King of The Kong

Written By: François-Noël Vannasse


I. King Kong (1933)

The story of the production of the original King Kong is one of pioneers and visionaries. Co-produced and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack the film’s script was tackled and molded by three different writers. Edgar Wallace died while creating the first draft and James Creelman was forced to quit in order to focus on other projects. This masterpiece of pacing and parsimony instead owes its existence to the debut work of Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose. The character of struggling young actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) drew inspiration from Rose herself. Similarly the characters of director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and first mate John “Jack” Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) were inspired by Cooper and Schoedsack, whom Rose had accompanied on their film-making wilderness excursions. The character of Kong, although conceived of by Cooper, owes its power and depth to the work of three other pioneers: the breathtaking special-effects wizardry of stop-motion animator and Academy Award winner (1950) Willis O’Brien, the high-tech sound effect work of Academy Award winning (1969) sound-engineer Murray Spivack, and the three-time Oscar-winning (‘35, ‘42, ‘44) “father of film scores” composer Max Steiner. King Kong was more than a critical darling or cult classic; it was a wildly popular success. Released at the bottom of the depression in 1933, the film provided audiences with the first giant-monster movie and escapist thrills. The operatic score invited audiences to sympathize with the beast and turned his story into a kind of tragedy.

A king and a god in the world he knew,” able to single-handedly defeat countless monstrous threats, Kong is eventually defeated by the pinnacle of modern civilization: airplanes. This while perched atop The Empire State Building, at that time, the tallest edifice in the world.

King Kong was released decades before Bigfoot and Yeti sightings took the world by storm in the 1950s, but the story of primal creatures “neither beast nor man” has deep, enduring roots in mythology and culture. Many of these also parallel one of the film’s major themes of “beauty and the beast”. For instance, Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh is partially civilized by his love for Ishtar, defeats many monsters, but dies tragically and senselessly after moving to the big city of Uruk. A happier ending is in store for Tarzan who is raised by intelligent apes as a child, meets Jane Porter as an adult, and leaves the jungle to be with her before ultimately returning together to Africa, after growing disillusioned with civilization. In these stories ferocious, proud, and uncontrollable beasts are tamed, and often doomed, by their desire for a beautiful woman. As Denham puts it: “some big, hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy.”

Though the filmmakers denied it contained any meaning beyond being a good adventure King Kong probably grapples with other less reputable themes on race and sexuality. The Skull Island Village Chief (Noble Johnson) and the Witch Doctor (Steve Clemente) attempt to trade six of their women for Ann, “The Golden Woman” so they may sacrifice her to the object of their fear and worship. Tall tales and racist propaganda about monkeys and “savages” kidnapping and raping European women play into Kong’s fascination with Ann. Though he does rescue her from several attacks by giant prehistoric monsters and his curiosity towards her (and everything else he plays with) might be more innocent and child-like than overtly sexual, it is hard to ignore the fact that he is literally a giant black ape.

In the world of King Kong, women intrude into the world of men. Denham can’t leave on his adventure until he casts a studio-mandated leading lady to appease the public outcry that his films don’t have enough romance in them. Driscoll complains that Ann’s presence aboard the Venture will bring bad luck because she’ll get in the way or distract the sailors. By intruding into the world of Skull Island, Ann is deemed responsible for Kong’s death. “It was beauty killed the beast,” is the very line that ends the film. Rescued from an angry fruit vendor and the hardship of the depression by Denham, kidnapped by natives, abducted by Kong twice, nearly killed by a dinosaur, a pterosaur, and a plesiosaur, rescued by Driscoll, abducted once again by Kong, and rescued a second time by Driscoll, Miss Darrow does very little but secure Fay Wray’s status as a “scream queen”. Luckily, the film is mostly about the world’s first completely animated movie star and the place he secured as a film classic, and a benchmark in cinema history. It spawned numerous sequels and clones including three major studio remakes.

