“I am about to show you the greatest thing your eyes have
ever beheld. He was a King and a God in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilisation, merely a captive, a show to satisfy your curiosity.”
Merian C. Cooper, the visionary behind the chest-thumping giant gorilla atop the Empire State, was a remarkable man. An old school adventurer, he could list World War I flying ace, POW, journalist, explorer, airline owner and Oscar-nominated documentary-maker on his resume before he came to make King Kong, and he continued his adventurous way until his death in 1973. He was part of the first generation of US film-makers, those who saw creating a movie as the latest in a line of thrilling technological challenges. These pioneers of the Machine Age seized movie cameras in the 1920s with the same enthusiasm as they had grabbed the controls of airplanes a decade earlier. King Kong shares the dashing spirit of its producer, and epitomizes his fascination with technology. After all, Cooper plays the pilot of the plane that kills Kong, the very embodiment of twentieth century machinery’s triumph over Nature.
King Kong, a quintessential monster movie, was hugely successful upon its release, saving RKO from financial ruin. On one level it is a simple fairy tale — Beauty and the Beast — yet it is also a powerful horror film, keying into primal fears about what lurks beyond the borders of civilisation. It shaped genre paradigms for the monster movie — the outsized animal with massive strength (back to Freud’s Unheimlich, the familiar thing presented in an unfamiliar way), the city trashed by a force of nature, the demented scientist/technologist with his eye on a dangerous prize, the gawping crowds punished for their curiosity.
Cooper took his inspiration for Kong from both fact and fiction. As a small boy he was inspired by the adventure stories of Paul Du Chaillu, African explorer, whose embroidered tales of battles with hippopotami and giant apes in the depths of the jungle were a strong influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan.
Years later, he managed to borrow enough money to fund a North African expedition for the purposes of making a documentary about the nomad Bakhtiari tribe: Nanook of the North wowed audiences in 1922 and he thought he could capitalise on the new cultural fascination with anthropology. He was accompanied by an ex-combat photographer, Ernest B. Schoedsack, who had honed his post-war camera skills at Mack Sennet’s studio. They joined the tribesmen’s migration over the mountains, and, over twenty-six gruelling days shot the footage that would become the documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925).
Paramount offered a distribution deal, and it grossed many times its original $10,000 budget. Jess Lasky was persuaded to give Cooper and Schoedsack $60,000 to make their second documentary, Chang: A Drama of The Wilderness(1927) which focused on a Laoatian tribesman, Kru.
Filmed in the jungles of northern Thailand, many of the sequences were fictionalised or heavily staged to fit a preconceived narrative. The off-camera antics of Cooper and Schoedsack during the two years of filming created a lot of drama — the hot-tempered Cooper angered a tribal chieftain who served him chicken stew laced with deadly bamboo barbs at one point. Nonetheless, Chang was a huge success, the top grossing movie of the year.
Cooper and Schoedsack’s next collaboration was the wartime drama, The Four Feathers, one of the last silent films. It wasn’t a great financial success so Cooper took two years off from the film industry to start his own airline. He also worked on a book about baboons, which led him to recall the adventure stories of his boyhood, and his more recent adventures in Asia. He began to work on a treatment for King Kong, but struggled when it came to the effects. He ruled out using a real gorilla, but couldn’t find a believable alternative.
Cooper was lured back into entertainment by legendary producer David O. Selznik, who was then working at RKO. Willis O’Brien, stop motion animation genius, was also part of the studio, working on a silent project, Creation, which was ultimately dropped. O’Brien wowed Hollywood with his work recreating dinosaurs in The Lost World (1926), and offered sophisticated solutions to Cooper’s technical difficulties. RKO funded some test footage, shot by Schoedsack — three model gorillas (18″ high) shot against miniatures of Skull Island and Manhattan. RKO were sufficiently impressed by this footage to give Cooper a budget of $500,000 (later upped to $650,000); impressive as the country was beset by the worst privations of the Great Depression.
From the outset, King Kong is a hymn to the Machine Age. The opening shots of New York show an industrial nation rising up out of the river. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a gung-ho movie producer, who chatters of the latest in “gas bombs” and is confident that his technology can conquer the world — and generate some cash.
Yet King Kong is also a movie of beautifully drawn contrasts. Denham’s cigar-chomping confidence segues into the drawn faces of women lining up outside a Mission, and a desperate Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) attempting to steal — very symbolically — an apple. These scenes had a special resonance for the cinema audiences of the time, those who sought a couple of hours respite from their grim existence. Ann’s attempted crime gives Denham the right to pluck her off the street — after first double checking that she has no family and friends to check up on her — promising her “the thrill of a lifetime” if she’ll come and work for him.
