Elbert Ventura on King Kong

Time is notoriously unkind to the cinema of attractions. What to one generation is unprecedented and spectacular seems to the next an artifact of primitive times, the remains of a vanished innocence. Unlike the hoary conventions of narrative, which are satisfying precisely because they are immutable, the Hollywood blockbuster is doomed to forever top itself—the threshold for suspending our disbelief only goes up. Of course, the condescending chuckles at the gullibility of past audiences may one day be directed at us. Will the computer-generated Gollum draw derisive laughs from jaded crowds? Will the Wachowskis’ bullet-time ballets look amusingly quaint?

The poignancy of the fleeting nature of wonder suffuses any first-time viewing of King Kong today. Made in 1933 and built on a reputation that has in the intervening years grown bigger than Kong himself, the movie is poised between antiquity and immortality—it is of its time, and yet it is timeless. For all of the fascination it can still summon in the first-time viewer, there is no escaping that the astonishment that greeted the monster on its first appearance is all but impossible to muster. At best, we can put ourselves in the shoes of the opening-night crowds at Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy and conjure up their shock and awe. But in the end, that’s still little more than assuming a pose of childlike wonder that time has robbed us of.

In that sense, the question “Does King Kong still ‘work?'” is almost unfair. The genuine horror that coursed through audiences back in the day simply isn’t there for contemporary viewers. A New York Times review after its premiere noted that the picture “was received by many a giggle to cover up fright”; those giggles may still be heard today, but they’re responding to a horror that has warped into camp. No one who watches the movie now would shriek or gasp at the first sight of Kong—we’re too inured to more convincing beasts. Shrunken to TV dimensions, the movie’s visceral impact is diminished even further. A triumph of money and technology at the time—Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion effects were state-of-the-art—King Kong elicits admiration more than fear from fresh viewers. It may invoke our innocence, but it can’t play on it, not anymore.

But if King Kong these days doesn’t quite “work” as the spectacle it was intended as, it nonetheless justifies its deathlessness. In its own insidious way, the movie exerts an oneiric pull, as hypnotic as the sight of Skull Island from the deck of the fogbound Venture. There is in the distance that opens while watching it—between us and the movie, between 2005 and 1933—the secret of its enduring power. If Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s creation shook viewers so deeply, it’s because a keen awareness of their audience underlay their spectacle. We may no longer scream, but King Kong is just as entrancing today as it was at the time of its creation. More than a compendium of social anxieties or a symbol of psychosexual hang-ups, the movie persists as a testament to our timeless appetite for destruction—and our continuing ambivalence about cinema’s power to render it.

The nature of this symposium begs the question: How does one escape King Kongg? The answer is you can’t. As a child, I, for some reason, simply knew of King Kong without having seen any of the movies. He is engraved in the world’s pop culture lexicon, absorbed via osmosis by each new generation. Considering how much he pervades our cultural consciousness, it’s surprising to hear that so many have never seen the original King Kong. That familiarity is perhaps why it had taken me this long to finally see it: Who needs to see the movie when it feels like you already know the creature by heart?

The plot is wonderfully preposterous. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires a ship for a journey into uncharted waters. On the eve of his trip, he cruises the streets of Manhattan to find his leading lady and stumbles upon Ann Darrow (the exquisitely shrill Fay Wray). After weeks at sea, the ship finally closes in on the unmapped destination: Skull Island. The director and his crew disembark and find a tribe that worships a god named Kong, who lives behind a gigantic wall. Fended off by the tribe, the crew returns to the ship, only to be followed later on by the natives, who kidnap Ann as an offering to Kong.

From there, the movie becomes the special-effects extravaganza we were promised. The ship’s crew, led by Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, who ironically enough was working as a doorman when he was discovered by Cooper), enter the walled realm and encounter a fantastic prehistoric world of giant snakes, pterodactyls, and, of course, King Kong. Jack manages to rescue Ann, but is followed by Kong out to the shore. There, the crew use gas bombs to knock the ape unconscious, and bring him back to New York as their showcase. What happens from there has become a trope of monster movies since: Kong escapes from captivity, ravages the city, and is finally felled by man.

