Directors - Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack
It was difficult to find out who directed King Kong... couldn't find it in the credits at all. For these are the 30s baby! Where producers manned the loudhailers and called the shots.
There are several films in this blog which have begun at BFI Southbank's Museum of the Moving Image. In the 'Golden Age of Cinema' section, we were graced with the King Kong animatronic. Or a replica of it. Either way, it was fascinating to watch the film and relate the beast on the screen to the mass of faded wires and fur I had seen at MOMI. It is even more impressive when you realise that the film is 75 years old!
Whilst King Kong isn't the first big monster film it is probably the most famous of the early ones, and may be the most famous of all time. What is really impressive is the level of scale and imagination within the film. You'd think that there would be set constraints about what wasn't achievable in 1933. Technology or budget would have hampered the film and yet the set pieces are amazing.
Lets begin by talking about the spectacular special effects, which means we have to talk about Kong. Kong is an incredible triumph, testament to Willis O'Brien's genius (this is, after all, the man who inspired Harryhausen to go into stop motion) created from a wire frame scale model, a giant (full size) head (for emotion shots and biting shots), hand and foot for close ups. The full size replicas are a bit naff, especially the goon like grin of Kong's face, but he moves and acts like a Gorilla. As dim as his face may be, his characterisation is wonderful. What is also impressive is the degree to which Kong interacts with his environment. It is obvious (to our modern eyes) that the human cast are super imposed over the stop motion, however... the film uses this trick in so many ways and so many times that it is frequently impossible to figure out what is real and what is animated.
I imagine it would have pretty much exploded the minds of 1930's cinemaphiles! The film would have been terrifying at times. Even today I found it shockingly violent. At one point a bunch of sailors are shaken off a log and they plummet into a ravine where they crunch savagely to the ground. I presume they were using rack dolls to film the falls, but with the added sound effects it is quite shocking seeing people bend and snap and crash into the ground.
But more impressive than the techniques used to animate Kong, is the scale of a film. I know I have already said this point, but it blows my mind. This was made 75 years ago and yet we get:
- Giant apes
- Sea monsters attacking ships
- A giant Ape FIGHTING A T-REX!
- Apes scaling the empire state building and fighting biplanes
- People plummeting to death down massive ravines.
- Kong's rampage in New York including derailing a train.
- A hundred foot wall.... that must have been an actual physical set.
There appears to have been no compromise, no backing down. In an era where CGI makes everything possible, then we expect this level of set pieces. But in the 30's it is an impressive feat. A breathless rollercoaster of action and adventure. Far more action appears on screen than I ever anticipated, and that I ever thought would have been even possible. The train derailment was a particularly brilliant added treat - it didn't add anything to the plot but my goodness it was cool!!!
I want to focus initially on the T-Rex fight. It is a lengthy piece of cinema with long lingering shots of the action. It seems strange that as CGI gets more realistic, cinematography becomes more frantic - making it more difficult to take it all in. Here we get to see the full fight between dino and beast and it is a fantastic piece of stop motion.
What I love particularly is that it would have been far easier to cut away for an exciting 3 minute stop motion section. However, throughout the entire fight we have Faye Wray at the front. Screaming. This gives us a human anchor in what would be a completely bonkers set piece (Kong punches the T-Rex on the nose!!!) but is also a fabulous showcase of their special effects.
Ironically, the film is more dated outside of the special effects rather than during the action pieces. The film has a very poor mentality as there is racism (oh Charlie you velly velly funny comedy chinaman) and sexism and animal cruelty all over the shop. Also Fay Wray doesn't get much to do besides scream and look pretty. She screams fantastically (and a lot) and does manage to instill a beautiful fragility into her character with moments of pure gutsyness. However, any chance of giving her character any characterisation is crow barred in at best. Her love story is a joke.... in about 30 seconds the ship mate goes from hating her, and all women... to being engaged. Ridiculous. She also has the occasional moment of overacting that lingers on from the days of silent movies.
The biggest surprise though was the emotion I felt towards Kong... he is a tragic anti hero. Only an enormous furry one. It is best described in the speech Denham gives at the theatre after capturing Kong and bringing him to New York.
He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.
How unbelievably cruel... He is ripped from his home and treated as a curio manacled to a crucifix (essentially) and the people of New York are shocked when he gets angry and goes on a rampage. This is as much a horror monster film as it is a warning to people to leave nature alone. The poor ape only wants to be left alone but is dragged from his world and forced to perform for fatcat Americans. When he escapes he is shot down by Bi Planes and Denham comes up with his most annoying sentence in the whole film.
Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
No Denham. It was you! You and your greed. You who went to his remote island where he lived in isolation. You who destroyed the island in order to capture him. You who brought him to New York. You who allowed the press to dazzle him with flash photography and you who arranged for him to be shot.
What is most annoying is that throughout the film Denham has no learning curve. He is an arrogant money grabbing bastard at the start and he is an arrogant money grabbing bastard at the end.