As a kid in New York, I loved a series called “Million Dollar Movie” that broadcast classic films twice a night to local viewers. I must have seen Gunga Din and It’s A Wonderful Life a dozen times each. But the mindblower was the original King Kong, the saga of a giant ape transported from his fang-and-claw island realm to big-city modernity. Special effects whiz Willis O’Brien’s phantasmagoric stop-motion battles between Kong and other prehistoric creatures, as well as Kong’s dethroned-yet-rebellious interactions with “civilization,” had me rooting for the big guy over dinosaurs and homo sapiens alike.
I wasn’t the only one to be fascinated. “It just had such a profound effect on me,” as Peter Jackson — who made the Lord of the Rings movies, as well as the 2005 Kong reboot — told Dateline NBC. “It was the defining moment in my life as a filmmaker,” Jackson said. He was nine at the time.
For over eight decades, the four major Kong fantasies — the 1933 original, the 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange remake, 2005’s Naomi Watts/Adrien Brody update, and this year’s Kong: Skull Island — have tested Western humanity’s alleged superiority against powerful beings, and a growing sense that we are in over our heads when it comes to our treatment of the planet and its “other” inhabitants. In doing so, the Kong films have consistently dramatized the cultural preoccupations of successive eras in America, from race and gender to technology and the environment.
“Kong’s story is a metaphor for the history of the black man in America.” When a (white) sociology Ph.D. candidate told me that in the early ’70s, the notion of comparing dark ape and black human sounded forced and racist.
That said, the comparison seems to hold in the first three blockbusters, as the ebon captive Kong is transported from a tropical island across an ocean to a white metropolis (a New York initially devoid of black people) and is killed after breaking his chains. Especially in the first movie, his fatal flaw is falling for a diaphanous blonde goddess (natural brunette Fay Wray, wigged for maximum contrast), in exchange for whom his island’s native chief offers several dark-skinned local ladies.
Between the 1933 debut and the 1976 remake, two generations of black American citizens and scholars had been articulating the biases they encountered in their home country; one provocative take on race, power, and sexuality appeared in 1968’s Soul on Ice, where the late Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver observed that the larger white society had cast the black man as its “supermasculine menial,” notable for “strength, brute power, force, virility.”
The original Kong’s clear insinuations about sub-humanness and miscegenation offer “a trope that hearkens back to Birth of A Nation in 1915,” says Anna Everett, professor of film and media studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara. “Persistent representations of the black person as a monkey or an ape are still potent and racist,” Everett adds. “It was leveled against [Barack] Obama.”
Everett also invokes the controversy around a 2008 Vogue magazine cover that featured a howling, black-clad LeBron James dribbling next to blonde model-deity Gisele Bundchen. Some media observers saw exuberance; more cried foul over a stereotype of what Everett calls “dangerous mythologies of black males’ rapacious desire for innocent white females.” This time, in Skull Island, it’s Kong and company who are more explicitly noble, and their would-be captors who are the clear intruders. Perhaps in part because this iteration was a Chinese co-production, with some of it shot in Vietnam, the new iteration’s Asian-appearing natives are gentle; they’ve spent decades playing host to John C. Reilly’s scene-stealing pilot, who crashed on the island while fighting in World War II. Rather than threatening the tribespeople, Kong protects them against subterranean lizards called “skullcrawlers,” while guarding the island itself against outside invaders.
Two sympathetic scientists in Skull Island are people of color, and the new movie also offers the twist of a black lead actor as Kong’s human foe. But as war-loving Vietnam-era flight commander Preston Packard, one of Samuel L. Jackson’s scenes directly or inadvertently riffs on the original film’s troubling racial assumptions. After the giant ape smashes his helicopters and kills many of his airmen for visiting seismic mayhem on the island, the revenge-seeking Jackson faces off with Kong. It’s a stare-down between fierce antagonists, who mirror each other in body language, with clenched fists — a provocative juxtaposition that recalls and subverts the original film’s subtext.
