[29 November 2011]
Karl Marx opined that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” But when King Kong returned as a Hollywood leading ape in 1976 (after a tangent of Toho-produced tokusatsu appearances in which Kong battled Godzilla, dinosaurs, and a robotic version of himself), our favourite metaphorical creature had reversed that maxim. Although it would be inaccurate to call the Cooper/Schoedsack original a “farce”, I have discussed its hermeneutic subtexts as if they are not largely dominated by its pulpy adventure fantasy elements. Pauline Kael summed up the crude affect lathered over its rich subtexts with her usual trenchancy in her review of the 1976 remake: “The first Kong was a stunt film that was trying to awe you, and its lewd underlay had a carnival hucksterism that made you feel a little queasy”. As I have begun to elucidate, Kong’s tale was initially executed as mass spectacle before migrating progressively towards grand tragedy.
It’s impossible to say how exactly the destructive beast of the 1930s silver screen became a tragic noble savage in subsequent decades, but there’s no question that audience sympathies migrated to Kong’s side well before director John Guillermin made those sympathies explicit in his 1976 remake. Certainly the exquisite work of Willis O’Brien and his special effects team on the Kong models, as anachronistic as they may seem to a CGI-attuned modern viewer, appeals deeply on an emotional level. Kong is a genuine living presence from his initial appearance in the original film, and the ape’s dawning realization of his mortality atop the Empire State Building (touching his wounds and gazing at his own blood, as if in disbelief) is an oft-cited moment of unexpected pathos that broadens the spectacle and engenders sympathy for the poor creature.
Perhaps, ultimately, the viewing public held no truck with Cooper’s implications about the glory of American power and identified with Kong as a rebellious figure, or at least as an innocent if destructive creature whose wild and free existence was unfairly interrupted by greedy intruders (hence the legendary “King Kong died for our sins” graffiti/t-shirt slogan popularized on campuses in the 1960s).
Both Guillermin’s and Peter Jackson’s subsequent takes on the story are grounded in sympathetic portrayals of the giant gorilla, but even the Cooper-approved, Schoedsack-directed 1933 sequel The Son of Kong took a kinder approach: the titular albino offspring of the defeated Kong is decidedly gentler towards humans and even saves Carl Denham and his girl from several vicious animals and, at the cost of his own life, from the destruction of his island home.
Off-screen, of course, four decades of wide-reaching historical and cultural change had a major hand in shifting the trajectory of the Kong myth. The two metaphorical lynchpins of the myth – overseas colonialism and domestic race relations – had been shaken loose from their prior moorings. By the mid-seventies, the terrible enormity of the destabilizing horrors of European colonialism had become all too clear.
In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution in Asia and dozens of coups, assassinations, sectarian massacres, and repressive military juntas in Africa, the naive arrogance of Cooper’s romantic narrative of intrepid foreign trailblazing stood out in stark relief. Likewise, the latent racial taboos and echoes of segregation that gave the Kong-Ann interactions an unsettling undertone had been eroded by the drive towards American civil rights and the dismantling of the structures of institutional racism.
With these progressive shifts in attitude, a new King Kong that parroted the ideological assumptions of the original would feel unforgivably arch-conservative and anti-historical from the perspective of unerringly liberal Hollywood. From the vantage point of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. and the British ex-pat Guillermin, whose previous disaster film The Towering Inferno was in the vanguard of a new kind of studio blockbuster spectacle, those who exploit and eventually destroy the great ape are the true villains of the myth, and the ape is the tragically-misunderstood hero. By the mid-1970s, there was little doubt that Kong did die for our sins, and this new film version would not turn away from that.
The ideological adjustments of the new Kong were accompanied by substantial changes to the characters, plot details, and settings of the tale, along with new contemporary targets of metaphorical focus. The central trio of human characters is the focal point of these updates, and in considering each of them in turn, the shifting relations between the 1976 Kong and its glorified predecessor can be better understood. Each of them is inherently constructed by the overwhelming cultural forces of their time and place.
From an ideological perspective, the most important of these three characters is the Denham-like figure of Guillermin’s film: avaricious oil company executive Fred Wilson. Played with broadly comic moustache-chomping villainy by Charles Grodin, Wilson is quite unlike the adventurous, romantic, essentially creative Denham, even if his exploitation of Kong mirrors that of the intrepid director. Both ridiculous and sinister, the gilded fool Wilson is the embodiment of the indefatigable corporate capitalism that lurked behind the showman Denham.
The driving force behind an expensive, state-of-the-art expedition to Skull Island (once again, not directly referred to as such in the film) to tap a supposed, hitherto-unknown source of oil, Wilson’s greed is relentless and over-the-top. “There’s a national energy crisis that demands we all rise above our private, selfish interests,” he tells an endangered exploratory party over the radio, all while lounging on the beach and receiving a backrub. Thoroughly immoral, entirely cavalier to matters of environmental protection, business ethics, and employee safety, and with seemingly infinite capital and resources at his disposal, Wilson is an overblown caricature of the American capitalist.
Semple’s script further employs Wilson in an effort to liken the depredations of modern commercial capitalism to the exhaustive exploitation of the mercantile system. A skulking subtext in Cooper’s Kong, colonialism is directly and unsubtly referenced several times in Guillermin’s adaptation. Indeed, Wilson is branded as a conquistador of sorts: upon first glimpsing the island, he conceives of himself as Cortez looking upon golden Incan treasure for the first time (he is told that it’s Pizzaro he’s thinking of, but the distinction seems not to be too keenly felt).
