The 'King' is alive and roaring

One of the things that make movies such a fascinating and beguiling medium is that memorably good ones, even great ones, can get made by people who had no business making a great movie, and stumble all over their own inadequacies even as they're going about it. The 1933 "King Kong" is perhaps the supreme example.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who directed it, were classic, knockabout adventurer types with a wealth of perilous and colorful experiences between them. They'd go anywhere - anywhere - to find trouble, and in the mid-1920s they started taking a movie camera along. Two classic, still mind-blowing documentaries resulted: "Grass" (1925), a spectacular account of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of Persia in which, during the crossing of a rain-swollen river, we watch a few dots being swept downstream, and we know we're seeing real people going to their deaths; and "Chang" (1927), shot in the jungles of Thailand, where an elephant stampede thunders right past the camera lens and a tiger starts climbing the tree from which Schoedsack is filming. (Think this is hyperbole? Check out the Milestone Film & Video DVDs.)

Switching to fiction filmmaking, Cooper and Schoedsack stuck to their spectacle-loving guns but started hiring co-directors to tame an unfamiliar species: movie actors. With Lothar Mendes they did an early version of "The Four Feathers" (1929 - not to be confused with the definitive, Korda version in Technicolor 10 years later). Then, with Irving Pichel sharing the directors' card, came "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932), an adventure thriller based on the popular Richard Connell tale of a big-game hunter who's graduated to stalking two-legged prey on his own private island. A trim (just over an hour long), vigorous action-suspense film, the movie was also an early run-through for scenes and camera strategies to be elaborated in their dream project, a shock-and-awe epic about the overlord of another private island, who happened to be a giant ape.

Let's cut to the chase, always the chase. "King Kong," with its enchanting stop-motion special effects by Willis O'Brien, became the sensation it was meant to be and an instant classic besides. The ingenuously simple scenario, with its bold symmetry of a voyage from civilization to prehistoric savagery and back again - from Manhattan Island to Skull Island to Manhattan, trading cliffs for skyscrapers, long-necked dinosaurs for hurtling El trains, predatory pterodactyls for pesky aeroplanes - came built for thrills and also, as it turned out, inexhaustible resonance and ambiguity. Dark savages kidnap a blond leading lady and offer her up to "the tallest, darkest leading man" an actress could imaginably have ... but wasn't her white producer-director, a character bearing more than a little resemblance to Cooper and/or Schoedsack, planning to arrange more or less the same encounter? And then, as every kid and most adults since 1933 have known, the monster ape - without ceasing to be monstrous - turns out to be one of the most potently sympathetic figures in screen history.

How much did Cooper and Schoedsack - cooking up the scenario with the English potboiler writer Edgar Wallace (who died early in the process) and Ruth Rose (Mrs. Schoedsack, the model for the movie's heroine) - know what they were doing? Is their movie an expression of racism/sexism or a forthright critique thereof? It's a scathing meta-commentary on irresponsible showmanship and the various ways it can turn destructive, but did they relish the irony or merely perpetrate it?

I remember kicking these questions around with a Helix colleague back in counterculture days. He had no problem giving C&S credit for their achievement, which had long since become part and parcel of our collective cultural consciousness. "They were true artists," he insisted. "Artists don't have to be fully conscious of what they're doing - the movie speaks for itself. They were authentic primitives. And primitive art can be great."

I think he was right. But to return to the note on which these remarks began, in many particulars the movie is filled with evidence of its makers' considerable limitations. Fay Wray's abundantly imperiled Ann Darrow is almost as sacred in cultural memory as the Big Guy himself, and hence beyond criticism. But Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, the freakshow filmmaker, and Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll, the studly first mate aboard Denham's ship and Ann's official love interest, deliver poses and line readings of vaulting inadequacy, and to the extent they are directed at all, the direction is ludicrous.

The thing is, it doesn't matter all that much. No more than the technologically inevitable datedness and lack of persuasive "realism" of many of O'Brien's once-visionary special effects diminish the aura of legend-of myth - that long ago settled around this time-honored fantasy. There are moments in the 1933 "King Kong" that remain, against all odds and all accounting, sheer poetry.

Like that predawn image of four flimsy biplanes rocking down a runway across the river from the New York skyline, imbued with the fragility and also the state-of-the-art, hi-tech grandeur of a still-new and daring mode of travel, lifting off for a murderous rendezvous with immortality.

New beast on the block

So Peter Jackson, the man who made such a personal, cottage-industy triumph of "Lord of the Rings," has gone and remade "King Kong." The tech is as hi as it gets - we expected no less - and nothing in its deployment implies derision, or anything but reverence, for what O'Brien and company were able to accomplish seven Pleistocene decades ago. The first "Kong" is Jackson's favorite film, the movie that made him want to make movies of his own, and unlike the updated, charitably forgotten remake of 1976, Jackson's version restores the fable to its own proper zeitgeist, the Depression.

