King Kong Review
King Kong – the Eighth Wonder of the World. And now in high-definition!
Sorry, folks. We're going to cover some ground with this one … so stick with me if you can.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this classic fantasy adventure from 1933. Whilst I am obviously an ardent and devoted fan of the groundbreaking film, so my enduring adoration for it is a “given”, King Kong is also unquestionably the most influential motion picture of this, or any genre, ever made. Fritz Lang's Metropolis comes a close second, probably scooping the top slot for SF, and James Whale's endlessly fascinating Frankenstein takes the premier position for Horror. But Kong broached many fields of cinematic endeavour in one mighty sweep of a hairy paw and instigated the medium of profound and dedicated visual effects creation, placing it on a pedestal above even these hallowed trend-setters. And that's not all. The leviathan production from real-life to reel-life adventurers Merian C. Cooper and Ernerst B. Schoedsack, who both shared the directing duties and helped create the initial story, was also the landmark feature to successfully conjoin image and soundtrack into one cohesive and specifically designed whole. The lists of “firsts” that King Kong achieved is beaten only by the list of its influences upon cinema and popular culture ever since.
You've already seen that I have awarded the film the maximum score of 10 out of 10 … but in this case, arguments against being null and void, even 10 out of 10 is not doing this incredible, iconic and utterly indelible movie justice.
When writers and critics talk about films such as this, and Kong possibly more than most, they will invariably discuss the impact that seeing them for the first time has had upon them and their lives. In some cases this becomes tired and clichéd and, ordinarily, I wouldn't seek to bore anyone with my own memories of that mind-blowing first viewing. But, to be honest with you, without King Kong, my mother's lap and a very rainy day outside, you would never have read a single review of my mine on this or any other site. I may not have gone on to pursue a career making movies (yet!) but because of Kong, and the bomb-blast shock-wave of unbridled imagination, excitement, fear and terror that it created in my tender young mind (of four) from that television broadcast, I have devoted my entire life to the love of movies, the study of them and, of course, the ceaseless writing about them. It also inculcated within me a profound and staggeringly addictive affair with movie-music, as well. And something else that played a huge part in this hopelessly incurable condition was the viewing of the awesome Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On at right around the same time as I saw King Kong. Both were epic, dynamic and tremendously memorable, both would catapult me out of the real world and into one of make-believe so completely that I'm convinced I have ever made the full return trip – and nor would I ever want to. And both had scores by Max Steiner – and this is hugely important. We'll talk much more about Steiner's gold-bullion contributions later.
“The natives keep that wall in repair. They need it. There's something on the other side … something they fear.”
Ace-war-time flyer and decorated hero, Merian C. Cooper was the stocky and stalwart adventurer who pioneered close-quarter filming of real-life predators, uncharted territories and potentially hostile aborigines. When he met a similar master of such exploits in Ernest B. Schoedsack, a quiet giant of a man, the two hit it off immediately and, together, they fixated upon creating unrivalled spectacles – stories that would serve their love of the exotic, the dangerous and the mysterious, thrill-rides the like of which had never been seen before. An expedition to a haunted foreign shore that would place intrepid Western explorers at the mercy of a time-forgotten world of continuous fear and savage death, and bring them face to face with the mightiest beast that the nature could conceive. When structure and form was required to carry this tale – which was, on the face of it, just a jolly celebration of all the derring-do that the two had been enjoying for most of their lives – they turned to James A. Creelman (after the original conceiver and creator of the story, Edgar Wallace, died of pneumonia early in the pre-production stage) and Ruth Rose, who would go on to marry Schoedsack after exactly the type of voyage-bonding love affair that the characters played by stars Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot would enjoy during down-time from the savagery of Kong. The resulting story would be fascinating, inspired, primal, darkly humorous, controversial and incredibly forward-thinking. This was a tale that would have modern man, with all of his machines, his know-how and his cunning pitted against the remorseless ferocity of nature. It would depict the shameful exploitation of a fragile ecology and the wilful desecration of a way of life. It would cleverly embrace the technological advances that civilisation had made by throwing biplanes at the figure of primitive bestiality atop a shrine to man-made excess that the ancients, themselves, could only marvel at. It would not be afraid of revealing the innate greed and stupidity of a bullying breed (or nation) in the face of, and at the expense of a backward society and a creature, falsely demonised and persecuted. Cooper and Schoedsack snuck a vitriolic allegation onto cinema screens without anyone even realising it. The film was almost a confessional for the two of them, and it is this crucial fact that gives King Kong such a resonance even today. We love the film, but what I find amazing is that we have always loved it for the same reasons. We look at Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On, for example, and our understanding of the conflict, itself, that sends Custer to his doom has been seriously tempered, not to mention utterly undermined by what history has taught us about the whole debacle. Likewise many classic movies when viewed today force us to ignore certain issues that they were able to endorse or even celebrate back in their appropriate era or, at least, to sideline them for entertainment purposes. King Kong doesn't do that at all. Its voice, its policies and its internal engine remain exactly the same. It is the complete evocation of romantic adventure.