When his expedition lands on the island and encounters a native civilization (Guillermin’s portrayal of them is as hopelessly racist as that of his 1930s counterpart), the historically tone-deaf Wilson first evokes the doctrine of terra nullius by insisting that the island is really “uninhabited” before suggesting buying rights to the land with various shiny ship-board trinkets. These are not even echoes of imperialism, but precisely the practices employed by early European colonists in the Americas.
But it is Wilson’s attitude towards Kong that provides the purest distillation of Semple and Guillerman’s anti-capitalist critique (quite ironically delivered by a multi-million-dollar Hollywood tentpole release). When his hoped-for oil gusher fizzles out, Wilson shifts objectives on a dime and purposely targets Kong for capture. A major departure from the narrative established by the Cooper original, in which Denham subdues the great beast with a desperately-tossed gas bomb before launching into his dream of a grand Broadway opening, Wilson’s planned exhibition of Kong is inextricably bound up in corporate advertising.
Specifically recalling Exxon’s successful “Tiger in Your Tank” campaign, Kong’s New York debut is a gaudy, iridescent advertisement for Petrox, the fictitious oil company Wilson represents. Amid the pandering All-American kitsch of marching bands and red-white-and-blue bunting, as well as a sparkling silver faux-sacrificial altar for his “bride”, Kong emerges from under an enormous Petrox gas pump, a corny golden crown placed on his head.
Briefly (and awkwardly) assuming Denham’s theatrical arm-sweeping delivery, Wilson, positively drunk on his own success, intones to the amazed crowd, “Hail to the power of Kong… and Petrox!” The beast and the brand are one, entwined in irresistible dominance. Kong’s rebellious escape moments later leads to Wilson’s death at the hands (or, more accurately, the foot) of the beast, but as a corporate bigwig, he was finished the moment his grand marketing ploy collapsed.
Corporate culture is not the only aspect of 1970s America that comes in for critical lampooning in this King Kong. If the film’s modified version of Carl Denham exemplifies the worst excesses of the profit motive, then its modified version of Ann Darrow tackles the debased vapidity of celebrity culture and the complications of liberated female sexuality.
From her first appearance in the film, Jessica Lange’s Dwan (her dippy name is a sort-of portmanteau of that of the original’s female lead) is subject to the male gaze. Adrift on the ocean in a life raft, unconscious and clad in a revealing evening gown, Dwan is spotted by the male lead Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) and rescued under the watchful and desirous eyes of the all-male crew of the oil expedition ship. Shooing away his roughnecks, who are eager to perform intensive first-aid on the damsel, Wilson brings in Prescott (a primate palaeontologist with a smattering of medical school) to revive her; he succeeds in bringing her around, and the beguiling woman coos at her putative saviour.
Dwan is characterized in broad strokes as that most American of female stereotypes: the ditzy, shallow blonde trading on her socially-constructed attractiveness in a heedless quest for fame and wealth. She’s the mirror image of Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow in many ways, but Semple’s script treats her with bemused, kid-glove irony. Kael sums her up as an “elusive [...] crackbrain” with the “sensuousness of a kitten”. Although she’s saddled with some ridiculous lines (most of them linked to an overly credulous interest in astrology), Lange does a fine job of doling out Dwan’s sexuality with nary a whiff of self-consciousness; it’s such an extension of herself, such a key component of her projected identity, that she barely even notices it’s there.
But unlike the essentially chaste Ann Darrow, Dwan is inescapably liberated, a product of post-Sexual Revolution femininity just as Fred Wilson is a product of the unregulated vigour of corporate profit motive. As she recovers on board the oil company ship, she fills in her back story for the men who dote on her: she was on board the yacht of a wealthy producer who had promised to make her a movie star.
The return that this movie mogul expected from her for his patronage is strongly implied: he and his guests were watching Deep Throat, the infamous pornographic film that is considered the watershed for the relative mainstreaming of the genre, when the yacht suddenly exploded. Dwan had refused to watch it and had gone out alone on the deck, a faint bulb illuminating the outline of a presumed moral rectitude that, in this one instance, likely saved her life. But the powerful aroma of sex accompanies her already, and the further moral choices to come will prove to be beyond her ken.
After a montage of budding shipboard romance between Dwan and Prescott, the Petrox Explorer arrives at its island destination, and Dwan detects the faintest hint of potential fame on the ocean breeze. While finagling her way onto the first boat to the island, she argues half-seriously that as a holder of a Petrox credit card and its attendant consumer debt, she ought to be included. Now prefaced as an irresponsibly self-centered amasser of commodities, Dwan’s socially-constructed image is further mediated through the lens of Prescott’s camera; she poses coquettishly on the island’s beachhead, mimicking the sex-kitten trappings of contemporary commercialized sexuality.
As in Cooper’s film, the blonde ambition of the female lead piques the interest of the stereotypical natives, who present ten of their women in exchange for Dwan, intending to offer her to their primate god, Kong. When she is eventually captured, drugged, and offered to the beast against her will (the date-rape suggestion is palpable), the attendant aboriginal ceremony is couched in sweat-drenched rhythmic sexuality: Kong’s native male ceremonial stand-in gyrates and contorts his bare form in an uninhibited dance of demonstrative corporeal prowess. The appearance of Kong himself can therefore be seen as the ceremony’s climax in more ways than one.
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.