December 5, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #43: King Kong

A giant ape runs amok on his jungle island home and then in New York City.

Kids love giant apes.  When they grow up to be adults, they still love giant apes.  Giant apes are awesome.  Biologically impossible, since any animal that big would be crushed by its own body weight, but still awesome.  And like any kid, I also loved giant apes.  What’s not to love about a giant ape?

Of course, there had to be an original giant ape, and unless there’s another one I don’t know about, the original had to be King Kong.  Now there’s an ape who won’t stay down.

Here’s the thing about King Kong:  once the title character shows up, this film is just a slam-bang adventure film that doesn’t stop for a second.  It’s actually a pretty slow film to start, setting up the basics:  filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is out to make another movie involving wild animals.  He’s chartered a ship to the mysterious Skull Island, a place wrapped in legends and myths and some very literal fogs and storms.  Along for the ride is a larger-than-usual crew under one Captain Englehorn which includes a hardy first mate named Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) because Denham is expecting…something.  He also has a very desperate young actress to act as a love interest for Jack and later Kong in the form of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).  Ann is meant to be the leading lady in Denham’s next movie featuring whatever is on Skull Island.

By the by, Wray lived a good long time and was one of the people on the commentary track for my DVD.  Good for her considering she may have been Hollywood’s original scream queen.

That said, I really like this film, but there’s a lot about it that doesn’t make a lick of sense.  I’m not just talking about the logistics of somehow getting Kong onto the boat and then into Manhattan unseen.  I’m talking Denham’s entire plan.  He doesn’t seem to know what exactly is on Skull Island, and for someone planning a movie, he should have more than one actor involved, right?  He and Ann rehearse a scene but they have no idea how cooperative anything on that island is bound to be or what it will even look like.  The whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But then Kong shows up and it doesn’t matter.

I was assigned in college once with the task of choosing a good scene from a movie and describe what the scene does.  I chose this film, particularly the scene that introduced Kong.  I tried to keep my choice a surprise, but my self-recorded VHS was labeled big enough for all to see and the audio wasn’t all that good for some reason, but look at that scene.  The natives have captured Ann and have set her out as the latest sacrifice to Kong.  They’re going nuts, quick tempo music in the soundtrack, and then that cuts off with a gesture from the chieftain, who gives a speech in their no-doubt made-up tongue, punctuated only with the word “Kong”.  And then, like clockwork, something big comes out of the jungle, knocking down trees along the way, and out steps the giant ape who takes a liking to the blonde woman tied up before him.  And Wray can’t stop screaming once Kong steps out.

From there, the film doesn’t sit still.  Kong carries Ann off into the jungle and Denham, Jack, and a crew of redshirts follow them.  Dinosaurs come out and attack at random, and if kids love giant apes, they also love dinosaurs.  Granted, most kids that love dinosaurs know a thing or two about them and also know some of the dinosaurs on display are herbivores and shouldn’t be chowing down on humans.  But who cares?  The men may be mostly running from the other large creatures on Skull Island, but Kong is fighting every single one of the ones he finds, and as king of the island, he triumphs over every single on of them without too much trouble.

But then he gets caught and goes to New York where he escapes and does more or less the same thing, all in pursuit of Ann herself.  It has to be Ann, too, as we see Kong scoop a completely different woman from her own bed and drop her to her death.  Kong’s interest in Ann actually appears to be at least partially sexual, acting as a romantic rival of sorts to Jack, as seen when Kong strips off what 1930s censors would allow of Ann’s clothing.  Denham’s proclamation that it is beauty that killed the beast instead of the airplanes is accurate.

Kong, of course, has gone on to become an icon of pop culture.  Not long after the original was a hit, Robert Armstrong returned for a sequel, Son of Kong, in which Denham returned to the island and encountered Kong’s benevolent albino son.  There have been knock-off Kongs, he’s met Godzilla, and he’s been in a pair of remakes of the original.  Peter Jackson’s own did have one cool thing on the DVD in the form of a fake nature documentary explaining how Skull Island somehow managed to have the dinosaurs, giant apes, and the anti-Kong wall.  But as much as future Kongs are far more sympathetic than the first one, the raw power of the original, a viscous beast that smashed, broke, stomped on, and chewed anything that got in his way leaves an impression even today.  I’m not sure I would classify the original Kong as evil.  He’s an animal in a work of fiction back in the day that many animals in works of fiction that were either large predators or were just anything that was very large automatically attacked any human it encountered, but there’s a bit of unintended subtext to this film here involving invasive species and using wild animals for our own amusement.  Kong was king on his island, but bring him to a different island (Manhattan), and he’s just going to destroy everything in his path until he’s put down.

As such, Kong isn’t evil.  He’s a force of nature.  And you can’t just chain those things up and expect them to put on a show for human amusement.  Sooner or later, they get out and then people start dying.

NEXT UP:  We’re going back to Hitchcock’s filmography for 1954’s Rear Window.