An Overview of Three Giant Ape Masterpieces

Since the original in 1933, there have been two remakes of King Kong. So I’ve devised a breakdown for which Kong is your Kong. At the very basis of the story, all three films have a staple plotline in play. A giant ape lives off of tribal sacrifices of women in a jungle-ridden island until a crew joined by a beautiful woman captures him and brings him to New York City. There he meets his untimely death due to his insatiable obsession with the leading lady.

The outlier King Kong is from 1976 so that’s why I’d like to first delve into this version. This film trades the Hollywood film team for a petroleum company. Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) gathers a crew to go to an uncharted island for oil prospects when Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges – The Big Lebowski) sneaks on the boat with a map of Skull Island and suspects a great monster resides there.  On the way, they find Dwan (Jessica Lange), a gorgeous shipwreck survivor.

This leading lady has the trademark look of a beautiful blonde bimbo, but has much more spunk and charisma than the other Kong crushes. This being the age of Foxy Brown (the 1974 film), Dwan uses her sexuality to get her way. She’s overly friendly with the crew amidst her budding romance with “the dude”, and flirtatiously cons them into letting her explore Skull Island with them. Once she is captured and discovered by Kong, we see an entirely different damsel in distress than Fay Wray. She treats Kong as if he’s a big brute by throwing a tantrum and hitting him in the face as he picks her up. Dwan is unafraid of Kong and treats him with the same man-eating antics as she would the rest of the crew.

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Image: Jessica Lange 1976 King Kong – Paramount Pictures

This film is set in a time post-segregation. It features the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State building. The oil crisis puts American Capitalism in a negative light, but paints Jeff Bridges as an activist and Jessica Lange as a women’s rights aficionado. For this, I can appreciate the plot changes so the new audience could relate. However, the best features of this film are the special effects by Carlo Rambaldi.

Apart from the train wreck scene, and the helicopter technology, Kong himself was incredibly well-constructed. Rick Baker wore four different monkey suits with special under suits of silicone to depict muscle structure and contacts to look more ape-like. The animatronic limbs in his suits were extended past his arms and had to be controlled offset. Seven different masks were constructed to express varying emotions on Kong’s face. Yet the most impressive (and expensive) elements of the film were the animatronic arms and 40-foot Kong. The 1,060-lb. giant hydraulic arms were scaled to Jessica Lange’s body with hands measuring 6 feet long. Then the mechanical Kong had to be scaled to match those arms and topped out at 40 feet tall. It consisted of a 3.5-ton aluminum frame, covered in rubber and 1,012 lbs. of Argentinian horsetails. None of the horses in Argentina had tails for quite some time!This made 1976 Kong the largest mechanical animal ever created and cost 1.7 million dollars. Amen.

With all that effort put into the monkey and Jessica Lange’s performance, 1976 Kong gets a fresh edge on 1933 Kong. Their relationship evolved from one-sided lust vs. fear to a two-sided appreciation. When Kong is put on spectacle with a crown and chains hooked up to a gas pump mockingly called, “escape-proof cage certified by the NYC government” he detaches his chains like a human. His death forces empathy from the audience unlike the original. Producer Dino De Laurentiis said in an interview with Time Magazine, “No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap.” What he delivers is a modern and political star-crossed romance.

Next I decided to watch the original King Kong. At this time there was a lot of social unrest and racial tension. Just 15 years after WWI and right in the depths of the Great Depression, Merian C. Cooper and Earnest B. Schoedsack brought a terrifying depiction of a monster to the screen. However, its symbolism reads as racist entertainment for the white masses. This Kong is savage and the most primitive of all three films.

In this version, the film crew goes on a voyage for an exotic location shoot directed by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). His leading lady is poor Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who he found on the streets of New York. While at sea, Ann falls in love with first mate Jack Driscoll and he is the one who rescues her from Kong once she is sacrificed by the native tribe.  The film is pre-code so it had the leniency to show both gruesome and sexual subject matter. For this reason, it saved RKO from bankruptcy, grossed $90,000 opening weekend and was released a few times with deleted scenes. Some money was saved by reusing set pieces such as the jungle set for the Most Dangerous Game, village huts from Birds of Paradise, and the great wall from Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (later used in Gone With the Wind).

Willis H. O’Brien oversaw special effects in this film, which were drastically different than the others. Many scenes were animation sets utilizing stop motion. Although the movie poster stated Kong was “50 feet tall,” in actuality two small models made out of metal mesh, rubber, foam and rabbit hair were used on tiny sets. This version of Kong had wild fur that moved from shot to shot because of crew members rearranging him on the set during filming which is actually my favorite aspect of this King Kong. O’Brien also constructed a big Kong head that three guys sat inside of to operate facial expressions and a giant foot for stomping!