Not even the portrayal of the natives living in the shadow of the great wall, although many critics like to poke fun at this aspect of fuzzy-wuzzy hair-do's, coconut bras, bongo-drums and bones through noses. Folks, this isn't derogatory. You can't argue when the tribal chieftain is played by none other the great B-movie stalwart Noble Johnson (who had also appeared in the team's own The Most Dangerous Game as a very menacing mute Russian henchman), an African-American actor who proudly pushed back the boundaries of Hollywood's attitude to casting ethnic minorities and frequently played characters from all races and creeds. These people are depicted as justifiably terrified and fully in the thrall of their own religion. I can think of real cultures and ideologies prevalent today – or the perversions of them – that would be a million times more comical if they weren't so damn dangerous, and filmmakers are still struggling with how they should be depicted so as not to cause offence.
This said, though, even politically Kong appeared to be a hot potato. During the Depression era he was seen as the black man, lost amid the technology of the white infrastructure and lashing out at it by destroying New York and climbing atop the Empire State Building. This, of course, is utterly ludicrous. But during the race riots that sparked up in Alabama at the same time as the film's release, the KKK were quick to use Kong as a metaphor for the ills of racial integration in recently-elected Roosevelt's pre-WWII America. And you can only imagine how they viewed a white woman getting snatched away by him! Yet the makers of the film had no such agenda. But people choose to see what they want to see, and despite its phenomenal success right from day one, and ever since, Kong has been used as a weapon by the most unlikely, and most undeserving of causes.
“Look higher … still higher … Now you see it! It's horrible but you can't look away. You're helpless. If you could only scream – but your throat's paralysed. Cover your eyes and scream, Ann … scream for your life!”
You want screaming, pal? Well, you've picked the finest in the business with this girl.
But King Kong was also a prime metaphor for hope and opportunism, as well as a social allegory of the dire circumstances that had befallen the United States in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. It looked at personal venture and right-wing expansionism but was prudent enough not to actually endorse such methods. In fact, it made a cruel point to show how disastrous such things could be – for Kong, for the people of Skull Island, but also for a clearly doomed Carl Denham and an emotionally damaged Ann Darrow. But in the spirit of high adventure, cavalier derring-do and romance-against-the-odds, King Kong represented a way out to the hungry, the dishevelled and the unemployed. All of which was embodied by the captivating Fay Wray's good time-gal fallen on hard times. Well, perhaps not dishevelled. Even when the delightful Wray is at her most torn, exhausted and terrified, hefted high into the crook of a primordial tree to avoid the carnivorous advances of a rogue dinosaur, or dragged through the jungle at a merciless sprint after a truly ghastly ordeal, she is nothing short of achingly beautiful. But King Kong showed that adversity could be met and that New York, of all places, could be battered, shocked and bruised, yet still rise up and fight back. The makers didn't have terrorism on their minds, but the economic crash was an evil eating away at society, and they were going to show a far more immediate threat to the greatest metropolis on Earth (and it would endure a million more in the films that flourished on the furry shirt-tails of Kong) … and how resilient modern Americans could be in the face of it.
“It's money! It's adventure! It's fame! It's the thrill of a lifetime!”
Only months before Kong went on his rampage in theatres, Cooper and Schoedsack had released the terrific horror/thriller The Most Dangerous Game (see my review of the restored DVD), and this was enormously significant. Filmed on the same sets, using the same effects and glass-matte deep focus jungle vistas, and utilising two of the same leads and even the same composer, this streamlined and relentless pursuit story was a direct template for the look, the feel and the filming style that would be pushed to the limits with King Kong. The dynamic duo of Cooper and Schoedsack, together with Creelman, who had cobbled-up the screenplay just before tackling similar chores on Kong, used footage from this film to prove to the nervous, Depression-hit studio execs at RKO that their “Big” project was viable and would look better again. The gamble paid off, of course, but little did the RKO financiers realise that the duo were already busy filming Kong whenever the cameras stopped rolling on The Most Dangerous Game. Poor Fay Wray was barely getting any rest running through jungles from a mad hunter for ten hours on one shift, and from an amorous monkey for a dozen more on the next. Then again, considering the Pre-Hays Code flimsy, see-through garments that she wore it is hardly surprising that lusting males were chasing her. Dangerous Game is an absolute stormer – vicious, dark-hearted and disturbing, but also extremely exciting and proved to be a sure-fire method with which the filmmakers could hone and super-charge the hyper-realised vision and non-stop action that would cover Kong, wall-to-wall. Viewing them together is an incendiary and exhilarating experience indeed.
