There are very few works of cinema that stand up to repeated viewings and decades of changing film mores and audience expectations. Most notable among these is the classic King Kong. While the special effects that really came to symbolize the film look a bit ragged and prehistoric today, they carry an emotional weight that remains unequaled by modern CGI trickery and model work. You can spout off all you like about the wonders of The‘ Gollum but for all his slimy verisimilitude the guy still looks 2-D. There is, of course, a reason for that: He is. Kong wasn’t.
Everyone knows King Kong but few people can actually recount the plot of the film he starred in. Perhaps that is because in the ensuing years since the film’s release, the plot has become so tried and true, almost hoary, that it no longer registers on the cultural radar. It is simply archetypal.
A filmmaker played by Robert Armstrong recruits a young lady (Fay Wray) off the streets of New York to become the lead in his next film, a documentary of sorts shot on a mysterious island that is home to one enormous ape. If you don’t know what happens next you are either a) someone who’s lived in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York for the past 70 years or b) a product of a seriously underwhelming childhood.
While King Kong is not hailed as a classic of narrative film, it was the one picture that made way, carved the path, for all modern day blockbusters. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they owe everything to this cheeky monster-on-the-loose picture. But saying this is only highlighting part of Kong‘s success. What really makes King Kong a film that will be revered for as long as there is cinema and people to huddle in the darkness to watch it, is Willis O’Brien’s special stop-motion effects.
Most Gen X’ers are familiar with Ray Harryhausen, the master who created some of fantasies most endearing and alluring stop-motion creatures. But it was O’Brien who showed Harryhausen everything he knows. O’Brien imbued this big, shabby ape with a pathos that almost leaps from the screen. When Kong falls to his death at the end of the picture (I assume I’m not spoiling anything here) we, the audience, are dumbstruck with emotion. At that moment we could care less about Wray, who spends most of the film in Kong’s clutches, it’s the ape we cry for. Over the course of the film, we grow to love that ape. His earnest expressions, his grunts, his jerky motions and wild hair – Kong is the hero of the picture. He is more human than human. Our history is filled with stories and parables about human-animal relationships. The animal is either posited as other or as brother. But King Kong was the first film to really show us the animal as a combination of both – Kong is at once utterly foreign and at the same time comfortably familiar.
That old ape.