MaximusSol’s review published on Letterboxd:
Spectacular stop-motion work and stunning visuals uplift pedestrian acting and coexist with challenging themes of colonialism, race, and sexual politics in King Kong, which still shines brightly as a monumental cinematic achievement and stands tall as the "inverse Godzilla," in which "civilized" society, rather than the towering creature, is the true monster.
After navigating through 20 Godzilla and Godzilla-adjacent films from Toho's Shōwa, Heisei, and Reiwa eras, as well as Legendary's Americanized take on the character which culminates in the much-anticipated showdown between Kong and the King in 2021, I thought I'd look back at the origin of the world's most famous giant gorilla, who's also known in this classic film as "the eighth wonder of the world."
This film holds up remarkably well after nearly a century. The effects by Willis O'Brien were groundbreaking then, and even after all of these years, work surprisingly well still today to convey both Kong's staggering brutality and his pulsing emotional core. On textual level, the film is effectively a love story between the giant ape and a beautiful young would-be actress Ann Darrow (famously portrayed by Fay Wray). Wray isn't given a whole lot of character depth to work with and is left to mostly scream her way through the movie and serve as the object of affection for both her misogynist fiancé and the titular ape. That said, she does an excellent job with what she's given. At first I didn't quite appreciate her old school beauty and striking visage, but as the movie progresses her look and allure really grew on me and I began to understand why Kong was so cuckoo for her. On subtextual level, however, there's a lot going on that I will address momentarily.
The attention to detail in bringing Kong to life is quite impressive and goes to great lengths to create a living and breathing character. During a scene in which Kong wrestles a menacing Tyrannosaurus to the death, after rendering the lizard lifeless Kong plays with the dead reptile's jaw, flipping it open and closed curiously, as if amazed by his ability to choke the life out of another living being. In other scenes Kong looks off camera at something catching his attention that will remain forever unseen to the audience. I was amazed by how much character sprung forth from Kong. Not only are the stop-motion effects absolutely brilliant, but also the compelling articulation of Kong is matched with excellent compositing and striking matte painting backgrounds that evoke 19th neo-classical landscapes.
There are several great set pieces including the famous felled tree trunk moment, in which the crew of would-be human rescuers is one-by-one shaken from the tree by Kong to their deaths into a deep cavern. We even get to see their lifeless bodies careen into the cavern floor in a brutally visceral fashion without the camera cutting away from their impact. Speaking of which, this movie is quite gruesome for a product of the 1930's. Despite the empathy the audience that slowly builds for Kong over the course of the film, he really earns his status as a fearsome force of nature, chomping on tons of humans and spitting them out, stepping on them, or later in the film, destroying their infrastructure in New York City.
Beside the amazing cinematic spectacle and sheer sense of adventure that this story presents, there are a few insights that exist on a subtextual level struck me as I watched this on the heels of my Godzilla-a-thon. The main takeaway I had while watching this is that I finally understood why Godzilla films are so difficult for American filmmakers to present authentically. As we all know, Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear power in the original Gojira, a film that was directly influenced by King Kong, as is arguably the entire kaiju genre. Godzilla is so personal and palpable for Japan due to their unique status as the only nation on Earth to be victimized by nuclear weapons. It is my belief that because of this fact, and due to this reality being literally woven into the consciousness of an entire generation of Japanese people, and then passed down "epigenetically" to descendants who may never have directly experienced the nuclear attack, but still retain an indirect, yet nevertheless affecting, experience of the attack within their unconscious, Godzilla to this day remains both an expression of that past horror and a warning against future calamities of the sort.
Americans have no such experience in our collective consciousness. For us, Godzilla is a giant monster. He might evoke memories of 9/11 or other natural disasters but Godzilla will never have the same meaning for America as he does for Japan. This dissonance with the metaphor I believe in part explains our (America's) trouble in bringing that creature to life effectively in the American versions of his films. But King Kong, on the other hand, represents several uniquely American phenomena. For one, Kong is the physical manifestation of the object of colonization. In the film an American filmmaker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), travels to far-flung places all over the world to capture scenes of wild adventure and the untamed natural world. Kong is uncovered on Skull Island, where he is worshipped and offered sacrifices in the form of young maidens to appease his violence and leave their society alone. What happens next, when the islanders kidnap the beautiful Anne Darrow to offer as a special prize to Kong, is that the westerners must exert violence to overcome the monstrous beast and free Darrow. But they don't stop at freeing Darrow. Denham, ever the opportunist, decides that they must bring Kong home to America and exploit him for the entertainment of the masses.
Besides the metaphor of colonization, the discovery of Kong is also a representation of the "civilized" Western world impinging upon the natural world or indigenous cultures. The Americans’ arrival on Skull Island and their disruption of the indigenous culture's ceremonies and way of life (however barbaric it is) is a glimpse of how the Western world seeks to enact their ways upon cultures that are foreign and destroy them. Denham and the others just waltz right into the native settlement and act like they own the place in complete disregard for their way of life. Now in no way I am supporting human sacrifice, but there is blatant disrespect that is demonstrated by the behavior of the Americans in these sequences.
Beyond these motifs, another quite harrowing metaphor that seemed unavoidable for me to contemplate was Kong as a manifestation of racism. It has been often said that racists sometimes refer to members of other races that are deemed inferior as savages, subhuman, or even apelike. In this way it seems that Kong may represent these ideas. Further, another racist ideology is the fear that some whites have of members of other races "taking their" white women. Kong's interactions with Darrow are blatantly sexual. When he steals her away he places his giant fingers all over her and even begins to casually disrobe her tattered clothes in a manner that was strikingly explicit for the time period. I couldn't help but think that these moments, and much of the second half of the film in which Kong is nearly single-mindedly focused on keeping Darrow all to himself, were overtly sexual in nature, playing upon the fears of people who no doubt saw this film and harbored those racist ideologies, whether consciously or unconsciously.
