Three Kings: Kong’s Cinematic Legacy

i.

I grew up watching King Kong (1933) in the 70s when it played only on UHF, the staticky, low-rent “high channels” which featured re-runs and old movies. It was like basic cable before its time, and watching old TV shows – The Prisoner, Lost in Space – on the high channels spawned a generation of pop culture nerds, long before the internet made the consumption of the niche, the camp, the underground, and the just plain bad, a national obsession.


Kong was one of my obsessions. I loved everything about it, the old timey orchestral adventure score, the sassy Depression-era lingo, the hats. Even the awkward herky jerky movements of the early talkies, viewed in an age of “realistic” film, reminded me I was always watching a movie, self-consciously so. Kong made no pretense to anything other than artifice. It was making me a postmodernist.

It’s also a terrific movie, an adventure yarn with state of the art effects and a taut story. Nobody on the SS Venture has any long, brainless conversations about Conrad in this version. Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien, renders a stop motion monkey with more soul than any of the mechanized, digitized, or gorilla-suited versions which followed. Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham hits just the right gangsterish note with his ruthless impresario.

Fay Wray’s scream is in the Smithsonian.

The natives are straight from central casting, of course. Febrile and shirtless black savages. What we have here is a straight-up telling of the Ur-western myth: the modernity of the White, and the primitivity of the Other. Kong is stronger than us, but he’s a beast. And what do beasts want? They want blondes.

The 40-foot ape’s pursuit of Ann Darrow ends up taking him to the Big Apple, where he Patty Hearsts her one last time and, in the single greatest thing that has ever happened in American film, absconds with her to the top of the Empire State Building.

The Army Air Corps comes to the defense of Darrow’s virtue, and strafes the King in their Curtis biplanes. The animal’s pain is hard to watch, not for any sprays of digital blood, but because the groans and spasms of O’Brian’s silky stop-motion ape make you feel it when the bullets strike home. Finally, agonizingly, we see Kong’s body, like a pencil dot, falling down the side of the Empire State, the vast beast rendered tiny by modern technology in the form of the pride of New York, the skyscraper. The Other might be big and strong, but can it build like this?

ii.

In 1976 I was ten years old, and one summer Tuesday my father skipped out of the office early and took me to the Brandt Theater to see the Dino Di Laurentiis reboot.

Purists complain about Hollywood remakes, insisting they lack the imagination which once flourished on the screen in some golden age. But Hollywood has always been about remakes. Two-reelers retold stories out of the Nickelodeon. Feature silent films remade the two-reelers. Talkies remade the silents. Color remade the talkies. It’s all remakes all the way down. If Andy Warhol had had better taste in film, he would have said that everybody gets to be in a remake of A Star is Born for fifteen minutes.

In the 70s, it was the counterculture that was remaking the classics, putting their patchouli-scented stamp on everything from Farewell, My Lovely to Christmas in Connecticut, more often than not with Kris Kristofferson for some reason. Thus, in the opening scene of the ‘76 when the Petrox Explorer departs Surabaya, it carries not only an oil company expedition – un-coincidentally at a time when Americans had to line up for gas because of the Arab embargo – but also a stowaway, Jack Prescott, bearded and long-haired Jeff Bridges as an environmentally active academic.

As a reboot of the 1933 character Jack Driscoll, who could not have been more boring, he’s a success. Bridges kills, as Bridges does, pushing his long hair behind his ear in a New Man kind of way and pitching woo to our new Fay Wray, Jessica Lange in her debut role, so languidly sexy that my father and I grew a little uncomfortable sitting next to each other in the Brandt.

The inside story of the 1976 is the brand-new, solid-state animatronic Kong. Like “Bruce,” the contemporary mechanical shark from Jaws, the new effect was much ballyhooed in the marketing materials but ended up with little time screen time. Rick Baker’s team still used legacy stop-motion techniques and monkey suits for most of the work.

At the time, my sixth grade language arts teacher, Mr Marshall, a rank traditionalist who showed us the 1933 on a state of the art AV club VCR, admitted that the one thing he preferred about the 1976 was the monkey’s face. And maybe I’ll give him the face, but most of the wide shots of Kong aren’t much better than, say, Battle of the Gargantuas.

There are some very good things, though, in fact too many good things to talk about. John Guillermin’s King Kong is one of the more underrated movies of living memory, featuring the glorious Charles Grodin’s Denham update, René Auberjonois as the tippling petro-geologist, the moving score by John Barry, to be sampled by everybody from Lost to The Incredibles.

