Tuesday, 13 October 2015

"King Kong" (1933) - a review.

Fig 1.
1933’s seminal monster blockbuster “King Kong” directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with special effects by Willis O'Brien, tells the tale of man looks for woman, woman travels with man to spooky island, woman get’s offered as a sacrifice to a giant ape, ape gets emotionally invested in woman, ape dies. Along the way there lies an abundance of - at the time - groundbreaking special effects and some rather questionable racial stereotyping, as well as some mild “of the time” sexism that creeps into proceedings. Reportedly based on “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle, the film replaces about as much as it needs to in order to avoid costly royalty payments.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is how atypical "King Kong" is to expectations held for a cheap popcorn flick. The creature, Kong, doesn’t follow the trend set for monsters up to this point. Kong is by no means a Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney. He’s an animal, and the notion of anything supernatural is quickly laid at the wayside in the first few moments of seeing him. This is because we are not supposed to fear Kong “..not as a monster of destruction, but as a creature that in its own way wants to do the right thing. (Ebert, 2002)  Kong is real, flesh and blood, something which transpires somewhere between the art direction of the film itself, the script and the previous experience of directors Cooper and Schoedsack, who “ ...made some of the earliest film documentaries in the history of motion pictures. The jungle settings, animal anatomy, story characters, and animal behavior in King Kong were created from the directors’ lived experiences on safari”. (Pullins, 2003) This portrayal and visual empathy is particularly echoed in 1954’s “Gojira”, wherein the viewer can at once be terrified and feel empathy towards an animal.
Fig 2. 

In terms of techniques used to fuse the fantastic with the benign, O’brien “drew on “real” nature for King Kong. O’Brien’s Kong is still lauded as one of the most spectacular stop-action creatures in film history. The animal’s motion, its extraordinarily wide range of expression and emotion, and its fearsome interactions with other splendidly rendered creatures stunned audiences in 1933.” (Keesey, 2003) paired with effects “...that eclipsed anything that went before. The movie plunders every trick in the book to create its illusions, using live action, back projection, stop-motion animation, miniatures, models, matte paintings and sleight-of-hand...” (Ebert, 2002) It could be argued that the effects O’brien employed are now defunct with the advent of computer animated imagery, on the contrary, techniques like Matte painting, forced perspective, bigatures et cetera are still widely used in more contemporary offerings. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” (2001-03) trilogy being one of note. The way in which the effects were layered is a sensibility that is still used to this day, in fact the word "composite" is used here in describing the layering process - All that was photographed … was the girl’s white figure perched among the branches. The background was a solid black velvet curtain. Then it was the job of the composite technicians to strip in the action of the fight – which, incidentally had been shot in miniature more than eight months previously.” (Grant, 1933) O’brien - simply, and reductively put - composited effects physically rather than on a computer which adds to the rawness of "King Kong", Ebert echoes this - "When Kong battles the large flesh-eating dinosaur in his first big battle scene, there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer." (Ebert, 2002)

O’brien is perhaps eclipsed by Ray Harryhausen in terms of recollection, and arguably success - ironic in that his work inspired Harryhausen and a slew of others to venture into the visual arts. But let it not be forgotten,  King Kong cements itself as the “go to” reference for visual effects, but more than that, itself being a marvellous exercise in bringing a sense of empathy to an otherwise unrelatable character through the use of animation and inventive ways of creating scale, depth and heightened emotion within a production.   

Fig 3.

Ebert, Roger. 'King Kong Movie Review & Film Summary (1933) | Roger Ebert'. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-king-kong-1933. N.p., 2002. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Grant, Jack. 'Movie Classic (Mar-Jul 1933)'. http://archive.org/stream/movieclassic04moti#page/n217/mode/2up. N.p., 1933. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Keesey, Pam. 'King Kong (1933) | The Making Of King Kong: A Natural Horror Adventure |'. http://www.monsterzine.com/200301/kingkong.php. N.p., 2003. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.


Figure 1. King Kong poster (1933) [Poster] At: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/King_Kong_1933_French_poster.jpg (Accessed on 13.10.2015)

Figure 2. Kong grinning (1933) [Still] At: http://davidallencomposer.com/sites/default/files/king-kong-cheesy-grin.jpg (Accessed on 13.10.2015)

Figure 3. Kong Vs. Planes (1933) [Still] At: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1932678/images/o-KING-KONG-PETER-JACKSON-facebook.jpg (Accessed on 13.10.2015)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joseph,
    Sorry... this seems to have slipped through the net last week :)

    Nicely written review, with plenty of contextualisation. You perhaps need a few more 'introductions' when bringing in other names - when you talk about Harryhausen, for example. Always assume that your reader knows nothing about the topic....so, who was this 'Harryhausen'?

    Just a minor point...make sure that your font is consistent throughout; you have a few different sizes going on in here, probably for the most part where you have copied and pasted.

    Looking forward to reading more!