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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Armstrong’

I have the vague suspicion that I’ve been putting off writing about the original King Kong from 1933 for nearly twenty years (basically since I started writing about films on the internet in the summer of 2001). Obviously, it isn’t an overwhelming aversion, as I am about to do just that, but I suppose I would articulate it as a vague sense of feeling supernumerary. King Kong was released 87 years ago, was a massive success, inadvertently spawned (if you believe some sceptical cryptozoologists) the modern phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster myth, quickly became an icon, and so on. People have been writing about this film for the best part of the century. I think I once described it as a keystone movie in the history of cinema, staking out the territory for both the monster movie genre and that of the special effects blockbuster.

It is also quite recognisably the inaugurator of the phenomenon of a great film being followed by a raft of mostly substandard follow-ups, sequels, knock-offs and remakes: if you put all the Kong films – this, the 1976 one, the 2005 one, King Kong Lives, King Kong Escapes, Son of Kong, Queen Kong, Konga, Kong: Skull Island, and so on – in a stack and then pulled one out at random, your chances of ending up with something genuinely good are – well, they’re better than if you’ve got the Hellraiser or Highlander franchises in a stack, I suppose, but they’re still not fantastic.

But here we go: the original monster movie, which I shall endeavour to find something new to say about. Directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, this takes us back to the days when movies didn’t hang about, and you could do a properly epic adventure in under 100 minutes: King Kong is a model of economy, giving you everything you need and want, and very little that you don’t.

(Do I really need to precis the plot? Oh well, for form’s sake.) The story gets underway in Depression-era New York, with movie-making impressario Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) about to set off on his latest film-making expedition – the need to depart is quite pressing, as if the port authorities discover the small arsenal he has assembled on board. But the market has spoken and, somewhat to Denham’s disgust, the new movie needs a female lead. So he pops into the city and hustles (practically kidnaps) starving young actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) into joining the venture (no pun intended).

The ship sails off for somewhere in the South Seas (possibly the Indian Ocean – the film-makers quite rightly keep the exact location of Kong’s island a secret), and you would expect this to be one of the points of the film which marks time a bit. But no: the film-makers cheekily stuff this section with brazen foreshadowing of the rest of the film: Denham explains how the film he’s planning on making is about a big tough guy who is doomed from the moment he falls in love, and then goes on to shoot some test footage of Ann which anticipates her encountering a giant monster. What are the chances?!?

Well, they arrive at their destination, a remote island never before seen by westerners, where the key points of interest are a mountain shaped like a skull and a giant wall isolating the peninsula where the natives live from the rest of the place. Here I suppose we must address the fact that the representation of the islanders in King Kong would be unforgivable in a modern movie, but – and I’m sorry if I seem to be making hard work of this issue, but that’s the world today for you – as I have noted, King Kong was made 87 years ago, and it would be as unfair to judge its presentation of other cultures by modern standards as it would be to compare its special effects to those of a contemporary film. To be honest, the islanders in the movie come off pretty well: they’re not presented as idiots or the comic relief, and they do show up to help in the big fight at the end of the second act.

Anyway, as Denham suspected, on the other side of the wall lives a man-beast known only as Kong, whom the islanders worship and occasionally placate by giving him a woman. They are very keen for Ann to take this role, and resort to kidnapping her to this end, although not before lunky first mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) can plight his troth to her in tooth-grindingly folksy style (if there is a real weak link in King Kong, it is Cabot’s performance, although the actor did go on to have a respectable movie career which only concluded with Diamonds are Forever in 1971).

Ann gets offered up to Kong, who turns out to be a giant cross between a gorilla and something out of Wallace & Gromit, and he carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll and the others give chase, and from this point on it’s rollicking pulpy fun all the way – stegosaurs! Tyrannosaurs! The weird skull-crawler lizard they revived for the 2017 film! Man-eating sauropods! Serpents! Pteranodons! Thankfully the test audience thought that the giant spiders were too much and they were taken out of the movie. Even so, few monster movies, especially ones using stop-motion animation, are so packed with set-pieces as this one.

