From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong

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.

King Kong Is a Grand Metaphor for Vigour

Stories like King Kong are, among other things, a discursive attempt to make this shadow history of malign American influence both intelligible and palatable, to render it into a justifiable form. By the '30s, the continental United States had assumed its current borders; the previously ubiquitous frontier had been erased by the momentum of manifest destiny. As the nation struggled through the Great Depression and the state turned in upon itself in the midst of interwar isolationism, the vaunted restless spirit of a people defined more by their intrepid pursuits and determined idealism than by any shared culture or history naturally focused on the wider world.

Just as the cultural discourse in the British Empire displayed a predilection towards exotic adventure narratives by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad, increasingly powerful America had been swept up by the fabulism of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the fantasies of L. Frank Baum for a decade already, to say nothing of the safari films and other exotically-set motion pictures that presaged (and followed) King Kong.

The adventurous Cooper himself personified this growing cultural discourse. A passionate aviator and fearless traveller as well as a cinematic visionary, Cooper flew warplanes in World War I and the subsequent Polish-Soviet War and was a POW in both conflicts. As part of a generation of young Americans exposed to the world outside the States for the first time by the Great War, Cooper developed and maintained an intense interest in valorous exploits in far-flung locales that likewise animated the great waves of European colonialism during the "Scramble for Africa" that was only just tailing off. Cooper's eventual approach, however, was a distinctively American one. The imperialism that he and his films would represent would be filtered not through muskets, maps, trading posts, or purloined resources, but through the lens of a motion picture camera.

In the European colonial project, the uncharted homes of uncontacted populations became mere blank spots on the map to be filled in, their mass exploitation justified by the uplifting power of Christian civilization. America's empire would be different. It would be an empire of commerce and of the image, and the quintessentially American art of the cinema would be the most irresistible agent of imperial expansion. Just as American moviegoers would be exposed to the adventure and excitement available in the rest of the world, foreign audiences would bear witness to idealized models of the determination, intelligence, ambition, and innovation of America through the movies. The spread of Hollywood cinema would be both a harbinger of and a conduit for the worldwide American economic and cultural hegemony that would emerge after the Second World War.

Whether or not the undoubtedly far-sighted Merian Cooper envisioned such a future, the idea that his films served as broad-based metaphorical propaganda for American values would likely not have offended the old-fashioned chivalric patriot. Indeed, the grand nationalistic Westerns that he produced for director John Ford in the '50s were conceived of as celebrations of what Cooper understood as the exceptional vigour of the American masculine character, a vigour that would be especially necessary in the emergent Cold War stand-off with the Soviet menace. Kong is similarly a grand metaphor for vigour, but a more complicated and not at all nationalistic one whose possibilities escape the confines of Cooper and Shoedsack's fast-paced and entertaining film, breaking the chains that hold it like its onscreen embodiment does to commence the film’s breathless climax in New York City.

For example, although Kong is spoken of in the film as a primordial force, untamed and untameable, the great ape is always already a performer, not only for the film's external audience but for its various internal ones as well. Cooper mischievously told Wray that she would be co-starring with "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood" (the starlet was sure that he meant Clark Gable), but the gorilla's showy displays of violent hypermasculinity definitely suggests the alpha male movie star. Even on his forbidding tropical island home, Kong's existence is predicated on performance. His memorable first appearance comes as the featured attraction in an elaborate native ceremony (itself a performance of racist stereotypes of primitivity that makes a modern progressive viewer cringe). When he fights off a succession of prehistoric reptiles, it is observed by an onscreen character (Ann always, but in his cave home, Jack Driscoll as well), a proxy for the audience's own voyeurism.

These are merely preludes for Kong's post-capture appearance in a Broadway theatre in New York City, displayed as a remarkable spectacle in chains of chrome steel for a fashionable audience paying twenty dollars (no small amount in the Depression; the ticket would be around $250 today) for the privilege. Introduced by his nervy capturer Denham, Kong is forcibly bound and unable to move; his personal agency thus inhibited, he cannot perform in any active sense of the word. His very being is the show, and he is transmogrified into pure spectacle. His impressively powerful physiology is gawked and gasped at by the crowd of wealthy Americans, who credit their fellow intrepid white man Denham with the triumph of conquering this beast.

If Kong can be discussed as a representation of a certain stereotype of the black male, then this sort of spectacle is a relatively new conception of the role of the African-American in entertainment culture. Contrasting strongly with the image of urban and intellectual sophistication that undergirded the contemporaneous Harlem Renaissance, this spectacle of black prowess invokes popular sporting figures more so than African-American stage performers of the time; Kong is more Jack Johnson or Jesse Owens than he is Duke Ellington.

