King Kong (1933)
Merian C. Cooper
James Ashmore Creelman
"The Eighth Wonder of the World"
Merian C. Cooper, the visionary behind the chest-thumping giant gorilla atop the Empire State, was a remarkable man. An old school adventurer, he could list World War I flying ace, POW, journalist, explorer, airline owner and Oscar-nominated documentary-maker on his resume before he came to make King Kong, and he continued his adventuresome ways until his death in 1973. He was part of the first generation of US film-makers, those who saw creating a movie as the latest in a line of thrilling technological challenges. These pioneers of the Machine Age seized movie cameras in the 1920s with the same enthusiasm as they had grabbed the controls of airplanes a decade earlier. King Kong shares the dashing spirit of its producer, and eptiomises his fascination with technology. After all, Cooper plays the pilot of the plane that kills Kong, the very embodiment of twentieth century machinery's triumph over Nature.
Cooper took his inspiration for Kong from both fact and fiction. As a small boy he was inspired by the adventure stories of Paul Du Chaillu, African explorer, whose embroidered tales of battles with hippopotami and giant apes in the depths of the jungle were a strong influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. Years later, he managed to borrow enough money to fund a North African expedition for the purposes of making a documentary about the nomad Bakhtiari tribe: Nanook of the North wowed audiences in 1922 and he though he could capitalise on the new fascination with anthropology. He was accompanied by an ex-combat photographer, Ernest B. Schoedsack, who had honed his post-war camera skills at Mack Sennet's studio. They joined the tribesmen's migration over the mountains, and, over twenty-six gruelling days shot the footage that would become the documentary Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925). Paramount offered a distribution deal, and it grossed many times its original $10,000 budget. Jess Lasky was persuaded to give Cooper and Schoedsack $60,000 to make their second documentary, Chang: A Drama of The Wilderness(1927) which focused on a Lao tribesman, Kru.Filmed in the jungles of northern Thailand, many of the sequences were fictionalised or heavily staged to fit a preconceived narrative. The off-camera antics of Cooper and Schoedsack during the two years of filming provided a lot of drama - the hot-tempered Cooper angered a tribal chieftain who served him chicken stew laced with deadly bamboo barbs at one point. Nonetheless, Chang was a huge success, the top grossing movie of the year.
Cooper and Schoedsack's next collaboration was the wartime drama, The Four Feathers, one of the last silent films. It was not a great financial success, and Cooper took two years off from the film industry to start his own airline. He also worked on a book about baboons, which led him to recall the adventure stories of his boyhood, and his more recent adventures in Asia. He began to work on a treatment for King Kong, but struggled when it came to the effects. He ruled out using a real gorilla, but couldn't find a believable alternative.
Cooper was lured back into entertainment by legendary producer David O. Selznik, who was then working at RKO. Willis O'Brien, stop motion animation genius, was also part of the studio, working on a silent project, Creation, which was ultimately dropped. O'Brien had wowed Hollywood with his work re-creating dinosaurs in The Lost World (1926), and offered sophisticated solutions to Cooper's technical difficulties. RKO funded some test footage, shot by Schoedsack - three model gorillas (18" high) shot against miniatures of Skull Island and Manhattan. RKO were sufficiently impressed by this footage to give Cooper a budget of $500,000 (later upped to $650,000); impressive as the country was beset by the worst privations of the Great Depression.
From the outset, King Kong is a hymn to the Machine Age. The opening shots of New York show an industrial nation rising up out of the river. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a gung-ho movie producer, who chatters of the latest in "gas bombs" and is confident that his technology can conquer the world - and spin him some cash. Yet King Kong is also a movie of beautifully drawn contrasts. Denham's cigar-chomping confidence segues into the drawn faces of women lining up outside a Mission, and a desperate Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) attempting to steal - very symbolically - an apple. These scenes had a special resonance for the cinema audiences of the time, those who sought a couple of hours respite from their grim existence. Ann's attempted crime gives Denham the right to pluck her off the street - after first double checking that she has no family and friends to check up on her - promising her "the thrill of a lifetime" if she'll come and work for him.
Working for Denham, it transpires, involves being the only woman on board the Venture, a ship bound for a nameless Pacific island. At first the crew are suspicious of her presence, none more so than Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) who tells Ann that women on ship are "a nuisance". Fortunately, Denham doesn't really see Ann as a woman - she is his property, part of his equipment, just like his camera and his beloved gas bombs. In one scene he rehearses her in front of the camera, providing a potted guide to screen acting technique ("Look up slowly. You're quite calm, you don't expect to see a thing. Then just follow my direction."). Film-making is represented as a complex technical process, rather than an artistic one, the sailors comment on how expensive the camera is, Denham slots in a filter at one point, explains the cranking process. Ann is nervous that she won't "photograph well" .The sailors watch, fascinated, from various vantage points on walkways and ladders, but acknowledge Denham's superiority through technology. "He's not crazy," the Captain tells Driscoll, "just enthusiastic."
Their destination is Skull Island, where, Denham has heard tell, an enormous monster "neither man nor beast" lurks behind a centuries-old wall built and maintained by primitive tribesmen. Whilst the Captain and Driscoll are cynical, Denham insists that every legend has a basis in reality, and "If it's there, you'll bet I'll photograph it." The crew hear the island before they see it - in start contrast to the glittering sunshine of their departure from New York, their destination is swathed in swirling fog, and only a sinister drum beat announces their proximity to land. The intrepid crew land, and find themselves in the middle of a tribal ritual. Young women are being offered, and gorilla costumed dancers only hint at the horrors to come. Oblivious to the danger that Ann is in, Machine Ager Denham only laments that he can't capture it all on film, especially as he can't shoot in the dark.
