It is a very rare thing these days for a major motion picture release to not have extensive special effects. Some crime films, perhaps, or the odd drama, but the vast majority of both A and B-list movies are effects-laden extravaganzas.
Ninety years ago, such films were rare anomalies. And then King Kong arrived; a film where a huge amount of the screen time involved some kind of special visual effect or other, including the titular character himself, who was not only brought to life, but made to actually act.
Nothing like it, in terms of scope and quality, had ever come before, and nothing that followed has escaped its shadow. When it comes to special-effects-driven cinema, there is King Kong and there is everything else.
It is amazing to think that it is now ninety years old; nearly a whole century come and gone.
The Differences Between the Modern and Postmodern King Kong
In a sense, therefore, it could be said that King Kong was the closest thing of its time to a ‘modern’ film in terms of its style and presentation. And so it is a useful comparison to see how things have changed over that near-century.
The first thing stands out, comparing King Kong to its modern progeny, is that the story is, in style at least, considerably simpler and more artificial than that of films today. There is little effort at verisimilitude in either the dialogue or the setup (best shown in Denham’s laughably under-staffed film). The story is stripped down to its essential elements, not unlike a stage play, and anything that would clutter up or distract from the main point is simply left out as unimportant.
Likewise the dialogue is designed to convey information and sound dramatically pleasing, not to imitate the way people talk in real life (“Neither beast nor man. Something monstrous; all-powerful. Still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear”).
The favored style of today’s movies, developed chiefly in the 60s and 70s, aims more at imitating life; trying to make the dialogue sound something like what real people would use and to account for as many details as possible in order to seem ‘realistic’. As an obvious example, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake was obliged to give Denham a whole film crew and leading actor to try to make the setup seem more believable to modern audiences, and it self-consciously tweaks the stagey dialogue of the original.
I’m noting this simply as an observation, as the two styles are ultimately a matter of taste (though I will say that Jackson runs into exactly the problem the original avoided by having too many extraneous and irrelevant characters cluttering up the plot, and that I think the original’s dialogue is much better than that in the remake. But I digress).
At the same time, though, beneath the stylistic simplicity of the original there is a moral and emotional maturity that is rare to find in modern movies for all their self-conscious “ambiguity”. This can be shown, among other things, by the simple fact that neither of the two driving figures of the plot – Denham and Kong – are portrayed as either wholly good or wholly bad. Denham is an ambitious, fanatical filmmaker who makes movies in dangerous places, but is a dependable friend who does his best to look after his people, is decent enough to stand up for strangers, and willingly shares the credit of his accomplishments. Kong is a savage monster who kills any number of people in brutal ways, but he’s an animal who can’t be expected to know better, has a playful and charming personality in his calmer moments, and in any case invites sympathy from being taken from his home and thrust into a world he can’t possibly understand and which intends to exploit him for its own gain.
Again, Jackson’s remake falls short here by explicitly championing Kong and vilifying Denham, not to the extent it might have, but enough to make the latter contemptible and to reduce the moral vision of the original to a simplistic and banal “good nature, bad civilization” narrative.
The original has no illusions about Kong or, by extension, nature itself. It’s story is of a savage, but magnificent creature that is mostly the enemy for the bulk of the film (though with layers), until an otherwise decent man lets his ambition run away with him and takes it back to civilization, where it becomes both menace and victim. You’re expected to feel both horror at what Kong does and sympathy for his plight, sorrow at his death and relief that he can’t threaten anyone else.
A Movie About Nature As Well As Man
I find that such blended, mature emotions are rare in our contemporary films, which mostly adhere to the opposite approach: stylistic complexity layered over moral simplicity. Our idea of moral ambiguity is mostly either simply flipping the old narrative on its head (e.g. evil humans oppress innocent monsters) or just variations on the trolly problem of “does saving x number of people excuse killing y number?”
The characters who are both good and bad, who make hubris-driven decisions without revealing themselves to be simply contemptible, or monsters who invite sympathy and compassion without being any less monstrous, are vanishingly rare. It’s much easier to reduce one side or the other, to insert obvious “bad guys” to shoulder the blame.
(The film’s image of the clash between civilization and nature is interesting enough to be a discussion in itself).
In all the above and more, the original demonstrates that it was made at a time of comparative cultural confidence. The audacity it took to put something like this on the screen in 1933 rivals that of Denham bringing Kong himself to Broadway. This isn’t just a matter of the obvious – that it depended upon ground-breaking and extremely complicated special effects of a scale and quantity that had never been attempted before – but also the more mundane fact that this was a wholly original concept, dreamt up out of the filmmakers’ heads. Even at the time, it was comparatively rare to have a wholly original film of this magnitude.
Within the story itself, of course, there is nothing of the apologetic cultural self-loathing that characterizes modern film. The characters themselves never doubt that killing Kong is the right thing to do under the circumstances, nor ever consider the idea that the jungle may be preferable to civilization, nor even question the idea of risking the lives of dozens of men to save one woman; after the bulk of the party is killed, Denham and Driscoll both take it for granted that they’ll keep trying, Denham’s one concern being the idea of Driscoll doing it alone. You can call it a lack of introspection, or you might call it clarity, but in either case it’s a marked difference from the present.
The image of the ape in the two eras is a strong mark of this difference. In the era of Kong, the gorilla represented wild, primal savagery and power; the closest animal to man and thus a fit image of the distinction between the two. Gorillas in that era were typically more or less pure threats, as much as lions or crocodiles, only with a thematic heft the others lacked (as well as being much easier to portray with men in suits). Though this was not universal or absolute, as heroic apes also abounded, such as in Son of Kong released later that same year, or in 1946’s Mighty Joe Young from most of the same team.
In the modern world, preoccupied both with ‘realism’ and environmentalist ideals, gorillas are victims to be pitied, often used to represent oppressed and downtrodden demographics (whether this is a compliment to such groups is another question). The idea of a gorilla as simply a threat, even a complex one, is all-but unthinkable today.
The era of Kong was a time where ideas of evolution and progress were near their height, and so it was natural to contrast the wild, savage ape with modern man (albeit not uncritically, as we’ve seen). After World War Two, with the popularization of Marxist thought, this slowly changed, first into a kind of contemptuous equality (e.g. Planet of the Apes) and then to a definite preference for the ape as a downtrodden innocent.
Again, which image you prefer is, I suppose, down to the viewer. There are certainly critiques to be made of both. But there is no question which represents a greater sense of cultural assurance.
Overall, comparing Kong to the films of today, what strikes me is that, for all its surface-level simplicity and unpretentiousness, it is clearly the product of higher, more assured culture than our own; one that had a far greater sense of its own identity, values, and ideals, that was unafraid to take risks or to grapple with the thorny problems of life.
That is to say, King Kong is a gloriously silly pulp adventure flick; the most glorious of them all, but it’s a pulp adventure film that came out of a more sophisticated culture than we today have ever known.
In any case, ninety years on, it remains a masterpiece.