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Film / King Kong (1933)

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"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive—a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"

The original version of King Kong, released in 1933 and generally agreed to be not just the very first Kaiju movie of the sound era but one of the greatest American films of all time.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a filmmaker known for his exotic animal pictures shot in the wild, brings out-of-work actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) along on a hurried expedition to find an uncharted island, where he hopes to shoot his next film. Ann will provide the "love interest" angle, while an unknown entity called "Kong" will provide the excitement. The ship's crew finds the island inhabited, its natives in the midst of an elaborate ritual where a young girl, the "bride of Kong," is being ceremoniously decorated. The natives note fair-haired Ann and wish to trade six of their own for her, and when the crew refuse the natives resort to sneaking aboard the ship and kidnapping her. Tying her to an altar, they resume their ritual, chanting, "Kong! Kong! Kong!" until an enormous something comes crashing through the trees...

First mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who has developed feelings for Ann, leads the ship's crew on an expedition through the island's interior, where Kong has taken her. Along the way, nearly the entire crew is killed by the prehistoric creatures and other dangers. Meanwhile, Kong defends Ann from attack from a T. rex and shakes the remainder of the crew off a log into a deep crevasse. Jack evades death and continues after Kong, finally reaching the beast's lair in the island's mountain peak. There, while Kong battles a huge pteranodon, Jack and Ann escape and return to the native village. Kong pursues them, intent on retrieving Ann. He crashes through the hundred-foot gate that protects the village, but Denham subdues the monster with gas bombs.

Bringing Kong back to the United States instead of a movie, Denham puts the amazing creature on display in Manhattan. However, misinterpreting the intentions of newsmen trying to photograph Ann, Kong breaks loose from his bonds and begins a rampage through the city seeking the "woman of gold." Finally retrieving her from a hotel, Kong proceeds to climb to the highest point in Manhattan—the Empire State Building. There he attempts to fight off a squadron of biplanes, and Ann makes her escape. While Kong knocks down several that circle too close, the modern war machines finally get the better of the monster, and he plummets to his death. Yet Denham asserts that it wasn't the bullets that truly killed Kong... it was Ann's rejection of him: "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."

Co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, featuring groundbreaking stop-motion animation effects by Willis O'Brien and a memorable music score by Max Steiner, Kong is an all-time classic. Followed later that year by The Son of Kong. Mighty Joe Young explored the same idea with a large but not giant ape.

The film received a novelization written by Delos W. Lovelace a few months before its release, in 1932, based on an earlier screenplay of the movie. Notably, this novel's copyright eventually lapsed and it slipped into the Public Domain. This is notable because it is the only media in the King Kong franchise to become public domain, allowing a number of unlicensed rewrites, adaptations (such as The Mighty Kong and several comic books), and even follow-ups like Kong Reborn and Kong: King of Skull Island, the last of which spawned its own continuity with a number of its own spinoffs (such as Skull Island: Rise of Kong, Kong On The Planet Of The Apes, and King Kong vs. Tarzan). The novelization never refers to Denham by a first name, so an easy way to recognize a King Kong adaptation as unauthorized if the character is never referred to as "Carl".

