The film King Kong (1933) represents one of the first films to revolutionize the use of special effects in action-adventure films. The film utilizes stop-motion animation to bring to life the wondrous beast of Kong, a legendary animal that lives on a secluded island. This film spawned a generation of special effects pictures and even several different versions of the King Kong story. While the special effects are on center display in this story, it is the character relationships that give substance to the wonderful effects. The character relationships play a central role in the development of the story and the creation of the audience-focused sequence and narrative trajectory.
King Kong was directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and represented a monumental task for the time in which it was made. The process of bringing King Kong to life was a tedious task which required the filmmakers to use stop-motion photography. The animators would move Kong’s arm little by little, photographing each movement and then splicing all of the movements together to create the animation for the beast. The film stars Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, an out-of-luck girl who happens to cross paths with Carl Denham (played with gusto by Robert Armstrong). Denham is a movie director who specializes in making pictures in far-off lands about exotic subjects. After his star drops out of his planned picture at the last moment, he goes looking for a replacement and finds Ann Darrow. He convinces her to set sail to a remote island in order to make a picture about a legendary beast named Kong. During the voyage, Ann falls in love with the first mate of the ship, Jack Driscoll (played by Bruce Cabot). When they arrive at the island, they find that it is inhabited by natives that worship Kong. The natives see Ann Darrow and marvel at her golden hair. They ask the crew if they can trade for her in order to sacrifice her to Kong. When the crew refuses and returns to the boat, the natives sneak onto the ship and kidnap her. They tie Ann up to a ritualistic post and wait for Kong to take her. However, when Kong arrives, he seems fascinated with her and takes her away, not wishing to kill her. Eventually, Jack and the rest of the crew find Kong and manage to capture him by using gas bombs. They take Kong back to New York in order to put him on display as the “8th Wonder of the World”. Kong does not wish to be held captive and breaks free of his chains in order to peruse Ann, who he has fallen in love with. Eventually, Kong finds Ann (after climbing the Empire State Building, one of the most famous images in all of cinema) and captures her. He seems to love her and marvel at her beauty. Unfortunately, the rest of the city does not see Kong as a gentle beast and they begin to attack him with planes. In the end, Kong is killed and Carl Denham replies that “It was beauty that killed the beast”. This film was a showcase for the wonderful special effects that were created in order to bring Kong to life, but it is the character interactions that give the story its depth and help to drive the action forward.
There are many character relationships in King Kong. The primary relationship exists between Kong and Ann Darrow. While Ann nearly always feels hunted by the beast and is frightened of its appearance and size, the beast seems to love Ann. Kong spends most of his time admiring the beauty of Ann and even in the end when he is surrounded by a strange city and thousands of people, he still yearns for her. He climbs the Empire State Building in order to find her and in the end he dies because of his love for her. Another important relationship in the film exists between Ann and Jack, the first mate of the ship that takes the film crew to the remote island. This relationship begins on shaky ground as Jack seems to be more irritated than pleased with her company. However, as the long voyage goes on, Jack begins to fall for Ann, and she for him. By the time they have reached the island, they are in love with each other. This alternate love story creates tension within the story because it makes the audience want to see both the gentle Kong succeed in his love and also Ann and Jack succeed in their love. Another relationship that is primary to the story is that between Carl Denham and Ann. Carl saves Ann off of the streets in the beginning of the film and gives her a chance at a new life. However, as he becomes more and more consumed with the idea of putting Kong on display, he endangers Ann’s life more and more. In the end, it is his greed for showmanship that leads to Kong’s ultimate fate. The relationships in King Kong are important in the development of the story and the progression of the plot, but they are also important in the creation of the audience-focused sequence and the narrative trajectory.
The audience-focused sequence acts as a guide post to the audience which leads them through the story and the beginning, middle and end of the plot. The first point of the audience-focused sequence is the attraction, or the setup of the film. In King Kong this is the setup that the crew is sailing to a remote island to capture and film the legendary beast Kong. This setup gives the audience its expectations as to what the story will be about. The second part of the audience-focused sequence is the anticipation. The anticipation is the moment when the audience’s expectations are contradicted because something happens that is unexpected. In King Kong this moment comes when King Kong falls in love with Ann Darrow. Although there may not be a specific moment when this happens, it is apparent that he is fascinated with her from the very beginning because he does not kill her when she is placed upon the sacrificing alter. The final point of the audience-focused sequence comes with the satisfaction. The satisfaction is the point when the hero faces the inner and outer challenges around him and either fails or succeeds in his goal. In King Kong this moment is hard to nail down. This is because King Kong dies in the end. The audience’s reaction to King Kong plays a central role in the idea of satisfaction. An audience member that sees Kong sympathetically may not be satisfied with his death in the end because he dies for his love of Ann. However, an audience member that sees Kong as a beast might see his final fate as satisfaction because it allows Ann to continue her life with Jack and be free of the beast.
The narrative trajectory of a film is the arc that the story takes from beginning to middle to end in the progression of its story. The first point on the narrative trajectory represents the initial setup of the film. In King Kong this is the setup that the crew is traveling to a remote island to capture and film Kong for a movie. The highest point on the narrative trajectory represents the highest point of dramatic tension within the film. In King Kong this comes when Kong escapes from his shackles in New York and chases after Ann. Will Kong succeed in finding her and capture his love again, or will he be defeated and lose Ann forever? This is the moment when the action of the story is either decided or spins off in a different direction. The final point on the narrative trajectory comes as the resolution of the film. In King Kong this moment comes when Kong is killed and Ann is free from him. As stated before, this final result can be seen as either good or bad depending on the audience’s feelings about King Kong and his love for Ann. The narrative trajectory is important because it gives the filmmakers a guide as to how the story should progress. By following the narrative trajectory, the filmmakers can create a tight story that keeps the action of the story contained within a strict progression of the plot.
The film King Kong was a monumental film when it was released, representing state-of-the-art special effects and a character that has real feelings and dimension who just happens to be a giant doll. However, without the character relationships that the film creates, the special effects would be hollow and without meaning. Because the characters are well-drawn, the audience becomes involved in their story. In the end we truly do believe that it was love that killed the beast.