Drawn by her golden curls, the tribespeople kidnap Ann, wanting to present her to Kong. The crew arm themselves, assured that their rifles will give them superiority over anything they encounter on the island. However, they are not prepared for the might of Kong, nor for the various dinosaurs lurking in the swamps. During a thrilling chase, which takes up half an hour of screen time - almost a third of the movie - they attempt to rescue Ann, but are reduced to weaponless victims and picked off one by one, their gunpowder rendered useless by water. Many die horrible, screaming deaths at the hands of Kong, or in the jaws of a plieosaur, with only determined Jack Driscoll, who has already declared his love for Ann, able to follow Kong to his lair and rescue the fair maiden.
During this chase Kong establishes himself as a semi heroic character - yes he kills any human that gets in his way, but he also takes risks in order to ensure Ann's safety. He battles a tyrannosaurus rex much larger than he is, breaking its neck after a long struggle. He wades in against a giant serpent, again without regard for his personal safety. Kong is tender and concerned for a largely unconscious Ann, the myriad facial expressions of O'Brien's models communicating Beauty's civilising effect on the Beast. The model for the face was incredibly complex - almost seven feet wide, it used 85 separate motors and needed six operators. However, the nuances of emotion conveyed by this arrangement are what make Kong engage the audience: we understand what he is thinking, and we empathise. The infamous scene where he removes Ann's skirt was omitted from prints for many years, as it was said to imply bestiality and rape. However, it has now been restored, and seems entirely innocent, another expression of Kong's desire to make Ann comfortable.
Driscoll manages to get Ann back to safety, but Denham is not satisfied. The technological adventurer becomes something of a mad scientist, defying logic in his wish to capture Kong. He's aware only that the giant ape is "worth all the movies in the world", and is glad to finally have a chance to use his gas bombs.
Back in New York, Denham the showman is the darling of Broadway. A sell out black tie crowd eagerly await "the eighth wonder of the world," a crowd used to marvelling at the machine age - television, cinema, radio, electricity. They're expecting some kind of movie, or other technological entertainment. But they are about to be presented with - wonder of wonders - something natural. Denham declares
"I am about to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a King and a God in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilisation, merely a captive, a show to satisfy your curiosity."
He presents a chained Kong, arms aloft in crucifixion pose. Technology - in the form of steel links, bolts, gantries and rivets - keeps the assembled New Yorkers safe from the primal monster, but not for long. The popping of flashbulbs - or is it the presence of now-fiancé Driscoll beside Ann? - enrages the monster, and, displaying a near-human intelligence, he deftly divests himself of his chains and escapes into the city streets.
Chaos ensues, of the type familiar to audiences of subsequent disaster movies, but still very fresh on the screen at the time. Crowds scream and run about, while the authorities stand ineffectually by. Kong quickly adapts to the concrete jungle, and goes searching for Ann, stuffing screaming humans in his mouth as he clambers about the skyscrapers. In searching for his lost love he plucks an older, brunette woman from her bed before tossing her aside, a move symptomatic of Hollywood men to this day. He soon comes up against twentieth century technology in the form of a subway train, which he sends screeching from its tracks (a scene hommaged in Spiderman 2, Batman Begins and many other movies). He gets his girl and begins to climb, at which point there's only one techological solution - airplanes.
The final, climactic scene is cinema history. Finally dwarfed by something, Kong perches on top of the Empire State Building, swatting ineffectually at the airplanes that spell his doom. Kong is a fully realised character by this stage - testament to O'Brien's modelling skills - and it is with very mixed feelings that the audience watches him plunge to his death. Yes, the girl is safe, but something dignified and powerful has been debased, in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment. The real monster of the movie is not Kong, who is nothing more than a hapless pawn; the ruthless, exploitative Denham is the bad guy. And he goes totally unpunished.
King Kong As Science Fiction
King Kong was hugely successful upon its release, saving RKO from financial ruin, and has remained a favourite with film-makers and audiences ever since. On one level it is a simple fairy tale - Beauty and the Beast - yet it functions as science fiction because it offers a multi-layered discourse on technology. It's all about Man and his Machines, and how they are used to tame Nature, from the huge wall constructed hundreds of years ago by the tribesmen on Skull Island to the airplanes used to knock Kong off his final perch. It also deals with many common science fiction tropes - the outsized animal (Kong was later to do battle with Godzilla), the city trashed by a force of nature, the demented scientist/technologist with his eye on a dangerous prize, the gawping crowds punished for their curiosity.
King Kong's influence is apparent in films as diverse as Jurassic Park, Jason & The Argonauts, and Star Wars, as well as hundreds of 'creature features' of the 1950s. Kong himself is a symbol of a vanishing world - his survival, alongside the dinosaurs on Skull Island, is an accident of Nature, and once extracted from his natural habitat, he cannot survive. His story is a parable, he represents the sacrifices that are made in the stampede to knowledge. As scientific expeditions probe every corner of the globe, there is no room for mysterious creatures like giant apes, especially when they are discovered by those with no respect for their ancient need for privacy. King Kong is both nostalgic for an age when fabulous monsters could lurk in misty swamps, and pragmatic about their inevitable elimination in the name of scientific progress.