King Kong (1933) is a hybrid film; while often considered horror, there is much of it that seems like high adventure, with strong elements of science fiction, often coming off more like dark fantasy. Though the film is filled with now-tired clichés and some lifeless performances, the narrative and visual effectiveness keep it enthralling to this day.
The catalyst of the plot, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), is a likeable, but altogether devious figure. He aims to get exactly what he wants (in this case, a smash hit) and gets exactly that. Though he may be the textbook protagonist of the film, he is not the hero - that role is Kong’s. Kong is who we see grow and change throughout the film, starting as a mere symbol of fear, and becoming a character who we pity and respect. It is interesting to note that Denham is never punished for his pettiness, he walks away, mainly unscathed, even closing the movie with a line and a swagger. This ironic role reversal of hero and villain could be seen as merely value blindness of the day (and of filmmakers), or as self-criticism cleverly interwoven into the plot.
Willis O’Brien provides timeless stop-motion special effects, perhaps the most famous element of the film. He is the one who made Kong not just a monster, but a character. While his creatures may not be technically convincing or accurate, they still deliver: they truly are how a child might imagine a dinosaur would be like, and in this way, they tap into a place of fear and excitement that modern CGI seldom can.
There is obvious racial and sexual commentary in the film, especially in the relationship between the actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Kong. Aside from the black/white tension and rape metaphor, there is a theme of men pursuing women - first Denham searching for an actress, then the natives bargaining for Ann as a sacrifice, then Kong fighting desperately to find and keep his pet. These pursuits lead to destruction in one way or another, leading to the classic line “It was beauty killed the beast.”
One of the more curious details is the fact that the indigenous race of Skull Island are said to have built the wall (which functions as a “vortex,” or a barrier that separates reality from fiction) long ago, when they had a higher level of technological advancement. They have since devolved into the savage and superstitious tribe we see in the movie. Cornea explains that “the shock wave caused by Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book … was felt throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and many early films showed a concern with human evolution and the biological sciences” (Cornea, 2007, p. 15). This has interesting connotations for the horror element of the movie, implying that we not only fear attacks from those less evolved than us, both human and beast, but that we also fear our own devolution. Will there come a time when we forget our advancements, when we no longer know how to control the monsters of our past?
Cornea, C. (2007). Introduction: The Formation of the Genre. In Science fiction cinema between fantasy and reality (p. 15). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
This response was written for the Science Fiction Cinema college course I am currently taking. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.