King Kong follows in the tradition of books and movies that have explorers wandering into uncharted territories and finding wonders never before seen. One of the sources for these movies was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, “The Lost World.” In this story adventurers travel to a plateau in the Amazon jungle and discover a land that time forgot, inhabited by living dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. A silent film version of The Lost World was made in 1925 and the stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien in that film was the precursor to what O’Brien would do in King Kong.
The plot of King Kong follows the adventures of intrepid adventurer and film maker Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong. Denham has made his name by travelling to primitive locales and filming the wild animals of these areas. Lions and rhinos and other exotic creatures have been his subjects but his financial backers say he must add a pretty girl to his movies or the public just won’t care and won’t pay to see his movies.
So, for his next film he recruits a pretty young woman named Ann Darrow played by Fay Wray. He finds her broke and hungry on the streets of Manhattan and convinces her to go along on his sea voyage to make his film. Once he convinces her he’s on the level she agrees and the action moves to the ship “Venture” and we meet Captain Englehorn and his colorful crew including first mate Jack Driscoll who will be the romantic interest for Ann Darrow.
Once on-board Denham reveals the details of the expedition. He has obtained a map locating an uncharted island inhabited by natives that live on one side of a cyclopean wall that protects them from some nameless terror. Denham intends to go to the island and discover the reality behind the story. During the voyage Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow fall in love and he repeatedly expresses his unhappiness with her being involved in the dangerous business of the expedition.
When they reach the island, the natives are in the middle of a ceremony to offer up one of their women as a “bride for Kong.” The natives see Ann and offer to buy her as a substitute for their bride. Denham and the crew return to the Venture and say they will return the next day to negotiate with the tribe to film the secrets of the island.
But during the night the natives row over to the Venture in their outriggers and secretly kidnap Ann. Eventually the crime is discovered and Denham, Englehorn and especially Driscoll mount a rescue mission taking most of the crew along and their guns, ammunition and the gas bombs that Denham stocked to handle large animals.
Meanwhile we find out what being the “bride of Kong” entails. The natives bind Ann’s arms to two pillars located outside of the wall that protects the village. They then sound a huge gong and out of the jungle stalks a sixty-foot-tall gorilla. This is Kong and instead of killing and eating his “bride” he is fascinated by her. And despite her continuous blood curdling screams he gently frees her from the pillars and carries her away into the jungle in his hand as if she were a toy.
Denham and his men show up just as Kong leaves with Ann. They split up with Denham and Driscoll taking half the men and following after Kong. Captain Englehorn remains in the village with his men to guard the gate against the natives interfering with their escape.
Once in the jungle the rescue party discover that Kong is just one of many monsters to contend with. They run into a Stegosaurus that requires a gas bomb and a hail of bullets to kill. Next, they are attacked by a Sauropod as they cross a lake on a raft that they’ve built. Several of their party are killed by the giant beast.
Meanwhile Kong is having troubles of his own. He meets up with a Tyrannosaurus and battles the reptile to the death. At one point the tree that Kong has left Ann in is knocked over by the titanic brawl between the two giants. But afterwards Kong moves on with the girl in hand.
Finally, the rescuers catch up with Kong as he crosses a ravine on a massive fallen tree trunk. But when they try to follow Kong lifts the tree and shakes all but two of the men off the trunk where they fall to their deaths. Jack Driscoll has managed to reach the far side where Kong is while Denham is trapped on the far side of the ravine. Once Kong has moved on Driscoll and Denham have a talk from opposite sides of the ravine. It is agreed that Driscoll will follow Kong and attempt to free Ann while Denham will return to the village and organize another rescue party.
As Kong climbs up to his mountain lair, he battles two other prehistoric creatures. First a reptile with an elongated neck and tail that makes it almost snakelike, almost strangles Kong but is finally dispatched by the giant primate. And then once on top of the mountain a Pteranodon tries to fly off with Ann but is killed by Kong. But while Kong is distracted fighting with the giant flying reptile, Driscoll, who has been tailing Kong, sees his chance and carries Ann on his back down a vine off the top of the mountain. Kong starts pulling the vine up but when the couple are almost level with Kong they let go of the vine and land in the water below the mountain cliff.
Jack and Ann swim away and then run through the jungle and end up back at the village just in front of Kong. The crew and natives bolt the gate in the wall but Kong by sheer brute force cracks the huge wooden bolt and forces his way into the village. There he fights the villagers who use spears to try to kill the giant. He crushes them with his feet and kills some of them with his teeth. He runs amok smashing their thatched huts but when he reaches the crew of the Venture, he has a more difficult foe. Denham throws one of his gas bombs at Kong and the gas renders the huge ape unconscious.
Now Denham conceives of a new idea. He convinces the crew to help him bind Kong and float him back to New York on a raft behind the Venture. He tells them that exhibiting Kong in New York will make them all fabulously wealthy. And that’s what they do.
In the next scene we are at a theater on Broadway and it’s opening night on Denham’s exhibition of Kong. It begins well with Denham introducing the story then opening the curtain to reveal the giant ape manacled and in leg irons attached to a massive scaffold. Then he introduces Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow and plays up the angle that Kong’s capture was the result of a Beauty and the Beast story. Kong was captured because he could not resist coming back to the village for Ann, his beauty.
But when Denham has the photographers come up to the stage to take photos of Kong and his captors the beast becomes enraged by the flashbulbs thinking that Ann was in danger. He broke his chains and smashed through a brick wall and rampaged through Midtown Manhattan. Climbing up the wall of a nearby hotel he improbably finds Ann Darrow in one of the rooms and heads uptown to the Empire State Building with Ann in hand.
On the way he kills several passersby and crushes a car or two but most notably he attacks an elevated subway train. He rips up the track and when the train falls through the whole in the tracks he pummels it with his fist as it lays there like a dying beast while the passengers scream in fear and agony.
Meanwhile Driscoll and Denham know that Kong has Ann. They alert the authorities and convince them to have fighter aircraft stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in South Brooklyn attack Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. The four pilots wait until Kong puts Ann down and then commence to strafe him with their machine guns. One of the pilots ventures too close and his plane is grabbed by Kong and sent to its destruction against the side of the building. Finally, after many strafing runs Kong succumbs to the bullets. But before falling to his death he picks up Ann and then puts her down as if saying goodbye. A final burst of bullets hits him and he tumbles off the side of the tower and to his death on the pavement below.
On the pavement Denham looks on the shattered body of Kong where a policeman declares that, “the planes finally got him.” But Denham retorts that it was, “Beauty killed the Beast.”
In my opinion King Kong is a fantastic movie. Even with the primitive special effects and improbable plot and eighty-nine years later it is still an exciting and enjoyable adventure. And in addition to the adventure, the liveliness of the characters is noticeably superior to the typically depressed and inert nature of modern characters. Even in the depths of the Great Depression there is a positivity that pervades the actions of the characters that reaches the audience. In every crisis of the story Denham and Driscoll use brains and bravery to win the day. This was the American spirit that saw that generation weather the Great Depression, fight World War II and build the greatest country on the face of the earth. This movie is highly recommended.