Sunday, 16 October 2016

Film Review - King Kong, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack (1933)

Fig. 1. King Kong (1933)
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933)(see fig.1.) has been remade twice, and inspired four existing spin-off films, with two more films starring the monstrous ape in the production pipeline for 2017 and 2020 respectively (LEGENDARY, 2015). It birthed an enduring fascination with monster movies, laying the foundation for films like IshirĊ Honda's Godzilla (1954), Matt Reeves' Cloverfield (2008), and Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993). The latter even makes a direct nod to King Kong in its sequel when a T-Rex is brought back to San Diego with disastrous consequences.

King Kong follows the events surrounding Carl Denhem's - a film director - disastrous voyage to Skull Island. On Skull Island Denhem and the crew he has hired are assailed by a native tribe, who kidnap his leading lady - Ann Darrow, and offer her up as sacrifice to a monstrously huge ape who happens to have a penchant for women, specifically blondes. The crew are then brutalised by other giant monsters, ranging from dinosaurs, to giant lizards, to Nessie, who inhabit the island, as they attempt to rescue her. The first mate and Ann's love interest - Jack Driscoll, manages to single handedly rescue her. As the surviving crew flee the island, Denham is able to subdue Kong, and so takes the beast back to New York, as an attraction. Kong breaks free and terrorises the city, re-kidnapping Ann, before being shot to death by biplanes as he roars from atop the Empire State Building.

Foreshadowing is used to great effect throughout, mainly through its innovative musical score which, unlike silent films, doesn't simply serve as background music, but moves with the action, underlining the personality of the characters, the tension and drama in specific scenes, building anticipation and adding impact to otherwise unseeming events or actions. Nathan Platte states that, "In the prevailing histories of American film music, the first three notes of Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) bear much weight. As the film’s block-lettered title surges from background to foreground, low brass intone a chromatic descent—B, B-flat, A—each slab of sound foreshadowing the approach of an oversized ape and, ostensibly, an era of original, symphonic underscoring in Hollywood sound film." (Platte, 2014:311). There are other notable elements of foreshadowing. Denham's initial reference to 'Beauty and the Beast' when Ann Darrow states "Ignatz is nice to me too. He likes me better than he does anyone else on board, don't you Iggy?" - Iggy being the ship's capuchin monkey, is an ironic prediction of what is to come. There is also an implication that Denham's sources who exposed the existence of Skull Island died trying to get away from it, and the native's foreboding drumming is heard from the ship before landing as if warning them away.

Figure 2. Close up of Kong eating a native (1933)
A wide variety of animation techniques were used to bring Kong into being. Much of the animation relied upon stop motion with the addition of glass paintings to create layers of destructible midground (Edwards, 2013). These full animation shots were interspersed with 'live' closeup's of mechanised large scale replicas of certain body parts (see fig. 2.), i.e. Kong's head or hand etc., forefathers to the animatronic dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Roger Ebert explains how "...some live-action scenes were miniaturized to make the Kong model look larger...", and that "...Kong's fur seems to crawl during several scenes; the model was covered with rabbit fur, and the fingers of the stop-action animators disturbed it between every stop-action shot. The effect, explained by the filmmakers as "muscles rippling," is oddly effective." (Ebert, 2002). In spite of the clearly unrealistic animation of Kong and the other creatures of Skull Island, they have been cleverly interwoven with live action in such a way that the audience can accept them as 'real', but due to our rational suspicion of manufactured effects and imagery, the on-screen savagery is made enjoyable due to a still clear detachment from reality (Tuck, 2008:249-250).

Figure 3. Denham saves Ann from a fruit vendor (1933)
"The potency of this adventure-tragedy depends on colonial/minstrel notions of race and gender." (Hairston, 2007:189)

Sadly, King Kong is characterised and indeed reliant upon lashings of the sexist and racist attitudes not atypical at the time of its production (Hairston, 2007:189). The character of Ann Darrow faints dramatically into the arms of Carl Denham within seconds of her introduction on screen, supposedly from the stress of having been caught stealing (see fig. 3.). The only reason why she matters at all is purely because Denham wants a woman in his film as a selling point, the plot immediately stresses that her only worth is as eyecandy and she is shown to be utterly defenseless, weak, and indeed generally hopeless throughout the entirety of the film. Even her love interest with Jack Driscoll serves only to provide a reason for him to be so concerned with rescuing her. Leading up to their kiss he has only had disparaging comments to make concerning her gender, certainly not grounds for an emotional connection, but all it takes for a man to charm a woman they've consistently belittled is a square jaw and clumsy confession, right?

