We’ve got King Kong on the brain of late. We caught the new Broadway show on opening night, and several of our friends are appearing in Lisa Clair’s The Making of King Kong, opening tonight at Target Margin’s The Doxsee. And Thanksgiving was exactly a week ago, which used to be a traditional day for local stations to air the original film. We thought we’d use the occasion to publish a post I’d been contemplating for a while, comparing the three major screen versions of King Kong.
The title is a tease. As with A Star is Born, I’m not sure I have a favorite. To my mind, each version has its virtues and drawbacks and speaks to the needs of its own times. Naturally, the original version deserves a special pride of place. But honestly, I’d be more than happy to watch any of the three versions just about any time. With a story this timeless, each version becomes about the era in which it was made as much as it is about its own plot.
Two initial thoughts about King Kong. 1) For maximum effectiveness, the best fantasy tends to begin with a firm grounding in reality, allowing the illusion to sneak up and take hold of us. Producer Merian C. Cooper had one of the least typical backgrounds for a movie executive: he’d been a journalist, author, explorer, soldier, mercenary and aviator. I guess all that adds up to “adventurer”? Cooper had risked life and limb in hot spots all over the world. In the mid 1920s he teamed up with cameraman/cinematographer Ernest Shoedsack and they made the ethnographic documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), about the Bakhtiari tribe of Iran, a film which was so powerfully made it became a surprise popular hit. In their next film Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), they followed the lead of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North somewhat, by staging a drama with a real guy in a real setting — in this case a Thai farmer in the jungle, who battles and kills real predators right before our eyes. Their third film, in 1929, was a screen adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s novel The Four Feathers, about a British soldier who tries to live down a reputation for cowardice by committing acts of heroism in battle. The film-makers mixed in documentary footage with their plot, making it a natural progression from their previous two films. Yet it was also what we think of as a proper Hollywood film, starring Richard Arlen, Fay Wray and William Powell. It was also one of the very last silent films. All of this goes to explain one of the most naggingly inexplicable features at the center of the original King Kong. Have you ever pondered how weird the premise of the film is apart from the giant ape? A Hollywood film-maker (the priceless Robert Armstrong) hires a non-actor (Wray) to star in an improvised fictional film in a dangerous location? But that was Merian C. Cooper’s jam! That was literally how he operated! And presumably the audience knew that at the time, or at least that was what was assumed. Cooper’s history also explains why the crew in the film bring along only silent film equipment though it is in 1933. Yes, Armstrong directs Wray to scream, but do you see any sound equipment? All I see is a hand-cranked silent film camera and tripod! That’s all Cooper had ever brought on location!
2) The second factor to contemplate is that the film derives its dream-like power from the fact that it literally came to Cooper in a dream. This eliminates a second objection you may have to the film, if you are literal-minded: how could such a creature evolve? Well, it couldn’t in the natural world, but that’s not what this is. King Kong is a fairy tale creature, just like human giants like the one in Jack and the Beanstalk, or like dragons and unicorns. THAT’S what this is. Yet, the whole thing has this uncanny quality. It has a dream reality, or (and this is literally what the word means) a surreality. It has that quality that David Lynch, for one example, is constantly trying to capture, a quiet strangeness. An unexplained strangeness, and the lack of explanation is just as important as the strangeness itself.
As I wrote earlier, the other fairy tale aspect of King Kong is its powerful simplicity. It is so economically, matter-of-factly told, plot-point by plot-point en route to its memorable climax. And by the way, that setting was one of the film’s novelties — the Empire State Building was brand new at the time, almost a kind of science fiction element itself, as were the bi-planes that attack Kong. As was the bloody existence of RKO at all! With its logo of a radio tower blasting out a signal, the very cutting edge of futurism at that point. It’s all very Nikola Tesla! And yet another major scene happens at Radio City Music Hall, RKO’s uptown headquarters at the equally jaw-dropping Rockefeller Center! It was a time of miracles. What was the creature Kong himself but a jewel in a crown full of other miraculous jewels? More on the original King Kong and its classic era sequels here.
For me, the chief virtues of the first King Kong remake are nostalgia and camp. Produced by Dino De Laurentis, the film was directed by John Guillermin, who had most recently helmed one of my favorite movies The Towering Inferno. Obviously, skyscraper miniatures played a role in both films, surely a consideration in his selection. A major part of the nostalgia I have now has to do with the fact that in this new version, the Empire State Building has been replaced by the then-new World Trade Center, which has now become as much a part of vanished history as the dinosaurs on Skull Island. At the time, the public hadn’t yet seen much of the Twin Towers, so it was a selling point, especially when Kong jumped from one tower to the other at the exciting climax. Another updating was the replacement of bi-planes with helicopters, which hadn’t yet existed in 1933.
