WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: When fearless filmmaker Carl Denham lures down-at-heel actress Ann Darrow to be in his overseas action picture, even he has little idea of the danger he is putting them in. But when Ann is kidnapped by a superstitious tribe, leading First Mate Driscoll and the rest of his ship’s crew to discover fantastical beasts on Denham’s secret island, one beast in particular turns the director’s mind away from movies towards other ways of making money.
It can’t be done, of course. Try as one might, there is no way a 21st century filmgoer can watch a film of King Kong’s vintage with any real sense of the impact it might have had on its release. We now have colour, seamless digital effects – hell, we even have Peter Jackson’s swanky version of the story, so anything a 75-year old film has to offer is bound to be lacking, right? In fact, you barely need any appreciation of the history of film, or of the fact that ‘Talkies’ were still in short trousers in 1933, to know that this Kong is something special.
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is about to set sail for territories unknown, at least unknown to the ship’s captain and surly First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot); but first he needs a girl, since the studios have told Denham that pretty girls are what the public wants. Finding one in would-be petty thief Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), they set sail with only Denham knowing their ultimate location: an island where exotic beasts are rumoured to roam. They reach the island, but are stopped from progressing by a sacrificial ceremony being held by natives; although everyone gets back to ship safely, no sooner has Driscoll declared his love for Ann than she is kidnapped to be the replacement sacrifice for the island’s great beast, ‘Kong.’
Kong takes Ann but something about her stops him from simply eating her; instead she becomes his screaming plaything, and he vigorously fights off attempts to snatch her, both from the island’s other creatures and Driscoll’s rescue party, which also has a variety of terrifying dinosaurs to contend with. When Ann is snatched back from Kong’s grasp, his pursuit leads to his own capture and display in New York (though he has lost his film, Denham never misses the chance to make a buck). Predictably, iron shackles cannot hold the beast and he breaks free to cause havoc in the city, before his final showdown with bi-planes atop the recently completed Empire State Building.
Were King Kong simply a show-reel of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, it would be a curiosity piece, albeit an impressive one, showing animators and directors experimenting with the possibilities of the medium. But the smart set-up, with the Arabian proverb and Jack Driscoll’s mistrust of women melting into love, and the atmospheric approach to the island, elevates King Kong into the realms of allegory whilst retaining all the thrills of a no-nonsense monster movie. To 21st Century eyes the effects are primitive, with many jerky movements, a less-than-perfect fit between the model Kong and his giant, expressionless head, and obvious use of back projection that makes interaction between the stop-motion and live action characters a mixed bag (when creatures charge towards the screen you never quite feel – as a modern viewer – that they will ever reach the actors).
However, the film fits the action together as well as the technology allows and the action sequences are immaculately constructed and always incredibly exciting. Whether it’s the crew being nudged off the raft, Kong battling the T-Rex and flapping its jaw after the fight is won, or all of the fantastic New York sequence, there is an immediacy about the film’s action that makes the viewer willingly suspend any disbelief. It should also be said that sound effects, married to Max Steiner’s evocative score (one of the first bespoke film scores) add greatly to the atmosphere of the film, not least Fay Wray’s full-blooded screams.
On the human side, the actors are limited not by technology (though their scenes are all rather static to modern eyes) but by the acting style of the time: Cabot is fairly wooden throughout, Darrow doesn’t do much more than faint or scream, and Armstrong’s Denham is as heartless as he speaks the famous final lines as he was in the opening scenes.
But this is as it should be, letting the movie be about its eponymous star. For while O’Brien’s Kong may lack the motion-captured emoting of Peter Jackson’s, there is easily enough variety of expression and mood to convey whether he is angry, playful or protective, without having to go into the silly sign-language stuff. Indeed, coming to the original after watching the 2005 version only serves to enhance this film’s reputation. Here, Ann is terrified of Kong throughout and the crew of the ship are largely expendable – we are not asked to care about everyone and everything before they meet their destinies; but most of all, the film simply gets on with it – we get the picture of who Ann is from her two-minute conversation with Denham, and can imagine how down on her luck she has to be to take the job. Had Jackson made a more faithful two-hour or under remake he could have had a monster smash on his hands, but… well, that’s another review.
Whereas a lot of ‘old’ films bear so many hallmarks of the time they were made that it becomes difficult to watch them objectively, King Kong overcomes its limitations with a story and action that are both truly beguiling. The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ is exactly that – a wonder – and even if your head tells you it could all be done more effectively today, you heart is likely to be beating too hard to hear it.