The 1933 film King Kong is a classic example of an Imperial Gothic Horror story, albeit with a more modern twist than the Imperial Gothic tales of the Victorian era. Powerful, rich white men from a country that has become both wealthy and far reaching travel to one of the few remote corners of the earth, where they find something primitive and powerful unlike anything they’ve ever seen before – something with a great potential for killing humans. They subjugate it and bring it back to the civilized world, where it runs rampant before it is killed by brand new technology and modern thought. The evil of the old world is vanquished by the marvels of civilization, and “civilized” society is reminded to never trifle with the evils of the past ever again. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In many respects, King Kong is a simple story. Most of the characters, at least in the original, are incredibly flat. Anne Darrow is just some willowy voiced actress who screams a lot and wants a big strong man. Jack Driscoll is a manly man who wants to have the sexings with Anne Darrow and fights monsters to save her. The other characters are… there. The natives of Skull Island are gross stereotypes. It’s not complex.
…until you get to the antagonists of the piece. Carl Denham and King Kong are both pretty great characters. Denham’s adventure seeking and borderline obsessive desire to make spectacular films is incredibly compelling, and you find yourself loving him even though he’s responsible for all the problems in the movie. He’s still kind of one note as far as character goes, but it’s an interesting note. Kong, the monster of the movie, is by far the most developed character. He’s an intelligent creature on an island of vicious brutes, seemingly the last of his kind. In many ways he’s a vicious brute as well, murdering dinosaur after dinosaur in pursuit of his goals. Yet there is a tenderness to Kong – a desire for kindred amongst his captive Anne Darrow, and a protective, nurturing instinct as well.
…also a bit of a creepy vibe in the scene where he peels off her clothes, but it’s only in one obscure cut of the movie so we can just pretend that ill-conceived moment never happened.
That adds up to a pretty simple story in the end, but it’s one that resonates with a lot of people regardless. The list of film makers, special effects artists, and other story tellers who were inspired by this movie is absolutely staggering. It has a massive effect on people despite its faults, and I think that’s fascinating.
I think it’s owed to two factors: 1, the special effects. Willis O’Brien’s stop motion for this movie is beautiful to watch, even if it is “dated” by today’s standards. He put a spectacle on the screen the likes of which had never been seen, and all our big special effects heavy blockbusters since owe it for that. 2, Kong himself. I think the big surprise in King Kong is the fact that you grow to love the ape. People don’t expect to feel so bad when he falls off that damn tower, and yet they do. Maybe it’s because he’s the only character that has dimension, maybe it’s the special effects wizardry that made him, or maybe it’s just that instinctual outrage over the fact that this beautiful creature was so needlessly exploited and killed. He’s a very tragic figure, and that has a big effect on us.