By Chris Parris
Image Source: Warner Brothers Pictures
In the early 1930s, RKO Pictures was hit hard by the Great Depression and was struggling financially. At the same time, filmmaker and adventurer Merian C. Cooper was shopping around his idea for a movie about a gigantic ape fighting a komodo dragon. Cooper soon found himself getting employed at RKO. While working on a live-action adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, Cooper came across test footage of a movie about dinosaurs titled Creation, a project headed by stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien. Recognizing stop motion as the best possible way to bring his gorilla epic to life, Cooper convinced RKO to greenlight his movie. During production, the movie was known by many names. Examples include The Beast and The Eighth Wonder. By the end of production, the movie was called King Kong. This movie would go on to change the art of cinema.
The year is 1932 and filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has yet to find his leading lady for a mysterious new movie that he intends to make halfway across the world. The night before he departs on the tramp steamer SS Venture, Denham meets Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a down-on-her-luck New Yorker who jumps at the opportunity for adventure. Midway through the voyage, Denham reveals that they are sailing to Skull Island, an uncharted island that is rumored to be the home of a legendary beast named Kong. On the island, Denham, Ann, and the ship’s crew watch the natives prepping for a ritual sacrifice. When the natives see Ann, they kidnap her and offer her to Kong. Kong immediately becomes infatuated with Ann. It’s now up to Denham, First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and the rest of the ship’s crew to rescue her. During their search, the rescue party encounters a number of prehistoric dinosaurs and eventually Kong himself. Following the introduction of the very first creature, the characters cross the literal wall that divides reality from fantasy. The movie transforms into a prehistoric fever dream that races from one nightmarish sequence to the next. The centerpiece is the face-off between Kong and a T-Rex while the climax is when Kong scales the Empire State Building and is fired on by military planes. Both sequences have become iconic.
King Kong has a large cast of characters but the movie centers itself on three. First, there’s Carl Denham, a cocky thrill-seeker whose stubborn showmanship causes nothing but pain and suffering. Second, there’s Jack Driscoll, the SS Venture’s tough first mate who becomes the leading hero in the movie. And third, there’s Ann Darrow, the blonde damsel in distress who becomes the subject of Kong’s affection.
One thing that amazed audiences of 1933 were King Kong’s revolutionary special effects. Many new technologies and techniques were created to bring Skull Island and its creatures to life. The darkly atmospheric soundtrack by Max Steiner was also the first of its kind. But the real show stopper is Kong. Willis O’Brien did a great job of making Kong feel like a real living creature.
While King Kong has remained relevant, it’s also dated. This is thanks to the racial and sexist stereotypes that are featured in the movie. It’s impossible to watch King Kong and not be disgusted or offended by certain elements that are controversial to today’s standards. However, like many movies, King Kong was a product of its time. It’s both a historical artifact and a work of art.
It can’t be overstated how much the art of cinema owes to the original King Kong. The movie was a true game-changer; the first blockbuster that showed audiences at the time things that they had never seen before. King Kong has captured the imagination of the world for eighty-seven years and has had a big influence on pop culture. It has been remade, reimagined, and parodied so many times to the point where even those who haven’t seen the original movie are aware of its iconography. Most importantly, it’s the father of all creature features. Had King Kong not been made, the world of cinema would be a very different place.