Figure 4. The 'primitive' tribe of Skull Island (1933)
Driscoll's attitude toward Ann primarily seems to change when Denham exposes her to the threat of the 'black other', whereupon he becomes highly protective. Landing on Skull Island, the white crew immediately encounter a black tribal culture (see fig. 4.). There is a clear undertone of the black minstrelsy popular in late 1800s America. They are portrayed as primitive, almost clownish, yet senselessly aggressive, with cultural elements of Aztec religious sacrifice and ritual thrown in which seem to indicate that they have deified Kong. The ship captain handles the exchange as though he was talking to invalids. The leader of the tribe, who is of course very taken by the presence of a blonde, white woman, goes so far as to offer 6 of his 'lesser' black women in exchange and is angered when she is denied to him.

Figure 5. Kong arrives to claim Ann (1933)
In the scene when Ann Darrow is seized by Kong (see fig.5.), Kong doesn't actually pick her up from the sacrificial platform; she dramatically tumbles off of it after freeing herself, before being picked up off of the ground by the beast. Her tumble conveniently removes her from the shot prior to her re-emergence on screen as a stop motion character in Kong's hand, but even this initial transition from live action to animation in the film is reliant upon a perceived 'feminine incompetence' - there is absolutely no reason for her to have feasibly rolled off the platform toward Kong, beyond some tragically inept damsel in distress syndrome that the directors whitewashed the character with.

When speaking on the matter of racial sensitivity regarding the numerous remakes of King Kong Andrea Hairston said, "You may swear that you are not presenting yet another version of black male/gorilla brute who lusts after innocent white womanhood and gets lynched for his audacious passion, but if she's blonde and civilized and he's dark, wild, monstrously violent, and at home in the heart of darkness, when he tumbles a hundred stories to his death once again, you are perpetuating the cultural landscape you claim to abhor." (Hairston, 2007:188). Kong shares many of the qualities of the Skull Islander's themselves and is ultimely rendered as a more primal, more powerful exaggeration of the 'black other'. Indeed there is no rational reason for a Gorilla, 50ft tall or otherwise, to take any interest in a human female of any ethnicity. Why the islander's have been 'sacrificing' women to Kong is a mystery, and the interaction that plays out between Kong and Ann ends up sexual in nature; Kong is fascinated by her femininity, clearly shown in the restored scene where he begins to undress Ann, breathing in the scent of her clothing.

Upon the return to New York, in introducing Kong to the 'civilised' crowd Denham almost takes on the role of slave owner - "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." - and when Kong breaks loose, seeking out Darrow, it inevitably results in him being cast down and destroyed by the white man for his transgressions.

Figure 6. Gore Verbinki's portrayal of cannibalistic islanders (2006)
There is much to be enjoyed about King Kong, but this can only be so if the viewer forgives the time period of its production their prejudices. No part of the narrative can be held socially acceptable by modern standards and yet, as Andrea Hairston said, "Whatever else it is, King Kong is an adventure-tragedy of racial/gender identity as constituted in the American, Hollywood, world imagination. This tale, forged in the sexism/racism of its and our time, cannot purge itself of the dramatic basis for the story and remain wildly popular." (Hairston, 2007:188). Although the attitudes shown in Kong no longer hold sway in modern Western societies, films rooted in fiction still continue draw upon themes of the 'alien/black other' and sexism in their characters. Even as recently as 2006, Gore Verbinski's wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) made use of a comical version of the 'tribe of black savages' trope (see fig. 6) to hilarious effect, but does prejudice for the sake of plot preclude its abhorrent nature?


Edwards, Graham (2013) How King Kong Was Filmed (Or Not). At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Ebert, Roger (2002) Great Movie: King Kong. At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Hairston, Andrea (2007) 'Lord of the Monsters: Minstrelsy Redux: King Kong, Hip Hop, and the Brutal Black Buck' In: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18 (2) pp.187-199


Platte, Nathan (2014) 'Before Kong Was King: Competing Methods in Hollywood Underscore' In: Journal of the Society for American Music 8 (3) pp.311-337

Tuck, Greg (2008) 'When more is less: CGI, spectacle and the capitalist sublime' In: Science Fiction Film and Television 1 (2) pp.249-273

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. King Kong (1993) [Poster] At: (Accessed on 13.10.16)

Figure 2. King Kong (1933) [Film Still: Close up of King Kong eating a native] At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Figure 3. King Kong (1933) [Film Still: Denham saves Ann from a fruit vendor] At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Figure 4. King Kong (1933) [Film Still: The 'primitive' tribe of Skull Island] At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Figure 5. King Kong (1993) [Film Still: Kong arrives to claim Ann] At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

Figure 6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) [Film Still: Gore Verbinki's portrayal of cannibalistic islanders] At: (Accessed on 16.10.16)

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