Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review: King Kong (1933)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, King Kong, Island Natives

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World."
-Carl Denham

In the 1930s, the public eye was captured by a wild, untamed beast, savage in depiction and unruly in nature. He lived on an island full of dinosaurs – the Island Lost in Time – and he was hunted by brave souls risking their lives for the sake of romance and fame. You simply can’t get any more classic then this film, people. King Kong is it, man. The very definition of a classic film. King Kong has that old style adventurous spark that you just don’t see any more.

It’s sad. To think movies like this were once the norm and then just kind of died out is tragic, as it really is a great formula. This was a movie from a very different time period, where everyone wanted to explore the unknown and find out what every dark crevasse in the Earth had to offer – and often, they were scared of such things. Fear of the unknown never stopped them from exploring it in fiction – which is really the best medicine for fear. King Kong is based on the idea that there was an island where dinosaurs still existed and where a giant ape reigned as an idol and cast fear over natives that wore loincloths and war paint. It is idealistic and fantastical like many films from the time were. It’s an escapist piece, but it brings the danger close enough to home to make the audience gasp, to make the ladies clutch their husbands’ arms a little tighter and to make everyone edge a little closer to the screen, hands clenched, brow getting hot.

It’s this kind of formula that never gets old. You put a woman in danger and the men will come and save her. These days you get a lot of feministic ramblings that tell you that women shouldn’t be objectified or viewed as helpless or weak at all, but I don’t really agree. Just because a woman is put into a dangerous situation from which a man has to save her doesn’t mean anything about women in general. Men can be put into those situations, too. It’s not about the gender of the person being put in danger; it’s just about the danger bit. We like to see people put in danger, only to be rescued by someone who loves them, in the nick of time. And being a guy…well, I can relate to just about EVERY OTHER GUY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD when I say it’s easy for a guy to put himself in the shoes of the hero swinging on that vine to save the chick from imminent doom. But it could easily be a girl saving a guy and probably wouldn’t lose much in translation. But I digress, anyway.

King Kong is also just so black-and-white morally. Kong saves Ann from the clutches of those bad old dinosaurs, but he is never really given much humanity aside from the few brief glimpses here and there, rare occasions when you do get a spark of intelligence behind his monstrous visage. He’s more of a sad, misshapen aberration; you feel for him in the way you feel for a dog that’s about to be put down. In the end he’s an animal, a show piece for Mr. Carl Denham, who really, really needed that last push to stardom. I mean…he really needed it, you guys. And there isn’t much of a dilemma about it. Kong isn’t humanized enough for us to see him as anything more than a captured animal. Which puts the focus more on Ann and Jack, who are almost ready to put the past behind them and get married until Kong strikes again, the bastard. There you go – unless you’re some kind of PETA associate, Kong won’t be the emotional core of this picture for you.

Have I mentioned how much I like Jack Driscoll? He’s a man’s man; an old school sailor who embodies every old clich√© and makes them all absolutely wonderful. He’s initially pretty demeaning towards women, but then, he’s really just trying to cover up his soft spot for pretty Ann. Everything he says is delivered with his chin jutted a little bit out and a suave layer of confidence in his voice. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to be sitting on his porch 30 years later talking about how things just ain’t the same, bitter because everything’s so much easier than it was in his day. And I always like guys like that. They have good work ethic. They know what it’s like to bust your ass every day and soldier through the hard times, and that’s why Jack Driscoll rules. Plus, the guy went through a jungle and battled DINOSAURS to save the girl he loved. That’s hardcore.

Carl Denham is a man who I wouldn’t trust with my children. He’s got a twinkle in his eye like he can come up with a plan at any time, and when that one fails, he’s got another one. I don’t think he really saw any of this – the bloody, savage natives, the prehistoric creatures that by all logical means shouldn’t exist anymore, the giant mutant ape that takes young women as sacrifices – for what it was. He just saw dollar signs and gold bricks in their place. When his first plan to make a movie failed, he turned right around and found a different way to make money. He won’t take no for an answer, and that’s how you get famous. Although I doubt Denham was very popular anymore after Kong ravaged the entire city and put countless lives in danger. But that’s a different can of worms. Denham has personality, with the added italics to boot. He can convince you to do all the crazy stuff he wants, because he’s charming, well mannered, manly and doesn’t seem insane at all. And that’s downright horrifying when you consider the events that transpire in this film.

This movie rules. The scenes in the middle with the group sailing through the lake on the island with dinosaurs all around them prove it. It’s pure adventure and old-school, classic excellence. One of the films everyone needs to see before they die. Five giant man-slaughtering apes out of five.