Tropes in King Kong include:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: Kong's death is intentionally presented as being as much a tragedy as it is a triumph. He may have killed many innocent people both on Skull Island and in his rampage of New York, but he's not a pure evil monster out to cause destruction for the hell of it—he's just an animal taken out of his natural environment and into a world he didn't belong in. He was both a monster and a victim of circumstances out of his control when he's killed in the climax.
  • Always Save the Girl: Half the crew, led by Jack, ventures into the jungle to rescue Ann when she's kidnapped by the natives. This trope also applies to Kong himself and ends up getting used against him during the climax atop the Empire State Building.
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Kong has no nipples.
  • Artistic License: The film begins with an excerpt from a so-called "old Arabian proverb" which is meant to foreshadow the ending of the film, but it's completely made up and has no preexisting basis.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Justified. Denham says "Blondes are scarce around here" while on Skull Island. The island is in the South Pacific and the natives are a Melanesian people, who can have blonde hair in real life. However, it tends to be more common in Melanesian children, so a blonde adult woman would be comparatively unusual.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology:
    • The Tyrannosaurus has three fingers on each hand, rather than two.
    • In general, the dinosaurs in this movie are massively oversized for dramatic purposes. The Stegosaurus encountered early on appears to be nearly 100 feet long, while the real animal was about 30. Then again, Kong himself is pretty oversized too.
  • Ascended to Carnivorism: One of the crewmembers looking for Ann is eaten alive by a sauropod. Since many of the creature encounters/attacks were cut out, this makes the sauropod the only creature other than Kong himself to claim a human victim.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: One of if not the earliest film example, too.
  • Beast and Beauty: Deconstructed; the Beauty most emphatically doesn't love or redeem the Beast. He dies because of her rejection.
    Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
    Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
  • Behemoth Battle: Kong's fight with a Tyrannosaurus rex.
  • Beware the Skull Base: Though primarily an Island of Mystery, several fictional homages to the original King Kong (1933) have taken Skull Island's name literally, depicting either its central mountain peak or the actual shoreline as skull-shaped. One could also consider Skull Island to be the base of Kong himself.
  • Big Bad: King Kong, a giant gorilla who terrorizes a native tribe and later New York City, is the one who drives the entire plot. Part of Denham's entire motivation for going to Skull Island is to capture the mythical beast-like entity known as "Kong". Once the crew get there, they encounter a tribe who intends to sacrifice Ann just so that he can leave their tribe alone.
  • Bittersweet Ending: New York is saved from Kong's wrath, but Kong is ultimately as much a victim as the people he tormented—he was simply an animal brought out of his environment into a world he didn't belong in, making his death as much a tragedy as it is a triumph.
  • Bowdlerize: From the late '30s until the early '70s, audiences were treated to versions of King Kong that were censored in some places. Among the most notable cuts are Kong peeling off pieces of Ann's dress like a banana and sniffing them before tickling her with his fingers and the closeup of him chomping down on a native. Another edit removes the scene of Kong grabbing a woman from a hotel window and upon realizing it's not Ann, dropping her to her death.
  • "Cavemen vs. Astronauts" Debate: The original film is a quite literal depiction of the Trope-naming argument. Merian Cooper was a man fascinated by both the past and the future. He traveled the world studying primitive societies that had not changed for hundreds of years. He was also a bold innovator who made important advances in aviation and motion pictures, and talked in his later life about his wish that he could live long enough to travel in space. In King Kong this duality becomes a violent conflict between the mighty but savage Kong and the technology of the modern world. Cooper recognized that the modern world would eventually win, but in many ways his sympathies lay with the primitive.
  • Celebrity Paradox: A poster for Merian C. Cooper's extremely rare silent documentary Grass can be spotted in the background at one point. Cooper directed this film.
  • Character as Himself: Kong is credited with the rest of the cast in the opening titles.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The reason that they must sail immediately is given early in the film: the ship is loaded with explosives, which will be confiscated if the harbormaster or the police happen by. The explosives are used against the monster (see Stun Guns below).
    • Upon landing on the island, Ann and Jack have a brief conversation about the outrigger canoes the natives keep on the shore. They use those same boats to capture Ann later.
  • Clothing Damage:
    • Kong peels some of Ann's dress off.
    • Jack and Carl both sport ripped sleeves after their time in the jungle.
  • Creator Cameo: Ernest B. Shoedsack and Merian C. Cooper play the flight commander and his observer in the Empire State Building climax.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: When Ann is offered up as a sacrifice, she's tied up with her arms outstretched. Later, the captured Kong is exhibited on Broadway with his hands shackled to a crossbeam.
  • Disney Villain Death: Kong is already mortally wounded by the gunshots from the planes, but what deals the final blow is the long fall from the top of Empire State Building.
  • Dire Beast: Kong is one big-ass ape.
