A movie director takes a girl to make a film about a monstrous ape and brings it back to New York for display.
An Arab proverb tells how a beast looked on beauty and stayed its hand from killing. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has ammunition and has to sail soon. Saying the public wants a girl in the picture, he finds Ann (Fay Wray) stealing fruit and takes her as the only woman on the ship. Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) asks where they are going, which is to an island in the south seas where the natives are protected by a wall from the monstrous Kong. Denham approaches the wall with a dozen men and Ann, as the natives dance. A girl is the bride of Kong, but the witch doctor wants to buy the "golden girl" Ann for six native girls. They go back to the ship, and Jack kisses Ann before she is abducted by the natives. The natives dance in front of her; the big gate opens, and she is taken in and tied to two pillars on the altar. Natives watch on the wall and sound the gong. The huge Kong pushes a tree aside and takes Ann in his hand. Men with rifles go in the gate and track Kong. They kill a dinosaur and see a monster in a lake; it kills some men and chases the rest. Kong puts Ann on a tree and upsets the men clinging to the tree bridge. Kong fights a dinosaur and kills it, carrying off Ann. Jack follows, and Denham goes back for the bombs.
The captain tells Denham they scared off the natives with gunfire. Kong puts Ann in a cave and fights and kills another giant reptile. Ann faints, and Kong rips off some of her clothes. While Kong is killing a huge bird, Jack rescues Ann and brings her to the gate. Denham wants to capture Kong for his picture. Kong comes, and they close the gate; but he pushes it open. The natives run away, while some throw spears at him. Kong kills three of them. Denham throws a bomb at Kong, and he collapses.
In New York Denham promotes King Kong as the eighth wonder of the world and Ann as the beauty with the beast. He presents the shackled Kong with Ann and Jack. As photographers take pictures, Kong breaks free, escapes, and climbs a building. He takes a woman and drops her. Kong finds Ann, takes her, and causes a train wreck. Radio reports he is climbing the empire state building. Planes are used to shoot Kong, and he falls. Jack rescues Ann again. Kong is dead on the street. A policeman says the airplanes got him; but Denham says no, "It was beauty killed the beast."
This archetypal story expresses fears of gorilla-like men (Negroes) and symbolizes their capture and enslavement while portraying the subconscious sexual desires of women for their virility and the sense that they can be human in being gentle to a beauty. The natives are stereotypically primitive, and the white men are the usual exploiters.