But it is King Kong to whom the world bows down.
The cast is to die for.
Fay Wray, the genre's absolute top scream-queen, is a rare delight as the down-at-heel New Yorker. She had already proved her worth as a prized tonsil-waggler in The Mystery Of The Wax Museum, the creepy 2-Strip Technicolor Doctor X and the concurrent The Most Dangerous Game, and she would again in The Vampire Bat. Curvaceous and vivaceous, Wray would be the pawn in a massive game of sexual politics in King Kong. There are those that say she is the representation of Carl Denham's impotence and frustration – these people also believe that the entire story is a fever-dream that the mogul has whilst on the voyage brought on by the presence of Ann Darrow. Thus, Kong is the psychological extension of his thwarted libido. (Egging this on is the fact that Kong's nightmarish home is called “Skull” Island, referring to the whole thing being nothing more an adventure of the id for Denham!) But it is hardly up for question that the Ape-Lord is a metaphor for male lust – personally I think he is the personification and brute-ification of all men. However, that allegation doesn't take much cerebral delving, does it? When we see the big feller inspecting his new merchandise, her skimpy attire and the interesting little bits and bobs that lurk underneath, we are all reduced to pawing throwbacks. Fay Wray's role, however, is much, much more than as a mere foil for the monster. She is the symbolic representation of what was perceived as Western purity and innocence thrust into the badlands of a volatile and primitive world, and, as such, folks … she is as guilty as sin.
Robert Armstrong, who played a hapless drunk to Wray's energetic heroine in The Most Dangerous Game, is barnstorming as the obsessive movie-maker Carl Denham. When told that no studio will supply him with a female lead for his picture, the great but virtually uninsurable Denham simply goes out on to the streets of a cold Manhattan, with only a handful of hours left before the ship has to sail, to find one. Which, naturally, he does. Denham is an odd character, though, and much more three dimensional than most from the era. He is single-minded and driven, and he will put lives at risk, but he comes way short of true Captain Ahab zeal. He isn't cold-hearted, although he is a ruthless chancer. But he is an egocentric with fixed goals from which he will not be dissuaded. Armstrong delivers a performance that is years ahead of its time, more akin to the type of believable bravado that we would see in the fifties. He doesn't sneer and preen, doesn't berate and patronise. Denham even manages to be philosophical and fatalistic - “Oh no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” You compare this to another explorer of a sort in Hammer's Prof. Bernard Quatermass, who thinks nothing of making the same bloody-minded mistakes all over again after his manned rockets bring back with a monster in The Quatermass Xperiment! Denham looks into the eyes of the beast and he sees himself and his own destruction. Kong is Carl Denham's destiny. The biggest game of all – the biggest prize and the biggest risk. Even if common sense had come to him back on Skull Island, he would have been unable to avert his and the ape's fate. But it is telling how his early boast about his cameraman fleeing in panic before a charging tiger, whilst he was standing there with a rifle all the time has led to him trusting nobody else but himself to get the shots. He, like everybody else who enters the interior of Skull Island, will be compelled to forget such once staunch self-confidence, although his braggadocio will return when the gas bombs do their thing. Armstrong wonderfully conveys the grim and selfish humanity behind his braggart's mask.
“We've got those gas bombs … if we could capture him alive ...”
“Why, you're crazy! Besides, he's on a cliff where an army couldn't even get at him.”
“Yeah, if he stays there. But we've got something he wants ...”
