We Can't Escape 'King Kong'

We talk to 'King Kong' expert Ray Morton about the inescapable attraction of the 1933 film.

King Kong Empire State Building Screenshot
RKO Pictures

Humans are fantastic narcissists. We look upon the world, and we see it as ours. The animals are there for our bellies. The trees are there for our lumber. The land is there for the taking. We stepped out of our caves and immediately went to plundering, snatching more than what was needed because why have one ivory carved couch when you can have two? This bearskin rug really ties the room together.

King Kong is the first cinematic beast to buck against our ravenous consumerism. He’s a wonder to worship, not cage. The big gorilla monster may eventually succumb to our technological terrors, but before he plummets from our greatest city spire, Kong makes sure to take plenty of us with him. It was beauty that killed the beast? No, man. It was those synchronized machine guns mounted to a half dozen biplanes.

Ray Morton has spent a lifetime thinking about the original King Kong from 1933. He first caught the film as a kid, like most of us, playing on television. His dad explained he was about to watch a big monkey movie, and boy howdy, did he love monkeys. What he saw was a film that both terrified and titillated. The kid was entranced, and the adult that came out of him was a King Kong obsessive.

Morton went on to write King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. The deep-dive exploration of Kong’s attraction positioned him as the go-to guy for publicists looking to pair journalists with screenings (Fathom Events & TCM, by the way, are re-releasing King Kong theatrically on March 15th, get your tickets HERE). The author lost himself on Skull Island, and these days acts as a tour guide for those brave enough to venture amongst its fog and frequent dinosaur attacks.

Part of King Kong‘s great appeal is the devastating conclusion. “I don’t know that I was sophisticated enough to be able to explain it at the time,” says Morton, “but the ending was really tragic. Spectacular to look at when he’s battling the planes on top of the Empire State Building, but also just really sad when he finally dies.”

Fay Wray lets the audience know that Kong is something to be feared thanks to her non-stop screaming, but when the brute ultimately lands lifeless on the streets of New York City, and Robert Armstrong utters his climactic quip, our sympathies suddenly align with Kong. He didn’t deserve to be gunned down. He was the beauty. We were the beast.

“There’s something very archetypal about the story,” says Morton. “Something that feels ancient and mythic.” King Kong contains the kind of authenticity one finds in fairy tales. While fantastical and askew from reality, the emotions exhumed are genuine, and they linger for decades. With their camera, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack seem to be writing their story in a great narrative that came before their time and will last long after.

“Often you’ll hear people refer to it as Beauty of the Beast,” says Morton, “but the interesting part is that it’s not actually Beauty and the Beast.” This idea would not be explored in the King Kong context until the 1976 version with Jessica Lange taking over for Fay Wray and developed even further with Naomi Watts and Peter Jackson in 2005.

Beauty and the Beast is the story of a beauty who sees the beauty in a beast,” adds Morton. “In this film, she never sees the beauty in the beast. She’s just scared of him all the time, but he’s in love with her. It’s its own story. It’s an original idea in that respect.”

King Kong is a gift given to us by cinema. While Cooper and Schoedsack are certainly playing on ideas explored in Edgar Rice Burroughs and various other Lost Continent stories, Kong is a wholly original creation. There is no beast quite like him before or since.

Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolf Man and all of those guys came from either literature or legend, or a little bit of both,” says Morton. “Kong is the only one of those well-known creatures who is purely a creation of cinema. He has no antecedents in literature. He’s a totally made-up creature and totally made-up story. The character feels timeless, and yet the film isn’t even 90 years old yet. That’s a real tribute to the power of cinema and for the film in particular.”

King Kong does only what a movie can do: it places the audience on the boat with its crew. You live in the muck alongside the critters of Skull Island. You go to the top of the Empire State Building and look over as the beautiful wonder descends to his death. You sit on the street with the rest of the gawkers and contemplate your role in Kong’s destruction.

“Cooper’s goal was to get all the exposition out of the way in the first 45 to 50 minutes,” says Morton. “So that the minute Kong shows up on the screen, until the end, the movie never stops. The momentum is always barreling forward. There’s always something exciting happening.”

For most of its life, King Kong has lived on a tiny box television. Obviously, it’s power cannot be diminished in such confines, as there is where most folks experience their first love with the Eighth Wonder of the World. Yet, when an opportunity to bask in Kong’s beauty on a screen worthy of his gargantuan frame presents itself, you must take it.

“The film was designed by Cooper to be a spectacle,” says Morton. “An action-adventure, that’s an exciting, thrilling spectacle. The big screen is the only place you’re going to fully get the impact of it. The size of the image is going to allow you to really experience the detail, experience the visual effects on a much greater degree than you could on TV.”

Like Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, when we see Kong, we want him. He’s magnificent. Marvelous. We know Skull Island is not some puppy mill we passed in the mall. We can’t yank him from his serenity and expect he’ll reward us with licks and love. He’s a beast, a beautiful one, but one we don’t deserve. Our reckless need is not only his end but the end of a lot of our neighbors, stomped flat on the streets or crumpled in cars.

Our call to adventure is just our boredom by another name. The more advanced we become as a species, the more time we spend sitting on our thumbs, dreaming of the greener grass on the other side of the world. It takes a lot to get us off our couch these days, and while the outside gets further and further away, movies can take us there.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.