II. King Kong (1976)

Producer Dino de Laurentiis won out in the legal battle among multiple studios vying for the rights to remake King Kong. He promised audiences a modern, state-of-the-art, and intelligent monster movie. What he delivered was definitely a commercial success, but a mixed bag with critics. It’s a movie perhaps even more of its time than the ‘33 classic. The 1976 Kong is a man in a gorilla suit. It’s a good costume but it doesn’t have the special effects wizardry of the 1933 original or the motion captured personality of the 2005 remake. The musical score by John Barry has been received favorably but it’s very repetitive and most of the film is achingly quiet. It also leans fully into the bizarre sexual aspects of the Kong story. The screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. famous for his work on the 60s Batman television series. While critics derided the ‘76 Kong as “campy”, it’s much more weirdly earnest than that. Whole scenes are lifted from the original movie but otherwise the characters and tone are totally different.

An executive working for Petrox Corporation named Fred S. Wilson (Charles Grodin) has staked his career on finding a new massive oil deposit on an island hidden behind a veil of eternal white fog. His character is our introduction to the first two major themes this movie has on its mind: greed and corruption. Wilson is obsessed with rising through the ranks of Petrox, he dreams of “sticking it” and “putting the screws” to the men who doubted him. He also brags about having bribed the White House for access to top-secret NASA spy satellite photographs of Skull Island. After bribing a guard at the port, Princeton primatologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) has stowed away aboard the Petrox Explorer and interrupts the speech to the crew with exposition of his own about mysterious legends surrounding the island, including the note written in blood discovered in 1749.

“From thy wedding with the creature who touches heaven, lady, God preserve thee.”

The lady in question is Dwan (Jessica Lange). She barely escaped the sudden, and never explained explosion, of a yacht owned by the man who promised to make her a movie star in Hong Kong. She attributes her miraculous survival to her refusal to sit below decks and watch the Linda Lovelace porno-chic classic Deep Throat. In this way the 1976 King Kong manages to simultaneously reference the 1970s, sex, and the Watergate scandal. In fact, it does so several times. A montage is devoted to Dwan’s journey aboard the Explorer while she cobbles together skimpy outfits, created from clothes donated to her by the crew, all while spending long days in Jack’s company.

Further highlighting the renewed sexual aspects of the 1976 Kong, the sacrificial victim is again explicitly referred to as Kong’s “bride” and the village priest or chief wears an ape mask, a furry codpiece, and thrusts his hips towards Dwan. The camera often finds itself dwelling, centered, on his movements. Jack worries that Dwan is stuck on the island being hunted by a “gigantic turned-on ape” and after she is rescued Wilson insists “He tried to rape you, honey,” to which Jack later comments, “the ape had the right idea.

There are far fewer monsters in this movie. The expedition encounters not one bloodthirsty prehistoric creature. Most of the time spent with Kong are close-ups of the elaborate animated masks designed and built by Carlo Rambaldi and worn by Rick Baker. Kong stares lasciviously at Dwan, bathes her, and undresses her. He risks his life to save her by fighting a giant snake but this also provides the opportunity for her escape where she reunites with Jack. Kong breaks through the wall, falls into a pit of chloroform, and wakes up in the bowels of oil supertanker, the Susanne Onstad. It’s on this ship to New York City that the most interesting conversation in the film takes place. Wilson claims they have done the natives a favor by removing Kong from the island to which Jack counters:

He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their God.

After briefly being enraged and nearly destroying the ship after catching a whiff of Dwan’s scent, Kong releases her again and becomes tired and depressed.

Celebrations begin immediately in NYC. 1976 marked the bicentennial of the United States of America and so everything is decorated in red, white, and blue. The Petrox Corporation logo is merely a P covered in the Stars and Stripes and framed by the words “Petrox Corporation” and “United States of America”. The film is perhaps less than subtle. The decorations are tacky and glitzy. Kong is transported into the circus inside of a giant hollow gas pump and sports a golden crown. After watching Dwan get jostled by paparazzi Kong breaks free of his “escape-proof cage certified by the New York City government” and mayhem ensues.

