Money, Sex, and Power

Contemporary Adaptations in John Guillermin’s King Kong

by Ross Langager

29 November 2011


The Erotic Element of the Kong Tale

The erotic element of the Kong tale, which Kael calls “a phallic joke carried on the level of myth”, takes precedence over all of its other themes as soon as ape meets girl. The implied threat that the Kong of the original film posed to Ann’s implied sexuality is all out front in Guillermin’s take on the material. Necessarily so, perhaps; the sexuality of Kong’s nubile object of desire is explicit, so his must be as well.

If the Kongs of Cooper and Jackson view Ann with the curious fascination of the unfamiliar, Guillermin’s beast gazes at Dwan with unabashed sexual craving. In these initial interactions between them, the expressiveness of the Kong masks created by Carlo Rambaldi and adapted by Rick Baker (who performs in the suit onscreen) is mostly marshalled in the direction of lecherous leering.

Hardly an old-fashioned woman, Dwan has little patience for Kong’s forthright alpha-male aggression, raging against his grasping hand and calling him a “chauvinist pig-ape”. Her blossoming indignant feminism has little effect on the brutish ape’s advances, however, and soon seems to take backseat to an instinct for self-preservation. Switching on her bubbling, frank charm, she placates the ape with attractive babbling (she even speculates that he’s an Aries, like her human beau Jack Prescott). An element of strange fondness and romance begins to creep into their interactions, even if the sexual suggestions continue to predominate.

Thus, as Prescott leads a rescue party to save her from what he refers to as a “giant turned-on ape”, Kong holds Dwan under a drenching waterfall and then puffs his cheeks out to blow her dry with his breath, an experience which seems to give her wondrous, near-orgasmic pleasure (the scene is echoed, with increased tenderness and decreased eroticism, on the oil tanker transporting the captive Kong back to America). Prescott finally catches up to them as Kong lasciviously undresses his bride, a sexually-amplified take on a famous sequence from the original film. Our human hero is able to make off with Dwan while Kong grapples with an enormous snake (paging Dr. Freud).

Later, on the tanker back to civilization, Fred Wilson tells Dwan with patronizing certainty that the ape “tried to rape you.” But Dwan can’t see Kong in that light, even calming him after he flies into a violent frenzy in his tanker-hold prison. “No one’s going to hurt you,” she tells him, “you’re just going to America to be a star.” The possibility of suffering and celebrity coexisting, indeed being two sides of the same coin, never occurs to her. This is Dwan succinctly summarized, and it anticipates the bend of her character arc in the film’s closing act.

In stark contrast to the guileless, humble innocence of Ann Darrow, Dwan is helpless to resist the blazing allure of fame, fortune, and excitement in general. “It’s in your blood like dope,” Prescott tells her bluntly, coming to doubt his own feelings for her as she proves increasingly willing to compromise herself morally in the quest for celebrity. Unlike Darrow, who is a passive special guest at Kong’s New York premiere in Cooper’s original and pointedly not involved in the event in Jackson’s later version, Dwan is decked out in a dazzling evening gown (as she initially was) to play his “bride” in the kitschy display. Though Kong is again driven to blind, destructive rage by the jostling flashbulbs of the press, it is their aggressive paparazzi tactics towards the rising star Dwan that arouses his protective instincts and leads to his escape.

Kong inevitably catches up with his blond quarry and takes her to the apex of the World Trade Center, New York’s then-newly-built trump card to the iconic Empire State Building (which gets a brief helicopter-shot cameo as well as a passing mention in the dialogue). The twin phallic skyscrapers echo similar stone monoliths on his island home, but are also employed by Guillermin as visual shorthand for the towering excess of American capitalist ambition. Once again protecting Dwan when she tries to act as a human shield against approaching attack helicopters, Kong meets his doom rather than allow her to be in harm’s way.

But as the pushy press cameras crowd around the ape’s lifeless form in the World Trade Center plaza, Dwan steals the spotlight completely and irrevocably. Her theatrical tears, though shed for Kong, are imbued with movie-star magnetism; emotion melds with performance until the two cannot be separated. Already chastened by Dwan’s vivacious, starstruck amorality, Jack Prescott cannot bring himself to approach her in this climactic moment. Her feminine identity is lost in the blinding flashbulb lights of American celebrity, just where she has always wanted to be.