If King Kong is a classic – and I think we can agree it is – then it is because the makers seem to have hit upon the basic structure of the monster movie as a cinematic genre, and it appears here almost fully formed: not just that, but also executed to a very high standard. Once Kong appears, the films moves like a bullet, with scarcely a wasted moment or scene (something you can hardly say about the Peter Jackson remake, in particular).

Other than the fact that it was done first and done so well, is there anything else that makes King Kong unusual or distinctive? Well – a few things do occur to me, actually. The first is that the film’s influence on the Japanese tradition of monster movies may be rather stronger than it is generally considered to be – of course, Willis O’Brien’s effects inspired Ray Harryhausen, who made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was unofficially remade as the original Godzilla. But the engine of subsequent Japanese movies was the notion of the monsters fighting each other, and it seems to me that the fight between Kong and the tyrannosaur in the second act was the inspiration for this. Tellingly, when Godzilla took on his first monstrous rival (Anguirus, in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again), it is also in the second act, and concludes with the same kind of graphic brutality as Kong crushing the carnosaur’s jaws (there are many quite grisly touches to this film).

The again, watching this film again for the first time in ages, it strikes me that there is something quite odd about its structure. If you look at it in terms of the traditional story structure they teach on screenwriting courses, it fits the usual pattern reasonably well: the inciting incident comes when they all set off on the voyage, with the revelation of Kong’s true nature coming around the midpoint. There’s the moment of despair when Kong kills most of Driscoll’s party, followed by a rollicking final act in which Ann is rescued, but Kong pursues her back to the village, where there is a great battle and the ape is finally defeated!

Except, of course, there is a whole other act still to come, concerning the exhibition of Kong in New York and what inevitably follows. It’s hard to imagine King Kong without its famous climax, but something still feels slightly off about the way the movie is constructed. I would almost suggest that the final act of the movie is the one which makes it, as it is here that Kong finally becomes the anti-heroic figure, exuding pathos, which has ensured the character has become so iconic – but, again, it almost seems like this happens by mistake. I get a strong sense that the fact that Kong becomes sympathetic was unanticipated by the film-makers, as it doesn’t seem to have been scripted. If we are meant to be rooting for Kong, then why is Denham presented in such a neutral fashion? He’s not the greedy exploiter he’s presented as in either of the sequels, nor does he receive any kind of comeuppance at the end of the film – instead, he gets the punchline to the whole movie.

Anyway, these are the things that occurred to me while watching King Kong again for the umpteenth time. It’s a great movie that stands up well, much better than many of its contemporaries. I believe I did once suggest that if I had to watch a version of King Kong for simple entertainment value and comfort viewing, it might be the 1976 version, flawed though it obviously is. Well, maybe that’s still the case, but it’s this one which is justly regarded as a classic. I think this is one of those movies that will be with us for as long as cinema endures.

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Sticking with our theme of watching the next best thing, one of the films I was considering seeing before everything shut down was The Hunt, a satirical horror movie which managed the considerable feat of annoying the famously temperate and unflappable Donald Trump. The movie apparently concerns right-wing Americans being hunted for sport by liberals. This reminds me a bit of The Last Supper, a Cameron Diaz movie from the mid-90s which I remember as being pretty decent, but to be honest on this occasion I am going to look a bit further back, to 1932 and Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game.

The movie opens on a steamer in what turns out to be the Pacific Ocean: they are approaching a dangerous passage and the captain is a little perturbed that the navigation lights aren’t quite where he remembers them being. Meanwhile, back in the saloon, the passengers (all rich white dudes) are engaging in a little philosophical chat. Amongst them is celebrated big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), who is quizzed about the morality of his chosen career: why do we consider humans civilised and animals savage, when we’re the ones who hunt and kill for pleasure? Bob is not swayed by this argument, suggesting that some animals actually enjoy the excitement of the hunt. Ah, says Bob’s interlocutor, but would you choose to swap places with one of the animals you hunt? Bob ducks the question. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’ he declares, ‘the hunters and the hunted, and I’m always going to be one of the hunters.’ Really, Bob? Are you absolutely sure about that?

