From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see echoes of America’s fraught historical discourse on race in 1933’s King Kong.

Although Merian C. Cooper’s original King Kong may well be the most renowned B-movie ever made, the seminal 1933 film hardly lacks the 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 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 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 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 America’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.

Therefore, this serial feature 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 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 that behind the high-flown rhetoric of liberty and equality under God, there have been many minority communities who have been denied their 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, and the anti-immigrant sentiment that endures today are as much a part of the American story as the idealistic triumphs of democracy.

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.