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Monday, October 12, 2009

KING KONG (1933) -- DVD review by porfle

(NOTE: This review was written upon the DVD's initial release in 2005.)

Before CGI, before summer blockbuster films like JAWS, before "giant-monster-on-the-loose" movies of any kind, there was...KING KONG. Depression audiences who barely had two coins to scrape together jammed theaters in 1933 to witness this thrilling pinnacle of pure escapism and marvel at the sight of a giant gorilla battling dinosaurs, wrestling elevated trains, and swatting biplanes from his lofty perch atop the towering Empire State Building. Up to that time, KING KONG was the most spectacular, jaw-dropping adventure film ever made, and few films since, if any, have even come close to topping it.

The first forty minutes or so consist of careful, methodical build-up as flamboyant movie producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) sets sail for Skull Island with the crew of a merchant ship called The Venture. He's heard stories of a giant monster called Kong who lives on the island, and plans to capture the beast on film. Along for the ride are the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to provide the "love interest" for his movie, and first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) to provide the love interest for Ann.

When they arrive, they witness a tribe of natives preparing to sacrifice a young girl to Kong. But one look at Ann, whom they call "the golden woman", convinces them that she would make a much more unique bride for the beast. ("Well, blondes are scarce around here," Denham notes.) They steal onto the ship that night and kidnap Ann, then open the massive doors of the huge protective wall that separates them from the rest of the island and bind her to an altar. As the crew of The Venture discover Ann's absence and race to the rescue, the natives wait atop the wall in awed silence for the arrival of the fearsome Kong. Suddenly there are loud, echoing footsteps...the trees are torn aside...and there stands King Kong, the greatest of all movie monsters.

All necessary exposition is laid out for us so that when Kong makes his appearance at this point, the rest of the film is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action. Kong takes Ann in hand and disappears into the dense jungle, with Denham, Driscoll, and most of the Venture crew in hot pursuit. But it doesn't take long for these hunters to become the hunted, when they suddenly find themselves on the run from an array of ill-tempered prehistoric beasts ("from the dinosaur family!", Denham informs us). In one horrific scene, the sailors are trapped on a log over a deep chasm as the enraged Kong shakes them off into the pit below. Having dispatched his pursuers, Kong takes Ann to his lair at the top of Skull Mountain, engaging in awesome battles with various other giant creatures along the way.

But Driscoll, who managed to avoid plunging into the pit, rescues Ann and returns her to the native village. An angry Kong arrives moments later, pounds his way through the door of the great wall, and goes on a rampage in which he chews and stomps several unfortunate villagers. Denham, however, is prepared for such an eventuality, and hurls a gas bomb which knocks Kong unconscious. Realizing that the giant ape himself is worth more than any motion picture, Denham arranges to have a giant raft built to transport Kong back to New York, where he will be put on display for paying customers. "We're millionaires, boys!" he cries to the surviving sailors. "I'll share it with all of you!"

We all know, of course, that once Kong is taken to the Big Apple, he escapes and goes on a rampage of destruction that climaxes at the top of the Empire State Building, where he must fight off attacking biplanes amidst a hail of machine gun bullets -- one of the most enduring images in movie history and popular culture. KING KONG continues to astound all but the most jaded viewers even today, which is a tribute to the imagination and ingenuity of its makers. Special effects wizard Willis O'Brien laid the groundwork for all future effects-laden "event" movies as he created ways of bringing the most outrageous visions to the screen, many of which are still used today. His meticulous frame-by-frame stop-motion animation of Kong and the various dinosaurs never fails to impress, especially in the spectacular battle between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Murray Spivack's sound design was an amazing feat considering that sound itself had only existed in movies for a few years before KING KONG. And the musical score by Max Steiner, with its beautiful descriptive passages and themes for various characters, is a masterpiece that showed all film composers to come how it should be done.

Upon its re-release in 1938, several of the more violent scenes were censored, including Kong popping various Skull Islanders and New Yorkers into his mouth and chewing on them, or stomping them underfoot. And the scene in which Kong curiously peels off bits of Fay Wray's clothing and sniffs them was deemed inappropriate as well, and out it went. The film was also darkened considerably to disguise much of the blood that flows during the battle scenes. For many years, this was the only version of the film available, until finally the excised scenes were rediscovered and restored in the early 70s.

Now, with Warner Brothers' current release of KING KONG on DVD, the film is restored, uncensored, and better-looking than ever before, with special features that will delight fans of the film. There is a commentary featuring stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen (SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) and special-effects veteran Ken Ralston that is fun to listen to since the men are such devoted Kong fans. A documentary on the life of Kong producer Merian C. Cooper (upon whom the character of Carl Denham is based) is a fascinating look at a man whose exploits rival those of Indiana Jones. And the seven-part documentary "RKO Production 601:The Making Of Kong, Eighth Wonder Of The World" is packed with fascinating details about the film and comments from well-known filmmakers who have been influenced by it.

LORD OF THE RINGS director Peter Jackson, whose KONG remake hits theaters in December 2005, went to great lengths to help make this DVD a special event, including assembling his special-effects artists to recreate the legendary lost "Spider Pit Sequence" which was originally removed from the film due to its intensity ("It stopped the show!", as Merian C. Cooper put it). Jackson also created a new Kong scene using the same equipment and methods employed by Willis O'Brien, simply to give us an idea of how the effects for KONG were done since there is so little behind-the-scenes documentation of the original work. Also included are scenes from Willis O'Brien's aborted dinosaur project CREATION, which are so well-restored that they look as though they might have been filmed yesterday. And rounding out the special features on the disc are trailers from KING KONG, SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (Willis O'Brien's three great "Giant Ape" movies), and other Cooper productions.

If you're a fan of KING KONG, or you just want to see what all the fuss is about, there's never been a better time to watch this film in all its glory. The passage of time, and the advancement of special-effects technology, have not dimmed its power. It is still one of the greatest -- perhaps the greatest -- adventure films ever made.

Buy it at

Read our review of the 2005 Peter Jackson remake

Read our review of SON OF KONG


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