Working for Denham, it transpires, involves being the only woman on board the Venture, a ship bound for a nameless Pacific island. At first the crew are suspicious of her presence, none more so than Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) who tells Ann that women on ship are “a nuisance”. Fortunately, Denham doesn’t really see Ann as a woman -- she is his property, part of his equipment, just like his camera and his beloved gas bombs. In one scene he rehearses her in front of the camera, providing a potted guide to screen acting technique (“Look
up slowly. You’re quite calm, you don’t expect to see a thing. Then just follow my direction.”).
Film-making is represented as a complex technical process, rather than an artistic one, the sailors comment on how expensive the camera is, Denham slots in a filter at one point and explains the cranking process. Ann is nervous that she won’t “photograph well” .The sailors watch, fascinated, from various vantage points on walkways and ladders, but acknowledge Denham’s technological superiority sets him apart. “He’s not crazy,” the Captain tells Driscoll, “just enthusiastic.”
Their destination is Skull Island, where, Denham has heard tell, an enormous monster “neither man nor beast” lurks behind a centuries-old wall built and maintained by primitive tribesmen. Whilst the Captain and Driscoll are cynical, Denham insists that every legend has a basis in reality, and “If it’s there, you’ll bet I’ll photograph it.” The crew hear the island before they see it -- in start contrast to the glittering sunshine of their departure from New York, their destination is swathed in swirling fog, and only a sinister drum beat announces their proximity to land. The intrepid crew land, and find themselves in the middle of a tribal ritual. Young women are being offered as a sacrifice, and gorilla costumed dancers only hint at the horrors to come. Oblivious to the danger that Ann is in, Machine Ager Denham only laments that he can’t capture it all on film because he can’t shoot in the dark.
Drawn by her golden curls, the tribespeople kidnap Ann, wanting to present her to Kong. The crew arm themselves, assured that their rifles will give them superiority over anything they encounter on the island. However, they are not prepared for the might of Kong, nor for the various dinosaurs lurking in the swamps. During a thrilling chase, which takes up half an hour of screen time -- almost a third of the movie -- they attempt to rescue Ann, but are reduced to weaponless victims and picked off one by one, their gunpowder rendered useless by water. Many die horrible, screaming deaths at the hands of Kong, or in the jaws of a pliosaur, with only determined Jack Driscoll, who has already declared his love for Ann, able to follow Kong to his lair and rescue the fair maiden.
During this chase Kong establishes himself as a semi heroic character — yes he kills any human that gets in his way, but he also takes risks in order to ensure Ann’s safety. He battles a tyrannosaurus rex much larger than he is, breaking its neck after a long struggle. He wades in against a giant serpent, again without regard for his personal safety. Kong is tender and concerned for a largely unconscious Ann, the myriad facial expressions of O’Brien’s models communicating Beauty’s civilising effect on the Beast. The model for the face was incredibly complex — almost seven feet wide, it used 85 separate motors and needed six operators. However, the nuances of emotion conveyed by this arrangement are what help Kong engage his audience: we understand what he is thinking, and we empathise. The infamous scene where he removes Ann’s skirt was omitted from prints for many years, as it was said to imply bestiality and rape. However, it has now been restored, and seems entirely innocent, another expression of Kong’s desire to make Ann comfortable.
Driscoll manages to get Ann back to safety, but Denham is not satisfied. The technological adventurer becomes something of a mad scientist, defying logic in his wish to capture Kong. He’s aware only that the giant ape is “worth all the movies in the world”, and is glad to finally have a chance to use his gas bombs.
Back in New York, Denham the showman is the darling of Broadway. A sold-out black tie crowd eagerly await “the eighth wonder of the world,” eager to find out how it stacks up against the other marvels of the machine age — television, cinema, radio, electricity. They’re expecting some kind of movie, or other technological entertainment. But they are about to be presented with — wonder of wonders — something natural and real.
Denham presents a chained Kong, arms aloft in crucifixion pose. Technology — in the form of steel links, bolts, gantries and rivets — keeps the assembled New Yorkers safe from the primal monster, but not for long.The popping of flashbulbs — or is it the presence of now-fiancé Driscoll beside Ann? — enrages the monster, and, displaying a near-human intelligence, he deftly divests himself of his chains and escapes into the city streets.
Chaos ensues, of the type familiar to audiences of subsequent disaster movies, but still very fresh on the screen at the time. Crowds scream and run about while the authorities stand by. Kong quickly adapts to the concrete jungle and goes searching for Ann, stuffing screaming humans in his mouth as he clambers about the skyscrapers. In searching for his lost love he plucks an older, brunette woman from her bed before tossing her aside, a move symptomatic of Hollywood men to this day. He soon comes up against twentieth century technology in the form of a subway train, which he sends screeching from its tracks (a scene hommaged in Spiderman 2, Batman Begins and many other movies). He gets his girl and begins to climb, at which point there’s only one technological solution — airplanes.
