Although rife with racist and misogynistic overtones (and even fucking blackface), it’s not difficult for me to imagine this being my favorite film of all time if I lived 80 or so years in the past. Really, its only serious competition would almost certainly be confined to the Universal Monsters series. Although I’m not certain King Kong had any designs on metatextuality, it represents the advent of a type of filmmaking that is the same kind of ambitious, crowd-pleasing spectacle that Denham intended to provide the people of New York by exhibiting the captured Kong.
While the Empire State Building sequence is certainly the more famous part of the film, and it’s entirely understandable why it stands out in people’s minds, I have to say that I’m much more interested in everything that happens on Skull Island. I could do without the racist characterization of the natives (though, I do have to give a respectful nod to the ones who react to Kong by making what look like fursuits to celebrate him; I’m right there with you, my dudes). But there’s more than enough to make up for it with such spectacular sights as Kong literally fighting dinosaurs. It’s kind of interesting, by the way, that Denham and company are fixated on capturing Kong but seemingly unfazed by the presence of living, breathing dinosaurs. And, on that subject: is this movie really asking me to feel sorry for the dudes who shot at a brontosaurus and then got killed in retaliation? Those are some majestic long-necked herbivores, you dunces. You had it coming.
My favorite sequence of the film has got to be an enraged Kong smashing through the village’s gates and terrorizing everyone. Kong shows a lot of personality here, and even a bit of a sadistic streak, as he crushes buildings and kills a few people very deliberately by picking them up, dropping them into the mud, and then stepping on them very slowly. This is a rather vivid contrast to a lot of more recent monster movies where if anyone does get stepped on by these big boys, you get the rather strong impression that it’s more out of carelessness than a deliberate act of cruelty. I know this might feel a bit incompatible with the film’s later empathizing with Kong, but King Kong is a monster movie first and foremost, and you won’t get very far if your monster doesn’t genuinely scare anybody.
It’s this sort of broad, exciting action that actually gives King Kong its timeless appeal in spite of the readily apparent technological limitations imposed on it by its place in time. I will say that I greatly prefer the Japanese approach of suitmation to the stop-motion animation employed by King Kong and numerous other early American monster movies, and the optical compositing is obviously far from seamless (though, that’s also often a problem in early Japanese monster movies when incorporating two different scales in one shot). But honestly this holds up way better than we have any right to demand of it, and it’s difficult for me to imagine how awestruck audiences must’ve been at the time.
Kong is never going to dethrone Godzilla as my favorite giant monster. Truth be told, he might not even be in my top ten. But it’s quite possible that none of the others would even exist if it weren’t for Kong, and for that he’s more than earned my everlasting gratitude.