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.
Having briefly explored what makes up film character personas in this article here, I thought it would be fun to start a new feature which looks at memorable film characters. So, with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) in the cinema, I wanted to look at one of the greatest character narrative arcs ever in my opinion. When I say character arc, I am talking of the transformation of a character throughout a film or films. Because for me, the arc of Sarah Connor is absolutely brilliant.
I haven’t seen Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), as for me, the Terminator franchise is a spent force narratively speaking. I’m sure it’s a great spectacle, but I am more interested in speaking about James Cameron’s first two genre masterpieces. I am specifically intrigued by Sarah Connor movement from timid waitress to hardcore rebel fighter. Thus, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke’s turns as the character are ignored here.
The genius of James Cameron’s original filmThe Terminator (1984) is how it is both simple and complex at the same time. It takes time travel tropes, which while very familiar today, were extremely fresh and exciting back in the 1980s. Mashing up ideas from literary science fiction, Star Trek , The Twilight Zoneand films likeWestworld (1973), Cameron gave us one of the greatest bad guys and heroines ever committed to film. Plus, he did it all on a $7 million budget!!
At the heart of the sci-fi, war and thriller genres is an intriguing character study and even a love story. The Terminator (1984) introduces Sarah Connor as a waitress who is having a bad day. It’s about to get worse. She has been murdered and it’s on TV. Well, it’s not her, but someone with the same name as her. Very quickly she is confronted by a man from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), claiming she is the mother of the person who will be a future saviour. How do you process THAT?!? Mind blown!!
Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor then find themselves pursued by a futuristic cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger), hell bent on her destruction. Here she learns more and more about the future and how machines will take control, but her son, John, will lead the resistance. Thus, over the course of the film, as Sarah learns about her fate, the audience learns too. Sarah begins as a conduit and passive, before transforming slowly into an aggressive and battle-hardened fighter.
When the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), come around we meet a whole different kind of Sarah Connor. She has transformed into a muscular and angry revolutionary. Not surprisingly, her narratives about future robots and the apocalypse find her sectioned. But, we know she is telling the truth. Moreover, due to her toughness, guile and resourcefulness, she is now very capable. No four walls will hold Sarah Connor.
Finally, Linda Hamilton’s performance must be praised too. In the first film she is a small character, quiet, likeable and lacking confidence. Over the course of the two films her physical, mental and emotional transformation is very impressively rendered. Cameron’s writing and Hamilton’s commitment to the role make Sarah Connor a highly memorable film character for me.
A TEST OF CHARACTER: BRIEFLY EXPLORING CINEMATIC PERSONAS
“Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you HAVE character.”
Winston Wolf – Pulp Fiction (1994)
What makes one film character more interesting than others? Obviously, the actor who plays them brings much to the role, but the writing, their story and personality are what draws us specifically to them. While film studios have utilised the star system and cast well regarded actors to sell their movies, the actual personas of the characters are just as, if not, more important.
Having strong characters to support the genre, concept and plot of their works is integral to writers, directors and actors. Thus, I’d like to explore some general character traits which help define a strong film character. I would like to consider the following: LIKEABILITY, EMPATHY, EXPERTISE, RESILIENCE, HUMOUR, COOLNESS and COMPLEXITY. There are obviously many other aspects to a character we could consider but I’ll stick to these for now.
To support this, I will list five film characters in each category. If I have missed anything glaring, then please feel free to shout out and comment.
*******CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS*******
Does a character have to be likeable for you to root for them? Not at all! However, if they are a positive character it does help you to warm to their stories and emotions. That isn’t to say you cannot appreciate unlikeable characters, however, they are more complicated and I will come to those later.
