An expedition exploring a remote island capture a gigantic ape and bring him back to New York for exhibition. A beautiful actress who accompanies them is menaced when the monster's love for her causes him to break out.
King Kong is a brilliantly structured adventure movie. The first 40 minutes are all set-up, as wildlife documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) sets sail for the South Seas in search of a rumoured fabulous beast, taking along apple-filching Depression waif Ann Darrow (Wray) because exhibitors have told him his movies won't make any money unless there's a love interest.
Staging a screen test for Ann, Denham dresses her as a fairytale princess ("The beauty and the beast costume") and coaches her in screaming at nothing (a skill required of all who play opposite special effects creatures). "What does he really expect her to see?" remarks a crewman.
The Venture drops anchor off Skull Island, the natives of which live in the shadow of a massive wall. In the wall are a pair of huge doors obviously designed to keep something out. Periodically they sacrifice maidens to the deity ("Kong") that lives on the other side of the fortification. The voyage to Skull Island has been fraught with expectation, as everyone speculates on the dangers or romantic possibilities of the trip. But when the natives kidnap Ann and tether her to a sacrificial altar beyond the giant doors, King Kong stops promising and starts delivering. The second hour of the film, set on two savage islands (the other is Manhattan) is non-stop action. Out of the jungle comes Kong, a giant gorilla who carries Ann off to his lair.
When Denham and Driscoll, plus a crew of disposable sailors, set out to rescue Ann, they come across a whole ecosystem of prehistoric creatures, all of which (paleontological accuracy be damned) want to eat them. The reptiles also want to eat the blonde, but Kong, who is constantly fighting off rivals, is intrigued. In a 30s' racist touch, it's taken as read he was unimpressed by the black girls sacrificed to him over the years and, in a scene censored for years but thankfully restored, peels off her clothes and sniffs his fingers. The ape may be a monster, but he's also an innocent in love. Chief technician Willis O'Brien gives Kong childlike human mannerisms: playing with the corpses of defeated enemies as if wondering where the life has gone, and chewing furiously on any passing human who doesn't meet his standards of beauty.
Carl and Jack rescue Ann and Kong is disabled with gas bombs. In a simple cut he is brought to New York and exhibited on Broadway as The Eighth Wonder Of The World. An elegantly-dressed crowd pay top dollar for the show, which ends abruptly when popping flashbulbs enrage Kong, who thinks the press are out to hurt Ann. He breaks loose, and goes on the rampage. Instead of dinosaurs, he rages against New York's mechanical beasts (a subway train, a flock of biplanes) and scales skyscrapers with Ann again in his huge paw. Atop the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world, he makes a defiant last stand as buzzing planes strafe him — the lead crew is played by producer-directors Cooper and Schoedsack.
Mortally wounded, he plunges to the street, where Denham delivers his epitaph, "It wasn't the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast." Cooper, Schoedsack and O'Brien made The Son Of Kong in 1933 and the semi-remake Mighty Joe Young in 1949; Kong (rather, a Sumo wrestler in a ratty ape suit) featured in a couple of Japanese monster movies: King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) and The Revenge of King Kong (1967). Then Dino de Laurentiis invited ridicule by remaking the original in 1976. He even turned out a laughable sequel King Kong Lives (1986), in which Kong gets a simian love interest his own size (which is severely missing the point). None of these pretenders count — King Kong is an animated miniature imbued with character by a craftsman. He is not a man in a suit, just as Godzilla is a man in a suit and not a CGI creation. When Dino killed Kong atop the World Trade Center it was, as someone said, like Cecil B. DeMille crucifying Christ on a Star Of David.
The focusing on Kong's feelings for Ann gives the spectacle backbone, making it far more satisfying than busy updates like Jurassic Park (where the effects are stars but not characters). In the finale, King Kong delivers an image of supreme surrealism (a giant gorilla atop a skyscraper, buzzed by warplanes, clutching a blonde) that may be the greatest single image contributed by the movies to popular culture.
Released: 05 December 2005
It sounds blasphemous, but the bright, picture-book colours of the digitally coloured version work for the fantasy classic, and the monochrome original is also included. Both versions feature shots of Kong chewing up his human prey, moments cut from some editions of the film.
None of the humans — not even scream queen Wray — can compete with Kong. But the film remains a perfect star vehicle. It prepares for its hero's entrance with hints of mystery, violence, eroticism and fantasy, then cuts loose with all the action, adventure and incident you could wish for.
Reviewed by Kim Newman