One of the most studied movies ever made, King Kong has inspired an army of exegetes poking into its secrets and mysteries. In the decades since its release, reams of criticism have been written about King Kong—to the chagrin of its makers, who have always insisted on framing the movie as a simple entertainment. But you can’t blame critics and scholars. The movie not only invites innumerable readings but can sustain them as well.

Psychosexual interpretations of the movie are the most obvious but also the most compelling. In the version available to us today, which restores cuts that were made in 1933, Kong’s possession of Ann is blatantly sexualized. In a jaw-dropping scene, Kong, left alone with Ann in his lair, strips Ann and sniffs his fingers after rubbing her. Beyond mere molestation, however, looms the graver threat of jungle fever. Portraying big black Kong as a rapacious animal that needs to be locked up, the movie gives the game away in another scene: the tribe’s offer of six of their native women for the “golden” Ann, thus marking her as a bigger catch for their insatiable god. (Harry Geduld and Ronald Gottesman put the movie succinctly as “a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to ravish white women.”) Later in New York, Kong repossesses the escaped damsel by reaching into a hotel window and snatching her from a bed. The movie ends with Kong atop the Empire State Building, standing astride the skyscraper in cinema’s most explicit phallic image—until 30 years later, when another Kong (not a King, but a Major) straddles a missile to bring Dr. Strangelove to its orgasmic apocalypse.

Confronting its premise head-on is essential to understanding King Kong’s bottomless relevance. Throughout King Kong, Denham keeps reminding us of the showman’s obligation to his audience—and of what we demand from him. When he seeks out his leading lady, it’s not because she’s a crucial part of the story, but because “the public—bless ‘em—must have a pretty face to look at.” Anticipating Werner Herzog, Denham’s filmmaker-adventurer actually resembles Cooper, who had shot films in Ethiopia, Thailand, and other far-flung spots in the years before King Kong. That a filmmaker, rather than an archaeologist or explorer, discovers the monster is crucial; it suggests an undercurrent of anxiety over the power of movies. Seeking controlled carnage and contained spectacle, we nonetheless keep urging the cinema to push boundaries and test our limits. That Simpsons parody of the THX pre-movie trailer comes to mind: the state-of-the-art sonic blast withers the theater crowd, cracks teeth, and explodes a head. The audience, of course, cheers wildly at the end of it.

King Kong both critiques and fulfills that hunger for cinema as a visceral experience. Its denouement literalizes our wish, rooted equally in excitement and dread, for movies to break through the fourth wall and rattle our bones. The irony is that King Kong ends up being a movie about a movie…that never gets made. Cooper and Schoedsack give us action and deaths galore (many of which were excised from the original); Denham likewise pushes cinema’s capacity for spectacle to the hilt—and foregoes the form altogether. Setting out to give the audience the thrills it wants, he brings the beast back to civilization for a live presentation. As the audience at Radio City Music Hall streams in, an usher tells a patron, “It’s not a moving picture, ma’am”—a quip that can double as a hyperbolic tagline for the spectacle we’re watching. When Kong shakes free of his shackles and steps down from the stage, it not only supplies the movie’s memorable climax but also gives it one of its most potent metaphors.

Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong reminds us that the hubris of showmen and the Hollywood marriage of money and technology are susceptible to the ravages of time. Look beyond the ancient effects and hammy acting, however, and you’ll find reflected on the movie the familiar gaze of innocent eyes. Even in his youth, the moviegoer wanted what he wants now. And even in its youth, the movies were able to give it to him. King Kong tapped into that dynamic of demand and desire; it understood that it was cinema’s fate to apply the same shocks over and over, but next time bigger, better. Will Peter Jackson’s remake be a tribute to that vision, or a fulfillment of its prophecy? Then again, maybe those two come down to the same thing.