  • Dirty Coward: Tim, the sailor who tries to run when the natives notice them, comes off as this. He's also The Load, since he always brings up the rear of the rescue party later and is constantly falling behind (especially when they're running from the brontosaurus). He does, however, save Jimmy from drowning by helping him take off his backpack after the raft overturns.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A savage is taken to America in chains, threatens a white woman and causes mayhem in the city, as well as being carried in chains. While its easy to see a racist subtext here, this aspect of the film (aside from the portrayal of the Melanesian tribe, which is another conversation to be had) is unintentional on behalf of the creators. The story was inspired by some Komodo dragons that had been brought to the Bronx Zoo from their native homeland and died in captivity, with Merian C. Cooper believing they were destroyed by civilization, and the threatening women bit comes from "Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa," which depicted gorillas threatening women in general regardless of skin color.
  • Due to the Dead: A very downplayed example during Denham's introduction speech before Kong's reveal in New York. He briefly mentions "twelve of our party met horrible death" (referring to the sailors who were killed during the rescue attempt on Skull Island).
  • Dumb Dinos: All the dinosaurs are stupid and violent, actively targeting the humans with no provocation. This includes the herbivores.
  • Enemy Rising Behind: A brontosaurus emerges from the water in this manner to attack Denham's crew on their raft.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: On Skull Island, even plant-eating dinosaurs like the stegosaurus immediately try to attack the humans whenever they see them.
  • Exact Words: Fay Wray herself confirms the story that Merian Cooper invited her onto the project by promising her she would have "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood."
  • Expo Speak: The opening lines are rather painful.
  • Fanservice: Ann wears a rather thin and clingy dress in the screen test scene, and suffers a great deal of Clothing Damage on Skull Island.
  • For the Evulz: Unlike the other creatures in the film, the brontosaurus really has no apparent reason to be attacking those sailors (unless getting hit with a few of the sailors' bullets made it really angry), especially since he actually bites down on them before either leaving them to die or tossing them aside. The vicious grin he wears as he corners Tim in the tree makes it even clearer.
  • Giant Animal Worship: Possibly the Trope Codifier. The natives of Skull Island periodically leave a sacrifice (the "bride of Kong") behind a wall so the giant gorilla will leave their village alone.
  • Giant Spider: Hoo boy, the spider pit has many of them. Too bad it was deleted.
  • The Great Depression: The reason that Carl Denham is able to hire Ann with little difficulty is that he first sees her stealing food.
  • Implacable Man: The Tyrannosaurus rex fought by Kong shrugs every attack by him, and even gets back on its feet when toppled more than once. It only goes down when Kong breaks its jaw.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: A native baby is seen screaming on the ground as Kong approaches. It's immediately saved by someone.
  • Kaiju: Largely agreed to be the Trope Maker, predating Trope Codifier Godzilla by two decades.
  • Killer Gorilla: Kong is portrayed as this to everyone who isn't Ann.
  • Knockout Gas: The gas bombs that Denham loaded on the ship work very quickly, and seem to pose no threat to the giant ape. In real life, anesthetics work slowly on large animals, and getting the exact dose so as to knock out the animal without killing is difficult. In this movie, the bombs were loaded on the ship with no specific knowledge of what type of animal they would be used on, and when they are used there is little chance to estimate the mass of the animal.
  • Living Dinosaurs: The Skull Island's fauna.
  • The Load: Tim, who contributes nothing to the search for Ann but lagging behind and falling down. A lot. After he dies, the heretofore reliable Jimmy (Denham's bomb carrier) takes up the mantle of constantly tripping and needing to be helped up.
  • Mammal Monsters Are More Heroic: The titular ape is portrayed as a Tragic Monster — while the dinosaurs and giant reptiles he lives alongside are portrayed as dumb, monstrous brutes.
  • Meaningful Background Event:
    • Kong's climb up the Empire State Building in the leadup to the climax is shown at a distance rather than being done closeup.
    • As Kong reaches the top, the airplanes sent to dispatch him can be seen approaching from the far right of the scene, heightening the tension and anticipation of the quickly impending showdown.
  • Merchandising the Monster: See characters bringing Kong, who at this point has contributed to the death of uncounted people on his island, back to the US for entertainment purposes.
  • Mickey Mousing: An ominous example when the islander chief advances on the landing party.
  • Mighty Whitey: An unusual variant; Kong killed all the native women sacrificed to him, as far as we know, but chooses to keep and spare the white Ann Darrow, to the point that not only does he chase after her when she gets rescued, but in New York, his first thought upon breaking free is to find her and take her away again.
  • Moe Greene Special: How they take out the stegosaurus; they bomb it until it falls over, then finish it by shooting it through the eye.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: By implication, most filmmakers are filmmakers. Cooper is given a "story by" credit, and he applies a great deal of his experience creating films on location to the story. In creating the story he focuses on his experience as a filmmaker who creates stories.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Ann is this both in King Kong and In-Universe. Denham complains early on that he made wonderful and exciting movies but the critics always complained that there were no pretty girls to look at, so he was going to have one in this picture even if he had to get one off the street.
