I love the story of King Kong…or rather, I love two particular versions of the Kong story, and they probably aren’t the ones you’re expecting. Everybody always has great things to say about the original 1933 film by Willis O’Brien, and truth be told, it’s a very important film in cinematic history that everyone should probably see at least once. Were it not for that film, we wouldn’t have any of the other Kong films; nor would we have Godzilla, Jurassic Park, or any of the other giant creature features we know and love today. And if there’s any other version of Kong that’s won even half of the 1933 version’s massive popular appeal, it’s Peter Jackson’s 2005 treatment, which boasts some terrific performances and some of the very best CGI animation that’s ever been produced. Aside from these two films, every other Kong movie that’s ever been made is regarded as something laughable and stupid.
The original Japanese poster art for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
As established in the 1933 original, the story of Kong is basically about a giant gorilla who lives on an uncharted island where the natives worship him as a God. This island is then discovered by Western capitalists who plot to exploit the beast and his people. One of these capitalists happens to be a beautiful woman, who is abducted by the natives and offered to Kong as a sacrifice. Kong immediately falls in love with the lady and defends her from various other prehistoric beasts (which are mostly of the reptilian persuasion). Then he’s quackersnatched by the capitalists and shipped off to civilization, where he becomes a source of cheap entertainment for the masses. Kong eventually decides he’s had enough and breaks free to find his lady love and return home; but since he can’t figure out how to get there, he climbs a skyscraper and gets shot to death.
If this description of the King Kong story sounds like an intelligent (if depressing) analysis of Western culture’s tendency to exploit and eventually ruin both nature and the people who live in balance with it, you’d be right…except for one thing. This anti-capitalist stance is quite apparent in subsequent versions of the story, but it’s not necessarily there in the 1933 original. I’ve seen it at least 72 times since I was a little kid, and so far as I can see, no sympathy is ever given (or even hinted at) for the natives of Skull Island; they’re simply presented to us as ignorant (black) savages who have nothing better to do than prey on glamorous (white) women. (I’m not even sure they should be called “characters”; they’re really just a plot device.) Now I realize this cinematic racism was a significant part of 1930s popular culture, and that there are many other films aside from the original Kong that deserve equal criticism for this moral failing. But I find it hard to reconcile the film’s alleged “pro-nature” stance with the way in which it objectifies the “characters” who actually live in balance with nature.
Then there’s the way Kong dies at the end. As a kid, this was always very horrific for me to see – and not just because Kong dies. That’s bad enough to start with, but Kong’s death is treated as being just another inconvenience to the Western way of life. The really important thing – or so the film seems to tell us – is that the woman is still alive to be claimed by the dashing male hero. She certainly doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that this frightened and confused animal has been senselessly killed, or that it died trying to protect her. Then the asshole who’s responsible for the whole mess waxes poetic about how, “T’was Beauty that killed the Beast.” If he seems remorseful at all about what’s happened, it’s only because he’s lost his “property” and can no longer use it to make a fortune. In other words, none of the characters exhibit any kind of sympathy for Kong, and there’s nothing to indicate that the audience should really care about him either; we should all just be glad he’s dead because “at least the woman is safe.” This is absolutely horrifying to me as a Pagan, and if King Kong were actually intended to be a horror film, I’d say it’s the most effective one ever made. It’s really meant to be an adventure film, though, and for this reason, it does not sit well with me at all.
Fuck you, Denham!
Compare this to the original Godzilla (1954), which also involves a giant animal that wreaks havoc and that has to be put down at the end. Yet in this case, the audience is clearly meant to sympathize with the beast as well as with the humans. We feel for the characters as they witness their families and friends being destroyed, but we also feel for the animal as the pros and cons of killing it are discussed at length. When the beast is finally killed, its passing is treated as being every bit as sad and tragic of those of the people it’s roasted. In fact, there’s a heavy price that must be paid to defeat Godzilla (and you’d better believe that it gets paid). Perhaps it’s because Godzilla was made by people who were animists, who actually revered nature, and who knew what it’s like to have your entire world be destroyed; but as horrific and disturbing as it is, I can watch Godzilla ’till the cows come home. It turns my eyes into Niagara Falls every time I see it, but at least it depicts violence and death as being serious issues that have extremely serious consequences (both for humans and for animals), and at least it exhibits a sense of moral outrage toward humanity’s violence against nature. The same cannot be said of the first King Kong, which is just a movie about humans being horrible to an antagonized animal (and getting away with it).
Later versions of Kong would develop a much more sympathetic tone, as most people have seen in the Peter Jackson version. Jackson definitely went out of his way to make Kong the hero, even going so far as to have the woman he kidnaps feel concerned for his safety and well-being. But unfortunately, I have some issues with this version of the story as well (though at least none of them are moral issues). I guess my biggest problem is that it’s just too dang long. The original Kong clocks in at just under 2 hours, so there’s absolutely no excuse for Jackson’s version to be any longer than that. (This “taking-four-hours-to-tell-a-story” fetish made sense with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it doesn’t make sense with Kong or The Hobbit). Very occasionally, I enjoy viewing films that take me an entire day to watch (e.g., Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon A Time In The West, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gandhi), but King Kong is not meant to be that kind of story. I shouldn’t have to say to myself, “Boy, I’d really like to watch King Kong sometime, but I never have enough time or concentration to do so.”
Personally, my favorite versions of the Kong story are King Kong vs. Godzilla (1961) and the Dino DeLaurentiis Kong remake from 1976. (And no, I’m not joking.) Sure, these are both very silly films; but I’ll take both of them over the other versions any day. At least in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Kong is depicted as having a mutually beneficial relationship with his worshipers on Faro Island; they give him the alcoholic berry juice he enjoys, and he protects them from vicious monsters. And while Kong is abducted from his natural environment just like in all the other versions, he gets to go back home, alive and well. (The scenes with Godzilla are also great, even if logic dictates that Kong wouldn’t really stand a chance against a 400 foot tall radioactive dinosaur.) Sure, I realize that having Kong survive kind of defeats the tragic purpose of his character; but then again, there is nothing in the original movie to establish that he was ever meant to be “tragic” in the first place. Let’s face it, the Japanese are much better at this stuff than Americans are, and I figure it’s because they’re still an animist and polytheist culture for the most part.
(Though even I have to admit that the ape costume in King Kong vs. Godzilla is super-shitty.)
The original poster art for the 1976 King Kong remake
As for DeLaurentiis’ Kong, I know what you’re thinking: “G.B., you don’t honestly think that’s a good movie, do you?” Well no, not really; it’s cheesier than a constipated rat. But I still enjoy it, and for several reasons:
I appreciate the environmentalist message that’s brought to the story by having an oil company abduct and exploit Kong (rather than an eccentric filmmaker).
I appreciate the Jeff Bridges character (i.e., the environmentalist hippie photographer), who is specifically written into the story to sympathize with Kong and to root for him.
The animatronic suit that Rick Baker and Carlo Rimbaldi designed for Kong is actually pretty impressive.
The soundtrack by John Barry (i.e., the composer for most of the classic James Bond films) is excellent.
Jessica Lange (as Kong’s love interest) is smokin’ HOT in this movie! (Hell, she’s still smokin’ HOT today!)
Again, DeLaurentiis’ Kong ain’t exactly a work of art…But as a Pagan, I enjoy it a hell of a lot more than the original 1933 version. (And it doesn’t take half as much time to watch as the 2005 Jackson version does.)