There is an expedition planned by sea to an undisclosed location by the adventurer and filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), but he is having trouble with the authorities, largely due to his efforts to bring a collection of highly dangerous gas bombs with him - each with enough charge to knock out an elephant. He must embark early tomorrow morning or the expedition will be delayed for months, yet there's still someone missing for his film, and she is the love interest. In desperation, he takes to the streets and searches for a young woman to fit, and as luck would have it he meets the destitute Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who jumps at the chance to take the job... could she be making a mistake?
One of the most famous films of all time, even when it was released to sensational business in 1933, and its renown has endured not only the passage of the years but also two lesser remakes, one better than the other, to be fair, and countless imitations and references which have only added to its reputation as a cultural touchstone. Which is all very well, but classics can begin to look pretty musty after a good few decades, which makes the experience of viewing King Kong all the more vital. Not only is it charmingly dated, it has such a potent idea at its heart that it still commands the attention even now.
Indeed, when directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, no strangers to adventure themselves, came up with this idea, little did they know they would be creating an archetype which would be as resonant as the most oft-told fairy tale. In its day, this was a spectacle designed to forget the Depression for a couple of hours, and we see the poverty-stricken at the beginning to remind us of the hardships Ann and millions of others are going through, but who can resist a tale of unrequited love so vast that the enamoured half of the couple tears up a whole city in his endeavours to prove himself worthy of the woman who cannot see past his, shall we say, gruff exterior?
That rogue male does not appear until the film is almost halfway through, and before that there is a suspenseful buildup where Denham refuses to let on too much about what he knows is lurking on that isolated island. In the meantime, he coaches Ann in acting for the camera, and Wray is adorable in these scenes, genuinely grateful to be escaping her desperate life and filled with a girlish enthusiasm because of it. Which naturally makes us feel for her all the more when her big break turns into a nightmare: on landing at Skull Island, Denham and the crew make contact with the natives, but the Chief (Noble Johnson) is less than pleased to see them and orders them away.
However, blonde and beautiful Ann has caught their eye and under cover of night they kidnap her from the ship and substitute her for the sacrifice victim they were planning to offer up to their god. That god, Ann finds out soon enough, is King Kong, playing himself according to the credits, but actually a combination of large puppets and Willis O'Brien's seared-on-the-memory stop motion effects, bringing what could have been ridiculous to electrifying life. Once Kong arrives, there's only one word for what happens next: carnage, with the ship's crew chasing after Ann and her captor and being picked off by the local wildlife, fulfilling almost every schoolchild's dream of finding a place on this earth where the dinosaurs survived. It's a surprisingly bloodthirsty film, but the purity of Kong's love endures to make him sympathetic so that the real tragedy is clear to us and nobody else but Denham - Kong is in control when he's resorting to his beast nature, but when it comes to matters of the heart, he is doomed. The Empire State Building finale is justly classic and moving; poor old Kong, he thought he'd found his ideal woman and all he got was despair he barely understood. Music by Max Steiner.