King Kong

King Kong ★★★½

On March 15th, I went to the theater for what turned out could be the final time for the foreseeable future. But as much as I curse the dreaded Tom Hanks Disease for robbing me of the comfort of the silver screen and the great movies that were to come in the next few months like, uh, ummm, it seems fitting that I went out with King Kong, the 1933 classic that birthed my beloved giant monster genre. 

In her book Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture, author Cynthia Ebb argues that, like Umberto Eco wrote of Casablanca, King Kong derives it’s power from “it’s formal status as a loosely organized ‘hodgepodge’ of formulas and ‘magic’ archetypal features that have proven themselves repeatedly in other literary and film texts.” For all its craziness, the plotline makes sense: a gigantic beast takes a beautiful woman captive, men set out to rescue her, they capture him, he escapes, and is killed. The plot is simple yet the symbolism great. The characters don’t need to be complex anymore than any Little Red Riding Hood or Prince Charming. 

And yet there is a modernness to Kong that we may overlook with its then present day setting now seeming as far away as any fairytale kingdom. This might be the first “meta” horror movie in that it is about making a movie. I enjoy the rapid early 30s dialogue, which makes for a nice contrast with the savage beasts and ancient world of Skull Island (such as Denham reacting to the native ritual with “holy mackerel what a show!”)

One thing one cannot avoid in discussing Kong in 2020 is race. Obviously, the portrayal of the Skull Island natives hasn’t aged well. However, I would note when you compare Kong to other jungle movies of the period, such as Trader Horn and the Tarzan movies, you’ll realize Kong was one of the lesser offenders in this regard (I’ll also note that when a native child is in jeopardy during Kong’s rampage, it’s his mother, not one of the white ppl, who the filmmakers have rescue them.)

I sometimes see people alledge that it is Anne’s status as a white, blonde woman that is the reason Kong is attracted to her. While I admit these may have been the intentions of the filmmakers and how audiences in 1933 would have responded, there is nothing in the film itself that suggests Kong’s treatment of her is different from how he treated previous sacrifices (ironically, it is only in Peter Jackson’s remake from 2005 that explicitly has Ann saved due to her blonde hair.

However, it is not just the natives that modern audiences will see in terms of race but Kong himself. Merian C. Cooper swore Kong wasn’t supposed to represent African-Americans or anything else, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was at least consciously true, but the image of the ape who sexually desires a white woman comes not from study of simians but Caucasians’ race hysteria. 

However, while the comparison of black people to apes is always horrendous, the charge seems to forget that Kong is not the villain, but the most sympathetic character in the movie. We had creature fights in this movie’s predecessor, The Lost World, but Kong’s innovation is that we have a vested interest in seeing Kong overcome his opponents, something that would be taken up by Kaiju eiga thirty years later. 

I remember Nacho Vigalondo, in an interview promoting Colossal, saying Jackson misunderstood the original Kong, that he wasn’t in love but a horny gorilla. Frankly, I don’t know what movie Vigalondo saw. It’s not emphasized to the extent the 1976 and 2005 remakes do, but Kong clearly has a sensitive soul lurking under his fearsome exterior. Even what would seem to be the most explicitly erotic act, tearing off pieces of Ann’s dress and smelling them, is presented as an act of curiosity rather than sexual gratification. 

And the climax is not played as good triumphing over evil. It’s notable that the pilots who take down Kong aren’t characters we’ve been following over the movie, but anonymous people. It’s Kong we have an emotional connection to, and his death is portrayed as a tragedy (there’s the great bit where, after being shot, he stares in confusion at his wounded arms, not understanding how they’re harming him.) The sad fact is, if Kong is black, it’s one of the most dignified portrayals afforded a black character in all of Golden Age Hollywood.

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