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.
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.”
A problematic view of colonialism
This is a problematic view of colonialism and its attendant application to the Kong myth, to put it mildly. It’s a highly romanticized perspective, in fact, one that serves to deny and obfuscate the agency and the complicity of conscious human and state actors in the large-scale, purposeful economic, physical, and cultural destruction that characterized colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. It’s a reading that characterizes the historical crimes and continued deprivations of colonialism as having been initiated by an instinctual and even brave drive towards pushing our own boundaries, a fundamental human impulse against which we can offer little resistance. Even if Hayes and Jimmy both agree that Heart of Darkness, and by extension their own voyage, is “not an adventure story,” this quotation uncritically reinforces the “lost world” myth that Denham is so fond of falling back upon.
Furthermore, the quotation apes (no pun intended) the pernicious colonial doctrine of terra nullius, from the Latin for “land belonging to no one.” A dubious legal principle descended from Roman law and mostly employed by the British Empire in justifying the settling and/or occupation of territories populated sparsely by indigenous peoples, the concept would surely not be an unfamiliar one to Jackson and his writing collaborators, who otherwise demonstrate ample historical and cultural awareness. The concept was used to justify the settlement of the South Island of Jackson’s home country of New Zealand in 1840, to say nothing of its centrality in the dispossession of the Aboriginals of neighbouring Australia.
The characterization of the outer reaches of Skull Island as a ruin (Denham himself refers to them as such) is strengthened and even legitimized by the Conrad quotation, and serves to justify, if only discursively, the exploitation of Skull Island and its denizens. Although Conrad’s measured outrage at the horrors wrought by colonial powers would have been the more useful aspect for the filmmakers to appropriate, they instead choose to ventriloquize the author’s philosophic and paternalistic view of the colonial project.
The use of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Jackson’s Kong is fraught, to say the least, and its aims are not entirely obvious. Boyens says in the commentary that Denham’s progressive descent into immorality mirrors Marlow “proceeding up the river” in the novella, but the darkness he’s proceeding towards is left more ambiguous. If Denham is Marlow, then is Kong the film’s version of Kurtz, the grizzled old lord of the interior, subordinating the natives to his authority by worshipful fear? Or does Denham represent both figures, entering the eternal jungle and meeting a darker version of himself who is stripped of ethics and moderating reason? Or is our Marlow not Denham at all, but the romantic Driscoll, the no-nonsense Hayes, or even the boyish Jimmy? The cinema is always more adept at posing questions than it is at answering them, but the deployment of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this version of King Kong raises infinitely more questions than it even attempts to answer.
Another inherently problematic element of the Kong myth follows fast on the heels of this one, as Denham’s party has their first contact with the Skull Island natives. They are a twisted, emaciated, terrified people, hungry, paranoid, and shamanistic in their outlook. They reside in the ruinous tombs of the island’s vanished civilization, and are described by Boyens, with no apparent irony, as living a “parasitic” existence. They are driven to sheer, naked terror at everything, which should perhaps not be surprising on an island fair teeming with hyper-aggressive predators. Jackson reveals that the production’s conception of them was that they were not native to Skull Island, and since being shipwrecked in such a nightmarish place have “descended into something approaching madness.”
Coming immediately after the invocation of Heart of Darkness, it is exceedingly difficult not to associate the tomb-dwelling natives with the shadowy tribal devotees of Kurtz with their “wild glances and savages movements.” Mind you, they also echo the brutish, wraithlike locals that surround the woman-god Ayesha’s chamber in H. Rider Haggard’s bizarre Victorian adventure novel She. The Skull Island natives are surrounded by images of unspeakable brutality that echo the horrors described by Conrad: bound and impaled skeletons, skulls, mummified bodies, dried fish hung through the eyes. They wield clubs and spears and wear bones through their nostrils, and unlike in the previous films make no attempt at reciprocal communication with the white intruders.
After Denham arrogantly offers a chocolate bar to the first native child he sees (a sly joke at imperialism’s expense, cocoa being one of the prototypical products of mercantilism) and runs afoul of the girl, the tribe assault the film crew and begin stoving in the heads of their victims in a ritual slaughter. Briefly discouraged by the guns of the sailors who arrive just in time to save Denham from an ignominious end, the natives sneak onto the Venture that night to abduct Ann as an offering to Kong, who has been lead to expect a gift after hearing Ann’s screaming during the island attack.
The depiction of their captive’s subsequent “wedding” ceremony is not a staged widescreen spectacle like Cooper’s, nor is it ritualistic foreplay like Guillermin’s. It’s the most primitive of them all, a nightmarish shamanic ceremony of frenzied terror, a ritual less concerned with the worship of Kong than it is about providing a release valve for the natives’ state of constant fear. It’s all rain, drums, and fire, visually echoing Jackson’s Helm’s Deep battle sequence from the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers.