“I love taking a character as far as a character’s supposed to go,” Jackson explained about his general style in a promo interview on New York’s WQHT, a.k.a. “Hot 97.” During that same appearance, on a radio station that bills itself as the place “Where Hip-Hop Lives,” the interviewer addressed the original Kong through an explicit racial lens. “[The] “pristine little blonde and the big black savage thing … that’s white supremacy…. They’re trying to scare you and scare white people,” the interviewer prompted. Jackson offered a wry smile and responded, “They’re still doing it; just doing it differently.” In another interview, Jackson flipped the Kong color switch yet again: “I became Ahab; he’s my white whale.”
“It was beauty killed the beast,” Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the P.T. Barnumesque organizer of the expedition that captured Kong, says at the end of the original movie. Wray’s damsel in distress shrieks when the colossus first comes to claim her. Rescued from multiple carnivores by the increasingly infatuated ape, her subsequent escape leads to his capture. Once in New York, she’s pulled out of a seemingly safe bed only to be placed (gently) atop the Empire State Building before the mega-primate tumbles to his death. Thirty-three years later, Jessica Lange doesn’t display much agency aside from some flirty scenes with Kong, including a moment where the ape uses his breath to blow-dry her body after she takes a dip. Nearly 30 years after that, Naomi Watts moves a bit farther, yelling at Kong after he pokes and prods her while she’s trying to distract him with cartwheels; later, they enjoy a tender reunion after his escape in New York.
Brie Larson’s female lead in Skull Island is more liberated. A successful photographer, her character, Mason Weaver, investigates her way onto the expedition’s ship, shoots photos from one of the helicopters, and partners with tracker Tom Hiddleston, himself less of a dull-boy he-man than his original counterpart. When Kong saves her, she touches him tenderly, then helps spare him from Packard’s revenge — all while managing to avoid the ripped bodices of the previous films.
And now Kong may take his talents to live-action television, in a new series from IM Global and MarVista Entertainment. “The series intends to cast a female lead and multicultural ensemble,” IndieWire recently reported. The show’s developers have “given it a contemporary, female-focused spin,” said MarVista Entertainment CEO Fernando Szew. If it goes forward, the Kong series will join Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Brie Larson’s upcoming Captain Marvel as big-budget action offerings, in which women are cast in the hope that the can hold center stage. Despite progress toward more empowered female leads, it remains to be seen whether the largely male audience that supports these franchises will cheer or simply leer.
Technology & the Environment
The original Kong represented a fantasy of the mechanical age. In a 1930 memo, Kong visionary Merian Cooper described him as follows: “His hands and feet have the size and strength of steam shovels; his girth is that of a steam boiler.” On the island, Kong defeats a giant python; in New York, he replicates that battle by smashing a train. Undone by the latest biplane technology, his last stand is on the tallest tower in his new world.
In later versions of the Kong story, the technology focus has shifted, in both production and plot. The appearance of the latter Kongs has been energized via state-of-the-art motion capture. The quest in the ’70s Kong is fueled by a search for oil, while Skull Island draws on another anxiety from that decade: America’s involvement in, and withdrawal from, Vietnam. In a mash-up of Apocalypse Now and its precursor, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Samuel Jackson’s frustrated combatant loves the smell of napalm enough to burn Kong with it. (Heart of Darkness hat-tips abound in this adaptation: Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad, Reilly’s Marlow.) But Larson’s character calls herself an “anti-war photographer” and some of Jackson’s airmen come to oppose their superior’s desire to destroy Kong.
This critique of militarism, the protest against corporatism invading a state of nature, recalls conservative criticism of 2009’s Avatar. “The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism,” John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard after Avatar’s release. Still, Skull Island doesn’t push that far — its over-the-credits ending has Reilly’s lost soldier reuniting with his wife, still faithful after all these years.
Skull Island differs from its major predecessors in another key way: It’s the first in which Kong survives at the end. But for how long? A film reboot of King Kong vs. Godzilla is scheduled to appear in 2020. Will Kong defeat Godzilla, himself a spawn of the nuclear age? Will the monsters look less like puppets and men in rubber suits practicing wrestling moves than they did in 1962–63’s Japanese-American hybrid? Stay tuned — at least on-screen, Kong remains a living legend, and a marker of our cultural perceptions.