To a much greater extent, such imagery brings to mind the aggressive expressions of masculinity prevalent in millennial black culture, as expressed in gangsta rap and modern professional sports. Such simultaneous power and Otherness has been mainstreamed by shifting cultural norms and commodified by the homogenizing imperative of corporate capitalism. The terror-stricken fascination that constricted the collective breath of Kong's Broadway audience has certainly not gone away, but it is no longer expressed in the same manner. This is not to say that the prejudice that underlies such a reaction has evaporated, but merely that it has been submerged by new tenets, by both fresher tolerances and evolved intolerances.

This reading of Kong as a performer, and as a symbol of openly displayed but forcibly limited black male masculinity, problematizes the long-standing interpretation of King Kong as "the story of the Negro in America" (as a Gestapo officer cheekily puts it in Inglourious Basterds). Certainly Kong's capture in the jungle and transportation in chains to America echoes the horrors of the African slave trade, but the basic historical reality of slave labour in America has no representative analogue in the film.

If Kong is, in any way, "the story of the Negro in America", it elides the majority of that history, leaping from the slave trade to segregation-era cultural exploitation and lynch-mob bigotry as if nothing notable occurred in between (certainly not the Civil War, Emancipation, or the Reconstruction). This is less a failure of the film as it is a failure of the explanatory paradigm so often applied to the film. Kong being put on display against his will for the amusement of white Americans is not so much about the past exploitation of African-Americans and their culture as it is about that exploitation in the present and in the future.

A further interesting implication of Kong's Broadway debut is that it is orchestrated by a filmmaker, who substitutes an older, more established entertainment framework for his chosen art. Although Denham's expedition to Skull Island (called thus in production but never onscreen in Cooper’s film) is ostensibly an on-location shoot and the director does a little meta-filming on the ship and in the native village, the camera never comes out again after Kong appears.

Although Cooper's Denham never intentionally schemes to capture the ape as Peter Jackson's version of the character eventually does, his immediate grandstanding after his foe's capture suggests that for Denham, film is only a means to an end, and a limited means at that. The enormity of spectacle that Kong represents is textually constructed as being too big (or perhaps too "real") for the cinema, even as the revolutionary vision of King Kong shows that the cinema's representational boundaries are fluid and ever-expanding. In this case, live theatrical exhibition will serve Denham's purpose just as well, if not better. As powerful as film can be, it's the inculcation of American ideology that matters, not its method of delivery.

With this in mind, the impetus for Kong's escape and subsequent Manhattan rampage gains added resonance. For what is it that sufficiently inflames Kong's rage for him to break his chains but the flashbulbs of press cameras? The live onstage appearance is all well and good; he's been through that kind of thing countless times for the fearfully worshipful natives on his island, who make much more of a racket than do the staid socialites in their evening wear who have paid for the privilege of seeing him. But photography is the final straw, the terminal smug liberty at his expense. Invoking the proverbial (and partly apocryphal) "primitive" distrust of photographic devices as soul-stealing contraptions, Kong rebels passionately against the unblinking permanence of the image, and it leads directly to his doom.

If any of these deeper resonances were intended by Cooper in particular, they surely could not have been in favour of the great ape, that primeval menace to American civilization. Critic David Rosen elucidates Cooper's conservative, anticommunist politics in his article on the historicity of King Kong, "King Kong Race, Sex, and Rebellion" (Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004), wondering pointedly if Cooper's own volunteer service fighting the Bolsheviks was being highly fictionalized in the climax of his most famous film (that Cooper and Schoedsack portrayed the airman who shoot down Kong would give this speculation some anecdotal credence at least). Even if King-Kong-as-Red-Menace is a bit of an interpretive stretch, it's difficult to argue that Cooper viewed his beastly creation as anything but a terrible, primeval antagonist, a chaotic and destructive threat to ordered, polite society.

And this, ultimately, is how Cooper understands that invented Arabian proverb at the film's beginning and the bookend quote at its end, a central interpretive motif of not only his film but the high-profile remakes which followed it. It is not the specific feminine beauty of Ann Darrow that kills the wild masculine passion of the primitive beast Kong, but the broader "beauty" of technological, democratic, Americanized modernity that slays the larger "beast" of natural, primal, exotic tribalism.

The imagery echoes the ingrained Manichean binary of light vs. darkness, a dichotomy that was central to the colonial discourse for centuries and reaches back into human storytelling as long as it has existed. This central dichotomy is taken up by John Guillermin in 1976 and by Peter Jackson in 2005, and both filmmakers find it to be a much more problematic opposition than did the man whose iconic vision inspired them. The upcoming installments of this feature will leap off from the base of Cooper's film and explore the complications introduced into his silver screen myth by those who followed him.

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