Like many of the Hollywood blockbusters that followed in its footsteps, King Kong was a barometer for its troubled times, a clear crystallization of many lurking social anxieties in Depression-era America.
Although Merian C. Cooper's original King Kong may well be the most renowned B-movie ever made, the seminal 1933 film is hardly lacking in possibility for wider socio-political applicability. For decades, film scholars and other academics have looked beyond the entertaining veneer of this cinematic fable and seen ample meaning barely concealed underneath. Like many of the Hollywood blockbusters that followed in its footsteps, Kong was a barometer for its troubled times, a clear crystallization of many lurking social anxieties in Depression-era America.
The most prevalent metaphorical dynamic in the film is quite clearly the racial one. Kong is often conceived of as the monstrous embodiment of the African-American experience, a powerful "primitive" being forcibly taken from the tropical realm where his hegemony is absolute and displayed in bondage as a figure of exotic amusement (though not, curiously, as a beast of burden, as were the historical African slaves). He escapes and asserts not only his physical prowess but also, potentially, his sexual prowess by abducting Fay Wray's Ann Darrow, the blond, virtuous personification of white American womanhood (Wray herself was naturally dark-haired and born in Canada, a nice double-shot of irony).
Clutching the object of his forbidden, impossible desire, Kong is chased to the pinnacle of the inescapably phallic Empire State Building (a freshly-built structure in 1933 whose appearance in an iconic piece of cinema helped allay scepticism about it from both potential tenants and from the wider public). There, his savage defiance of the democratic capitalist order (and of firmly-defended racial taboos) sees him executed summarily by biplanes. Gazing upon Kong's corpse, director, adventurer, and showman Carl Denham, the man who wrought this terrible end, quips, "It was Beauty that killed the Beast", but we know better.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see echoes of American's fraught historical discourse on race in such a tale. It evokes colonialism, the slave trade, Reconstruction, minstrel shows, Jim Crow, white supremacy, Lost Cause mythologizing, miscegenation and urbanization, to say nothing of the contemporaneous rape hysteria in the South that fed into systematic lynchings and institutional segregation. That King Kong is "about" these sort of things is not really in dispute in the cinephile community; Quentin Tarantino even included a clear nod to these very implications in Inglourious Basterds.
But King Kong is not only a myth of racial oppression, nor is it simply a slice of fanciful escapism designed to whisk astonished audiences away from the harsh daily realities of the Great Depression. It is also a movie about the movies, one of the earliest notable ones if not exactly among the most detailed or nuanced in early Hollywood. Intentionally or (more than likely) not, it takes the form of a sceptical parable on the growing worldwide cultural and economic influence of the American cinema, an expansion that would reach hegemonic levels by the end of the Second World War. Kong's exploitation is tied in inextricably with the processes of expansion of American culture, society, and politics, and above all with the strange alluring power of the movies.
If these themes are distinctly subtextual in Cooper's quick-and-cheap RKO classic, they are less so in the subsequent blockbuster retellings, while simultaneously reflecting the social concerns of the contemporary milieu in which each of those later films was made. In the 1976 version, directed by John Guillermin of Towering Inferno fame and produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis, Kong's exploitation is carried out by a corrupt oil company executive who turns the captive beast into a garish corporate advertisement. In addition to this criticism of corrupt corporate overreach, the Sexual Revolution's influence shows plainly in the amplified treatment of the implied sexual threat posed by Kong. Despite this, the ape is a more fully characterized, sympathetic, and tragically heroic figure whose inevitable demise inspires the outrage of not only the protagonists but, by extension, of the audience as well.
Peter Jackson's ambitious 2005 version, which followed immediately on the heels of his massively successful Lord of the Rings film trilogy, pushed the subtext of Cooper's original firmly into the foreground. Revisiting the historical context of the 1933 film with the hindsight of seven decades, Jackson crafted a sprawling and unwieldy film that is both a worshipful homage to a movie that first inspired him to become a filmmaker and a revisionist commentary on the troublesome social, cultural, and racial assumptions which spawned that same formative cinematic experience.
Jackson is not only seeking to entertain with his Kong in the way that Cooper did with his (although he often succeeds wildly at that); he is also working through his doubtlessly deep and abiding investment in a film whose symbolic implications he cannot countenance, let alone allow his own film to share. Through meticulous period re-creation in the mise-en-scene and intertextual engagement with the original film and with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jackson galvanizes his own post-colonial, post-capitalist, post-modern take on the Kong myth. His conclusions are both more insightful and more problematic than those of any of the previous tellings.
