“We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear. We’re millionaires, boys. I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.” – Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)
To 1933’s audiences, King Kong was a horrifying monster film. To modern audiences, it is a horrifying display of racism coupled with commentary on American imperialism. But if you can look past the blatant symbolism, the film itself is a relic of filmmakers’ imagination.
A movie crew travels to Skull Island only to find what they believe to be a spectacle of an African tribe preparing for a ceremony. When the tribal leaders see Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), the young actress accompanying the explorers, they abduct her to give to the monster — King Kong — in return for safety. It’s up to her companions to save her and bring the beast back to New York as evidence of their travels, but first they must encounter a fantastical world of dinosaurs, jungle and Kong himself.
The “beast” himself is a symbol for 1933’s stereotype of the African male. He is wild, violent and obsessed with his blond bride; this leads the crew to either run from him or capture him. Although some might argue that bringing Kong to New York is the film’s way of portraying American ingenuity when it comes to imperialism and technology, it could also be seen as a “We shouldn’t have done that” story because of the havoc wreaked by the beast, such as the destroyed train and chewed-up pedestrians. Either way, the story of King Kong is representational of American imperialism and the need for domesticating the “wild” non-white races.
But in a different historical context — that of film — King Kong is important for a totally different reason. It was the opener to future monsters, where the scariest things were no longer vampires and other humanoid terrors, but building-sized creatures that destroyed cities and stole women. When thought of as only being made five years after the introduction of sound to cinema, the effects are amazing for their time. And Wray is the greatest of all damsels in distress, embodying a trope found in stories before and after the 1933 film put a face and name to it.
King Kong may be a monster flick, but its racial motivations and technical innovations make it far more than the average “creature feature.”