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack execute the adventure portions with such ingenuity, and bathe their scenes with so much contrast that by the time Kong makes his grand entrance, there is more horror in the atmosphere than adventure. The scene in which Kong takes Ann from her bondage is effective in that he emerges from the shadows of the jungle like a massive ominous shape, breaking down trees and roaring as he does so. Sure, the effects are immensely outdated, but somehow they manage to maintain the illusion that Kong is a real life monster of menace, and that Ann’s life may truly be in jeopardy.
It is obvious that most of King Kong’s success is due to its groundbreaking special effects — not just Kong, but also the myriad of creatures, including dinosaurs, that inhabit the island alongside him. Pay special attention to the scene where Kong fights off a Tyrannosaurus that has tried to make an afternoon snack out of a helpless Ann. There is a great amount of detail in this scene, and the complexity and agility of both monsters’ movements are exquisitely crafted. Kong leaps, and the Rex swishes its tail, and Kong pounces, wrestling the Rex down to the ground. They roar and moan, and the Rex puts up a formidable fight, but ultimately it is overpowered by our gigantic hero, who smashes its upper jaw right into its brain. It’s literally a jaw-dropping experience.
Even if you regard the effects as laughable, the story that Kong tells is one of deep criticism. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a capitalist, who uses the masquerade of filmmaking as a means to earn big bucks. He is also a colonialist, determined to invade the peaceful villages of the exotic in an attempt to educate and expose. He drags Kong out of his natural habitat, displays him in chains in front of hundreds of Westerners, and then blames his downfall on his fascination with Ann (Fay Wray). Is Carl aware that he is actually the cause of Kong’s demise?
Maybe he is, even though he chooses not to be. The destruction Kong causes in downtown New York is massive, delivered by a creature perplexed by his new surroundings, unable to cope with the new landscape, stricken by the thought of never seeing Ann again (who is not so much a love interest as she is a fascination, an obsession), yet he is made to look like the enemy by the frantic citizens running around for their lives. Carl steps up not to take responsibility for the destruction, but to shun it.
In the film’s penultimate scene — and the movie’s most memorable — Kong swats airplanes out of the sky like flies, standing atop The Empire State building, beating his chest and roaring like a triumphant beast. He is protecting Ann, and when he feels the weight of the planes’ bullets sinking deeper into his flesh, he realises that his battle is lost. What is he sacrificing? Is he even aware that he is sacrificing? Does he climb up the building knowing it’s a dead end? The scene’s entire framework could still hold up in today’s times, its action coming hard and fast, its visual trickery believable to the last shot. It is splendid filmmaking, an ambitious project made less than six years after the advent of sound. It captures the heart of the inquisitive pride of the White Man, and tops it all off with a visual feast that scares, shocks, entertains, and inspires.
Best Moment | Kong fighting the T-Rex. For a few seconds, I had forgotten that I was watching a couple of puppets battling it out in stop-motion. It’s a great scene.
Worst Moment | Nope.