Primeval as a statement of boundless agelessness rather than failure to modernize, 1933’s King Kong is not only a pugnacious B-picture but a semi-tragic story of showmanship begetting exploitation, ostracization, and essentialization, a film carnival-barked with the panache of a showman. 85 years of technological advancement have streamlined and committee-scripted and audience-tested film form to within an inch of its life. But none of it replaces the personalized terror and fabricated glee of discovery in this original motion picture, which unfolds almost in an imaginative stupor, liberated from the inhibition of pleasing the maximum number of people. Even its broken patches, it mistakes, its tentative hunger for more than it can achieve all make it feel like a wistful construct of the collective imagination and desire for adventure, a work trying to discover something new even if it can’t achieve it. That ambition, in a modern era where all films must be tested so that they don’t feel fake, reminds us of a dream or a nightmare rather than a pragmatist’s admittance of defeat by having to conform to its audiences’ conception of reality.
Robert Armstrong as filmmaker Carl Denham, Fay Wray as actress Ann Darrow, and Bruce Cabot as male adventurer Jack Driscroll may be the human leads, but the real star of the film is what it says on the tin, or more appropriately, the men who made him. Special effects supervisor Willis O’ Brien is the hero of this early David O. Selznick flight of fancy, envisioning the titular simian as a woolly behemoth of entirely physical personality, with a drive for companionship and a multifaceted loneliness beset by a world that doesn’t care to assume anything more of him.
Kong is an intimately fictitious creature, a construct without much of a bid for realism in 2016, but rather than being paralyzed by his artificial nature, the character is given carte blanche to trespass on a more imaginative realm by it. Freed from the need to conform to reality, the character feels more like a vision of otherworldly dream or nightmare because his movements don’t meaningfully conform to our understanding of mortal existence. The way the character’s stop-motion meant O’Brien and crew had to renegotiate the character’s appearance between every frame (manipulating his arms and body so that he appears to stutter between frames) only gifts the character with an agitated, alien body charisma, like his body is not of the natural world (which, of course, it isn’t). Rather than being grounded by reality, the nature of hand-crafted cinematic construction becomes an impetus for a new, unauthorized vision of possibility, gifting the character with a personality and an accidental marker of creepy artifice that modern technology may not have afforded for.
Admittedly, dialogue is mostly riding shotgun throughout, but this vivid folk tale is catalyzed by its inedible imagery much in the manner of a fable (an admittedly Jungian one in this case) or a nightmare fantasia. Even the racist islanders who appear for roughly 10 minutes and are significant missteps are surrounded by impeccably framed shots of village symmetry (the wall they’ve built to hold off Kong is a particularly wonderful delight) by Cooper and Scheodsack. The initial appearance of Kong is lascivious and even assaultive, with his eyes leering over Wray like a monomaniacal masculine brute, with the film then subverting the racial implications of that claim without sacrificing the provocative gender commentary by turning Kong into a somewhat misguided, empathetic hermit that the white characters judge upon-arrival until they ultimately premeditate a traumatic conclusion under the assumption that Kong is only good as enslaved beast.
Peter Jackson’s updated version of this tale would accentuate the racial implications of the devious director kidnapping Kong (even as that film somehow even doubled-down on the uncouth racial stereotypes, proving that sometimes, less has changed than we think). That said, Jackson’s version – with its imperious three hour run time and baroque, semi-aggrandizing vision – can’t match the whimsy and feral insurgency of this original, which feels less like a plea for blockbuster success (a vision that directs down to the expectations of real society by pumping up the drama at every moment) and more like a product of its own personal proclivities and vision, suggesting flickers of the creatures without fully pronouncing who they are. The ’05 Kong is a complex creature stressed in grandiose but evocative full-on narrative patches, while the ’33 Kong is phenomenally expressive in suggested bits and chunks (most notably his sheer befuddlement at experiencing Wray and in his denouement, where his face conveys weary detachment and a creeping finalitude he was always aware of rather than surprise).
By today’s standards, the various other monsters are hardly stressed as well, mostly treated to rampages of a minute or two, but the in-and-out ferocity of their attacks makes them feel more like terrorizers rather than camera-showboaters. The initial Stegosaurus attack is bracingly quick, almost over before it registers on a conscious level, and the same can be said of an attack by a long-necked dinosaur that is often hidden in fog and infused with the mystique of expressionism. The first time Kong conquers the sailors, clinging to their lives on a log without hope, the framing and editing is also shockingly unequivocal, with an emphasis on viciousness rather than spectacle, the same being true for Kong’s follow-up ten rounds with a T. Rex.
Actually, once the rescue is underway, the film is galvanized with the economy of a killer instinct rather than a film that is staging and premeditating its conflicts with an eye for appealing to the masses, much like the monsters are really trying to kill one another rather than mug for our appreciation. It’s brutal, in an unexpected way, not unlike the hurtful, malevolent The Invisible Man from the same year; both are dressed up in effects, but they don’t indulge in them. They retain the spirit of slash-and-burn B-pictures without over-baked appended import or a creeping deluge of exposition, resisting the unmitigated urge to be driven to serious-cinema status.
Instead, their beauty is that they are content to be themselves. All these years later, Kong – a blockbuster in its day – doesn’t approach us like a work designed to make us feel awed so much as a personal project with a particularly venomous tail and a carnivorous bite. It envisions its own being rather than asking what it ought to do to appeal to us (as most message-movies and blockbusters alike do, both courting middlebrow mass appeal and sanding down and rounding off their inner animal, their strangeness, so that the maximum number of people can understand what little they actually have left to give). Kong is a pretty uncomplicated creature as a film, but the majesty of its personal drive to see itself through is wonderfully uncompromised by you or me; rather than asking us what we want, it gives us what it wants, and because what it wants taps into base human fears without having to be “about” them, the film punches us in the gut anyway.