To expand upon these themes of racism, the other metaphor that was impossible to ignore was Kong as a representation of slavery. In a very overt way, Kong, the huge terrifying black creature that plays upon the racist fears about black men taking white women is then subdued, captured, chained, and then transported across the sea in a ship to be then displayed on a stage in front of white audiences, hearkening back to scenes in our minds' eye of slaves on an auction block, whose sole purpose is to serve new white "masters." Kong is put up for the world to see and we are meant to be entertained by him, robbing him of individuality, dignity, and respect. Again, the filmmakers play upon racist fears by depicting Kong violently breaking free of his shackles when he sees Darrow, doubling down on those fears about black men taking white women. In these ways, much like how Godzilla is intrinsically unique to Japan, King Kong can only really be a metaphor for the darkest aspects of Americanism, while simultaneously existing as a thrilling horror-adventure yarn. This is probably why the Japanese version of King Kong fails to thrill and speak to audiences metaphorically just as the America Godzilla is thematically inert.
What's difficult for me to discern is where the filmmakers fall on these issues. I haven't done much research into co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's philosophies, so I'm not sure if they are presenting this story as a warning against those racist or colonialist ideologies, or if they themselves embodied those ideologies and are presenting the story as a means of denigrating the natural world, indigenous cultures, or minority groups. Part of the confusion for me lies in how Kong is treated in the back half of the film. Without spoiling a nearly 100 year-old film, let's just say that things don't end very well for Kong and I'm not sure how we're meant to take it. I know I walked away viewing Kong's plight through the lens of tragedy, but was that the filmmakers' intent? I don't know if it totally matters, because we can view the film today as an artifact of those attitudes and observe those troubling themes at play, which appear alongside a genuinely entertaining adventure-kaiju mashup.
What was really striking are Denham's final words of dialogue that are the last words spoken in the film, which in my view refer to the film's sexual politics. Early in the film, Denham knows he has to cast a young women to appear in his planned adventure film. He doesn't really want to do this but he claims that audiences and the studios demand a "love story" to make his films more profitable. It's interesting that he doesn't want to cast a woman to make the films better, or to highlight the stories of women, but rather the presence of a woman in his movie is merely to serve a "love story," as if that is the only purpose of a woman.
So before departing from New York City for Skull Island, he wanders around the city in search of a woman. During this sequence I couldn't help but get queasy watching this man walk around like some kind of predator on the prowl. In one moment, he even eyes a group of homeless or battered women who are in line to enter some kind of a women's shelter. Having never seen this film, I instantly became worried that he was literally going to abduct one of these poor women to use in his movie. The camera lingers on him for a moment as he watches the women and then he gets another idea and walks away but that tiny detail was quite horrifying. Later, he finds Anne Darrow, who nearly collapses in his arms out of exhaustion or hunger, which also seemed to invoke a sense of his power over a helpless girl. He takes her to a cafe and feeds her and convinces her to join his expedition, telling her that he's a "stand-up guy" when she seems worried about his intentions.
This whole anti-"meet cute" sequence feels very creepy, and when she gets onboard the boat it is clear that the men are quite disturbed by her presence. There is that old myth about women on ships being harbingers of bad luck, and obviously this film was produced in an era in which women had just received the right to vote and were no doubt viewed as a lesser class of people, but the contempt that the crew members show for her is palpable, especially that of first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) who is openly misogynistic. In one incredible scene later in their journey, he tells Darrow that he loves her, to which she replies, "but you hate women." And then he replies, "I know, but you aren't women." Absolutely bonkers. And then she subsequently falls for him which of course reveals the lack of agency that her character embodies.
But the kicker is at the end of the film, as I mentioned, after Kong is (spoiler) brutally murdered atop the Empire State building by a squadron of fighter planes. Someone says that the planes killed Kong and then Denham, in the final line of the film says, "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast." This is shocking revelation into the mind Denham, and perhaps into the minds of the men of the era, that Anne Darrow is the one who is ultimately blamed for the death of Kong, not the men who captured, enslaved, abducted, transported, displayed him for the world to see, and then gunned him down with machine guns!
The line ladders up in a mytho-religious context to the story of Eve in Genesis being responsible for the “fall of man,” thereby seeding “epigenetic” misogyny into generation upon generation of men, holding them responsible for the sins of the world. This line was an absolute shocker that either reveals the absolute hubris, inherent misogyny, and hatred that this representation of mankind, Carl Denham, holds in his heart, or it is meant by the filmmakers to demonstrate those shocking attitudes as a warning to us all. Either way, it just just adds to the absolute tragedy of the film, not only for the treatment that Kong and the natives receive at the hands of the Westerners, but also for terrible attitudes and underlying hatred that the men of the era harbored against women. The fact that this script was co-written by a woman, Ruth Rose, makes me believe that these elements were her attempts to reveal the utter misogyny that I presume was highly prevalent during this time period.
Bottom line, King Kong is a fabulously textured, beautifully rendered, and thematically rich classic film that should be seen by all. It is an amazing primer for people unaccustomed to black and white films, it is a towering adventure story that still holds up, and it contains deeply layered subtextual themes that will spark conversation and debate, and challenge our modern thinking. It's only major technical drawback is the relatively poor, or at best, stilted, acting from the entire cast, its depiction of native cultures, which could be deemed overly simplistic at best (if not outright racist), and as I mentioned, its misogyny, even if means to highlight the primitive attitudes of the era, doesn't hold up very well for modern audiences. Despite these challenging elements, I totally recommend!