Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. Throughout the month of October, I’ll be covering the remaining four horror films on the list, starting with #41, the earliest on the list: King Kong (1933).
King Kong is a glorious showcase of early special effects, pioneering and blending new techniques—most notably, stop-motion animation and rear projection—to bring its titular beast to life. It must have been jaw-dropping to see it in 1933, but the most surprising aspect is how well it’s aged over the decades since. The painstaking hard work put into the action sequences pays off, because the beasts and environments are tactile and the danger feels real. Did they need to spend a full day shooting Fay Wray’s foregrounded reaction to the fight between Kong and the T-Rex? Of course not. The battle alone would have been breathtaking, but the choice to consistently frame animated effects alongside real people brings a sense of scale that the film greatly benefits from.
It’s not merely a visual spectacle though. James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose’s strong screenplay keeps it engaging even when Kong isn’t dominating the screen. In fact, the first 45 minutes are entirely creature-less, but they utilize that time to establish the characters and generate tension for what’s to come, so it never feels like a slog. The pacing is so swift, Peter Jackson nearly doubled the runtime for his 2005 remake, which, ironically, has aged far worse in the 15 years since its release than the original has in the past 87 years.
Does It Belong on the List?
It easily earns its spot for the dazzling special effects and cultural impact alone, but the fact that it’s still gripping today is may be its biggest feat.