Much is being made of the fact that Jackson's "Kong" is nearly an hour and a half longer than Cooper and Schoedsack's, with fully an hour's "delay" before the title character has a chance to make an entrance. By 1933 standards - and for that matter those of the '50s, when I met the film on rerelease - Kong's appearance is notably delayed in the original, too, and the more effective for it. Jackson isn't padding anything. Clearly he felt that his obligations to homage included coming up with an adaptation, not a shot-for-shot replication (as Gus Van Sant enigmatically felt compelled to do with "Psycho"), and he uses his extra time with commendable purpose.

For one thing, the new screenplay (by Jackson and his "Lord of the Rings" colleagues) deepens the conventional hero-figure: the narrative function of first mate Jack Driscoll is reinterpreted as and redistributed among several characters, including a matinee idol whom Carl Denham (Jack Black) has lured into his mad enterprise (Kyle Chandler) and a playwright and reluctant screenwriter (Adrien Brody) in whose work aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) hoped to appear on the New York stage. For another, Jackson has quietly set to ensuring that when Denham announces to the New York audience in the third act that "17 of our comrades met horrible deaths," the 17 won't be just a number; they're a crew, not faceless fodder for miscellaneous prehistoric catastrophes.

Jackson spent upwards of $200 million on his "Kong," but it's all onscreen. One can argue that there's really no improving on the original's slow approach to uncharted Skull Island, with the ship pressing through fog to the rising thrum of Max Steiner's music (one of the first original scores composed for a screen spectacle), and Denham drifting to the rail smoking as Gustave Doré-like cliffs break into view with birds and bats winging through the middle distance (they would be drafted from the RKO effects library eight years hence to punctuate Citizen Kane's outsized Florida barbecue). But Jackson's upping of the creative ante pays off splendidly in a harrowingly well-executed sequence of the ship being swept almost onto sea-wracked rocks that suggest, only suggest, ancient pagan sculptures that translate the ape god's physiognomy into the very stones of his island kingdom.

That's a crucial touch, and part of a pattern that seems to be going unnoticed or misunderstood in some reports of the film. The original had its dinosaurs and other emblems of a land that time forgot, but Skull Island's human populace was standard-issue movie natives, and African natives at that (Cooper was initially inspired to do the film by memories of a trip to Africa). A few reviewers have suggested, with PC decorousness, that Jackson's reversion to racist stereotype is one article of homage the movie could have done without. But Jackson's natives aren't "blacks" - they're prehistoric remnants in their own right, evolution gone wrong, pre- - and never gonna be - human. They're the species Skull Island should have had in the first place, as the first place.

It's been protested, not without justice, that there is a bit too much in Jackson's movie. Too many chases, too many creepy critters, one too many twists and climaxes within a given sequence. Yet it's also accurate to propose that Jackson is such a master of pacing - as he showed himself to be in the also-overlong, overstuffed "Lord of the Rings" - that finally none of the time seems wasted. Efficiency is a fine thing, but it's not the only thing or even the main thing. Jackson's imaginary world is an imaginative world, lovingly and persuasively detailed. Three hours is a small price to pay for being in it.

The heart of the movie is, of course, the central love story - not Ann and Jack, but Ann and Kong. When the 1933 version was reissued in later years, among the deletions was a moment - giddily embellished in my-uncle-told-me lore for '50s and '60s "Kong" watchers - when the ape, having carried Fay Wray off to his aerie, sat down and began to peel away her tattered clothes. (That scene, along with some images of native-chewing and people-stomping, was restored around the turn of the '70s.) That Kong might have a sexual interest in Ann Darrow is a notion Jackson simply does not entertain. He's more interested in a marriage of true .. well, not minds, but souls: creatures who reach across the gulf of species and cultures to establish a bond of trust and mutual appreciation. This is, finally, the most special effect in "King Kong," so fully achieved that we scarcely dream of questioning it.

It's Jackson's triumph, to be sure, born of a good and faithful heart and realized through amazingly subtle direction of the characters' every interaction. But it'd all be locked on a storyboard somewhere if not for the superb performances of Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis. Serkis, the anthropomorphic prototype of "Lord of the Rings"' Gollum, contributed the great ape's expressions and gestures (he also has a more conventionally visible role as the dorkiest of the ship's crew).

As for Watts, she matches Fay Wray's gameness as the gamest of screen maidens in jeopardy and rockets way beyond that. In the kind of genre role that rarely rates consideration for Academy honors, she meets the camera - and by all means Kong's enthralled gaze - head-on, her heart in her eyes. She's a splendid actress and, in an era that has all but forgotten what the term really means, a genuine star. A movie star, in a genuine movie.

Seattle-based movie critic Richard T. Jameson may be reached through[[In-content Ad]]