In Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, the most determined pursuer of the titular beast is Carl Denham, the indefatigable imperialist with a movie camera. Denham drives his filming expedition forward with desperate zeal, subsisting on promises and credit like many self-involved American dreamers before and after him. When Denham’s dishonest scheme threatens to collapse en route to Skull Island and he pleads that he’s risked everything he has to make his film, the gruff Captain Englehorn (a genuine rugged individualist, that one) replies, “No, you risked everything I have.” Englehorn later likens him to a cockroach, a scavenging and indestructible insect living off of the refuse of others. This is a far more cynical critique of the domestic and global effects of American cultural power than the rosy bootstraps-up confidence that Denham represents in Cooper’s film, and it is borne out exhaustively as the film goes on.
As both Denham’s actions and his self-justifications become more and more extreme, his obsessive pursuit of fame and immortality, always already filtered through the medium of film, begins to exact a greater and greater cost. Back in civilization, he was able to drive the project forward by the sheer force of his hucksterish personality, trumping the objections of others with glib inspirational phrases like “Think like a winner” and “Defeat is always momentary.” In the harsher milieu of Skull Island, however, such irresponsible hubris can (and does) cost lives.
Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Kyle Chandler, Jamie Bell, Colin Hanks
(Universal; US theatrical: 14 Dec 2005; 2005)
When Denham’s sound man is killed by the island’s fearful natives on the film crew’s first expedition there, Denham (now beginning to drink regularly) changes the timbre of his bluster, promising to dedicate the eventual film to his fallen comrade, who he says “died believing there was still some mystery left in this world, and we could all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.” Denham’s (and Cooper’s) lofty view of the imperialist cinema could not be given a better summation than that. He also vows to donate part of the grosses to the deceased’s widow and orphans. Laudable as his philanthropic promise seems to be, it loses some of its lustre when he later repeats it verbatim after his cameraman is devoured by dinosaurs.
When Ann is kidnapped by the natives and given to Kong, Denham is the first to see the great beast, and capturing it and the island’s other wonders on film very quickly becomes the focus of his cinematic imperialism. To photograph and to document is to conquer in imperial discourse, and the motion picture camera becomes the instrument of dominion. Consequently, Denham wields it constantly and perilously, filming a pack of brontosaurs even as they begin to stampede his way. He also protects the camera before even his own crew members, valuing the precious filmed images it contains even more than their lives.
At the tail end of a sequence cut from the theatrical version but included on the extended DVD version, the film and ship crew are attacked by various aquatic monsters while crossing a swamp on makeshift rafts (the 1933 film included a similar scene). Even as the demolished rafts sink and the men are picked off by ravenous carnivorous fish, Denham exhorts his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) to keep the camera safe and dry. He takes it from Preston as the latter exits the swamp and sets to testing it immediately. Relieved to find that it still works, he unwittingly films one last unfortunate sailor being snatched from the shallows by the swamp creature, but continues cranking the film through anyway. “Did you get that?” another sailor asks him in contempt. Committed to his film beyond all accepted boundaries of morality, Denham makes no reply.
Though he is driven to the point of sociopathy, Jackson and Boyens discuss Carl Denham in the commentary not as a straight villain but a man who “loses his moral compass.” Indeed, although his film satirizes Denham’s naive cinematic romanticism, Jackson seem torn about running down a figure whose views on the magic of film are similar to those of his filmmaking hero Merian Cooper and, consequently, of himself. But then Denham can also be seen as the deranged flip side of the creativity represented, in various ways, by Driscoll, Ann, and Kong, a hint of the bitter taste that creativity can take on when it is spiked by that classic American cocktail of fame, commerce, and ideology. Denham has given himself over so whole-heartedly to the myth of the mystery and power of the cinema, so central to the self-denying ideology of American imperialism, that he cannot fathom it ever being destroyed.
When he and his camera finally encounter the great Kong, however, the technology of his chosen medium fails him. Even as he cranks his fragile device frantically to capture an image of the great beast, Denham and the few surviving expedition members are thrown from a huge log into a deep chasm, where a nightmarish menagerie of creepy-crawlies awaits them (Cooper’s version of this so-called “spider pit” scene was removed from the original film and eventually lost). Some of the adventurers do not survive the fall and are mourned by their compatriots, but Denham is left to mourn his camera. The extension of his ever-striving psyche was broken open as it fell to the bottom of the canyon, the priceless images on its film strip exposed and, like Cooper’s original version of this scene, forever lost.
The failure of his filmmaking technology snaps the last moral thread that linked Carl Denham to the idealistic values that underlie his chosen art. As scavenging insects swarm towards the survivors in the pit, Jack Black lets himself go, lashing out at the computer-generated bugs with a crazed look in his eyes. The men are rescued at the last moment by Englehorn and his crew, and in another DVD-only moment, Denham speaks about his life flashing before his eyes like a movie: “if you’ve lived your life as a true American, you get to watch it all in color.” As he emerges from the pit (a visual metaphor for the dark valley of his film’s final failure) Denham, like the foiled oil baron Fred Wilson in Guillermin’s King Kong, hatches a new scheme: capture the mighty Kong and show him to the world.
