As a lover of horror and monster movies, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's masterpiece King Kong (1933) is one of my all-time favorite motion pictures.
Although there are a few silent monster movies that came before it (The Lost World , The Golem ), and although Universal Studios' 1931 Dracula rightfully takes principal credit for launching the horror film boom of the early Hollywood "talkie" era, Cooper and Schoedsack's King Kong nevertheless stands as the most popular and influential monster movie of all time. Even Ishiro Honda's brilliant Gojira (1954) owes a debt of influence to Kong's groundbreaking horror extravaganza. Fusing an action/adventure film with a terrifying "monster on the loose " rampage in New York City, King Kong sets the narrative template and production standard for all monster films ever made in the wake of its release.
To start with, Willis O'Brien's animation work on King Kong is enormously influential and quite magical. 1933's Kong (the creature) is still, for me, the most convincing one. As Entertainment Weekly's short blurb for their Top 100 Films List says, King Kong's "stop-motion effects retain every bit of their magic as Kong the giant gorilla awes, terrifies, and breaks your heart." I couldn't agree more. It is no coincidence that the EW writers and I both use the word "magic" to describe the monster effects in the 1933 Kong. This is an example of "movie magic" at its absolute creative and affective pinnacle.
Willis O'Brien's "performance" of Kong is an amazing feat of special effects artistry.
Another reason why the 1933 Kong is so great is that it does not waste time. Its hallmark is narrative tightness, smooth flow, and excellent pacing. It runs a lean and mean 104 minutes in total (including a pre-credits musical overture). No subsequent version has really gained anything by being longer. Twenty-five minutes into the 1933 Kong, our protagonists have reached Skull Island and are preparing to go ashore. In Peter Jackson's overlong 2005 version, at twenty-five minutes Denham et. al. are still fucking around in New York City and the Venture hasn't even left the harbor yet. Yawn!
King Kong is also particularly effective (and historically significant) thanks to Max Steiner's innovative musical score. While the singular importance of King Kong's soundtrack has been disputed (or at least complicated) by some film historians (see Michael Slowik's superb article "Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds" in Cinema Journal 53.1), it nevertheless marks a watershed moment during which the cinematic score came into its own in Hollywood.* Especially distinctive in Kong are the ceremonial drums our protagonists hear as they approach Skull Island, which signal to them that the supposedly uninhabited island is anything but. As film critic James Snead writes, those drums serve as a form of subtle (and influential) aural coding that clue us into the identity of the islanders: "Steiner's coding of blackness by 'the drum' founds (in the relatively youthful art of synchronized movie sound) a longstanding cinematic device" which will be used again and again whenever blacks -- especially 'native' ones -- hereafter appear in popular film.**
Mentioning those drums raises the biggest problem I have with King Kong. Like Gone with the Wind and so many other Hollywood classics, Kong is unabashedly racist, sexist, and imperialist. As Snead argues,
In all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks, the political is never far from the sexual, for it is both as a political and a sexual threat that the black skin appears onscreen. And nowhere is this more plainly to be seen than in King Kong. There are very few instances in the history of Hollywood cinema in which the color black has been writ so large and intruded so powerfully into the social plane of white normality.***Kong's main threat, then, is a sexual one that is coded black. He stands in for the frightening black bogeyman/rapist that has haunted the white imagination for so much of its cultural history. Kong's abduction of Ann (Fay Wray) makes the stakes of King Kong clear: it is a struggle between white masculinity and black masculinity for the erotic possession of the white woman's body (and by extension her reproductive power). Spoiler: In all three versions of King Kong, as in the vast majority of Hollywood films, the white men win.
In case there was any question about the sexual dimension of Kong's obsession with Ann, the scene in which he half undresses her and sniffs his fingers after caressing her body should clarify this point.
Protecting his highly prized white woman, King Kong pulverizes the shit out of a pterodactyl.
The relationship between Ann and Jack survives only at the cost of an execution. The narrative pleasure of seeing the (white) male-female bond re-established at the end tends to screen out the full meaning of the final shot: the accidental (black) intruder lies bloody and dead on the ground, his epitaph given glibly by the very person [Denham] who has trapped him."†In essence, Denham stages a spectacular show in which Kong's kidnapping of Ann justifies white male retribution against the creature, who represents blackness. Thereby, the responsibility for Kong's capture and subsequent death is deflected back onto Kong himself, instead of being laid at Denham's feet where it belongs. This is a classic example of very effective "blame the victim" rhetoric.
Denham: "It was beauty killed the beast." LIAR!!
Denham's explicit role as a film director and cinematographer drives home King Kong's dominant thematic message: that we are all implicated in his visual colonization, capture, and killing of Skull Island's most noteworthy black denizen. As Snead puts it,
[it is difficult to resist] our gradual implication in Denham's optical colonialism. Even a viewer repulsed by Denham's many negative qualities would have difficulty resisting the pull of his powerful voyeurism [. . .]. The political ideology of the film soon becomes inextricable from the pleasure we take in the very act of seeing. The power of staging a 'show' (watching a 'girl' scream or 'natives' dancing) is no longer Denham's alone. King Kong, by a rather devious movement, makes us cheer him on. ††
Carl Denham, visual colonizer, capturer, and killer of black bodies.
