King Kong: Still real, still beautiful


I was talking to a colleague a few days ago about my favourite subject (but not hers) - the movies. She was wondering how I could like a film like King Kong, the 1933 classic directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with special effects by the great Willis O Brien. It seemed incredulous to her how I could accept the special effects, how I could ignore their datedness and, although she didn't use this word I think she would agree, naffness.

It is her contention that a film from the 1930s, made with thirties technology, could never be as good as a film made today. This is not an isolated opinion, there are many people out there who refuse to watch anything in Black & White seeing monochrome as outdated, as old and no longer relevant. I have spoken to some people who believe that any film made before they were born should be automatically condemned to the dustbin of history.

Of course, I accused her of being a philistine who didn't know what she was talking about, but I know it was an argument that I couldn't win.

Like all true cinephiles out there I can't understand this argument, I can't fathom how people can think like this. And it is very difficult to counter if, to you, it makes no sense at all; every era has it's good and bad, true, but when a film is made shouldn't be detrimental. On the contrary, that something special could be achieved so long ago, surely this is an extra dimension to enjoy.

It is a discussion that will not go away and many of us who work or live with people who do not share the same devotion to cinema as we do will have encountered it. It many respects a film like King Kong is at the forefront of this discussion, used as ammunition on both sides.

King Kong 1933
King Kong 1933

King Kong tells the story of Carl Denham, an explorer, adventurer and filmmaker loosely based on Cooper and Schoedsack, who has come across a map apparently showing the location of a mysterious island. On the Island there is rumoured to be a strange creature which Denham alludes to without going into any detail. Truth be told he doesn't know what it is or if the information can be trusted but his heart insists he should go; so, with little regard to others or to the possible consequences, he hires a ship and off he goes to make a film. The star of this film is Ann Darrow (Fay Wrey), a penniless New Yorker who is reduced to stealing to feed herself. She is beautiful, homeless and desperate, which is exactly what Denham needs.

The story of King Kong is ingrained into our culture. Everyone seems to have a general idea as to the story, help greatly by the remakes in 1976 and 2005. The beast is real, it is captured and returns to the US where it escapes. The finale on the Empire State Building, a battle between the natural world and the technological one, is legendary.

Nature vs Technology
Nature vs Technology

But here's the rub that my colleague could not get over: King Kong was made in 1933, 84 years ago. Sound was still in it's infancy, special effects were being invented with each film. O'Brien had been using the techniques, which he perfected in Kong, on a number of features including 1925's The Lost World and had used claymation since The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy in 1915. Most of the world at the time did not know what a gorilla looked like, how one would have moved or sounded like, and they were perfectly willing to accept Kong for the beast he is. How about today?

Anyone going to the cinema, watching a movie on TV or indeed a Soap Opera, has to suspend their disbelief. You know, logically, that what you see on the screen is not real. We know that the people speaking to each other are actors, that the explosion is a visual effect, that the space ship doesn't really exist, yet we accept them a real for the duration of the film or the program. Failure to do this would mean a complete inability to enjoy the show. We must empathise with the characters in order to invest in the story. Ultimately, it comes down to character. It is easy to forget this, especially as almost every actor we see today is a professional whose job is to be as real as possible. However, if an actor is bad, if a performance is lacking in any way, then this empathy is hard to generate.

King Kong and Fay Wrey
King Kong and Fay Wrey

King Kong was the very first special effects character. The very first star created from the imagination and the hands of a human creator. This success (I have the urge to say 'his' success) comes entirely from the audience's willingness to accept it as real. This is partly to do with the special effects because, just like bad actors, bad special effects have a way of distancing us from what is going on, but more so it's because Kong is a great character. It is believable, it is acceptably real and it is intensely sympathetic. When Denham delivers his famous last lines 'Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast' we completely believe it. But the end of the film our suspension of disbelief is so great that we feel pity for the beast.

This is the strength of King Kong, by the end of the film, not only are we completely believing in the character, accepting of the special effects – however dated – but we feel pity on the creature. Yes he has caused destruction and devastation to the streets of the city, killed countless of innocents, but we understand why. Kong is no longer a beast but a personality.

Should the fact that the film was made 84 years ago affect our enjoyment of the film? Of course not. Yes we have to accept that times have changed, the gorilla in the new film Kong: Skull Island looks leagues more realistic but does it have the same heart, does it affect us emotionally the same way? Neither the 1976 or the 2005 versions could, not because the special effects were lacking in any way, but because they didn't have the same soul or the feeling of the original and, because of this, we couldn't love them as much. Special Effects have nothing to do with it.

King Kong Poster
King Kong Poster

I'm not going to convince my colleague. Her mind is set and I know that if she were to watch the film she would be put off by the fact that the film is in B&W and the special effects, however special they are, are not modern. To her, this would create too much of a distance between the viewer and the film which is a pity. To suspend disbelief, to accept the unimaginable as real, if only for a hour and a half, is one of the greatest gifts we as humans have.

For me, each time I play my King Kong Blu-ray he is real. When he charges though the trees for the first time I am thrilled and each time he finally succumbs to the bullets, I shed a tear – not for a special effect but because I believe.

I believe in Kong and I believe that, in the end, it wasn't the guns it was 'beauty killed the beast.'

King Kong