A Brief History of Kong
Updated: Sep 24
When researching trends, ideas, and cinematic evolution in the history of film there’s seldom a better reference point then viewing the several interpretations of King Kong. The classic story of a giant beast falling in love with a young blonde woman – exploring an unfamiliar and dangerous world and the destruction caused by what happens when man’s greed tampers with the natural order – remains timeless to this day and can be remade forever, without any aspect tarnished by time. Hollywood certainly agrees, as King Kong has had sequels, remakes, sequels of remakes, reboots, crossovers, rehashes, reheats, reloaded and revolutions! But I digress. The interpretations of the giant ape I’m going to focus on are from the 1933 original, the 1976 remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the 2005 Peter Jackson remake and finally, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. What do these films have to say about the decades they were created in? What trends, values, and ideas can we document via King Kong?
King Kong (1933)
In 1927, the cinematic landscape was changed forever when The Jazz Singer premiered. It blew everyone away by incorporating actual spoken dialogue and sound into film, despite its uncomfortable racist imagery. A mere six years later, films went from putting spoken words into film, to creating whole worlds beyond imagination, thanks to the directorial efforts of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, as well the fascinating and engrossing visuals of special effects wizard, Willis O’ Brien, which truly bring the film to life. Sure, The Lost World was also about larger than life creatures coming to life on the silver screen - the effects were even done by O’Brien himself - but Kong, as well as being a better film, was also released during a time where it made a much more significant impact: in the midst of the Great Depression. Millions of people needed a way to escape from the daily misery of scraping by. They needed a character like Ann Darrow, who was going through the same hardships many were going through at the time. They could relate to her; every person could attach a little bit of themselves to Ann. They needed Kong to transport them to somewhere new and to show them something they’d never seen before, something surreal and fantastic, and something to give them that brief moment of wonder. King Kong certainly delivered. It revolutionized adventure storytelling and Willis O’Brien invented several special effects techniques that were used in films decades later. What’s there to say about this film that hasn’t already been said? It’s still one of the greatest and most influential of all time, and it is also one of my personal favorites. But what happens when other filmmakers attempt to give the giant ape a try?
King Kong (1976)
The 1970’s are considered one of the greatest decades in film history. “The Age of the Directors,” as some liked to call it. During this decade, a young filmmaker (who some may know as Steven Spielberg), created a quaint little film about a giant man-eating great white shark. Jaws took the world by storm and ushered in a new era of blockbusters. One year later, producer Dino De Laurentiis (some may know his granddaughter Giada from the Food Network) wanted a piece of the action. He wanted the money Jaws made. Instead of creating his own monster to compete with the shark, he went back to the classics and wanted to bring the giant ape himself back to modern audiences. He even approached Roman Polanski to direct the film at first, but instead went with John Guillerman.
You thought gritty reboots were a recent development? Far from it! This Kong was going to be darker, grittier, bloodier, slower paced, more dramatic and less adventurous. Instead of the motivation for making a film by Carl Denham, we have Fred Wilson who’s searching for oil, a much more topical subject. It would be set in modern times, Kong would be bigger, the dinosaurs would be removed to make a more grounded and “realistic” story, and instead of the eighth wonder of the world climbing the Empire State Building, it would climb the brand new World Trade Center, as a way to show off the building to the world. The 1976 film is a classic example of financial gain taking priority over artistic integrity. Other than the novelty of watching now veteran actors Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange interact with a giant ape, as well as a few impressive action sequences (including an attack on a train and a fight with a giant snake), as well as the aforementioned climb up the WTC, and creature effects by special effects god Rick Baker, there’s very little this film has to offers. It’s dry, dull, slow, and none of the characters are as interesting as Carl Denham, Jack Driscoll, and Ann Darrow. It’s not an awful film, but other than viewing it for historical context, there’s no real reason to watch this film again.
King Kong (2005)
It was the early 2000’s, and three-hour sprawling period epics were all the rage. Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, The Last Samurai, and Master and Commander, were all cleaning up the box office, as well as the award season. People were constantly fiending for more, but none of these were quite as monstrous a success story as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by filmmaker, Peter Jackson. From humble beginnings creating cult splatter films such as Bad Taste and Dead Alive in his home country of New Zealand, to being on top of the world, Peter Jackson could do whatever he wanted next. He chose to remake one of his childhood favorites. The film that made him want to become a filmmaker in the first place. What else but Kong? Instead of re-arranging the plot to be modern and run parallel to current affairs, he transported audiences back to 1933, and for the most part, he did a good job. The motion capture effects from Andy Serkis bring King Kong to life and remain impressive to this day. Skull Island, as well as the 1933 Time’s Square, is lovingly crafted with expert detail, even going as far as collecting some of the last of the 1930’s Ford cars to use as props.
The main problem with the film was a problem that plagued many of the epics at the time: it was simply too long for its own good. I always welcome when a story wants to take the time to flesh out its characters before jumping into the action and conflict, but this Kong took too long to do so. During the segment on the boat traveling to Skull Island, there is an almost endless supply of filler and awkward encounters between various characters. Instead of keeping you on the edge of your seat yearning for the monster to arrive like in Jaws, you’re left bored and checking your watch. When the film eventually does get to Skull Island, it’s spectacular and fills me with the same wonder and excitement I get while watching the original. In fact, of all the remakes and reboots Kong has gone through, this one is my personal favorite, and despite its length, is of the highest quality. If someone could create a fan edit to make it more in line with the original film’s pacing, it would be almost perfect.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
The 2017’s choice of film trend is that of the “cinematic universe.” Popularized by Marvel Studios, the goal is to branch together seemingly unrelated films, sprinkle in references to each other, and eventually come together for a big crossover event film such as The Avengers, Justice League, or whatever the hell Universal thinks it's doing with its monster franchise, and of course, culminate with an eventual showdown between King Kong and Godzilla. Of all the remakes and reboots Kong has gone through, this one is certainly the most different. The setting is changed to 1970’s post-Vietnam War, and gone entirely is the romantic story between King Kong and Ann Darrow (or Dwan, if you will). Kong: Skull Island has other priorities in mind: pure mayhem.
At about minute fifteen of the film’s runtime, we’re already in Skull Island. The now 100-foot tall Kong wreaks havoc on unsuspecting American soldiers and does not let up until the credits roll. The tension is constant as the characters are constantly harassed and murdered by gigantic lizards and freakish bugs. The film has a sense of humor and camaraderie the previous Kong films did not have. It takes itself less seriously. Instead of trying to bring us into a whole new and unfamiliar world, Skull Island just wants us to have a good time. If the filmmakers have a creative idea for a visual, they just throw it in there. I don’t want to go into details, and I know this film has flown under the radar for some, but it’s certainly worth seeing while it’s still in theaters, even though it might not be as thematically strong as the 1933 or 2005 versions.
Overall, the story of Kong is a good blank canvas for filmmakers of all eras to flex their creative juices and deliver something new in all eras. From the classic story and charming special effects of the original, to the grand scale of the 2005 version, to the pure energetic chaos of Skull Island, hell even the 1976 version has production design and a few select scenes to admire, either way, we haven’t seen the last of the big monkey, because his story is so timeless, and I’m excited to see what future filmmakers will do with him next.
Jeremy is younger than he looks, and has passionately studied the art and craft of filmmaking for as long as he can remember. He is currently a freelance wedding videographer, and is also heavily involved in Competitive Fighting Games. IG: jeremyko95