  • Novelization: Written by Delos W. Lovelace and including many of the deleted scenes, such as the insect pit scene. It was popular enough to be one of the very few movie novelizations consistently reprinted, even to this day (its being in the public domain, unlike the movie, certainly helps). Despite this, it was subject to a rather pointless rewrite by Joe DeVito with art by Brad Strickland, which gave no credit whatsoever to Lovelace. About the only change DeVito made was having Jimmy (the sailor who carries Denham's gas bombs) survive. Strickland's artwork, though touted heavily, amounts to very little. Mostly just landscapes and one picture of Kong's battle with the Tyrannosaurus, which is especially disappointing for anyone who has read the lavishly illustrated graphic novel Kong: King of Skull Island put out by the same duo prior to said rewrite.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Jack openly admits to hating women but at the end of the day, he's a Nice Guy who cares for Ann and his crew, and will protect them from Kong.
  • Plot Hole: If the purpose of the giant wall is to keep Kong away from the natives, why did they make the doors big enough for Kong to fit through?! Besides which, if he can climb New York skyscrapers, he should easily be able to scale the wall if he so chooses.
  • Plucky Girl: A screamer she may be, but one has to at least give Ann credit for repeatedly trying to escape Kong on her own, even if her attempts are met with failure.
  • Prehistoric Monster: Every creature on Skull Island is a vicious, human-hating monster that goes out of its way to savagely brutalize humans without any possible benefit, including herbivores like the Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus. Several predators meet their end when they decide to go after Ann, even with Kong protecting her.
  • Punny Name: Ann's last name is a Shout-Out to famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, best known for his participation in the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial".
  • Red Shirt Army: The sailors who volunteer to join Carl and Jack to rescue Ann from Kong can certainly count as this. Half are killed by the brontosaurus and the other half are killed when Kong shakes them off a log to fall to their deaths. By the end of the log scene, Carl and Jack are the only members of the rescue party who are still alive.note 
  • Screaming Woman: As Ann, Fay Wray is one of the all-time champs.
    Bible Variety: It's a film-long screaming session for [Wray], too much for any actress and any audience.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Male example. Carl and Ann praise Jack for looking good in a tuxedo in the third act. He remarks he's never worn one before.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: Jack has his shirt fully buttoned up at the start. When he softens towards Ann, he now has an Intimate Open Shirt. He also loses his sailor's hat around the time half the crew get killed and he has to rescue Ann alone.
  • Soft Water: Ann and Jack try to climb down a vine to escape the giant ape. Kong pulls the vine up, trying to catch them, and they fall off the vine and into the water that appears to be 100+ feet below them. They suffer no injuries.
  • Tagline: "The Eighth Wonder Of The World!" for the 1933 release. Jackson's remake quotes it in dialogue.
  • Take That!: According to Ronald Haver's commentary on the Criterion Laserdisc, Merian Cooper had Kong destroy the elevated railway because trains coming and going often kept Cooper up at night.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Climbing up a tree to try to escape a really gigantic animal was truly the worst thing to do.
  • Traveling at the Speed of Plot: So they manage to capture Kong and bring him aboard their ship, which is somehow big enough to hold a giant ape in, that's one thing. But how long was Kong knocked out and how long does it take to travel from the East Indies to New York?
  • Unbuilt Trope: For the Kaiju genre. While technically the first "giant monster" to be a major movie star, Kong subverts several aspects that would later become central to the genre. For example, he lacks any superpowers, is not exceptionally huge compared to later examples, and is killed relatively easily by conventional weapons.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film was inspired by an actual expedition to Komodo Island led by W. Douglas Burden in 1926, to collect and study the isle's giant lizards. It's pretty much what sensational newspapers of the day half-jokingly speculated Burden's venture might run into. When a few were brought back to the Bronx zoo, they ultimately died in captivity, with Merian C. Cooper, whom Burden told the story of his expedition to, believing they were destroyed by civilization.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: The spider pit sequence was cut to avert this.
  • Your Size May Vary: As Roger Ebert noted in his essay, "[Kong is] 18 feet tall on the island, 24 feet on stage, 50 feet on the Empire State Building." (though these numbers aren't quite accurate; Kong actually appears smaller on the stage than in the jungle, then larger again once he's in the streets). The full-size Kong head, hands and feet built for the movie assumed a 40 foot height. The novelization refers to him as twenty at one point in the 18th chapter, the second to last chapter and the only chapter in the entire book to identify his exact height.


Video Example(s):


King Kong versus Slave Trade

The creator of the video essay "The Art of Overanalyzing Movies", discusses Quentin Tarantino seeing the King Kong story as an allegory to the Slave Trade which was not intended by the creators of that movie.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / FauxSymbolism

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