When one thinks of iconic films that shaped and molded the way cinema would grow and change, many films might come to mind. The movie that spearheaded a movement in the film industry for greater and more advanced special effects that holds a special place in my heart is King Kong. Using stop motion and animatronics, the filmmakers brought King Kong to life. Kong, or Megaprimatus Kong that is rumored to have evolved from Gigantopithecus, lives on Skull Island. Skull Island is located in the Pacific Ocean and can only be found in the Kingdom of Shadows. A film that would alter the way audiences saw movies was in the works when Merian C. Cooper created this massive eighth wonder of the world.
An idea thought up by the first director, Alice Guy, to tell a story with film was brilliantly illustrated in this creative endeavor. The film is a love story according to some, and a scary story according to others. In the original King Kong (1933), A film crew led by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) goes to a tropical island to have an exotic background for a film Denham needs to finish. The lovely Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) falls into this crew almost by accident and is swept into a world unknown. When she is kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island, she is offered as a sacrifice to the mighty Kong. Kong takes the girl and retreats into the wilderness.
What happens next is unexpected and quite strange indeed. Kong falls in love with his beauty. Wrapping his giant fingers around her, he carries her like a doll. The bond between beauty and the beast grows stronger as they spend more time together. When she is rescued, she is taken to the ship to leave Skull Island, but King Kong isn’t ready to let her go. The pursuit is on. Kong chases Ann back to the ship only to be captured by Denham and his crew. Kong is transported back to New York to be put on show. One thing leads to another and we have a giant ape on top of the Empire State Building.
This story has all the winning characteristics of a blockbuster. There have always been monster movies, but King Kong does something that none of those movies did: it gives the monster of the movie human traits. He becomes relatable to the audience and is even regarded by some as the protagonist. This idea spawned several other films that used Kong: The Son of Kong (1933), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), King Kong Escapes (1967), King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives (1986), and King Kong (2005).
The King Kong of 1976 altered the story but had the same basic facts: crew goes to island, girl gets taken, girl gets rescued, Kong is taken to New York. In that movie, it is a petroleum exploration expedition that takes the crew to the island. On the way, Dwan (Jessica Lange) washes up in a dinghy. Along with Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) and Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), the crew find the island and go ashore. Dwan falls into the giant hands of Kong only to be saved by the crew and taken back to New York with Kong. In this version, the eighth wonder of the world climbs the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building.
The 2005 version of the film, Directed by Peter Jackson, is my favorite. I am a slave to CGI and I adore Naomi Watts. In this version, Ann Darrow is back and being portrayed by the radiant Miss Watts. Girlfriend can scream like nobody’s business. Carl Denham is played by Jack Black and Adrien Brody plays the love interest of Miss Darrow, Jack Driscoll. Driscoll is writing a story for Denham to finish shooting his movie that is, eh-hem, filming in the far east. His funding is cut off and his starlet pulls out at the last moment. As a last resort, he searches the starving New York streets for a size 4. One of those movie magic twists of fate brings him to Ann. Upon convincing her to join him in the making of his film, they rush to the ship and set sail just in time.
On board the ship, Jack Driscoll writes, star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) looks down his nose at everyone, Ann tries to catch the eye of Jack, and Carl makes up excuse after excuse to keep the ship at sea for just one more day. He knows they’ll find Skull Island, and sure enough, they do. Just as the old stories told, Ann is snatched from the ship. The Skull Island natives have their sacrifice ceremony with drums banging, dancing, shouting, and a remarkably advanced offering mechanism. Ann is tied up and in a dramatic climax the singing, shouting, and banging stops. A distant rumble and a movement in the trees is ominous enough to frighten Ann, but the initial appearance of Kong is terrifying.
The relationship between Ann and Kong in this film makes the audience want them to be together. The viewers almost don’t want Ann to be rescued by Jack and the crew because Kong saves her life again and again. He’s a lovable Kong and one that Ann is safe with. But this love between beauty and the beast can not last forever. Driscoll sets out on his own after a gruesome scene in which many of the crew are eaten by giant bugs and other nasty, awful things.
Side note: In the 1933 version of King Kong, there was originally a scene in which the crew are attacked, and many eaten, by giant spiders. Audiences were so disturbed by this scene that people were running from the theater. The scene was removed from the film and hasn’t been seen since. Peter Jackson included his version of the scene as a sort of homage.
Driscoll finds Ann sleeping peacefully in the palm of Kong’s hand. He takes Ann, much to the chagrin of King Kong, and rushes her back to the ship. Little do they know that Denham has a little surprise planned for Kong. Chloroform and a one-way ticket to New York. Once back in New York, an endearing scene occurs when Kong is released on the streets of New York City. Kong and Ann meet once more and he is instantly calm, bringing to mind the old Arabian proverb that was actually written by Kong creator Marian C. Cooper “And lo the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead.” An ice-skating scene in Central Park is particularly charming. Ice-skating is nice, but once more, the giant ape who is now being pursued by the military takes his love to the top of the Empire State Building.
When fighter planes eventually take him down, people on the streets crowd around the massive monkey who now lays lifeless. When someone says the planes got him, Denham says with a glassy stare, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast…”
I love King Kong because it is an action-packed, heart-pounding love story. It is so easy to get sutured into the story and feel the emotions of the characters in their individual stories.
Any good film score will give you chills if it is constructed properly and added at the right moments. The King Kong of 2005 does it just right with James Newton Howard. The score is beautiful, the scenery takes us to a place we can only imagine. That’s the magical thing about movies. As Carl Denham said “There’s still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.”