If Denham was Cooper's alter-ego, then Jack Driscoll was Schoedsack's. Tall and muscular, the First Mate of the Venture has voyaged with Denham twice before and knows the score. Initially brusque and discourteous towards Ann, we can still see the cracks in his man's-man façade after they have crossed a few leagues together. As Denham himself remarks about him, “The Beast was a tough guy, too, but when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellows got him.” Portentously, he has just given away the whole theme of the film. Little does he know that he is not actually referring to Jack
Wray wasn't overly fond of Bruce Cabot, who played Driscoll, his womanising ways got on her nerves. But the two share a strange chemistry that refuses to bow down to the claustrophobic, gag-inducing woozy-smoochies of tradition. In part, this is because the narrative simply doesn't allow them to – their first proper clinch is pretty much cut short by Ann's kidnapping, and that big gorilla keeps getting in the way from then onwards – but it is also because their dynamic is like one of those far-flung and heady romances forged in the heat of a desperate situation. It doesn't matter how much hugging they do when it's all over, or how many sweet nothings they whisper – you know that their relationship is doomed. They have nothing in common until big hairy fate gets involved, and then once Kong is dead, they will have nothing in common once more besides ghastly memories. John Guillermin's '76 remake, penned by Lorenzo Semple Jnr., actually makes this point perfectly clear and very valid. Come the tragic finale, as Dwan (Jessica Lange) is surrounded and besieged by reporters beside the crumpled body of Kong, the revamped eco-warrior version of Jack (here named Prescott and played by Jeff Bridges) cannot go to her side. In fact, the final shot makes it clear that too much death has come of their affair and that Jack has decided that they do not belong together. Even in the '33 version this somewhat thrown-together bond smacks of inevitable meltdown. Cabot strikes a very abrupt, almost schizophrenic style that I quite like, for all of its era-laden jargon – his Thirties’ insistence on blurting “Say,” this or “Say,” that – and his impulsive Buster Crabbe recklessness. One second he is brusque to the point of almost Nazi-like rudeness, and the very next he is merrily joshing with crew as they put the boats out. This flitting-about from one extreme to the other actually serves his character really well. Jack is a man of action, but he has the air of someone who doesn’t always think things through or rather, as events in this film dictate, has his hand is forced by having Ann there in the first place, leading him to take ever increasing risks. Therefore we have a hero is not fully in control of himself … and that is always more exciting. Look at how he reacts when Denham coaxes Ann into that rehearsal scream for the camera out on deck - “What's he think she's really gonna see?” he exclaims ominously to Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) in a glorious moment of early tension.
And Reicher's dependable Captain of the Venture is another fine component that helps gel the cast of characters together. Ostensibly just a peripheral player, and dropped just as soon as the film shifts back to New York, he is a strong presence that we feel reassured by. Engelhorn has heard the rumours about the legend of Kong, but is pragmatic about the credence of superstition. He may be wary of an island that really shouldn't exist, and of a lost tribe that lives at the foot of a colossal wall, but he will approach them and attempt to negotiate anyway. Plus he is pretty switched-on when it comes to the tactics of a defensive fall-back. Reicher is a good actor and even turned his hand to directing – and this authority comes across because even if Denham is running the trip, Engelhorn is certainly running the ship.
When his epic stop-motion cavalcade, Creation (which was exactly the sort of thing that Amicus would release with Doug McClure forty-odd years later in The Land That Time Forgot) was shelved never to be released, special effects wunderkind Willis O' Brien, yet another true pioneer that the film can lay credit to establishing in the genre's hall of fame, was able to sign-on to Kong's production (number 601 at RKO) and realise an absolute dream come true. Alongside master-sculptor Marcel Delgado, his work on crafting and animating the multitude of creatures for Skull Island, as well as the film's title star and his ferocious exploits, is now the stuff of text-book study and undying adoration. RKO head, David O. Selznick recommended that the Academy bestow him and his eight-man crew a Special Award, but they refused as the category of special effects was just not recognised – and it wouldn't be until 1940. Kong is an incredible vision realised with might, majesty and that all-essential mystique. Okay, so his size fluctuates to suit his environment, and his face changes in different scenes, and it obviously bears little resemblance to the big animatronic puppet head that leers lecherously down at Ann and chomps on several natives in close-up, but there is such emotion written across this visage and so many varied expressions that we have absolutely no difficulty in believing this fantastical creature to be alive and breathing … and real. And all of this is enlarged and detailed with the miraculous litany of specialised vocals created by RKO sound engineer Murray Spivack, Kong's voice a combination of lion and tiger, rolled together and reversed at various speeds to a soul-trembling degree.
“Don't be alarmed … those chains are made of chrome-steel.”
Oh, thank God for that. For a second there I thought that angry fifty-foot gorilla was going to break free!
