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Even if you haven’t seen the original King Kong film, it’s probable that you have some awareness of its monster. The giant ape himself has come to exist within pop culture independent of his cinematic origins 85 years ago. However, while the original 1933 film has been influential, its legacy is deeply problematic.
Following a chance encounter on the streets on New York, famous director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) convinces Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his next picture. Ann doesn’t take much persuading to go on the secretive voyage to a place that isn’t on most navigation charts. Denham is chasing a myth to its source on Skull Island. Here, the crew encounter an indigenous population who worship a giant ape as tall as a house. King Kong takes a fancy to Ann and this leads to his capture by Denham. The giant ape is to put on show in New York to turn a profit. The film’s climax sees Kong rampage through the streets of New York before climbing the Empire State Building with Ann still in his grip. The ape roars and swipes at bi planes that have been sent to shoot him. Then, the inevitable happens.
‘It was beauty killed the beast.’ The final line spoken in King Kong also summarises the classic film’s flimsy plot. King Kong, the eighth wonder of the world, is undone by his attraction to a beautiful woman.
The attitude towards women is part of the film’s problematic legacy. In the opening scene, Denham explains that he needs an actress because the “public must have a pretty face to look at”. Later, Kong strips off Ann’s dress which results in some brief nudity in a sequence that doesn’t appear to be relevant to the rest of the film. In King Kong, the sole female character is an object for the male gaze instead of an active participant in the story. She is described as a distraction for the ship’s crew and behaves as a ‘damsel in distress’ who screams until she is rescued.
It would be easy to dismiss this limited female character as a relic of 1930s except this remains a feature of many contemporary films. Moreover, King Kong was made during the pre-code years (between the introduction sound in American film in 1929 and the enforcement of the Hays code in 1934). This period has become known for its technical inventiveness and for its depictions of complex female characters onscreen. In general, the 1930s also saw the production of many woman’s pictures which told stories about women, their friendships, struggles and lives. Ann could have been a more nuanced character, but she isn’t. That is a loss.
Next, there’s also the film’s racism and cultural imperialism to consider. Its depiction of non-Western cultures is profoundly troublesome and cliched. Charlie the Chinese cook is a negative stereotype that is painful to watch. The film shows no respect towards the inhabitants of Skull Island who are portrayed as an exotic and primitive culture. The local community is mostly mute and easily dismissed or subdued by the ‘civilised’ Americans. Skull Island is apparently near Indonesia but elements of African and Asian cultures have been merged onscreen without any sensitivity. These aspects of the film have dated very poorly.
A 1933 review in Variety magazine praised King Kong’s technical achievements while criticising the plot and the acting. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation remains remarkable even if it looks clunky at times. Kong and the other creatures move with realistic fluidness. The puppets aren’t exactly accurate copies of the animals, rather they are suggestive of the creature. From a technical point of view, King Kong may be impressive but this does not excuse its flaws. The same is true of its gorgeous score by Max Steiner which itself was also influential in the development of music for cinema.
A commercial hit on release, King Kong took over 1.7 million dollars during its initial run. While this doesn’t sound like much now, the film made enough money to rescue RKO Studios from bankruptcy. Subsequent re-releases also proved profitable and the film was even colourised in the 1980s. There have also been many remakes and sequels beginning with Son of Kong in 1933. These films helped the giant ape to take up his place within pop culture. Kong battled another iconic monster in 1962’s King Kong fights Godzilla. In 1972, Hollywood remade King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange in the cast. Peter Jackson directed a very long version featuring a mo-cap performance by Andy Serkis as the ape in 2005. Last year’s Kong: Skull Island is unlikely to the ape’s final cinematic appearance as there are plans for Kong to take on Godzilla again on the big screen in 2020.
While it is an uncomfortable watch for an audience today, King Kong has had a major influence on filmmaking. Its presence within pop culture makes it useful to see the original film to consider its problematic legacy. Maybe beauty is responsible for Kong’s destruction. However, this is an easy answer that hides the presence of other factors. The truth is more complicated. Arrogance, greed and ignorance also play a part in Kong’s eventual destruction.