The climactic battle
The first movie I ever rented (and on VHS, at that) was King Kong. If you’re wondering which version I’m talking about, then you’re thinking of the wrong one. To me, there is only one.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to buy a newly restored and remastered DVD version (well, new as of 2006), which is certainly much clearer than my old VHS version was. The main reason I bought it was to revisit a movie that I loved, and that has strong ties to my movie watching days as a child, but the main reason I saw it last night was to make sure that the scene where Kong undresses Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) was kept intact (hey, I like my movies uncut). It was, but what I also noticed were snatches of dialogue and (because of the better picture) screen images that I hadn’t noticed before, or that hit me anew with their power. In its remastered form, the first appearance of Kong is still one of the scariest and greatest scenes in all of cinema, and it’s one of many. That’s one reason why, despite having one of the worst love confession scenes ever (Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones might have been worse), and acting that isn’t anything special (minus Wray’s lungs–yep, she was the original scream queen), this film has withstood the test of time.
The plot follows a famous movie director named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who leads an expedition to a mysterious island to make his next picture. Unfortunately, his leading lady (Wray) is kidnapped by the tribesman as a gift for a mysterious deity that they worship called “Kong.” Many men, including Denham and First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who has fallen in love with Ann, trek deep into the island in the hopes of rescuing her.
One could be cynical and say that this movie is all about special effects, and, to a large extent, it is, but it’s also about great shots. Notice how, when Kong first appears, we don’t see his face right away, as he’s looking down at some trees that he’s destroying. Instead, what we notice is his size. When we do see his face, it’s with teeth bared, and then comes the first closeup shot of his head which, to my surprise, gave me the creeps. I haven’t felt that way about the opening shot since the first time I saw it, and I was much younger then. Other great scenes (in chronological order) include the log scene, the fight with the T-Rex, the gate scene, the train scene, and–of course–the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building. That’s five excellent scenes, plus his first appearance makes six (and that’s not including some great scenes early in the movie, including the boat’s approach to the island in the fog). All done with stop motion animation and puppetry. Even today, the effects hold up, despite and because of their fakeness, much more so than questionable computer animation will generations hence.
This brings up another point: King Kong was remade twice, once in the seventies with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and then a true-to-the-original remake with Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts. All better actors than Cabot and Wray (minus Wray’s formidable screaming), and the Peter Jackson version (the newest one) contains the latest special effects. So why, then, do people still prefer this somewhat clunky version from 1933, myself included? The answer, I think, would save us from any more special editions or new, computer-generated remakes of great films.
We love movies for two reasons. The first time we see a movie, we love it because of how it makes us feel. When we see a movie years later, we love it because we remember how it made us feel that first time, and how it continues to make us feel. Change part of a film, and you change our relationship with it. It would be like watching an old movie of yourself, but instead of acting foolish, armed only with the knowledge you had as a child, you act intelligent, armed with the knowledge you have now. Less embarrassing to watch, perhaps, but you wouldn’t want to watch it again and again, because movies are meant to be timeless while evoking a specific period in time. I want to see Star Wars the way I saw it when I was a child, because the movie carries with it part of my childhood. The Special Editions may be what Lucas wanted, but they are not what I originally saw. They are not the same films. So even though, by all accounts, Peter Jackson made a version of King Kong that was better than the original, it is the original to which I shall return again and again (being over an hour shorter than Jackson’s version helps, too). To be fair, he remade the film as an act of love, but the greater act of love would have been to leave the movie alone, just as we most honor the people we love by accepting them as they are, instead of trying to change them for the better.
Note: I have not seen the Peter Jackson version of King Kong. Part of the reason why is because I feel no urgent need to see a three-hour version of a movie that I enjoyed so much in its original one hour forty-five minute incarnation. While I do hope to see the film at some point, I know that even if it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, it will not replace the area in my heart reserved for the original, for the reasons I’ve discussed above.