The comparison of the island’s natives to the thoroughly wretched and Othered orcs of Jackson’s famous film trilogy is an instructive one that illustrates the folly of his approach to one of the thorniest issues around the Kong myth. So much narrative focus and audience empathy is directed at the symbolic noble savage Kong that the actual colonized indigenous people in each one of the films are marginalized and forgotten, denied any voice or agency once they’ve fulfilled their limited purpose.
Pauline Kael bemoaned the lack of a more progressive depiction of the natives in her review of the 1976 Kong, but also suggested that such a representation couldn’t be accomplished without badly damaging the established narrative, which cynically relies upon the scary primitives to deliver beauty to the beast. Still, it seems like Jackson could have tried harder than he did to conceive of a new trajectory, especially when it becomes apparent from the commentary and the supplemental documentaries included on the DVD that thin and emaciated extras from places like Sudan were sought out to depict the natives. Reminiscent of the overrepresentation of Maori actors and stunt people in orc roles in The Lord of the Rings, this seemingly minor technical choice only serves to further identify the natives with colonized and discriminated peoples.
That said, Jackson does rehabilitate himself on this point by including a sharp criticism of the casual racism and thoughtless exploitation of the original film’s cultural milieu in Kong’s over-the-top Manhattan stage debut. In a similar vein to the shiny commercial overkill provided by Guillermin and Semple in their version, Jackson has the spotlight-hungry Denham transform the presentation of Kong to the world into a “cheesy,” “slightly Vegas” showcase that is also, fundamentally, a lie.
After unveiling the beast chained in chrome steel onstage, Denham steps into the wings while faux-hero Bruce Baxter and dozens of “primitives” in blackface dance and cavort in a choreographed performance of exotic indigeneity. These stage natives’ appearances and attire are direct reproductions of those of the jungle island natives in Cooper’s original film and thus quite different from the desperate tribe we have seen earlier in this version. The costumes and props in this scene were based on the original props from the 1933 film, many of which the avid film memorabilia nut Jackson has collected over the years. The choreography is also very similar to that of the original’s Kong-summoning ceremony, and, to top it off, the pit orchestra accompanies the spectacle with an arrangement of Max Steiner’s famous score.
Thus, the imagery of Cooper’s film is recast as a commentary on America’s inaccurate and racist attitudes concerning the primitive cultures of the “lost world” opened up by colonialism. The bona fide cultural display of the Skull Islanders in the 1933 film therefore becomes a (literally) staged performance of primitivity based on discriminatory assumptions in the 2005 film. Jackson acknowledges in the commentary that this sequence was his attempt to face up to the inherent racism of Cooper’s vision, although he couches it more in terms of the passage of time shifting “social convention” and “acceptable stereotypes.” Still, this moment cuts to the discriminatory heart of Carl Denham’s (and Merian Cooper’s) supposedly democratic ideology.
In case we missed the garish mockery that Denham was making of the once-proud Kong, Jackson cuts to Driscoll and the long-suffering Preston in the audience, discussing how Denham possesses the “unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.” This could be a fitting epigram for the productive excess of American democratic capitalism, a system whose boundless energy and thirst for the new carries the seeds of its own downfall, much like Denham.
Unlike America, however, Denham’s downfall comes swiftly. Although Kong is initially lethargic on stage, he is roused by the climactic appearance of a blonde woman that he (as well as the viewing audience) is lead to believe is Ann Darrow. The girl is a stand-in, however, as Ann herself rejected Denham’s lucrative offers to be part of his staged farce (in a sneaking meta-joke, Ann’s stand-in for the show is played by Naomi Watts’ stand-in for the movie). This infuriates Kong, and his rage is further inflamed by the press’ flashbulbs. Though his chained arms are raised by metal winches into a Christ-like pose (mirrored by Not-Ann, a visual metaphor for their mutual victimization by the harsher side of civilization), he has no trouble breaking free and immediately wreaking righteous havoc on the Broadway theatre as well as upon wintry Times Square.
More than in any of the other films’ versions of the New York rampage, Jackson’s Kong exerts the force of his savage will upon the great metropolis. Cornered in unfamiliar surroundings, he lashes out at a street trolley that threatens him as if it’s another prehistoric foe, then chases Driscoll’s commandeered taxi cab, eventually flipping it over and beating his chest in triumph over his putative rival. But Ann, who has taken a position in the very chorus line she judged to be “depressing” at the start of the film to assuage her guilt over what happened on the island, arrives to divert his violent impulses back into their shared safe harbour of aesthetic appreciation.