Right on cue, the ship hits some rocks and sinks, with Rainsford the only survivor. He washes up on the shore of a nearby island and makes his way to the imposing fortress he discovers there, which seems to be staffed by Russian Cossacks. This is because it is the home of exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance, being a fan of his books. Zaroff is also a hunter, and sees a kindred spirit in Bob.

Apparently ships sink quite a lot near Zaroff’s private island, and also enjoying the Count’s hospitality are Eve and Martin Trowbridge, two other survivors (they are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, whom you may well recognise from another movie in particular, but we’ll return to this). They arrived here with a couple of sailors, but they are apparently off hunting somewhere and haven’t been seen for days.

Light dinner conversation ensues. Zaroff recounts how he was gored in the head by a buffalo, ever since when he has begun to find hunting less challenging, and thus less satisfying. Even using a Tartar bow instead of a rifle has failed to bring that old thrill back. But on this island he has found the answer! Here he can hunt and kill the most dangerous animals in the world, to his heart’s content…

Well, you’ve probably guessed it: Zaroff is a nutter who gets his kicks from hunting human beings. He thinks this is quite a fair contest, as if his quarry survives until the dawn following the start of the hunt they are allowed to go free (no-one has lasted this long so far). Bob, however, is appalled to learn of all this, and with a heavy heart Zaroff accepts that Bob and he are not going to be BFFs, and that he’ll have to hunt and kill Bob like all the others. Bob and Eve head into the jungle while Zaroff strings his bow and puts on his hunting trousers…

One prominent source suggests that the original short story on which this is based, Richard Connell’s The Hounds of Zaroff, is the most popular short story ever written in the English language. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one of the most-copied plots in both film and TV history. There have apparently been a dozen relatively straight adaptations of the story for cinema alone – apart from The Hunt, this year is due to see the release of Tremors 7, which is apparently another riff on the idea – before we even get to films which owe it an obvious debt, like Predator or The Hunger Games. The same is true of TV (I am particularly fond of the Incredible Hulk episode The Snare, in which an insane millionaire who hunts drifters for fun is surprised to find the Hulk in his sights). Given all this, you would expect this to be another case of the originator being outshone by its own successors.

And yet this isn’t quite the case. The Most Dangerous Game still stands up as a classic, if rather pulpy adventure story, and its easy to see it as part of a tradition of timeless genre movies coming out of Hollywood at this time. The 1932 release means it slots in very neatly between 1931’s Dracula (sinister eastern European aristocrat preys upon nice English-speaking folk after they visit his castle) and 1933’s King Kong (trip to a remote Pacific island does not go well). The comparisons with King Kong are particularly significant as this movie was made by the same team, featuring two of the same actors (Fay Wray is assured of screen immortality for her role in Kong, while Robert Armstrong is in another of the lead roles). I always thought King Kong was made as the follow-up to this, but apparently the two films were produced simultaneously on the same jungle sets.

Just as King Kong essentially inaugurated the Hollywood monster movie and special-effects blockbuster genres, so you could argue that The Most Dangerous Game did the same for the high-concept action-adventure movie. It has a solid script, with some unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and concludes with a well-mounted action sequence that’s still surprisingly effective today. The only area in which it shows its age is the pacing, which is probably a consequence of the film only being about an hour long – the situation and characters are introduced with care and intelligence, but the downside of this is that the actual sequence in which Zaroff hunts Rainsford doesn’t get underway until the final third of the movie. It inevitably feels somehow unbalanced as a result. Apart from this, however, the film stands up very well for its age. The basic premise of the story is such a strong and obviously dramatic one that there’s no reason to expect people will stop revisiting it on a regular basis, no matter what Donald Trump says. As it is, few films from quite so long ago have lasted as well as this one.

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