Taking a giant monkey to New York is up there with showering at a remote motel and visiting a Transylvanian castle on the list of things which established movie wisdom tells us not to do. It’s strange to think of a time, then, in cinema’s infancy, when there seemed nothing risky about taking a giant monkey to New York at all.
This is the classic tale of man vs nature as a film crew, led by the ambitious film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to a mysterious island in search of footage.
In a sense this is a film about film. Denham’s desire for a spectacle is what sends him to such a dangerous location, a pursuit that ultimately ends in destruction. Here is the contradiction at the heart of Kong: it criticises the unending pursuit of spectacle while creating a film based almost completely on the desire to see spectacle.
Similarly Denham, during his search for a woman to be in his film, says that “the public must have a pretty face to look at” before hiring/abducting the inexperienced Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Wray is a terrible actor, who seems to be there primarily so the audience has a pretty face to look at as she lurches haplessly from disaster to disaster. For most of the film all she’s required to do is scream, and even this sounds like a bad Olive Oil impression. Yet when she talks it’s even worse. As Denham points out, the public just needs a pretty face.
It’s not clear whether these self referential aspects are intended, but it plays very much like an early version of Wes Craven’s Scream. Denham’s belief that audiences require outlandish spectacle and attractive women seems reflective of his low opinion of the cinema-going public, even though this is exactly what Kong provides. Are the film’s writers subtly berating their audience? Perhaps. Or maybe, like Craven, they’re slightly embarrassed to be making a piece of over the top popcorn entertainment, so put in a knowing wink to make themselves feel better.
In terms of spectacle, however, it’s very hard to argue with, as from about half an hour in it’s essentially non stop action which still looks impressive now. It’s easy to see how it would have been terrifying on its original release.
It’s dated in its sexual politics and the presentation of the natives, although not compared to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, where the natives were made into weird zombie people in a way that was actually more offensive. Admittedly the sexism is more overt here, as the ship’s crew openly bemoan the presence of a woman on board, but the notion of Kong, who has been immune to the charms of island’s natives, taking a liking to a pretty blond American girl is equally offensive in both incarnations.
In many ways this film feels hokey and old, but as the classic monster attack film it really can’t be beaten.
King Kong is on iPlayer until 22 September.