Another aspect that makes the film enjoyable is its cheeky tone. It was on the cutting edge of a whole wave of similar remakes of old school films and franchises, ranging from Superman to Flash Gordon. This film’s success paved the way for others. Plus — it’s the ’70s! What a great double feature it would make with the 1976 remake of A Star is Born! The clothes, the hair! And the fact that in this one, instead of a misguided film-maker, the voyage is instigated by a sinister petroleum company, led by Charles Grodin in one of his first prominent roles. This was the age of the energy crisis, and the first stirrings of environmentalism. There was no one audiences in 1976 wanted to boo and hiss more than an oil villain. The Fay Wray part went to fashion model Jessica Lange in her FIRST film role ever (making her Ann Darrow in more ways than one, although here her name is “Dwan”). Jeff Bridges, also in one of his first major roles, plays a scientist who stows away and becomes the film’s male hero (although as we all know, Dwan’s heart belongs to Kong). And a bunch of other recognizable faces in the cast: John Randolph, Rene Auberjonois, Ed Lauter. As for Kong himself, despite the hype at the time, the special effects proved NOT to be a huge advance over the original. Instead of using the crude technique of stop-motion animation, this version followed the Japanese method, putting a guy in an ape suit onto a set full of miniatures, combined with matte shots, and the occasional appearance of one very inert giant hand. But that’s all part of the campy fun. (SNL did a comedy sketch poking fun of this at the time, with John Belushi playing De Laurentis).
I attended Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong during its initial release with an open mind, and I did not hate it! As with his Lord of the Rings films, I found that Jackson has a “cold” sensibility. I didn’t find it memorable exactly, it didn’t stick to my ribs. Its main selling point, and I’m not too much of a snob to pretend it doesn’t matter, is the vastly improved special effects, thanks to CGI and other elements. I’m one of those heretics who, while charmed by the crudity of stop motion, and certainly impressed by the labor involved, find myself frustrated by its limitations. It is indeed amazing how the original animators managed to give personality and emotion to the original Kong, but that doesn’t mean that the illusion they sought to create doesn’t fall short. We rationalize it as a “style”, that’s the best we can do. It feels closer to puppetry, real world, analog puppetry, than actually making the sale that we are looking at what we are supposed to be looking at.
Jackson also added some original story touches that were memorable. He turned up the heat on the “romance”, which is ultimately pretty weird (the new Broadway musical seems to take its cue from this version in that respect). The most memorable images I retain from seeing it 13 years ago, were like, Naomi Watts and King Kong watching a sunset together, as though this were A Man and a Woman…instead of A Giant Gorilla and a Woman. The other scene that sticks out in my mind is a truly harrowing attack by giant insects on Skull Island, an elaboration on a scene that was in the original film and cut by Cooper because it disturbed audiences too much. This remake is a period piece, by the way, a proper remake — the characters all have their original names and original relationships, roughly, and it’s set in 1933. One interesting deviation is that instead of a proper heroic love interest like Bruce Cabot in the original film, and Jeff Bridges in the ’76 version, they give us Adrien Brody as a singularly ineffectual screenwriter, as unappealingly non-macho and sensitive as a guy can be, representing no competition at all for the hairy, sweaty brute Kong when it comes to capturing Ann Darrow’s heart. What’s that all about? The “instigator”role (Robert Armstrong in the original; Charles Grodin in ’76) generally has an element of comic relief. Here it is played by Jack Black, who manages to turn up the heat on that even while simultaneously playing a much more dramatic role than we are accustomed to seeing him in.
And there’s this: I’m not sure if Jackson addressed the film’s racism charges in this version or made it worse. The original film has a bunch of problematic “native” characters, played by dark Hollywood extras of every persuasion, and probably some light-colored ones in make-up. In Jackson’s they go farther in a “monstrous” direction, increasing their otherness, giving them sharply filed teeth, and cannibalistic touches, and making them seem marginally human, like, say, H. G. Wells’ Morelocks. And Kong himself is always somewhat problematic if you dive deep into it, as some have. A blonde white woman being snatched by a “beast”? It’s pretty loaded. So far, the Broadway version has dealt with this aspect best, making the heroine African American and making the identity of the natives even more abstract than Jackson’s alien inhumans. It’s about time.
Anyway, there are those that hate the 2005 film, but I don’t see any logic to that stance, at least on the grounds of modernity. It is about what you would expect from a 2005 version of the story, and it is not bungled. And if anything, I like the 187 minute running time. It’s a big story, with big set pieces, about a big ape. Why be stingy? That said, I will admit this though, I much preferred the more recent Kong on Skull Island (2017).