Skull Island’s wildlife is superbly thrust into the limelight, even if Obie (as O ‘Brien was known) and Delgado aren’t exactly conforming to known palaeontology. Stegosaurs and Brontosaurs are re-shaped and, in the case of the latter, given an incredibly mean disposition. Well, okay, the jury is actually officially “out” on the precise genus of some of these critters. Cooper seems to assert that the Bronto (an apatosaurus) has a taste for meat, and the big Tyrannosaur is, in fact, an Allosaurous – but can there really be any question about Kong fighting a T-Rex? The King of Skull Island would battle the King of the dinosaurs, wouldn’t he? And he'd win every time. The lofty heights are circled by swarms of Pteranodons, but Cooper gives them the power of full flight, as opposed their more authentic gliding skills. Just like in Peter Jackson's deadly lost world, Kong's day is filled with danger and threat, although the original ape seems better able to take it all in his stride … until Ann and her pesky friends show up to wreck the harmony. Playing with the T-Rex's shattered jaw, inspecting a stabbed finger, his choking agony as he fights the snake-like lizard, his own fear and confusion as he stomps around New York, the concrete jungle now dwarfing him - Kong is invested with more personality than a hundred modern-day actors could ever hope to capture. Andy Serkis may have nailed it for his Kong, but then he had Obie's foundation to use as a template.
Squashing natives into the sludge and having a nibble on others, Obie, Cooper and Schoedsack showed no qualms about Kong’s potential for anti-social behaviour. Moreover, the enraged ape actually seemed to take some pleasure in some of his more callous acts of literal scenery-chewing. He doesn’t even eat his struggling little victims – he just puts them in his teeth and gnaws on them a bit, leaving them still alive and shrieking in agony until he hurls them to the deck. And when it comes to shrieking the record for the longest and most harrowing must surely go to the poor sailor who thinks that climbing up a tree will save him from the angry bronto! Man, the scream goes through me when he hits that long sustained high note! The film is wonderful at shifting the emphasis from might to plight, though. Not only do we have the heavily armed sailors charging through the jungle, felling their first dinosaur with relative ease, and then being reduced to running scared and helpless from everything else that they encounter, but Kong, too, is ultimately rendered unconscious by gas bombs even on his home turf, and then finally defeated by what, to him, are little more than annoying hornets with a hell of a sting in their tail. Both factions, both evolutionary offshoots if you like, therefore, have turns at being victorious and being vanquished. Carl Denham's fateful line about the “little fellows” getting you in the end has an even more poetic gravity than the more famous fairytale epitaph about Beauty and the Beast as here, again, the exquisite screenplay from Creelman and Rose sits a sad and contemporary reality beside a quote of fanciful whimsy. The film is, thus, broad escapism if that is what you want, or it could be bitter allegory.
The notorious “log scene” is one of those epically haunting moments that ripples through the fabric of Cinema. Even if we have been spared the full super-shock value of the scene - that grim fate awaiting the “unlucky” survivors down below in the abyss – the blood-paralysing image of an enraged Kong shaking, twisting, rolling the stricken men from their precarious and revolving perch is the stuff of madness. Both remakes did this well. In Guillermin's the back-projection and the rubber log don't convince, but I love the darkness of the set, the theatricality of it all, and the great low-angle of the men's sudden sighting of Kong. Jackson went all the way and beyond with his take, actually hurling us down into the slimy, sickening hell beneath with the poor sailors. But it is still Cooper and Schoedsack who deliver the best, most frightening and sheer breath-snatching set-piece of them all. The men's frantic attempts to keep hold and their grimaces of exhausted terror are truly unsettling. The Venture was crewed with salty old thugs and some obvious mercenaries … and just one trip to Skull Island has reduced them all to quivering wrecks.
The balance of power see-saws throughout the movie, like a boxing match. Humans are insignificant and pathetic in one act, resourceful and courageous in the next.
Another controversial sequence was the “Kong about town” scene when we see him picking up “other women” in New York – a very clever pun, that – and flinging them aside once he discovers that they aren’t up to snuff. Check out that vertigo-inducing back-spin that one unlucky lady performs – crazily audacious stuff that was only made more convincing when Alan Rickman took a plunge down the side of the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. This Manhattan trickery is only weakened by the moment when Kong's huge face comes peering in through Ann’s apartment window. Whilst the huge paw that casually swats Driscoll to the floor is agreeably accomplished, the face at the window does, these days, look quite comical. However, it is worth pointing out that this very image of the unwitting damsel being spied upon was to become quite a mainstay of the genre – reaching something of a nadir when the mutated Tarantula in the film of the same name (1955, from Jack Arnold) accomplished a totally ridiculous (and never-ending) zoom-in to the window of Mara Corday, that made a mockery of the laws of physics even beyond the extraordinary growth of the deranged arachnid. The derailing of the overhead train is a classic scene and one that strikes a fabulously random note of threat for all commuters. Whether it is a suicide bomber, an oncoming train, an obstruction on the tracks, or, well, a bloody big gorilla, the sense of minding one’s own business and just wanting to get home for tea and then all hell breaking loose when you are least prepared to deal with it, is marvellously realised. Again, the violence of the situation is not diluted and we see bodies tumbling down upon one unfortunate woman trapped in the corner of the doomed carriage. A great little sight is of the stop-motion fugitives scrambling down from the upended wreck and scurrying off into the night.