The final, climactic scene is cinema history. Finally dwarfed by something, Kong perches on top of the Empire State Building, swatting ineffectually at the airplanes that spell his doom. Kong is a fully realised character by this stage — testament to O’Brien’s modelling skills — and it is with very mixed feelings that the audience watches him plunge to his death. Yes, the girl is safe, but something dignified and powerful has been debased, in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment. The real monster of the movie is not Kong, who is nothing more than a hapless pawn; the ruthless, exploitative Denham is the bad guy. And he goes totally unpunished.
King Kong As Science Fiction
King Kong functions as science fiction because it offers a multi-layered discourse on technology. It’s all about Man and his Machines, and how they are used to tame Nature, from the huge wall constructed hundreds of years ago by the tribesmen on Skull Island to the airplanes used to knock Kong off his final perch. It also deals with many common science fiction tropes — the outsized animal (Kong was later to do battle with Godzilla), the city trashed by a force of nature, the demented scientist/technologist with his eye on a dangerous prize, the gawping crowds punished for their curiosity.
Is King Kong racist?
King Kong is a joyous hymn to the miracles of the machine age, but it has a dark side. It explores — whether consciously or unconsciously — the brutal racial tensions of the era. It’s not too much of a stretch to view Kong through the hegemonic prism of the time as a black man and Ann as the flower of white womanhood who must be defended against his attentions at all costs. Just exactly what kind of fears did Kong hope to tap into in its audience?
1933 was not a great year for racial harmony in the USA. As the Depression bit deep, black workers from the South migrated North and, desperate, offered to do poor white men’s work for less pay. This exacerbated economic and existing racial tensions. Membership of the Klan (pumped by yet another infamously racist movie, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation) had peaked at around 4 million in 1925 and was on the wane, but there was still plenty of support for their ideas. Can King Kong be read as a white supremacist allegory? It certainly seems to drawn on news stories of white-on-black lynchings of the day, as well as cartoonish representations of tribespeople.
According to data collected by the Tuskegee Institute in 1979, 24 black men were lynched across the USA in 1933. All too typically, like Lloyd Warner of St. Joseph, MO, these men were accused of the rape or assault of a white woman. This was enough of a pretext for the white mob to drag them from jail, denying them all due process, and torture and maim them before putting them to death. On November 28, 1933 a 7,000-strong mob, including women and children, watched 19 year-old Warner doused in gasoline, set on fire, and hanged from an elm tree beside the courthouse. Although the Missouri governor denounced the lynching and there was a furor in the press, the case came to a predictable and all too typical conclusion. The trial of seven men accused of being the ringleaders eventually collapsed and they walked free.
It’s impossible to contemplate this socio-historic backdrop without considering the symbolic and political implications of Kong’s relationship with Ann, his savage rise to dominance in the city, and his ultimate destruction. It seems inevitable that the movie not only echoed the cultural paranoia of its day, but may even have fed the zeitgeist.
The filmmakers responsible for the remakes in 1976 and 2005 went to great lengths to handle the race angle with more sensitivity, both in the characterization of Kong and the representation of the tribespeople living on Skull Island. The 2005 remake prompted a slew of articles assessing whether or not they succeeded.
- King Kong, the white woman and 2005: Appropriating Racism
- A Tale of Three Kongs: Race and Gender In King Kong and its Remake
King Kong‘s influence is apparent in films as diverse as JurassicPark, Jason & The Argonauts, and Star Wars, as well as hundreds of ‘creature features’ of the 1950s. Kong himself is a symbol of a vanishing world -- his survival, alongside the dinosaurs on Skull Island, is an accident of Nature, and once extracted from his natural habitat, he cannot survive. His story is a parable, he represents the sacrifices that are made in the stampede to knowledge. As scientific expeditions probe every corner of the globe, there is no room for mysterious creatures like giant apes, especially when they are discovered by those with no respect for their ancient need for privacy. King Kong is both nostalgic for an age when fabulous monsters could lurk in misty swamps, and pragmatic about their inevitable elimination in the name of scientific progress.
King Kong has been remade several times, but none of the new versions have managed to inspire the same kind of affection as the original — perhaps because of the insidious racism? The 1976 version (starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange) mixes corporate oil concerns with the monsters on Skull Island, and winds up rather thin on action. The Peter Jackson effort, at a whopping 187 minutes, cannot be accused of being thin, but relies too heavily on the beautifully realised Andy Serkis/CGI Kong emoting, and Naomi Watts responding in kind.