All that said, if we disqualified racist films from EW's list, it would contain practically no films at all. We live in a structurally racist and sexist society, and so of course our popular media reflect that back to us, both in the historical past and in the present day. King Kong stands as an example of both Hollywood's ubiquitous pro-white-maleness and as a singular apex of its ability to produce narrative, cinematographic, musical, and special effects artistry. Kong is a terrifically fun film and, despite its ideological shortcomings, well deserving of its high placement on this "Top Films" list.
Bonus Afterthoughts: In my view, the 1933 version of King Kong is the best version by a long shot. For me, the versions get steadily worse as they go: the much-maligned 1976 version starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange is second-best, and Peter Jackson's overlong, bombastic 2005 remake is the worst of the three. Having already extolled the many virtues of the original, let me briefly explain why I rank the 1976 version above Jackson's dull, over-inflated remake.
Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange in the 1976 remake of King Kong.
First, let me confess to two biases regarding the 1976 Kong: (1) it is the first version of King Kong I ever saw, so doubtless it created a stronger impression on me than it would have if I had seen the superior 1933 version first, and (2) I am generally predisposed to like 1970s cinema (as, for example, my reviews of Nashville and The Fog should make abundantly clear).
One of the biggest complaints I've heard regarding the 1976 Kong is about the monster itself: rather than an animated creature, the 1976 version utilizes a man in a gorilla suit. Not only is this choice perceived as a failure of special effects innovation in general, the performance of that guy in a suit is considered to be unconvincing and not very gorilla-like. Indeed, the 1976 embodiment of Kong walks upright rather than hunched forward, making no real effort to conceal his very human gait and posture. Yet, despite my recognition of its cheapness, that guy in a gorilla suit actually works for me -- after all, King Kong is supposed to be a unique creature, "neither man nor beast," so why should he necessarily behave and move exactly as a real gorilla would? Maybe I was just too young and impressionable when I saw this version of the film, but the creature never struck me as unconvincing -- indeed, I always found him scary and, at times, quite sympathetic.
That brings me to one of the greatest triumphs of the 1976 Kong: its overtly environmental message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1976 version is the most ideologically progressive version of King Kong. Bridges plays an animal rights hippie who sneaks aboard an oil company ship heading to Skull Island to exploit it. He spends the whole movie critiquing Fred Wilson (Grodin) and his corporation's motives in capturing and crassly exploiting King Kong. Most remarkable in the 1976 version is an extended set of scenes taking place on the ship's return voyage from the island for which there is no analogue in the 1933 or 2005 versions. This sequence depicts Kong entrapped and miserable in the cargo hold of the ship, generating unprecedented pathos for his unjust fate and heavily underscoring Kong's moral superiority to his captors.
The 1976 Kong may just be a guy in an ape suit, yet scenes like this one generate strong viewer sympathy for the unjustly incarcerated creature.
This progressivism extends (somewhat) to the 1976 Kong's treatment of its indigenous Skull Island tribespeople. Bridges's anthropologist Driscoll says of them that "when we took Kong, we took their god." Sure, this is still a privileged white man speaking on behalf the indigenous "Other" whose point of view we never truly know, yet it is more voice or agency than the Skull Islanders get in any other version of the movie. In 1933 they are infantile idiots to be laughed at, and in 2005 they are murderous horror-film monsters to be reviled. Here, at least, their sufferings are acknowledged.
The 1976 Kong does run a bit long, 134 minutes in total. One especially feels this length in the film's third act, during the New York City sequences, which go on a wee bit longer than they need to. Yet the film does not drag nearly as badly as does Jackson's 2005 remake (187 mins long!), and at least it extends certain portions (as in the return voyage sequences just discussed) in order to bring fresh, new ideas to the table.
As for the 2005 version, Jackson gets the digital design of Kong just right, but then animates him very badly as he moves through cinematic space (scroll down to item #2 on this list). Despite some inspired casting (Naomi Watts and Jack Black are especially good) and a cool-looking gorilla (as long as he sits still), the film is just too long, too slow-paced, and too overstuffed with unnecessary crap that it diffuses any power the film might have over its viewer. 2005 Kong is a prime example of sloppy, over-indulgent filmmaking of the kind late-career Jackson seems to favor. It is boring. No thanks.
Rene Auberjonois sez: "You'd get better mileage filling up your Cadillac with mule piss!"
* Slowik's fascinating article works to complicate the idea that Max Steiner's Kong score single-handedly "paved the way for the Golden Age of film music (roughly 1935 to 1950)" (p. 1). Obviously, I highly recommend his article. For additional reading, Slowik offers some afterthoughts about his essay here and film composer David Allen offers historical and musical insights into the scores for both the 1933 and 2005 versions of Kong here.
** James Snead, White Screens, Black Images (Routledge, 1994) p. 19.
*** Snead p. 8.
† Snead pp. 16, 15.
†† Snead pp. 25-6.