Almost every frame has such wonderful little asides crammed into it.
So just marvel at the smaller elements that have gone into some of these shots, such as the brooding and mysterious volcanic lair that Kong calls home. In one shot, we have an intricate cave, with bubbling lava in the foreground, Kong and captive shuffling around the inner lake, a stop-motion Jack creeping stealthily through the entrance in the background of the plate, and then something swimming across the dark pool, as Kong comes around the foreground and places Ann high upon a rocky ridge. The swimmer then reveals itself to be the serpentine elasmosaurus that then slinks up the wall towards her – the tableau, like those fabulous jungles bristling all around Skull Mountain, as evocative and magical as anything by Gustave Dore, whose deep-rendered paintings were the inspiration for the texture and the lighting. Although the little stop-motion people are fairly obvious – as is Kong, if we’re going to be picky – they are wonderfully detailed and animated. I love the movement when Jack climbs over the ledge into the cave for instance, the articulation is utterly sublime. Shots of the falling sailors hitting the deck are both comical and horrific simply because the puppets are so credibly jointed and weighted.
“Look at the size of that thing! He must be as big as a house!”
Another clever thing about the screenplay is that the hero doesn’t save the girl. Well, not in the conventional sense. Usually, the tough guy gets to face-off against the villain … which in this case, admittedly, is a difficult task. But at least Creelman and Rose don’t have Driscoll climbing aboard a biplane, himself, and firing the killing shots into Kong, as many thriller-chillers over the ensuing decades would have done. Ohhh no. Not with Cooper and Schoedsack around. No, these two intrepid filmmakers secure that job for themselves. Although contrary to myth, they don’t actually fly the plane – which Cooper, who sits in the pilot’s seat, could certainly have done, they blaze gunfire from a studio-set mock-up, but their seal is still well and truly put on the deal as the rag-doll Kong bounces his way ignobly down the side of the Empire State Building and into the burnished clouds of legend.
Concerned fans should please note that whilst this is a newly remastered edition, no-one has gone back in and digitally altered the native extra's wig from coming off. And the aviators still shoot first!
Now let's turn our attention to that other pivotal player in the saga of bringing the 8th Wonder of the World to the screen, and his incredible contribution to this classic. Austrian-born composer Max Steiner had arrived in America with no more than $32 to his name, but this was the man who would almost single-handedly transform the medium of the cinematic experience forever by creating the modern movie score as we know and love it today. His phenomenal score for King Kong is, universally, regarded as being the father of filmic leit-motif, individual character-based themes, and music that has been specifically created for the film in question rather than lifted from library and classic stock just because it might loosely fit the mood of the scene. Cruelly dubbed “mickey-mousing” by egg-on-face detractors at the time, this style of marrying-up the projected image with music that actually followed it, scene-by-scene, mood-by-mood and often, in the case of Steiner and never more so than with Kong, beat-for-beat. Firsly, a couple of rumours to flatten regarding how he approached this landmark project. When Cooper was informed by RKO that nothing new or special should be composed for the picture, because that would cost even more money, he curtly told Steiner that he should press on, regardless, and that he would finance whatever costs were incurred. The myth has it that Steiner then composed the score off in two weeks with a massive orchestra of over eighty players. Nonsense. Steiner's initial ideas were actually swiftly nixed by Cooper, who hated them. The composer then struggled to find the appropriate sense of wonder, fury and beauty that would, of course, go on to become legendary. And to this end, he has to think outside of the box, and to be hugely experimental, innovative and adaptable. No orchestra of over eighty, then. Steiner had to make do with forty-six players, and sometimes even less, and this meant that many of his ensemble would have to literally double-up – violinists dropping their instruments to pick up the viola, or to run quietly over to use the celeste – or even, in the case of the woodwind players, to quadruple-up on instruments! The frenzied chaos that this must have caused in the recording studio must surely have aided the eventual atmosphere evoked and the out-and-out vigour of the performances. How else could such grandstanding power and instinctive awe as well as such terror and musical ferocity have been achieved?
