Of all the giant monster films, King Kong is the one held in highest regard by people who do not ordinarily watch monster films. It was so successful that after it was released in 1933, it was re-released in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1952 before being sold into television syndication. That's practically unprecidented. The brilliance of the film stands not with the screenwriter or the director. Before Kong appears on screen, the film is ordinary. When Kong is on-screen, the film is brilliant.
The visual effects that created Kong were the work of one man's workshop. Willis O'Brien was the Industrial Light and Magic of his time, creating believable dinosaurs for The Lost World and his crowning achievement, King Kong. He contributed a staggering amount to special effects, utilizing them beautifully in very complex shots that appear natural on the screen. Unfortunately, O'Brien was not as appreciated as he should have been, partialy because the producers of Kong didn't want to let the secret of Kong's special effects out.
O'Brien utilized a lot of tricks that appeared to cross the boundaries of the miniatures effects and the live actors. While fighting a Tyrannosaur, Kong backs into the tree that his pet human Ann Darrow is in, knocking it over. This is something few other Pre-CG monster films achieve, since the monster cannot touch the actors. The many dodges he uses help create the illusion of interaction, giving the big ape credibility. His greatest contribution to film is making a nonexistant giant ape into a sympathetic character.
Kong starts off as a fearful brute, pounding his chest and terrifying Ann Darrow. However, his unexpected gentleness with her is touching, and we begin to realize Kong is not a thing of horror, but a character who grows, has joys, and learns. He lives in a jungle where everything is trying to kill him and the humans, and he protects Ann from them, often getting hurt in the process. We watch him make decisions, as when he is trying to grab Jack Driscoll, and Ann screams because of an approaching dinosaur. This is the quality of a thinking creature, not an animal. Even when he is chained up on the Broadway stage, Kong's head and eyes follow the action of the humans below hime. When climbing the Empire State Building, he stops and looks around.
Kong can be described as a character because he changes as his environment does. In his own land, he is but one gigantic creature among many, able to survive and even thrive. In the land of men, he is a titanic misfit. Ishiro Honda's quote is most applicable here. “Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend himself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters. They end up caring about them.” Kong is ultimately the victim of Carl Denham's desire to make money.
In the iconic climax, Kong squares off again against the technology of a modern city. Having succumbed to the gas bombs, but destroyed the chrome steel manacles, Kong comes up against airplanes. The expression of bewilderment and anger on Kong's face as he realizes he has been wounded humanize him even more. No matter which side the audience is rooting for, the climax provides plenty of dramatic tension. Kong manages to down a plane, but eventually, he is too wounded to keep his precarious footing. He wipes at his eyes, makes a gesture to Anne. He knows he is going to die, and so does the audience. This is the brilliance of O'Brien's work, making the giant monster into a sympathetic creature, turning what could have been a disaster film into a tragedy.
A racist text can be easily seen in the film. Aside from the uncomfortably inappropriate Skull Islanders, Kong himself can be seen as a metaphor for racist fear. The gorilla, a stand-in for supposed black male aggression, is fine where he is, but infatuated with the blonde and brought to the big city, he goes on a destructive rampage. It it left up to the viewer to decide if it's the photographer's flashes that enrage Kong, or Jack Driscoll embracing Ann Darrow. Fortunately, this is not an aspect that carries over into later films that do not feature giant apes, but it is a reason I'm not interested in subsequent ape films.
How influential was Kong on Godzilla? Tremendously. Many moments are echoed, especially in the first Godzilla. Like Godzilla, at first we get a short glimpse of the giant monster, but later we get a longer view, and the monster is not diminished by the audience's long look. Kong looks good. Godzilla looks good. There is a time to hide the monster (although 2006's The Host shows us that even this is unnecessary, given the right plot structure), and there is a time to show that the monster's actions are what make it monstrous, rather than it's appearance. Both monsters wreck with a train. Kong destroys the elevated train, while Godzilla merely steps in front of one, emphasizing their differences. After an initial sighting, humans discover the footprints of the giant creature.
Which is not to say that the later film is a copy of King Kong. Godzilla dispenses with King Kong's middle act, going straight from the discovery of the giant monster to the rampage in the city. This is partially because Godzilla has no place on this earth. He is not a natural creature. Kong's time on New York City is less then twenty minutes, his rampage only fifteen. Godzilla's Tokyo rampage takes about the same amount of time, but the film shows us the human consequences of that rampage, after which a way must be found to destroy him. The nature of Godzilla is that nothing as simple as planes and bullets will do. Further, Honda takes the mother and child moment, seen in both The Lost World and King Kong, where the child or mother and child are directly in the path of the rampaging monster, and turns it into a heart-wrenching moment. Godzilla's version of this scene has her say that they will reunited their father, and is vastly more effective because the mother is humanized with dialog. None of O'Brien's mothers in peril have depth.
Once Godzilla was a working franchise, it was perhaps inevitable, given Kong's fight with a Tyrannosaur, that King Kong and Godzilla would fight. The combat between Kong and the Tyrannosaur is one of the most memorable moments in the film. Again, moments were repeated from King Kong, such as when Kong throws Godzilla the same way he throws the Tyrannosaur. There is also a moment where Kong shoves a tree into Godzilla's mouth; a moment not actually in King Kong, but in a promotional photograph. Interestingly, the film was based on a Willis O'Brien idea.
King Kong is a magnificent film that no lover of monster film can ignore. So many tropes were created with this film that it is the complete break-out of the genre. There have been dozens, if not hudreds, of references to the film and character in film since then.
I also want to take a moment to acknowledge Kong's most successful descendent, Donkey Kong. In the 1981 game Donkey Kong, a large gorilla kidnaps Pauline and stands at the top of a series of girders, as if the Empire State Building were a constructon site. Mario climbs the building and attmepts to rescue Pauline. While the initial game is similar to the King Kong scenario, later versions are not.
As with Godzilla, the monster that is familiar becomes our friend. Donkey Kong is no exception. Like Son of Kong, a sequel to Donkey Kong was Donkey Kong, Junior, which made the giant ape more sympathetic, as the player was rescuing him from the mean carpenter. Kong and his son then go on to be popular characters starring in their own game series, and appearing in most interations of the Mario Brothers franchise. The monster becomes our friend.
Next up? Ray and Ray make the beast!