Kong and Ann’s final fleeting escape to the top of the Empire State Building is thus constructed as a retreat into peaceful beauty in the face of a harsh, grasping, commercial-industrial world where unabashed exploitation of the less fortunate is the only way to survive. This world, for all its modernity and high-flown rhetoric of liberty and civilization, is not fundamentally different from the wild Darwinian melting pot of Kong’s island home, and indeed is more powerful and less tameable for the powerful ape. Just as the high sanctuary above the urban jungle serves a similar purpose for Kong and Ann as the mountain on Skull Island did, the frantic and dangerous world below seeks to destroy them in equal measure.
In both cases, their tranquility is shattered by buzzing airborne antagonists: enormous bats on Skull Island, machine-gun-equipped biplanes in New York. In the latter case, atop the skyscraper that Jackson calls a “monument” to man’s “victory over the natural world”, Kong makes a closing, doomed show of strength, pounding his chest with his woman before him. But much as the avid aviator Cooper envisioned it, American air power overmatches him, cruelly delivering the final, wrenching coup de grace in the form of multiple shots in the back. Ann weeps (Watts is incandescent in this scene) as Kong slips from the building’s pinnacle and vanishes into the deep morass of civilization below in a long, mournful slow-motion shot. A moment of flamboyant spectacle in the original film and of gruesome, blood-soaked outrage in the 1976 version becomes a tragic elegy through Jackson’s lens.
But his take on the material is not quite complete. Unlike Guillermin, who turned Kong’s demise into a protest against the establishment’s myriad abuses, Jackson reinstates Cooper’s famous closing line and places it in the mouth of the directorial proxy, Carl Denham. The concept of beauty killing the beast has been almost directly inverted from Cooper’s film to Jackson’s, however. While Cooper conceived of enlightened modern civilization as the source of beauty that was overcoming the savage darkness represented by Kong, Jackson repeats the assumptions of the post-Sixties counter-culture that industrialized capitalism is the hegemonic source of ugliness and destructive tendencies in the world. When Robert Armstrong’s Denham says that beauty killed the beast, he means that the cultural superiority of American democracy has done its job well. When Jack Black’s Denham says the same thing, we’re meant to understand his pronouncement as pinpointing the desire for the fleeting natural sublimity represented by the sunrise as being the proximate cause of Kong’s demise.
This choice by Jackson and his team is a microcosm for the issues plaguing the whole of his passionate, memorable, messy, and contradictory King Kong. This is clearly intended as a moment of self-aware realization for the heartless imperialist Denham, and is played as such by Black. The problem with those words coming from this man at this moment is that nothing that he’s said or done for the previous three hours of film suggest that he has earned any right to such an insight. Better for the line to be delivered by Driscoll or Ann, the bohemian dreamers who had just reunited in an embrace atop the Empire State Building and who could properly appreciate the transcendence that poor Kong sought on top of the world (harkening back to the film’s opening song). Indeed, Jackson had originally hoped that an elderly Fay Wray would make a cameo to deliver the line, a hope dashed by the original Ann Darrow’s passing while the film was in production.
This deathbed conversion-style moment for the vilified Denham typifies the evident struggle at the centre of Peter Jackson’s remake of his formative film experience. Torn between his deep and abiding admiration and love for Merian Cooper’s classic film and his cinematic impulses towards emotional integrity and progressive intelligence, Jackson crafts a King Kong that reconstitutes and expands upon the exotic spectacle and exhilaration of the original film while simultaneously steering the tone of the narrative into the realm of tragic lament.
And yet despite displaying an obvious awareness of the ideological trappings of the Kong myth and taking palpable steps to address them onscreen, Jackson also perpetuates many of the discriminatory elements of its imperialist perspective in his heartfelt aspiration to pay homage to Cooper’s enduring vision. Combine these cleavages with the director’s noted habit for magnificent visual excess, and you have a film that is as unwieldy and difficult as it is gripping and moving.
At the tail end of his DVD commentary with Boyens, Jackson shows that he’s aware of the manner in which the purely cinematic Kong myth reflects the social, political, economic, and cultural anxieties of its time. He speaks of past versions as well as potential future versions as “incorporating” the “contemporary philosophy” of the times in which they are made, and expresses his hope that the tale is remade again in his lifetime in that vein.
Although his King Kong crystallizes many of the operative concerns of the mythos, it is also representative of a gradual shift in perspective as concerns the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World. What once was a spectacle has, through the migration of cultural opinion and the divergent visions of disparate filmmakers, become a tragedy. What it is yet to become, if Jackson’s expressed wish to see another version of King Kong comes to fruition, is still to be determined. There could be many new and fascinating ways that beauty can kill the beast, and we patiently await their revelation.