Another myth is that Steiner composed an overture for the film. Now this disc even carries a terrific and nostalgia-laced overture before the film begins. Well, truth be told, Steiner never created one. And when the film first opened in Grauman's Chinese Theatre and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, it was actually heralded by a huge and lushly crafted and choreographed ritual dance spectacular called “Jungle Rhythms”, complete with African male choir in full tribal costume. The “overture” that many claim is authentic is actually just a series of cues on acetate that have been professionally edited into a short suite. There is nothing ostensibly wrong with such a creation, but this is the sort of thing that promulgates myth and falsehoods about a film whose true story of creation already pushes the boundaries of convention.
Steiner's score, itself, is a true milestone, even away from its historical importance to the field at large.
Remarkably for such a long score, practically wall-to-wall (certainly it is once we have arrived in the vicinity of Skull Island), there is very little peace or tranquillity to it. Yet, before we discuss the energy and bombast that Steiner so brilliantly composed, it is worth mentioning that of the three contemplative cues – all of which occur very early on, before Ann has even met Kong – two are tinged with deliciously ominous undertones, whilst the other, the ostensible love theme, can actually be reworked into the more thunderous cues. Steiner has an incredible time with this music, though. The main theme for Kong is a crashing three-note statement that will reverberate throughout the rest of the score. His Jungle Dance cue is simply fantastic. As Denham, Driscoll and co creep towards the pre-sacrifice ritual celebrations, just listen to how he builds up that crazy percussive beat. It's foot-stomping, hip-gyrating stuff … and then, in one of the best sudden fanfares that I have ever heard, he brings the track to a massive crescendo of drums, brass, xylophone and cymbals before then plunging us into the heart of the most dynamic and bold passage of the piece. On-screen, men in ape costumes dance around a sacrificial maiden and beat their chests in time to Steiner's tribal cadence. It is is wildly delirious and so infectious and evocative that when James Newton Howard composed for Peter Jackson's remake, he made sure to incorporate it into the stage show scene before the captured Kong is revealed. (Incidentally, have a gander at the onscreen conductor – that's the film's original composer Howard Shore in a cameo.)
Listen to how he matches each step that Noble Johnson's Chief takes as he advances slowly and cautiously towards the strangers – such an amusingly effective trick. His musical treatment of Ann's sacrifice and Kong's entrance is insane and heart-stopping; his furious symphonic stampedes that butt up against one another for almost all of the rest of the film simply electrifying and so downright demented that you feel as though you are racing alongside those screaming sailors. This is the type of intricate and physical performance that has an orchestra stand up afterwards, breathless and elated, to applaud the conductor and the composer in return for bestowing them such a thrilling workout. Steiner composed for The Most Dangerous Game just before Kong, the filmmakers cheekily assessing his abilities with that production. He would go on to score Son Of Kong, The Charge Of The Light Brigade, She, Gone With The Wind, They Died With Their Boots On, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madras, The Searchers and Casablanca amongst a great many others. He would, of course, go on to refine the very qualities that he brought so intuitively to King Kong, with “Boots” being, for my money, one of his most dazzlingly complex and hauntingly beautiful.
“And now I want to introduce Miss Ann Darrow, the bravest girl I have ever known!”
One area where I have never been quite as accommodating as everybody else is in the genuine empathy with Kong. By this I mean that, even as that tiny child snuggled-up on my mum's lap, I didn't cry for the King of Skull Island. In fact, even watching the film several decades later – and my love for it has only grown over time – I find it hard to believe that we are really supposed to. Of course Kong has personality and of course he is sympathetic … to a degree. But he is also a beast of fury and death, a vengeful, wrathful master of destruction and carnage. We are clearly meant to fear him more than love him. You only have to look at Fay Wray's Ann Darrow all the way through to see that she doesn't feel any of the strange emotions that Kong goes through. She is always in absolute terror of him and just itching to get away. In both the 70's remake and Peter Jackson's elaborate, excessive but incredibly rich and vivid homage, the leading ladies have come to not only respect the ape, but to form a genuinely moving attachment to him. Of course it is love that they feel for him ... of a sort anyway. And this is where John Guillermin's remake with Jessica Lange plays a blinder. God, I can weep like a baby at that one. This was where real emotion was brought into play, to the detriment of the action and the thrills, it should be stated. Jackson would realise the error of this imbalance and strive to embrace the two now-vital components, creating his marathon love-letter to a film that changed his life and shaped his entire career and in a blitzkrieg package that would contain adrenaline-pounding action with heart-rending pain and pathos. His version, too, is a real tear-jerker. Cooper, Schoedsack and O' Brien were just as forward-thinking and emotional in their day, it is merely that their unique brand of sensationalism felt no need to overpower the events with sentiment or saccharine. Theirs was a streamlined rollercoaster that was shorn of all that wasn't deemed absolutely essential to telling the story.