FIVE LIKEABLE FILM CHARACTERS
GEORGE BAILEY – IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
WOODY – TOY STORY (1995)
SAMWISE GAMJEE – LORD OF THE RINGS (2001)
MARGE GUNDERSON – FARGO (1996)
ATTICUS FINCH – TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
Empathy and sympathy are two sides of the same coin, but can also contain variants. You can sympathise with a character but not necessarily empathise with their actions; and vice versa. For me, empathetic aspects are what I look for most in a character. They could still be pretty unlikeable, but if I feel drawn to their plight I will still connect with their story. Nonetheless, the characters I list here are both empathetic and mostly sympathetic too.
FIVE EMPATHETIC FILM CHARACTERS
ROCKY BALBOA – ROCKY (1976)
MARTY PILETTI – MARTY (1955)
FORREST GUMP – FORREST GUMP (1994)
CARRIE WHITE – CARRIE (1976)
KING KONG – KING KONG (1933)
I have read a lot of screenwriting books and many of them say if you cannot make a character likeable or sympathetic, make them excel at something. Their expertise in their chosen field will draw you into their world, empathise and even admire their actions. If they are on the right side of the law that will obviously increase identification with such a character. Having said that there are many experts who are villains and I, like many, love a good nemesis too.
FIVE EXPERT FILM CHARACTERS
TONY STARK – IRON MAN (2008)
ETHAN HUNT – MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise.
INDIANA JONES – RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
HANNIBAL LECTER – SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
DETECTIVE WILLIAM SOMERSET – SEVEN (1995)
Resilience or the overcoming of insurmountable odds is a sure-fire way of getting an audience on side. The fact a character refuses to give in despite overwhelming odds creates all manner of means with which to identify with a character. When watching a film we also want to see characters who mirror our own personalities. So, to watch characters who never give in is very appealing to me.
FIVE RESILIENT FILM CHARACTERS
ELLEN RIPLEY – ALIEN (1979)
SOLOMON NORTHUP – TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
CELIE JOHNSON – THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)
ANDY DUFRESNE – THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
OH-DAE-SU – OLDBOY (2003)
Obviously making an audience laugh is a fine way of making the one like a character. It’s also a good way to mask a characters’ agendas or be employed as a defence mechanism or weapon too. Funny characters are not just limited to comedy films as humour can enhance action, romantic and drama genres too.
FIVE HUMOROUS FILM CHARACTERS
ACE VENTURA – ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994)
PETER PARKER – SPIDERMAN (2002)
JUNO MACGUFF – JUNO (2007)
AXEL FOLEY – BEVERLEY HILLS COP (1984)
RANDALL P. MCMURPHY – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
Arguably the most difficult one to quantify and even write, because it could be the actor who the one bringing the cool to the role. However, I think there are great examples of characters who are written that way too. Usually, a cool character will be someone of few words or a reserved demeanour or simply designated cool by their skills, actions and even what they wear.
FIVE COOL FILM CHARACTERS
VIRGIL HILTS – THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
CLIFF BOOTH – ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
LEE – ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
HOLLY GOLIGHTLY – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)
MAX ROCKATANSKY – MAD MAX (1979)
Complexity can be defined it many ways. It could be they are conflicted souls, searching for their place in the world. Or characters who are behaving badly while striving to be good. They could just be presenting a certain persona while hiding their real self. Or they could just be totally screwed and have mentally flipped. Complex characters are often unpredictable, but always compelling.
FIVE COMPLEX FILM CHARACTERS
HOWARD BEALE – NETWORK (1976)
MIRANDA PRIESTLY – THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
DARTH VADER – STAR WARS (1977)
TRAVIS BICKLE – TAXI DRIVER (1976)
JOHNNY FLETCHER – NAKED (1993)
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
There are so many wonderful characters in the world of cinema. Those mentioned above are just a few. The aspects I speak of too are just brief sketches really in such a fascinating area. Certain characters are more than simply likeable, empathetic, cool, complex and funny. Some of are a collision of all the facets I have noted above. Lastly, as well as different elements to their personas, characters can also be defined as an archetype or genre type. But, that is another story for another article.