MEMORABLE FILM CHARACTERS #2 – KING KONG
In the second of this series which looks at great film characters, I want to explore one of the most memorable monsters of all time: King Kong! In this short piece I will consider the original classic film creation in RKO’s King Kong (1933). It’s fascinating to examine the technical feats required to bring the character to the screen, the characterisation and narrative aspects which make Kong so memorable; and finally, the sociological and cultural impact of the film.
Working with a story by mystery writer Edgar Wallace and co-director Merian C. Cooper, the script was developed in 1932 by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. They structured this big adventure around filmmaker, Carl Denham, and his obsessive desire to shoot the legendary Kong on the ominously named Skull Island. What follows is a film of spectacular power and great innovation. In order to create Kong and the other prehistoric creatures the production team developed groundbreaking techniques such as stop-motion, rear projection, matte painting and miniatures. To this day the effects are breathtaking and still more emotionally engaging than most modern CGI.
As well as the incredible stop-motion photography painstakingly rendered by Willis O’Brien and Buzz Gibson’s team, the character of Kong is quite unique. Here is a monster in a horror B-movie who is in fact the most sympathetic character of the whole film. Moreover, the script builds suspense and dread with a long wait before we even see Kong. And what a sight it is! At first it would seem he is a merely a large ape, but he is revered as a god and protector. However, it is the humans who are the actual monsters. They steal Kong from his natural habitat and proceed to shackle him and treat him like an exhibit. But this exhibit has teeth and is about to bite back.
On release and in more recent years King Kong (1933) has rightly received much critical praise. It’s often ranked in the top horror films and all-time favourite 100 films of all time. More importantly, it’s actually gained attention as a film that subtextually reflects notions of colonialism, racism and the slave trade. In Quentin Tarantino’s superb revisionist war film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), a Nazi Officer reflects on this issue with specific reference to Kong. Similarly in this fantastic article, From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong, Ross Langager, opines eloquently on the power of King Kong (1933) even now. Thus, while he may be a model made from clay, paint and metal, rendered real by the magic of cinema, Kong’s character is so much more than the sum of his parts. He is not simply a monster, but the ultimate tragic hero.