But the thing that gets you now, of course, is that when Kong bursts free of the shabby Petrox Oil Corp media stunt they have arranged, and takes Dwan – yeah, Dwan – to the top of the tallest building in New York City, it’s not the Empire State but the twin towers of the World Trade Center, brand new then, and with only twenty-six short years to live.

The fighter plans have been updated to Huey helicopters, the same Bell UH-1 gunships which had just finished losing the Vietnam War. In 1976, we are openly siding with Kong, cheering along with Bridge’s Prescott when the ape brings down a chopper.

This is the counterculture Kong, the natural beast released from corporate chains. Petrox was Watergate. Denham was Nixon. And when Kong squashes the phony impresario like a bug, we cheer. In the 1976 King Kong, the Man gets killed.

iii.

In 2005 I was not only all grown up, but I was starting to get old. In the meantime the internet had happened, the digital revolution, and with it striking progress in CGI. Peter Jackson, the Hobbit-like auteur fresh off the success of adapting the Tolkien Trilogy, went to town. The effects peel your retinas back.

Jackson’s Kong, scarred and wizened, is an actual gorilla, a silverback legend nearing the end of his career. Thanks to Andy Sirkis and the arrival of motion capture animation there is nothing of the ill-fitting, Toho-style monkey suit in Weta’s Kong. This is a real animal, with integrity, and a sagittal crest to make Dian Fossey swoon.

And make no mistake about it, this Kong is a big, beautiful production. The vastness of the 2005 speaks to the newly muscular position pop culture has come to occupy. The War of the Brows is over, Low won. This picture lavishes infinite attention on the canon, even resurrecting scenes cut from the 1933, which only geeks like Peter Jackson even knew existed.

The thing is, as much as CGI will let the film maker portray events that violate the laws of physics, in the final analysis our brains still won’t buy them, and much of action is as meaningless as a video game or a Star Wars prequel.  The ship, again called the SS Venture, takes forever to get to the island, and when it gets there it takes even longer to wreck on the shore. Jack Black – an actor who should make infinite sequels to School of Rock but otherwise must never act again – chews the digital scenery. There are a number of subplots, but neither the writers, the actors, nor the audience care about them. There are giant vagina spiders.

On the other hand we have Naomi Watts, an actor so strong that it shows even through this dreck. Kong, the only other living character in the movie, is charmed by her Darrow’s antics, and so are we.

The indigenous people of Skull Island, thoughtlessly rendered as gross caricatures in the 1933, slightly less thoughtlessly rendered as gross but sexy caricatures in 1976, get an update. In the intervening years the post-colonial empire has struck back and, justifiably, it’s open season on white artists portraying non-white people. Jackson’s answer is not even to try. The 2005 islanders are snarling and feral, their humanity scoured away by centuries under the terror of Kong.

But it’s the last scene, Kong’s rendezvous with death via fighter plane on top of the Empire State, where you get a glimpse of what Jackson was going for, and what might have been. It’s exquisite. Shot in soft early morning light, the fully realized New York City stretching below, and the Hudson beyond, Kong faces the sunrise and then his fate. Jackson can’t stop himself from adding some silly CGI hijinks with a ladder, of course, because he’s a dink, but even this doesn’t dull the effect of Kong’s crucifixion. If you believe what you read, this scene is the reason the movie got made, and it’s so good that you almost forgive the film the previous three hours.

Almost. I still wonder what the purpose of this picture is.  Maybe it’s a cautionary tale, maybe we were so busy discovering that we could make a seven-minute sequence of perfectly realized plesiosaurs stampeding and then tripping over each other in the most soul-crushing bit of slapstick since Jar Jar Binx, that we forgot to ask the question of whether we should.

In the end, each generation gets the Kong it deserves. In the 30s it was a racist fable of white beauty and the black beast. In the 70s, the ape had become a symbol of our vanishing nature, human and environmental. And in 2005 we got the fan boy’s King Kong, each detail lovingly preserved in its original packaging, but dead as a doll.

Author: Kevin Bresnahan

Kevin is an expatriate New Englander living in an old Pennsylvania mill town on the banks of Wissahickon Creek. He is a sales account manager when he isn’t reading and writing fiction, criticism, essays and cantankerous tweets at Handsome Pot Roast.

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