For some reason, no one ever believes Jack. Wilson refuses to believe he isn’t a spy working for a rival oil company before eventually hiring him as the expedition’s official photographer. The crewmen escorting him below decks believe he is trying to trick them when he spots Dwan’s lifeboat. Wilson contradicts Jack by stating that the giant wall is ancient and the island uninhabited moments before the natives are discovered. Dwan brushes him off when he warns her she is going to fall into Kong’s tank. She also insists they are safe and should rest when he urges her to continue fleeing from Kong after crossing the Queensboro bridge. Meanwhile, the mayor of New York City doubts very much that anyone could possibly know where Kong is headed after Jack calls in a tip about the World Trade Center’s resemblance to Skull Island geography. This might be all meant to be a statement about the merits of academia, environmentalism, and the protest movement (Wilson calls him a “damn hippie” when they first meet) or it could just be an easy way to make the character seem clever and righteous.

Atop the World Trade Center, Kong’s fur runs red with blood as he is shredded by helicopter mounted machine guns. He falls to the ground and his heartbeat slowly fades with Dwan looking into his eyes beside him. Jack and Dwan attempt to reunite but the movie denies us this, preferring instead a look of perplexed constipation as Jack stops moving through the crowd toward Dwan as she sobs while calling out his name surrounded by journalists and photographers. The credits roll over a crane shot of the crowd gathered around Kong’s corpse.

Carl Denham wanted to bring a piece of the exotic uncharted wilderness to people and did so at twenty dollars a ticket whereas Wilson wanted to recoup his losses when the bubbling crude of Skull Island proved to be useless as fuel. Both are motivated by greed but Denham was a risk-taking explorer who charismatically led his crew through the jungle, while Wilson sat on the beach drinking alcohol, getting massages, and coordinating via radio. In 1933, King Kong was a mythical dreamlike adventure where the beast was doomed by his love for beauty, which softened him. In the Kong of ‘76, the energy crisis, Vietnam war, and Watergate scandal resulted in a dark cynicism that even the Great Depression hadn’t brought about. King Kong was the last piece of magic in the world, and man destroyed it.

III. Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005)

This is one of my favorite movies. I credit it with unlocking my love of cinema.

Peter Jackson became a filmmaker because he grew up loving the 1933 classic and he almost made an ironic The Mummy (1999) style remake before moving on to The Lord of the Rings instead. The techniques he and his crew learned in that time proved invaluable when they finally did make King Kong (2005) which is the most ambitious, sincere, and passionate fan-made love-letter ever produced. Every set, and every line is full of details put in by and for Kong fans while still being a functional, beautiful, thrilling adventure.

Jackson’s Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a melancholy young woman. Upon meeting her, Carl Denham (Jack Black) says to her “You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met… …You’re gonna break their hearts.” The film has the audience linger in the Great Depression with a montage that features lines in front of soup kitchens, shots of Hooverville shanty towns built in parks, federal agents draining liquor and smashing illegal stills, and the disappearing Vaudeville audience which is Ann’s livelihood. We fall in love with Ann Darrow long before we ever step foot on the S.S. Venture. In this movie, Denham is channeling Orson Welles. Although he is far less successful a producer/director than in the original, what he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in deviousness. Jackson’s Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is a playwright turned screenwriter who is meek and ineffectual when trying to convey his feelings for Ann, but runs unflinchingly into danger to try and save her and others.

This film has taken the 72 years of Kong evaluation and reevaluation that separate it from the original to craft a very different movie. Like in Mighty Joe Young (1948), this ape is a giant gorilla and this ape is also kind and gentle at heart. Similar to the 1976 version this leading lady falls in love with her Kong and weeps as he dies. This Ann goes willingly into the hands of her Kong several times and she is heartbroken as Kong dies protecting her. While Ann is willingly rescued by Jack, they have a falling out because Jack stops her from preventing Kong’s capture. Ann and Jack both refuse to participate in Denham’s Broadway exploitation show. Jackson’s Kong isn’t a monster or an avatar of primal id, sex, and magic, he’s just an animal, the final member of his species whose savagery is merely the result of his brutal environment and catastrophic loneliness.