This serial feature, therefore, will examine first the symbolic bedrock settled into place by Cooper and his original film before sifting through the rich layers of meaning laid down subsequently by Guillermin and especially Jackson. Kong's complex journey from spectacle to elegy will be examined in detail, and the continued fascination with the modern mythic tale of this giant gorilla and his troubling end will hopefully be elucidated further.
The original King Kong, co-directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack and released in 1933, opens with a famously-fraudulent Arabian proverb (concocted by Cooper himself):
"And, lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead."
It cannot be said that Cooper (the film's conceptual auteur, as opposed to Schoedsack's more technical role) fails to show us his hand from the get-go. Before the narrative even commences, we're given a central metaphor to cling to: beauty and civilization taming and thus dooming primordial power to eventual destruction. Though reading directorial intentionality is always as reading through murky glass, this idea is played out in the film simply enough.
Much like his lead character and onscreen proxy Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), Cooper was known for his ambitious "jungle pictures", shot in outlandishly difficult conditions that earned Cooper a reputation for being alternately fearless and insane (a reputation that Denham has also achieved in the film). Trailblazing late '20s documentaries like Grass (shot in Persia) and Chang (shot in Thailand) were daringly produced by Cooper and Schoedsack in remote locales, and were praised for their scope and drama. But Cooper had moved into fictional films by the early '30s, and had decided to inject a female lead into his latest production in response to criticisms as regards the absence of romantic elements in his work.
Interpreting "romance" in his idiosyncratic way, Cooper draws out the implications of his manufactured epigraph in parallel streams: firstly in the traditional romance of Ann and heroic sailor Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), secondly in Kong's decidedly one-sided fascination with Ann's unfamiliar femininity. Both Driscoll and Kong are "hard-boiled eggs" that the blond beauty is able to "crack" with her guileless attractiveness (Wray never so much as hints that Ann may be any sort of temptress, a characterization that is subtly problematized in subsequent adaptations).
But these parallel entanglements are not equivalent; Driscoll's traditional and acceptable courtship of Ann (they are even married by the time Kong is exhibited in New York) contrasts with Kong's aggressive abductions of her. Driscoll is safety and Kong is menace; even if the former cannot hope to physically compete with the latter, there's never any question that his is the proper claim. Certainly biological compatibility is on Driscoll's side, and it's likewise difficult to ignore the racial undertones of a powerful beast from the deepest jungle lustily pursuing a virginal white woman (an image that was brandished to justify Southern segregation for decades). Still, the nuts and bolts of the matter are less vital than the essential metaphoric tension.
Carl Denham's initial meeting with Ann explores this tension at the heart of the "beauty and the beast" concept. Though she is most certainly intrigued by Denham's offer of "money and adventure and fame [...] and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning," Ann shows trepidation nonetheless. She and Denham perform an awkward pas-de-deux around a possibility that, even in Pre-Code Hollywood, could not be spoken aloud: that Denham's intentions run towards the sexual. Denham catches the drift quickly and dismisses it outright while simultaneously implying that a single girl in New York City should, by all rights, be wary of that sort of thing. Without ever saying the word, the intertwined subjects of rape and feminine virtue have been subtly acknowledged, and not for the final time.
Denham and Ann's dangerous journey into the unexplored regions of the world reflects a popular fascination with wild and unknown realms that is related directly to the tail end of colonialism and the growth of American cultural imperialism. The United States is commonly considered not to have a history of colonialism correspondent to that of the European powers, particularly in Africa, and even the imperial designation is foresworn in favour of the more nebulous term "superpower". But the experiences of slaves of African descent as well as indigenous peoples from New England to the West to Hawaii would tend to suggest otherwise.
We don't require the Howard Zinns of the world to point out to us that behind the high-flown rhetoric of liberty and equality under God, there have been many minority communities who have been denied their share of constitutional freedom throughout American history, often due explicitly to their inherent Otherness. The historical conquest and marginalization of Native peoples, the slave trade, cultural and economic domination, as well as the anti-immigrant sentiment which endures down to today are as much a part of the American story as the idealistic triumphs of democracy.