With Kong: Skull Island making waves at the box office right now, perhaps it’s time to reintroduce ourselves to the first and, M. C. Myers argues (and we agree), best of the giant ape movies.
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When King Kong was released, the movies still had their sheen of crackly awe. When the giant ape came skulking out of the forest to paw his blonde prize, it wasn’t an animated creation or a borrowed prop, phenomena explainable by the still young art of fantasy moviemaking. Audiences shrank from him as they allegedly did from the locomotive in L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) in circus tent demonstrations at the birth of the cinema. Like the island natives, to them Kong was a creation only of wonderment, of startling super-reality. With King Kong, director Merian C. Cooper was not making a summer exploiter (which did not exist), but an incision into the collective moviegoer’s consciousness. Out of a short history of men on screen, he crafted from fur and wire and imagination the first and greatest monster of the movies.
King Kong was released in 1933 to such astonishment that special-effects master Willis O’Brien was likely thought to be more a magician than a technical artist. The studio released diagrams to demystify his back-projection and matte painting sleight of hand. Cooper anticipated the fear, cutting out some of the film’s grosser scenes after screen-testing (most notably a lost scene where pit spiders take apart the hapless crewmen deposited in a ravine). Without these scenes, the full effect was on its leading ape and all his stupefying horror. It turned out to be plenty.
Cooper nudges Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, below) into our view as the essential filmmaker, who insists on cranking every shot himself as they board a ship to only he knows where. Their destination turns out to be a skull scrawled on a cloth map in a place where no island should exist. Among the crew there are only two indispensables: the stalwart Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and the queen of scream Fay Wray as the blonde starlet Ann Darrow.
Part of the film’s immediate unease is that the characters play the roles assigned to them by in-director and out-director, by Denham and Cooper, simultaneously. Wray is the damsel like Darrow is, and Cabot plays the love interest both for the film and in it. So their distress when they reach the island is more than a consequence of this movie, but seemingly a reaction to moviemaking itself, like their roles turn against them for real. It means that King Kong progresses from a movie with the promise of a monster to an image of what such movies aim to be in the mind of their audience. When the viewer would normally fear for the characters, Cooper inscribes that fear onto the actors themselves, as though they really are on Skull Island.
After half an hour of hamfisted movie talk and fame ’n’ fortune grandstanding, the captured Ann gets her first grimace from the Eighth Wonder of the World. From then on, Cooper subjects his tenderized audience to a breathless exertion of special-effects artistry and sequential action.
The crew bursts through the monolithic wooden gates that Cecil B. DeMille used in King of Kings (and which would later be burnt and called Atlanta in Gone with the Wind). Here they close off the native’s beachfront from the jungle interior. Driscoll genuinely wants his paper doll back, but we come to find out that Denham is more like us – he’s in it for Kong himself.
The first bouts with horror are ground-level. An herbivorous long-necked dinosaur gets filtered through 1930s explorer’s prejudice to become a tail-swishing, lip-curling monster feasting on extras before a canvas sky. Without so much as a twinkle of awareness for species endangerment, they take their rifles to an elephantine stegosaurus and make it spew gooey chocolate from its blank eyes before Kong ends them on a log bridge over a ravine. O’Brien convincingly times the superimposed model moving against a matte while the actors lean on a prop log in the foreground, falling to their death with sharp screams, cut with terrifying sureness on impact (and here: where those spiders should be, pulling apart the crewmen like a director pulls apart a starlet).
Only Jack and Carl survive, though Cooper is just getting started. Ann climbs a tree to escape the snapping jaws of a T-Rex. The music stops as Kong locks eyes with the threat to his tiny housewife. The fight that follows would become the imprimatur of all daikaiju flicks, from Ishirō Honda’s exertive Godzilla rumbles to Spielberg’s slick monstrosities in Jurassic Park. This chest-pounding wrestling match, Kong’s wild roar, the dino’s thrashing limbs, and Kong’s final jaw-snapping coup de grace activate the primal boyhood at work in Cooper’s (and consequently, in Denham’s) film. It’s the greatest monster clash of the movies.
Yet for all its sensational grandeur, its light finish is O’Brien’s real magic touch. Kong deals the final blow but doubts the kill, inspecting the jaw of the fallen lizard king with the whimsy of Cheetah the chimp playing with Jane’s hair in the Weissmuller Tarzans. From moments like these (the other standout being when Kong undresses Ann and delightedly sniffs his fingers) Cooper fashions a monster into a creature of questioning, even childlike eccentricity. It preludes Kong’s inability to adapt to New York after Denham successfully ropes him into a show on Broadway. Suddenly the two films (Denham’s and Cooper’s) collide. The audience gets its corollary in the film as Kong roars at both out of two theaters, out of place and time in his asphalt prison a globe away from home, and in the theater with you. Here we also add snaking trains to the real snakes and planes to the pterodactyls in the industrialization of Kong’s sundry conquests over the brisk 90-minute tableau of rage, lust, and, finally, pity.
In each of its iterations, King Kong has rallied its parts around the spectacle, even as the original wards against it with an emotional core that no other version can match. Rather than throttle the plot with anti-corporate jargon (De Laurentiis’ 1976 version), literalize it into an oversized fantasy porno (Peter Jackson’s 2005 one), or drag it through the prospects of a Marvel-esque cinematic toy shelf (as Jordan Vogt-Roberts has just done with Kong: Skull Island), Cooper assesses his monster’s heart with an appropriately callous distance. He puts a creature of unimaginable power out of its element, rendered onto a surreally familiar landscape of model cities and painted skies, but in its last moments (and only then) he finds a heart in his horror.
The assertion that “’twas beauty killed the beast” is not merely a statement for Kong or Cooper or Denham or O’Brien, but for the landscape of film itself. Cooper assembles a tapestry of horror, yet underneath all his fury there is a timeless symbol of a little grace conquering the shimmering jungles of barbaric fantasy. It is that heart which the modern horror procedural has vacated, that which Kong: Skull Island has abandoned in the rigmarole of its animated playthings, and with it, all of its awe. No matter how often I see the original King Kong I’m as lost in its wonderment as I would be if it was the only real monster ever filmed. I can only conclude that it must be.