And to this end we lost the infamous Spider Pit Sequence.
Now I'll talk more about this, and how it was originally conceived and filmed, and how it was eventually mistreated and lost in the wake of the film's release in the Extras review, where we look at how Peter Jackson and his Weta crew recreated the sequence with lookalike sailors (actually his own visual FX team) and stop-motion spiders, octopoids and lizards based on the original concept designs by Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe and the eerie surviving stills from the scene. But although censorship has often been blamed for its loss, it was actually Cooper, himself, who removed the footage because he believed it slowed the momentum down! Watching the set-piece now, you can see that something is missing, but the hell-for-leather pace doesn't give you a chance to complain.
“He's always been king of his world .. but we'll teach him fear!”
A screaming child plucked from beneath Kong's trampling feet just in time, whilst its protectors are flattened by flung debris. A Manhattan train mimicking the sinuous body of the serpent in the cave. Theatre-patrons complaining about the regressive show they are about to see - “Not a motion picture?!!” they exclaim in abject disdain. A perilous mountain descent via vine leading to a stomach-flipping drop that narrowly misses the rocks below. A final climb to a date with destiny, and a sanctuary that can never be. King Kong mixes dark irony into every scene.
The same creative team would try to recreate the magic once again with a bonafide sequel that rampaged with similar technical veracity less than a year later with The Son Of Kong, in which Robert Armstrong's Carl Denham would suffer a massive crisis of conscience over what he had done to the giant ape (as well as a huge financial backlash - “Everyone in New York is suing me!”) and, together with She's Helen Mack (replacing Fay Wray as this role was much less of a damsel-in-distress, although Wray's scream would be re-used), as well as Reicher's Captain Englehorn and Charley, the Chinese cook, again played by Victor Wong, and even Noble Johnson's Native Chief would travel back to Skull Island to seek out some fabled treasure that lies beyond the great wall. With the much smaller and considerably more sympathetic (and strangely albino-furred) Kong Jnr meeting another self-sacrificial end, this time trying to save Denham and co. from a crumbling temple-ruin that is slipping beneath the encroaching flood-waters, it seems that the movie-mogul adventurer just can't do any right for doing wrong. The film was a success, but nowhere near the level of its predecessor and, today, not many people even seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. And yet it is actually very fine entertainment, stuffed with the same tremendous sets, miniatures, mattes and stop-motion mayhem as the original. And then Mighty Joe Young would make a very similar entrance and exit for Willis O' Brien, Cooper and Schoedsack in 1949. Although it remains immensely popular, I find myself horribly distanced from this cloying and contrived production – the intelligence-enlarging of the simian star dumbing down the plot and the rest of the players no end, and the sense of awe and wonder massively reduced. It was as though each successive big ape picture that came out forgot that these guys were actually monsters as well. The same fate struck The Creature From The Black Lagoon in his sequels – he ceased to be frightening. The UK had the hokey Konga (sounds like some mutant dance hybrid – the Hokey-Konga!), with Michael Gough, and Japan just went off its trolley with no end of gigantic monsters on the warpath, headed-up by Godzilla, of course, but you'll find that Kong put in a couple of appearances too. You just can't keep this guy down, can you?
King Kong is talked about by the same critical high-brow analysts who regularly throw out pieces, articles and thesis on the likes of Birth Of A Nation, Metropolis, Gone With The Wind (incidentally, after a kibbutz on the set of She, the great wall of Skull Island would even cameo in the Civil War classic, redressed in the background as Atlanta burns), Citizen Kane, Spartacus and Lawrence Of Arabia. The curious thing is that whilst there are people who would admit to disliking some, or even all of these other revelatory films, there can't be anybody who doesn't have a fondness and a fascination for King Kong. Remarkably, like you'd find with Star Wars, you could venture out into the wilderness and encounter some reclusive people and they would know exactly what you were on about if you mentioned the film to them, even if they hadn't seen it. Kong is part of the cultural lexicon. His name traverses borders and race and is synonymous with primal rage and noble, brute defiance. And the film symbolises adventure, foolhardiness and excitement … and the purest, most primal machismo you could ever hope to bear witness to.
It is essentially an entity that took on a life of its own the moment it was unveiled to captivated audiences back in those dark, soulless days of 1933. All the power of the movies – and that is considerable indeed – was unleashed and, without risk of sounding hyperbolic, the world has never been the same since.
Kong is King.
Long Live The King!
I still wish that he swatted at least one other plane, though.