The interesting paradox here is the film presents not just an implausible horror story about a giant gorilla loose in New York City. Except for the fact that King Kong is so large, everything else in the movie was realistic for its time. A good part of this world was still uncharted in those days. When the United States went island hopping after the Japanese Empire in World War II, most of those islands were previously unknown to us. As author William Manchester noted in his narrative history, “The Glory and the Dream: (Bantam, NY, 1975, pp.266-267), “The U.S. Navy started the war with obsolete eighteenth-century charts…the Marines had to survey King Solomon’s Isles as they went along…Most of what the public did know about the Pacific had been invented by B movie scriptwriters.” That might be astounding to believe in today’s world when people who travel no further than the grocery store have a GPS unit in their SUVs.
Carl Denham’s world was the world of real-life adventurer Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck. It was the world of real-life wildlife photographers and naturalists Osa and Martin Johnson. It was the world when boys read the adventures of Jack London and were transported to a world far more dangerous and imaginative than any young boy today playing with a video game. Only, Jack London was real.
Another paradox is that what is unreal about the film, i.e. King Kong himself, which we know is not a real gorilla but a series of models, mechanics and stop-motion animation, even this unreality is successful and appropriate. Monsters aren’t meant to be realistic. The more fantastic they are, the more horrible they are. Monsters are largely creatures of our imagination. If we rationalize them, they lose their mystique.
Kong holds Miss Wray like a doll. Oh, wait, that is a doll. It is remarkable that Miss Wray never played a scene with him, only pantomimed against a plain backdrop.
The dinosaurs Kong must fight are also creatures of the imagination. Though we know they existed, we have never seen a photo of one. The Brontosaurus lifts his head eerily out of the water and he attacks the men on the expedition, chomping on the body of one and tossing it away. His swamp seems to be the same Fog Hollow of “The Most Dangerous Game” only there is no Zaroff with a rifle. When Kong fights the T-Rex over Fay Wray, it is as exciting as a match between James J. Braddock and Max Baer. Kong fights off a snake as well, which nearly chokes him, and a pterodactyl. In all this we see that he is trying to protect Miss Wray. His struggles earns our respect and we begin to wonder for the first time not what will happen to Fay Wray, but what will happen to him?
All through his battles we see his terrible rage and his unexpected tenderness. We’re still not sure of what he is a capable of doing to Miss Wray. Beyond tugging a part of her gauzy dress off (a bit of pre-Code sauciness), we are not sure what danger he represents to her. He did put a native in his mouth, but spit him right out, so we don’t even really know if he’s carnivorous. Gorillas usually aren’t, but this isn’t a nature film.
Finally of course, Kong is captured and put on stage, where the marquee tells us the tickets are $20. Pretty steep when you could have seen Helen Hayes on Broadway for around $6. But then, she was only five feet tall.
There is continuous action in the movie, we are hammered with it, and with the Beauty and the Beast message. Lots of extras get work that day in the New York scenes, where Kong plays to a packed house, and then escapes and steps on, grabs, flings, and scares the socks off everybody. He swats their trains, climbs their buildings, and in a sickening foreshadowing of what the now crazed Kong could do to Fay Wray, he pulls an unknown woman out of a hotel window and dashes her to the ground to her death. He then finds Fay, and grabs her.
You know where they end up. Another paradox is that the symbol used to illustrate man’s pinnacle of modern achievement, the Empire State Building, was only two years old when this film was made, but it was buzzed by comparatively anachronistic World War I biplanes. In another eight years, we would be going to war again only with B-52 bombers, a B-25 Mitchell would become embedded in the Empire State Building in a fog in 1945.
“Confound this fog,” Carl Denham had said on ship. The Empire State Building was real. The B-25 was real, and fourteen people were killed. Yet when we think of the Empire State Building we think of a fictional monster and a different tragedy, as enduring a symbol of our innocence more than of the terrors of our imagination. And that is the reality to which we choose to cling.