movie film review | chris tookey
 
     
     
 

King Kong


© RKO Radio Pictures Inc. - all rights reserved
     
  King Kong Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
 
Average Rating
9.57 /10
 
Starring
Robert Armstrong , Fay Wray , Bruce Cabot
Full Cast >
 

Directed by: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Creelman, Ruth Rose from Edgar Wallace’s story


 
 
 
Released: 1933
   
Genre: MONSTER
IMPORTANT
HORROR
ROMANCE
   
Origin: US
   
Length: 100
 
 


 

As almost everyone around the world knows , the title character is a gigantic, angry yet amorous ape, who terrorizes New York and falls in love with a pretty actress who screams a lot.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share


Some will doubtless remember the last attempt to revive this classic of early cinema. The1976 version, starring a scantily clad Jessica Lange, was a campy catastrophe. It lost all the dreamlike mystery and threat of the 1933 original, and turned the massive ape into a figure of fun.

As I write this during the Iraq War in April 2003 , we are confronted with such horrors every day on our TV screens that we don't have to use our imaginations, and a giant ape may seem like the last thing to engender fear. We've seen David Attenborough romping with gorillas on wildlife programmes, and Sigourney Weaver bonding with them in Gorillas in the Mist. Our first reaction on discovering a real-life King Kong would be to protect him, not run away.

So why does he retain his power as an icon of modern mythology? Even those who haven't sat through the original King Kong of 1933 would recognise a picture of the giant ape, whether he is terrorising villagers on his home of Skull Island, or swatting at aeroplanes as though they are flies, on top of the Empire State Building.

Like many "classic" movies, the 1933 film suffers from production values that nowadays look quaint. If you were to watch it tonight, you'd find it surprisingly un-frightening. It suffers from a slow beginning and human characters with nowhere near the impact of its monster. And you don't have to be a feminist to reckon that the wimpy heroine screams far too much.

The script is pretty dodgy, and there are some horribly obvious lapses in plot logic. Why, if the terrified natives of Kong's homeland, Skull Island, want to keep the monster on the other side of a wall, did they build a door big enough to let him through? And why doesn't he climb the wall, anyhow?

More than half a century before computer graphics, King Kong varies vastly in size from shot to shot, and the attempts to animate him are so painfully jerky and primitive that he has lost the power to shock.

Part of the appeal for modern directors must be that state-of-the-art special effects should be able to make Kong terrifying again.

All the same, the movie retains a surprising amount of comedy, tension and pathos. The first appearance of Kong is still terrifying. And the moment he meets his death retains its power to move us.

Kong is a classic movie underdog because he suffers and fights back against insuperable odds. His appeal is that he is partly a refugee, partly an unrequited lover, partly a one-time god reduced (like the Elephant Man) to the indignity of being an exhibit.

Kong is a controversial character. Over the last five decades, some critics have argued that the movie is really about a country boy being destroyed by the city. Others have insisted that it is an environmentally conscious attack on big game hunting.

The currently most fashionable Left-wing orthodoxy is that King Kong is a sick white fantasy about black men's lust for white women. Not only is the very fair-skinned leading lady ogled and kidnapped by dark-skinned islanders. She is rescued by an equally dark-skinned ape.

The orthodoxy among black critics is that Kong represents the enslaved black man fighting against the overwhelming force of White America. Even now, some Islamic critic will probably be likening him to Saddam Hussein.

My own view is that the film was intended to be a straightforward monster movie; but, as in all monster movies, the horrific creature at its centre is a projection of its leading characters' fantasies.

I wouldn't want to take a Freudian interpretation of King Kong too far. But there has to be some deep explanation of why even now audiences feel so strongly for the Great Ape as he crashes to the ground, having first tenderly placed Ann where she will be safe.

Part of his appeal is that there is undoubtedly a nobility, as well as a brutish strength, in Kong. He protects Ann from a tyrannosaurus rex, a pterodactyl and press photographers alike. He's a symbol of caring masculinity stripped to its brutish essentials.

Even now, Kong remains arguably the world's hairiest sex symbol. Perhaps he's a throwback to caveman days when men really did fight for possession of their women, and thought nothing of abducting them either.

Perhaps the New Zealand director Peter Jackson, who recently announced that King Kong is his next project after his massive hit with the Lord of the Rings saga, secretly identifies with the hairy hero, an under-dog (or uber-ape) who is made to travel from an obscure south seas island to America, where he manages to wow the nation's inhabitants with epic scale.

But it is doubtful whether so jovial and humorous a man as Jackson takes himself quite that seriously. I suspect the real reason why Jackson wants to remake King Kong is that the original story retains a mythic resonance that makes it a classic.

The Cinderella Story has been remade any number of times, from Pygmalion through to Maid in Manhattan, so why shouldn't King Kong - which is, after all, another variant on Beauty and the Beast?

King Kong has had many unofficial remakes. The Godzilla movies owe a huge debt to Kong, as did Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park and two versions of that other giant ape picture, Mighty Joe Young, in which Charlize Theron fell at least half in love with an oversized simian. But none of them has had the emotional power or resonance of the original.

The events of 9/11 have given yet another nuance to King Kong's story. In the current world climate, where tall buildings and monstrous acts of violence have quite another association from the one intended in 1933, you could easily re-imagine Kong as the ultimate terrorist.

We've seen men and women shrieking and running away from tall buildings in New York, and it wasn't because of a Giant Ape, but the result of another, foreign force uncomprehending of America's values and angry at what it sees as the taking-over of its rightful territory.

Maybe it is along these lines that Jackson, a known opponent of the War in Iraq, is thinking. In keeping with this altogether darker re-interpretation, recent versions of the Thirties original have reinserted several scenes censored on release for being too violent and shocking There's a surprising viciousness in the way Kong kills anyone who gets in his way, whether on Skull Island or on the streets of New York.

And there's perhaps a trace of envy in the way Kong strips his human victim-lover Ann of her western clothing, touches her and then smells his finger. He's repelled by the west, yet attracted by it too - much like the Arabic states in the modern world.

One thing you can be sure of is that even Peter Jackson's reinterpretation of King Kong won't be the last. The beauty of great myths is that they can mean different things in different eras. King Kong remains a unique icon - he's the perfect male protector, a symbol of black power, an urban terrorist, all wrapped up in one vast shaggy shape.

In a bizarre way, King Kong is a comforting figure. Our greatest fear these days is of the unseen terrorist, the unnoticed bomb, bacterial and chemical warfare. In this context, a highly visible ape is something we can handle. Okay, it would give us a nasty shock on a dark night, but the airforce could easily move in and deal with him.

Familiarity has bred contentment. Gorillas may come and go, but we can rest easier in our beds, knowing that the vast, threatening mythological creature we call King Kong will carry on safely terrorising us forever.


Key to Symbols