We all know the story, even if we haven’t seen the film. Risk-taking (and potentially criminally irresponsible) documentary maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters a ship and sets off for an uncharted island. On board are first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), the woman Denham has tapped for the lead in his film. They arrive at Skull Island, and before long, Ann is kidnapped and offered as a sacrifice to Kong. The giant ape falls for Ann, and a romantic trian…le of truly mythic proportions ensues as Jack and Kong struggle with each other (and other monsters) for possession of the woman.
It has been pointed out before that this is one of Hollywood’s most perfect constructions of a myth, a view I heartily endorse. But it is a very conscious creation of such, and is also rigorously metafilmic, with Denham clearly based on co-director Merian C. Cooper. The scene of Denham’s test shots of Ann, where she must react to something that isn’t actually there, is a pretty direct echo of the direction Cooper would have been giving to Wray when she was supposed to be reacting to Kong. This is a film that rewards endless repeat viewings, serving up more riches, more interpretational possibilities, each time. But it is also one of the greatest entertainments in film history. The special effects have lost none of their ability to charm and strike at the heart. Kong is as alive and fully realized a character as any human. And the adventure! Oh, the adventure! After a measured build-up for the first 45 minutes, all stops are suddenly pulled, and the audience is propelled through a non-stop series of breathless set-pieces at a pace that still has not been surpassed. I can do no better than to conclude with the words of Dennis Gifford: “‘The Strangest Story Ever Conceived by Man!’ … ‘The Greatest Film the World Will Ever See!’ For once the catchlines were right. In the history of horror movies, indeed of movies, King Kong still towers above them all.”
Back in 1988, an restored version of the movie surfaced on VHS, and the sound had been remastered into stereo. It could be argued, then, that there has been a small step backward in this release, which only has the original mono option. However, we are talking about sound from 1933 here, only a half-dozen years into the sound era, so there really isn’t much to be gained in a stereo mix. This is not to say that the soundtrack isn’t rich – from the glorious Max Steiner score to the innovative roaring of the monsters, it is very rich indeed. The mono here is clear and as undistorted and static-free is it is possible for a film of this era to expect. The sound is pretty rich, too, and the original overture is included.
Much of the above applies to the picture, too. Remember that the film is closing in on its 75th anniversary. There is some grain, but it is inevitable, as is some softness of the image here and there. Generally speaking, however, the image is extremely sharp. The black-and-white tones are moody and pleasing to the eye, with especially nice blacks. The contrasts are sharp, and it is worth noting that the importance of this, since for decades the film was available only with the contrasts artificially darkened (so you couldn’t see the blood pouring out of the dinosaurs, and plenty of other subtle FX touches were also lost – all of this plus cuts to the more violent and sexual sequences). There is virtually no damage to the print (barring one or two instances of scratching). Edge enhancement is not a problem.
Disc 1 has eight trailers for other Cooper films, and a fine commentary track. FX legend Ray Harryhausen is joined by Ken Ralston for a discussion that, while oriented towards the effects, also deals with Harryhausen’s fascinating memories of seeing the film upon its initial release. Interviews with Cooper and Wray are also included on the track. Terrific stuff.
Also terrific are the two documentaries on Disc 2. “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” looks at a filmmaker whose life was worthy of Indiana Jones, while “RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World” is very comprehensive. The discussion of the lost spider sequence is particularly good, and as a special treat, also included is a re-creation of the sequence by Peter Jackson and company. Their effort looks utterly genuine. Even rarer is the test footage Willis O’Brien did for the never-shot Creation, and Harryhausen is on hand again for the commentary. The menu’s main screen is animated and scored.
A further note: be sure to pick up the boxed set, which includes the long out-of-print Song of Kong and the original Mighty Joe Young.
The ultimate Beauty and the Beast tale was a long time in coming to DVD. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary
- “I’m King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” Documentary
- “RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World” Documentary
- Lost Spider Scene Recreation
- Creation Test Footage with Ray Harryhausen Commentary
- Trailer Gallery