Jorge Luis Borges, Film Critic, Reviews King Kong (1933)


Yes­ter­day we fea­tured Jorge Luis Borges’ review of Cit­i­zen KaneBut as a film crit­ic, the writer of such influ­en­tial short fic­tions as “The Aleph,” “The Gar­den of Fork­ing Paths,” and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” did­n’t start there, with per­haps the most influ­en­tial motion pic­ture ever pro­duced. Flick­er has more on the movies that caught Borges’ crit­i­cal eye:

He was a pas­sion­ate admir­er of Char­lie Chap­lin. In a won­der­ful sen­tence that typ­i­fies his writ­ing style, Borges writes, “Would any­one dare ignore that Char­lie Chap­lin is one of the estab­lished gods in the mythol­o­gy of our time, a cohort of de Chirico’s motion­less night­mares, of Scar­face Al’s ardent machine guns, of the finite yet unlim­it­ed uni­verse of Gre­ta Garbo’s lofty shoul­ders, of the gog­gled eyes of Gand­hi?”

Borges’ film reviews were often quite humor­ous. When dis­cussing Josef von Sternberg’s ver­sion of Crime and Pun­ish­ment (1935), he writes, “Indoc­tri­nat­ed by the pop­u­lous mem­o­ry of The Scar­let Empress, I was expect­ing a vast flood of false beards, miters, samovars, masks, surly faces, wrought-iron gates, vine­yards, chess pieces, bal­alaikas, promi­nent cheek­bones, and hors­es. In short, I was expect­ing the usu­al von Stern­berg night­mare, the suf­fo­ca­tion and the mad­ness.”

But the film-review­ing Borges’ mas­ter­piece of dis­missal takes on King Kong, Mer­ian C. Coop­er and Ernest B. Schoed­sack­’s most icon­ic giant-ape dis­as­ter movie of them all:

A mon­key, forty feet tall (some fans say forty-five) may have obvi­ous charms, but those charms have not con­vinced this view­er. King Kong is no full-blood­ed ape but rather a rusty, des­ic­cat­ed machine whose move­ments are down­right clum­sy. His only virtue, his height, did not impress the cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, who per­sist­ed in pho­tograph­ing him from above rather than from below —  the wrong angle, as it neu­tral­izes and even dimin­ish­es the ape’s over­praised stature. He is actu­al­ly hunch­backed and bow­legged, attrib­ut­es that serve only to reduce him in the spectator’s eye. To keep him from look­ing the least bit extra­or­di­nary, they make him do bat­tle with far more unusu­al mon­sters and have him reside in caves of false cathe­dral splen­dor, where his infa­mous size again los­es all pro­por­tion. But what final­ly demol­ish­es both the goril­la and the film is his roman­tic love — or lust — for Fay Wray.

As Mour­daunt Hal­l’s con­tem­po­rary New York Times review of this “Fan­tas­tic Film in Which a Mon­strous Ape Uses Auto­mo­biles for Mis­siles and Climbs a Sky­scraper” put it, “Through mul­ti­ple expo­sures, processed ‘shots’ and a vari­ety of angles of cam­era wiz­ardry the pro­duc­ers set forth an ade­quate sto­ry and fur­nish enough thrills for any devo­tee of such tales,” but “it is when the enor­mous ape, called Kong, is brought to this city that the excite­ment reach­es its high­est pitch. Imag­ine a 50-foot beast with a girl in one paw climb­ing up the out­side of the Empire State Build­ing, and after putting the girl on a ledge, clutch­ing at air­planes, the pilots of which are pour­ing bul­lets from machine guns into the mon­ster’s body.” That sight must have struck the (still not over­ly thrilled) Hall as more impres­sive than it did Borges, but then, Borges, that vision­ary of dizzy­ing labyrinths, eter­ni­ties, and infini­tudes, had already seen true visions of enor­mous­ness — and enor­mi­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges, Film Crit­ic, Reviews Cit­i­zen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Borges: Pro­file of a Writer Presents the Life and Writ­ings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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