The difference between old and new comes across clearly in the modifications made to the “Old Arabian proverb” invented for the 1933 film. Carl Denham recites for his excited theater audience: “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.” This time it is beauty who stays the beast’s hand instead of an inborn quality of the beast that is dulled by love. Ann Darrow goes to Kong, and she brings Kong a few moments of peace. Creating a rapport with her is what dooms him. Peter Jackson and his team displayed an unparalleled passion and thoroughness of understanding in the production of their remake. It’s not escapist horror or a salacious romp, it’s a grand tragedy; an exploration of man’s darker psyche and the way we utterly fail to protect the things we love.

IV. Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The latest movie takes the viewers back (or is it forward?) to 1973 in much the same way that Kong ‘05 took us back to 1933. Instead of a montage of depression-era New York, this one opts for a montage of assorted newsreel footage. The Cold War, Vietnam, the energy crisis, civil unrest. The film’s opening line is from Bill Landa (John Goodman) who states to his associate Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) “There will never be a crazier time in Washington, but we have work to do.” The duo force their way into a meeting with a senator and convince him to allow them to tag-along with a geological survey mission of mysterious Skull Island along with a military escort by convincing him that if they don’t get to it first, the Russians inevitably will. The duo then hire ex-SAS specialist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker. Award-winning photojournalist and embedded self-described “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is also hired by Landsat.

President Richard Nixon has just announced the cessation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and as his helicopter squadron unit discusses their homecoming plans Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is morose. He feels the Americans have abandoned the war effort and that all of his medals and sacrifice have been for naught. Escorting these scientists to Skull Island is his One Last Mission™ and Kong becomes his White Whale when Packard projects all of his resentment and failures onto the beast. Landa recruits Conrad by telling him “Men go to war because they’re looking for something, you wouldn’t be here if you had found it” and Conrad tells Weaver “I suppose no man comes home from war, not really”. Even one of the squad members describes an encounter he had with a Vietnamese farmer by concluding “sometimes enemies don’t exist until you go looking for one”. These three perspectives about war converge in Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a WWII fighter pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island for nearly 30 years. He became friends, then brothers, with a fellow castaway who happened to be a Japanese pilot after they “stripped away the uniforms” then spent six years scrapping their crashed planes to build a boat together. This is the film’s strongest story, and its strongest character. Marlow deftly provides the majority of the humor, pathos, and exposition. It’s through him that we get the context and the stakes we need. I would love to see the Enemy Mine (1985) story of young Marlow and Gunpei Ikari forced to work together in order to survive Skull Island.

After arriving on the island the soldiers gleefully delight in dropping “seismic charges” which provide vibrations necessary to map the island’s geography, an idea lifted from the 1976 Kong. The island turns out to be mostly hollow but Kong quickly puts a stop to the explosions. It’s an arresting scene as Kong makes child’s play of destroying a horde of the very things which utterly destroyed him in the ‘76 remake but it’s not because the bombs are setting the forest ablaze or scattering and maiming herds of deer that Kong makes twisted bodies and steel rain from the sky; it’s because Skull Island is an extraction point for the ancient horrors which dwell beneath the Hollow Earth and the explosions will disturb them.

Legendary Pictures is creating its own shared movie continuity based on giant monster movies. Godzilla and Kong will eventually unite in a remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla. If you stay after the credits you will catch cave paintings of other famous movie monsters including Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. An entire universal theory on monsters is presented in this movie. It’s what makes Kong: Skull Island a reboot instead of a remake. It’s also the gulf that separates it from the other King Kong movies. “The Earth never belonged to us, it belonged to them, and they’re going to want it back” is the threat Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms pose to mankind as told by Landa and Brooks. It also makes this Kong a kind of reckoning, a totem of the threat nature poses to man’s supremacy in the world. In past incarnations, Skull Island has always been a topsy-turvy world where man becomes the hunted, living like mice in fear of an utterly inhospitable landscape of monsters. The 2017 flick brings this idea front and center. On Skull Island man has stumbled onto an ancient war between Kong and the subterranean skullcrawlers, two-legged lizard-like creatures, which destroy and devour and would have supposedly long-ago swarmed the Earth if not for Kong’s eternal vigil.

The skullcrawlers are in part inspired by the mysterious two-legged lizard which crawls out of the crevasse following the log chasm scene in King Kong (1933) part of the deleted “spider-pit” scene which was re-imagined for King Kong (2005).