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Image: Fay Wray King Kong 1933 – Warner Bros

The black-and-white film was really innovative for RKO. The scenes with Fay Wray and the T-Rex marked the first use of rear-projection. When she is shown in Kong’s hand, she is raised ten feet in the air with a crane attached to the hand. The more she struggled, the looser the grip was on her body. It was probably a good thing she relied more on screaming than acting. #screamqueen

Unfortunately, the relationship between this Kong and Ann Darrow is by far the most upsetting depiction. The preoccupation with whiteness is constantly apparent from the Asian comic relief crewmember to Fay Wray’s shear clothing and pale features. Kong is taken from his native country and brought to America in chains reflecting the slave trade. The scene where he de-robes Ann, tickles her, and sniffs his fingers is entirely too rape-y for my taste and pretty offensive in its context considering the inferred black male parallel. King Kong premiered on the heels of the Scottsboro case where nine black males reportedly raped two white females. Depictions of blacks as monkey-like characters predated the film as well as the KKK’s idea of preserving white culture.

All of these problems with the original went into consideration for King Kong (2005) but it further complicates an already iffy plot. Director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) creates a three-hour remake at twice its length and three times the budget making it the most expensive film until Spider-Man 3 (2007). It received best achievement awards in sound mixing, and sound editing, although composer James Newton Howard only had two months to record the entire score, and also in visual effects. This Kong has 2,400 special effects shots surpassing Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Episode III. To me, everything is kind of shoddy CGI and not as mechanically interesting as the other films.

Although a lot of homage was paid to the 1933 Kong, the plot for this film differs in a few ways.

The opening of the film relays great nostalgia to 1933 New York City and it  really takes its time developing characters. Jack Black makes for a hilariously erratic Carl Denham wanting to stop at nothing for his next big picture. Denham even kidnaps Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who in this version is a playwright instead of the first mate. Unfortunately there are a lot of unneeded characters such as the poaching captain and the male movie star, Bruce Baxter. Leading this large cast is Naomi Watts who depicts Ann Darrow in a very different style than Fay Wray. Watt’s Ann is very Art Deco and empowered. She is a vaudeville star, down on her luck, but refuses to stoop to stripteases for money. Nevertheless I don’t entirely buy her character nor do I accept a majority of the others.

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Image: King Kong 2005 – Universal pictures

The natives that the crew meets upon their arrival to Skull Island are racially ambiguous which one would think is to counteract the criticism that met the two previous films’ black natives. However, these natives are cannibals and immediately spear a man to death! Although the shaman witch doctor of the tribe is a woman (as opposed to the male chiefs in the other films) she has very little screen time as the natives never show up again over the course of the film. Once Ann is taken by the natives and captured by Kong, the next hour and a half is spent watching the crew run into a billion rubbery CGI monsters and Ann developing an unhealthy fascination with Kong. This Kong is by far the meanest and most scary (as well as most accurate) but Ann decides, “maybe he’ll like a vaudeville act” during which he pushes her around nearly shoving her off a cliff. Her bravery/stupidity leads her to watch a sunset on Kong’s mountaintop home, and promptly fall asleep in his hand.

Further complicating the scenario is the moment when Kong is on stage in New York City Ann chooses him over Jack. As if it wasn’t long enough, Jackson adds a scene of Ann and Kong playing on an ice skating rink in Central Park, forcing the film to air on the side of bestiality. Black’s Denham seems to be a psychotic cultural imperialist and the performers on stage during the Kong show are the same black tribesman from 1933…smh.

On the other hand, this lusty Kong could be considered a depiction of an uncomplicated biracial relationship. Ann’s character entertains him and doesn’t fear for her life. The audiences’ gaze watches the great monkey through Ann’s eyes and by now they know gorillas are an endangered species therefore they more readily empathize.

In conclusion, when choosing to watch King Kong, you have to decide what film making aspects you’re going for and which political issues suit you best. 1933 Kong is a monster, 1976 Kong is a man in a highly technical monkey suit and 2005 Kong was a sentimental CGI pushover. 1933 Fay Wray was a B-list actor catching her Kong-sized break playing the Ann Darrow of Hollywood: bimbo bombshell. Jessica Lange’s Dwan is the depiction of female sexuality and empowerment. Naomi Watts’s Ann brings a level of tolerance to the story that keeps things interesting no matter the risqué subject matter. At that I bid you, to each his own. Albeit the outcome is the same across the board, these three King Kong movies prove historiography really claims the heart of a film.