KING KONG: celebrating 80 years of movie inspiration and wonder

Eighty years later, KING KONG remains the Eighth Wonder of the WorldKING KONG (1933) was my gateway film into loving movies and living in my imagination. It has shaped my life and career ever since I first saw it on television at approximately age six, which is more than a few years ago by now. While I was growing up on a steady diet of Disney animated films at the time and enjoyed them immensely — THE JUNGLE BOOK being an early favorite — KONG was the first movie that I wanted to get into and explore, it captivated my imagination so strongly.

I can only compare the experience to my first visit of Disneyland around the same time in 1968, arriving in a theme park that actually allowed me to sail with Caribbean pirates and cruise down the exotic, primeval jungle rivers of the world. Yet KONG existed in a world I couldn’t explore first hand because I understood it didn’t exist . . . as much as I dearly wanted it to be real.

Looking back, I see how I ‘fell into’ KONG so readily: I already was fascinated with dinosaurs and had amassed a sizable collection of small plastic dino figures who battled amid plastic caves and off-scale palm trees in my imaginary prehistoric realms. Suddenly another world existed next to my daily life, tucked away behind a fog back in the South Pacific, and just perhaps one could actually sail off to see it. The mystery and legend setting up Kong’s first appearance in the film was a grand adventure, but as Denham’s team left the Venture to explore the verdant vistas of Skull Island and encountered that stegosaurus in the jungle, I was hooked immediately.

The mighty ape battles a Tyrannosaurus Rex on Skull Island in KING KONG (1933).Willis O’Brien’s brilliant stop-motion animation of this plate-backed creature well-known to me via its plastic counterpart from my toy box seemed to bring these ancient, extinct animals to life before my eyes. The mist-shrouded jungle depths, visions ripped so gloriously from the style of Gustave Doré illustrations, cast their dreamlike spell upon me, luring me deeper into this fantastic world. As Kong rushed into a forest clearing to battle the Tyrannosaurus Rex, I became a monster kid for life. I coiled up to help throw every punch Kong landed on the T Rex’s scaly jaw. We were already a team.

What I never expected while staring wide-eyed at this war of ferocious titans was that very soon I would be lamenting this ape king’s tragic plight as he once again battled for his survival atop the Empire State Building. I felt sympathy for the monster. We were both the only child who always felt a little alone, who sought love in the world where we didn’t understand all the rules. The more we saw of the world beyond our home front boundaries, the scarier it got. A creature that minutes before took my breath away soon brought a tear to my eye as his tragic destiny unfurled before him and I had no way to save him.

The mighty ape's final and tragic stand atop the Empire State Building in KING KONG.Watching KING KONG again this week, I realized how brutal Kong’s final battle is designed and how expertly O’Brien managed to capture Kong’s emotions of fury, vengeance and finally despair. As Kong makes his final stand atop the Empire’s metallic peak, safely tucking Ann away out of danger, Max Steiner’s music drops away as if prefiguring Kong’s eventual fall to the New York streets far below. All we hear for the next few minutes are Kong’s defiant roars and the relentless whining drones of the biplanes attacking the giant ape. It’s no mistake that nearly every shot of these swooping biplanes show the ships racing straight at the camera, machine guns blazing a deadly hail of bullets: we are Kong now, under endless attack without any meaningful defense. This battle high over the concrete jungles and steel canyons of Manhattan is so tragically lopsided in its scope, so infuriatingly unfair in its tactics that one cannot help but identify with the underdog Kong, twitching to swat away the planes and shield him from the hailing bullets surrounding him. But Kong must die and in our broken hearts we realize this dramatic mandate.  Our hearts sink as Kong tumbles lifelessly off the skyscraper, a minute rag doll falling from his primeval grace against the towering backdrop of human industry and arrogant rule over our share of this world.

KING KONG’s tragic finality is its fairy tale brilliance, the wrong that we devoted viewers can never right on the mighty ape’s behalf. We watch the film again and again, quietly hoping Kong may finally prevail at last. Yet we know that we resurrect him on the screen only to doom him to certain death once more. Only in our imaginations can Kong win and this is perhaps the film’s greatest driving force as such an enduring inspiration to writers, filmmakers, artists and technicians eight decades after its release and counting. We return to Skull Island to relive the joy and thrills, despair and tragedy we felt when KONG first entered our lives, hearts and minds.

March 2nd marked the 80th anniversary of KING KONG’s theatrical release in 1933, a landmark achievement in cinema and fantasy storytelling that continues to amaze and inspire today. Cooper and Schoedsack’s wondrous take on Beauty and the Beast blends horror, adventure and action in a thrilling fantasy tale that begs audiences of each new generation to join their amazing journey. KING KONG hooked me as a kid in the 1960s and he hasn’t loosened his grasp on my imagination or creative aspirations since. I’m sure I’ll love the film just the same when I turn 80 years old. I owe much of who I am and the work I enjoy doing today to KING KONG.

Ladies and gentlemen, do yourselves a favor you’ll treasure for life: look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

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