How Technical Innovations Enabled King Kong’s Soulfulness

Tristan Ettleman
5 min readOct 3, 2023

Note: This is the hundred-and-seventy-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Letterboxd, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1933 film, KING KONG, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

I’ve just finished watching KING KONG for the, mm, fourth time in three years, the product of flamboyant adventurer Merian C. Cooper, journeyman workhorse Ernest B. Schoedsack, and animation legend Willis H. O’Brien, not to mention dozens of talented craftspeople before and behind the camera. I’ve watched it this time with commentary by (animation legend in his own right and mentee of O’Brien) Ray Harryhausen and visual effects artist Ken Ralston. I’ve just finished watching I’M KING KONG!: THE EXPLOITS OF MERIAN C. COOPER (2005), a documentary co-directed by (gosh, I’m racking up the legends here) Kevin Brownlow. It cements the narrative of Kong. And I’ve just finished watching the mammoth behind-the-scenes feature RKO PRODUCTION 601: THE MAKING OF ‘KONG, THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD’ (2005), a Peter Jackson production prominently featuring, in at least one section, the (OK, fine, one more) living legend as he goes about the process of remaking the inspiration for his entire filmmaking career.

And as I complete this run of viewings, they comprehensively drive home that movie production is a collaborative medium, as often as I slip into auteurist modes, and that as much as film is an art, it is also a technology. There is no escaping that part of the power of KING KONG resides in what was done “for its time,” but for all the conscious knowledge one may or may not have about the pioneering craft of the film and any suspension of disbelief necessitated in the absence of so-called and overrated “realism,” it all distills into the sensation of primeval thrill.

KING KONG is one of those films that I believe has an outsized influence, by which I mean that most who are familiar with the character have not seen his source film, which by the way was not a literary or other adaptation like most anything else at the time and now. Kong was a pure cinematic creation and I think that is felt, from O’Brien’s stop motion animation to the film’s luscious multiplane jungles to Fay Wray’s scream-queen-creating performance.

When I’ve introduced students to the work of Harryhausen or O’Brien, there is a sort of reaction that boils down to a disbelief that anyone found this authentic at one time. The key to understanding and appreciating KING KONG is not to turn off one’s brain and totally tune out the modern noise, but to align with it on its face: there is a beautiful artifice created for our viewing pleasure.

That is the crux of any viewing of old Hollywood movies today, at least as I see it. The brilliance of a film like KING KONG is not the seamless integration of its fantastical ideas into my perception of reality, but its adaptation of them into a Romantic mode. And remarkably, the scientific and technical prowess required for such soulfulness does not outstrip the film’s lasting emotional appeal; claims to the contrary have been leveled against the likes of James Cameron’s Avatar films, with which I disagree by the way.

This is because the earnestness of KING KONG’s technical innovations precisely enable an uncanny empathy not possible in the portrayal of a real lifeform (as in Cooper and Schoedsack’s CHANG: A DRAMA OF THE WILDERNESS [1927], a man in a gorilla suit (God forbid), or perhaps even a CGI creation as in Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). The sheer spectacle of Kong’s playful toying with the broken jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex is mild compared to the boxing match that preceded it, but this childlike mannerism was only made possible through an almost unprecedented framework and many, many hours of ingenious labor.

The latter impact of the moment is, ideally, only felt by the film nerds like myself. What O’Brien and Co. accomplished was not the result of some immaculate conception, as many commentators have proclaimed about KING KONG’s innovations; the animation pioneer had made short films on the same principle since 1915 and did similar live action/animation blending at this scale in 1925’s THE LOST WORLD. Even still, there’s no denying that the process was refined and intensified for KING KONG, reducing the prominence of the seams in the chase for the mad delirium to be found in a giant ape’s (beast’s) chase for a blonde actress (beauty).

Look, much has been said, written, and documented on film (as shown in at least two docs already mentioned in this piece) about KING KONG’s remarkable accomplishments. But consider this, my view on its effect: its creators acted as Victor Frankensteins, using modern powers to get at the very core of life itself. Since its creation, others have used similar principles to more closely approximate what you and I see in the motion of “reality.” But very few have tapped into the primitive fire of artistic desperation, of channeling the desire to do something that hasn’t quite been done before into sheer mind-boggling visual communication. There’s a reason why many of your favorite filmmakers’ favorite film (or at least one of them) is KING KONG. It reveals the possibilities of the medium to realize into motion what was previously only imagined in dreams or illustration and makes the technical emotionally real, tapping into the artifice to make an exquisite beauty, and yes, painful reminder of the beauty-destroying capabilities of human civilization and all it entails.