Hollywood again exercises its creative powers by remaking a classic film. This time it’s one of the best monster films ever made—King Kong. So far there have been two remakes since the original came out in 1933--one in 1976 and the latest, so far, in 2005.
Warning: I shall reveal significant plot events and the ending.
The plot, to summarize, is thus: “civilized” people are on their way to exploit the “savages” of an uncharted island in the south Pacific. The inhabitants of the island worship a giant ape and decide the female aboard the ship would be a perfect sacrifice. So they kidnap her one dark and stormy night. The giant ape, King Kong, is pleased with her and takes her off to his lair. Those aboard the ship get up a rescue party, and the hero single-handedly rescues her from her large, hairy admirer. Enraged, Kong follows, is captured, and is brought back to New York. Put on display for the entertainment of the depression era citizenry, Kong breaks free, grabs the heroine, and climbs the highest building around, where he is attacked by aircraft and ultimately plunges to his death.
King Kong I (1933): According to imdb.com, the original King Kong has two directors (both unaccredited), Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoesack. This version is characterized by its setting—dark, moody, threatening. The landscape is bleak and ominous. The film is in black-and-white which adds to the darkness of the story and its setting. Its special effects, while primitive compared to today’s technology, still are very effective. Moreover, they do not distract from the story so that the viewer spends more time marveling over the effects and forgets about the story.
King Kong II (1976) John Guillerman is the director of the second version. He attempts to update it by changing the purpose of the voyage to an oil exploration expedition. It is in color, so it lacks that dark grim tone that characterized the first version. He also changed the site of Kong’s death by moving it from the Empire State Building to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The male lead also has long hair, an obvious attempt to play to the young crowd. Guillerman also brought into the open the sexual undertone that lurked beneath the surface in the first version, especially the celebrated scene by the waterfall. The special effects, as to be expected, were superior to the first version, but really added little to the overall effect of the film which has become just another action-oriented film, one among many..
King Kong III (2005) Peter Jackson directed this version, and based on what he did to King Kong, I fear for the fate of The Hobbit, which he is, no doubt, busy improving on what JRR Tolkien had written. It’s due in 2012. This version of King Kong is a farce, a mockery of both versions, but especially the first. It lacks both the dark undertone of the first or the overt sexuality of the second.
In this version, the story seems to be mostly an excuse for the special effects, which ultimately become ludicrous. The fight dangling amidst the vines strains the imagination to its limit. The dinosaur stampede, while technically well done, is a joke. How could humans on foot escape being trampled by the lumbering dinosaurs in that narrow area bordered by high walls? Rather than inducing tension and fear in me, I laughed throughout both episodes. Moreover, Kong, throughout the film, hops about like a squirrel monkey or a young chimp, rather than a huge ponderous gorilla. To add to the farcical nature of the film, Jackson adds a chase scene at the end with Kong chasing the hero who’s driving a car--a car chase scene! It ain’t Bullitt, that’s for sure.
The endings of the three, surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), demonstrated some significant differences. One is the length of the time that lapses from Kong’s escape from the chains to his death. In the first version, this took approximately twelve minutes while the second and third versions stretched it out to over 25 minutes. In the first and third versions, Kong clearly is shot and, as a result, falls from the top of the Empire State Building. The films ends with Denham’s last line—“It was beauty that killed the beast.” In the second, the ending, to me anyway, is bit ambiguous. Did Kong fall from the World Trade Center tower because he was shot or did he simply give up and let go, thus committing suicide? Guillerman dropped the last line.
In the first version, Ann Darrow clearly fears Kong, while in the later versions, she attempts to save his life, even at the risk of her own in the third version. In fact, instead of avoiding him, she goes to meet him in the Jackson version (2005), and the viewer is treated to a comic interlude with Kong doing pratfalls on the ice. Well, at least Jackson didn't have them racing in slow-motion across a flower bedecked field to meet each other.
One other difference concerns the relationship between the Ann Darrow character and the male lead. In the first and third versions, there’s the sense they will be together, while the second version is far more ambiguous. She is surrounded by the press and the crowd; she has become a celebrity which can’t help but be seducing since she, in this version, is a starving actress who had gotten in trouble for stealing a loaf of bread to ease her hunger. He, at the same, time, is struggling to get to her but can’t because of the crowd of admirers and the press. I can easily see this as symbolic of their future relationship, if any.
As you may have guessed, I definitely prefer the first version and will choose that one when I choose to see it again. If I’m interested in a more erotic version, then I will go for the second. I see no reason to see the third unless I encounter some disagreement about what I think I saw in it, and then it will be only to double-check my memory.
P.S. A thought just occurred to me. During the ‘30s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s, heroines were wont to refer to significant males, especially at tender moments, as “you big lug,” or “you big galoot,” or “you big ape.” I wonder. . . No, probably just a coincidence.