Kong: Skull Island is more than a big dumb action movie, but not that much more. It sets up the shared MonsterVerse and explains their origins but the exposition is wackadoo nutballs and delivered pretty awkwardly. They take full advantage of their 1973 music playlist but along with the blunt allusions to Heart of Darkness with the names Marlow and Conrad it just feels like they’re aping Apocalypse Now. It’s probably not a great strategy to remind your audience of better movies, and the Vietnam War has an embarrassing amount of better movies. As Weaver points out the second time they defuse an armed standoff between Packard and Marlow over the fate of Kong by talking things through “The world is bigger than this!

V. Heavy Is The Head…

King Kong is more than just a movie monster. The character is an icon that has pervaded pop culture. The story is so well known there were complaints no one would see the remake because they all knew the ending. Nintendo didn’t hesitate to, and in fact fought a legal battle so they could, name their giant kidnapper ape “Kong” because the word had become so synonymous with giant monkeys. The movies themselves, however, do treat the character differently and the different interpretations are worth exploring.

In 1933 gorillas were exotic to Americans and poorly represented in zoos. Cooper’s original pitch was to ship gorillas from the Congo to Komodo Island and film them fighting the giant lizards which live there. The final version is a beauty and the beast story for the ages with seemingly inescapable, though ultimately hypothetical, racist and sexist allegories. An innocent child-like beast of incredible strength doomed by his love for beauty and unable to survive modern civilization.

By 1976 a revolution in primatology was gaining steam thanks to pioneering work by women like Jane Goodall and the rediscovery of bonobos by researchers in the 1960s. In popular culture, however, gorillas were still seen as violent and dangerous. It’s hard to shake off nearly a century of bad reputations. Slightly more depraved than in the original, this time the leading lady feels pity for her Kong when he is depressed and weeps as he dies. He even appears to push her away as he’s shot through by machine guns. He’s less of a beast as he is an avatar for unspoiled nature; invaded, captured, broken, exploited, and destroyed by American capitalism.

2005 was 20 years after Dian Fossey’s murder. Gorillas had long been reformed into the gentle herbivores they are by films like Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Instinct (1999). Jackson’s creation is an animal whose appearance and performance was carefully crafted from observations of real gorilla behaviors. He’s the most charismatic of the Kongs and displays a full range of emotions. He hoots with laughter when he makes Ann fall down, he towers with pride when he defeats his enemies, he shakes with rage when Ann is stolen from him. To Ann’s utter amazement this Kong picks up some Koko-esque sign language by linking tapping one’s chest with sunset/sunrise. Kong even lets Ann go midway through this film. She is the one who finds him on the streets of Manhattan, and she weeps in Driscoll’s arms at the end not because she’s relieved to finally be safe but because she’s inconsolable over Kong’s tragic death. There was never anything she could do to save him and, in a very real way, he died protecting her.

For 2017 Kong has returned to his bipedal and only vaguely gorilla-like roots. He’s massive, (absurdly so) and, according to Marlow, young and “still growing”. He debuts by completely destroying the very things which killed him in 1976: helicopters with mounted machine guns. He also might be the smartest Kong since we watch him fully display tool-use on multiple occasions. Sadly, I can’t say I know much about him. He shares this problem with many of the film’s main cast which are still very much strangers to me by the time the credits roll. This Kong has saved the day by killing an even worse monster, which is a trick straight out of Godzilla’s playbook. It’s not quite King Kong behavior, but it does make him unique as the only Kong left standing after his first movie. There are worse ways for a franchise to get off the ground but it’s a Kong in name only. Any monster could have done this job.

It’s hard to compare the each Kong to one another meaningfully since each is so different in origin and purpose. Cooper’s is close to being two-dimensional, Laurentiis’ suffers from low-budget and low-imagination, Jackson’s wants to have its cake and eat it too, and while 2017’s is gorgeous it’s also a little bit hollow. If you’re a buff you might give the crown to 1933, if you’re a fanboy like me to 2005, if you love action 2017, and if you just want to get weird: 1976.

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