At this turning point, Denham’s distinctly American imperialism, predicated as it was on economic hegemony rooted in the symbolic impact of industries like the movies, takes a sharp right towards a more traditional 19th-century-vintage exploitative colonialism. Always an active subtext in the Kong tale, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens tackle the ghosts of colonialism in a much more direct manner than in previous tellings, an approach that leads into the inescapable implications of the film’s tragic conclusion. And they do so by openly invoking the potent and divisive text that, for better or for worse, towers over all other works of literature on colonialism: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Conrad’s seminal novella concerns the colonialist horrors of the Belgian-administered Congo of the late 1800s, but also considers the inherent darkness in the human character revealed by terrible endeavours like the colonial project. As an exposé of white European exploitation in the “lost world” of Central Africa, the text shares obvious thematic elements with the Kong myth, but it cannot be rightly called a total denunciation of the colonial project as a whole. While Heart of Darkness expresses outrage at the abuses of Force Publique and the barbaric practices of the rubber trade in the Congo, its author hardly held an anti-imperial view as a matter of course; indeed, Conrad was a firm believer in the righteousness of the empire of his adopted Britain, whose moral authority he considered beyond reproach.
The way in which Conrad’s most (in)famous work is used in Jackson’s King Kong is similarly problematic, and generally echoes the philosophical, romantic, and paternalistic tone of Conrad’s text. Heart of Darkness enters the narrative through Jimmy (played by Jamie Bell), a rough-around-the-edges young crewman on the Venture who is being mentored by the steamer’s no-nonsense African-American first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke). The Jimmy-Hayes subplot was one of the elements of the film that was most fervently criticized by fans on the internet (who never do lack for fervency). Many critics, professional and otherwise, considered it a meandering distraction in the midst of an overlong voyage to Skull Island that weakened the pacing of the film, and seized upon it as being emblematic of the overflowing excess that characterized Jackson’s vision of the story.
It is true that, where the larger Kong-centric plot is concerned, the interactions between Jimmy and Hayes serve little to no purpose. They also feature troubling suggestions of Hollywood’s pernicious “magical negro” archetype, the wise, vaguely spiritual African-American character who acts as guide and mentor to the eager, talented white hero. Although the imposing war veteran Hayes is thoroughly modern and hardly a mystical romantic, he does encourage Jimmy, a mysterious shipboard stowaway who knows little beyond the Venture itself, to educate and improve himself.
Jimmy follows his advice, checking out a copy of Heart of Darkness from the New York Public Library “on long-term loan.” Initially intrigued by the familiarity of the cover’s promise of “adventures on a tramp steamer,” Jimmy soon begins to understand that the protagonist Marlow’s journey upriver resembles their own quest for Skull Island in much more sinister ways than he had imagined. He’s reading the book at his post in the crow’s nest when the Venture enters the fog bank around the island, penetrating the outer reaches of the film’s own dark core.
With the ship pinned on the rocks just off Skull Island’s jagged coastline, the unconscionably intrepid Denham leads his film crew in a lifeboat to shore, filming possessively as he goes. The expedition comes ashore and wanders through dilapidated ruins and tombs strewn with human skulls, imagery that suggests the decapitated heads on stakes surrounding Kurtz’s compound as Marlow approaches it in Heart of Darkness (itself based on a similar macabre sight reported in the Congo). Jackson cuts between these visual conjurings of the ghosts of colonialism to the Venture, where Jimmy looks up from the pages of Conrad’s book and asks Hayes why Marlow continues up the river, why he doesn’t turn back.
This, essentially, is why the lamented Jimmy and Hayes are here: to act as conduits for the awareness of colonial abuses that Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh wish to demonstrate. Boyens discusses their intentions in the commentary for this sequence, confirming that the African-American Hayes, with his experience of racist discrimination and cultural memory of slavery, is attempting to pass these ideas on to the naive white kid, to convey to him the weight of the mission they are involved in. But when Hayes answers Jimmy with his own reading of Conrad, it is hardly an interpretation that emphasizes colonial horrors.
Gazing at the dulled carven rock likeness of Kong that the ship is wrecked upon, Hayes tells Jimmy that although part of Marlow “sounds a warning,” another part of him wins out: the part that “needs to know”, that needs “to defeat the thing that makes him afraid.” Hayes then lapses into an extended quotation from Heart of Darkness, recited over shots of Denham and his crew moving deeper into the island’s outer ruins. Hayes (and, thus, the screenwriting trio) chooses a portion of Conrad’s florid Victorian prose concerning the faded outlines of civilized history that haunted the supposedly “barbarous” Dark Continent. The words match the onscreen imagery to a tee, and the coda anticipates the coming encounter with Kong: “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”