While this final sundering of the film’s central “love” triangle encapsulates the thematic elements represented by Kong and Dwan, it is most illustrative of those represented by Jack Prescott. While the beast, the beauty, and the intrepid capitalist are exaggerated and extrapolated iterations of figures in Cooper’s primary mythic text, there is no corollary to Prescott in the 1933 Kong. The gruffly heroic sailor that he replaces was inevitably a poor male rival for Kong (hence Jack Driscoll’s disappearance in the film’s final minutes), a problem which Semple and Guillermin approach in an original way: as Pauline Kael puts it, they make the “shaggy-bearded” Jack Prescott into the “human equivalent” of the formidable beast.

Prescott, a primate palaeontologist from Princeton, embodies the progressive, post-1960s youth-focused campus counterculture that identified with Kong as a noble, proud creature martyred to the smug and greedy prejudice of the establishment. After bribing and sneaking his way onto the Petrox Explorer in order to warn the oil company reps about the possible ape-like denizen of their targeted island and perhaps to moderate their exploitation, the daring, iconoclastic Prescott clashes with the square Fred Wilson even as the resourceful oil executive channels the impulsive young academic’s energies into productive channels.

Imbued with Jeff Bridges’ indefatigable easy-going hippie charm, Prescott becomes the voice of social conscience in the film. When Wilson’s corporate neo-colonialism becomes especially evident, it is Prescott who inevitably calls him out. It is Prescott who corrects Wilson’s self-identification with the conquistadors, adding with obvious relish that Pizarro “died busted”; Prescott who calls out the imperial arrogance of the plan to buy rights to the island from the natives with pots and pans; and Prescott who adds a cynical coda to the capture of Kong, predicting that the kidnapping of the native islanders’ god would lead them to alcoholism and decay within a year.

Prescott is also the focal point for the 1976 Kong’s distrust of institutions, though he is hardly its only method of expressing that distrust. Such suspicion of American institutions, private and public, was a driving force of the disaster-movie trend in Hollywood in the turbulent 1970s, of which Guillermin’s Kong is an exemplar. Ernest Larsen elucidates this idea in his essay King Kong meets EXXON, arguing that “the new Kong, like most disaster films, gives recognition to the massive distrust felt by powerless audiences bludgeoned by the economic and psychological manipulations of corporations and government.” The disastrous destruction unleashed in this type of film tends to be prefigured as an inevitable consequence of the exercise of corporate and government power, and leftist social justice movements have been increasingly motivated by organized protest against this accumulation of overindulgence in the last half-century.

While this anti-institutional ideology animates Prescott’s anti-colonialist stance, it also finds other outlets. His withering appraisal of Wilson as an “environmental rapist” speaks to his environmentalism, and he later evokes the animal rights movement by refusing to cooperate with Kong’s exploitative exhibition in New York, telling Wilson that he plans to donate his fee as the ape’s keeper to the SPCA. He then scoffs at the ugly commercialization of Kong, and witnesses the beast break free from the steel cage that Wilson insists is certified as “escape-proof” by an unnamed NYC public safety department.

But it is Prescott’s reactions to Kong’s final stand on the top of the WTC that most clearly establish his position as the film’s avatar of overarching liberal conscience. Indeed, as Kael observes, his outright cheering at Kong’s brief victories and jeering at his eventual defeat vastly overstates both his ideological allegiances and those of the film: “This cue to the audience to be on Kong’s side cheapens everything - Kong, the picture, us.”

And for all of its points of ideological interest, the general impression left by Guillermin’s Kong is one of cheapened effect. Prescott calls Kong’s commercialization “a grotesque farce” before later correcting himself: “it’s a tragedy”. He might as well have been speaking of the very film he’s in. Certainly, the 1976 King Kong updates this modern myth’s meanings for a vastly different social, economic, and cultural milieu, but it does so with a leaden obviousness that undermines its conclusions.

It also must be said that it falls rather short as a piece of thrilling entertainment, a category in which its comparatively intellectually primitive predecessor succeeds greatly. It would take another thirty years before another filmmaker would attempt a film version of the Kong myth that tried to reconcile visceral appeal with ideological complexity. The concluding installments of this feature will therefore examine the successes and failures of Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong in addressing the unsettling possibilities of this grand cinematic saga.

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