King Kong is a monster movie of which three versions have been made, in 1933, 1976, and 2005, the three that I’ll be focusing on. I’ll also make a brief reference or two to the giant ape’s other appearances in the franchise.
The 1933 film stars Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, and Bruce Cabot, and was produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The 1976 remake stars Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange (in her first movie role), and Charles Grodin; it was produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. The 2005 remake stars Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis (as Kong in motion capture, and as a cook on the ship); it was co-written, produced, and directed by Peter Jackson.
The 1976 version is considered the weakest of the three, but it offers a few interesting variations on the plot, including an oil company instead of a moviemaking crew searching for Skull Island, and Kong takes the blonde beauty (Dwan, played by Lange, instead of Ann Darrow, played by Wray and Watts) up to the top of the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. What’s interesting about these changes is how they develop the central theme of the story: exploitation, which I’ll elaborate on below.
Here are some quotes from all three films:
And the Prophet said, “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” –Old Arabian Proverb in the opening scenes of the film.
“It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” –Denham, to Darrow
“You won’t find that island on any chart. That was made by the skipper of a Norwegian barque…A canoe full of natives from this island was blown out to sea. When the barque picked them up, there was only one alive. He died before they reached port, but not before the skipper had pieced together a description of the island and got a fairly good idea of where it lies.” –Denham, on Skull Island
“I think Denham’s off his nut taking you ashore today…Denham’s such a fool for risks, there’s no telling what he might ask you to do for this picture….He’s crazy enough to try anything. When I think what might have happened today. If anything had happened to you…I’m scared for you. I’m sort of, well I’m scared of you too. Ann, uh, I, uh, uh, say, I guess I love you…Say, Ann, I don’t suppose, uh, I mean, well you don’t feel anything like that about me, do you?” –Jack Driscoll, to Ann
Denham: Wait a minute. What about Kong?
Driscoll: Well, what about him?
Denham: We came here to get a moving picture, and we’ve found something worth more than all the movies in the world.
Denham: We’ve got those gas bombs. If we can capture him alive.
Driscoll: Why, you’re crazy! Besides that, he’s on a cliff where a whole army couldn’t get at him.
Denham: Yeah, if he stays there. But we’ve got something he wants [looking at Ann].
Driscoll: Yep, something he won’t get again.
Denham: Well, the whole world will pay to see this.
Captain: No chains will ever hold that.
Denham: We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been King of his world. But we’ll teach him fear! We’re millionaires, boys, I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: ‘Kong — the Eighth Wonder of the World!’
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here tonight to tell you a very strange story — a story so strange that no one will believe it — but, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we — my partners and I — have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible deaths. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going 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 civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.” –Denham, to New York audience
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel.” –Denham
Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
“I’m Dwan. D-W-A-N, Dwan. That’s my name. You know, like Dawn, except that I switched two letters to make it more memorable.” –Dwan
“You know I had my horoscope done before I flew out to Hong Kong. And it said that I was going to cross over water and meet the biggest person in my life.” –Dwan
Fred Wilson: [As the “Petrox Explorer” comes in sight of Skull Island] Did you ever wonder how Hernando Cortez felt when he discovered the Lost Treasure of the Incas?
Jack Prescott: That wasn’t Cortez; it was Pizarro. And he died flat broke.
“You Goddamn chauvinist pig ape!” –Dwan
Dwan: How can I become a star because of… because of someone who was stolen off that gorgeous island and locked up in that lousy oil tank?
Fred Wilson: It’s not someone! It’s an animal, a beast who tried to rape you.
Dwan: That’s not true. He risked his life to save me.
Fred Wilson: He tried to rape you, honey. And before you cry a lot, you should ask the natives on that island what they thought loosing Kong.
Jack Prescott: Actually, they’ll miss him a lot.
Fred Wilson: Like leprosy.
Jack Prescott: No, you’re dead wrong. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god.
“Lights! Camera! Kong!” –Wilson
Jack Prescott: Even an environmental rapist like you wouldn’t be asshole enough to destroy a unique new species of animal.
Fred Wilson: Bet me.
“What are they going to do, sue me? They can get in line! I’m not gonna let ’em kill my film!” –Denham
“Goddammit, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!” –Denham
“Defeat is always momentary.” –Denham
Carl Denham: Ann, I’m telling you. You’re perfect. Look at you, you’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met. You’re gonna make ’em weep, Ann. You’re gonna break their hearts.
Ann Darrow: See, that’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Denham. I make people laugh, that’s what I do. Good luck with your picture.
“Actors. They travel the world, but all they ever see is a mirror.” –Jack Driscoll
Jimmy: [Referring to Heart of Darkness] Why does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn’t he turn back?
Hayes: There’s a part of him that wants to, Jimmy. A part deep inside himself that sounds a warning. But there’s another part that needs to know. To defeat the thing which makes him afraid. “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there, there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”
Jimmy: It’s not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?
Hayes: No, Jimmy. It’s not.
“There’s only one creature capable of leaving a footprint that size… the Abominable Snowman.” –Lumpy (Serkis)
[recognizing Jimmy, he confiscates the gun] Hayes: Jesus, Jimmy!
Jimmy: Hey, I need that!
Hayes: I’m not giving you a gun!
Jimmy: You were younger than me when they gave you one!
Hayes: I was in the army. I was trained. I had a drill sergeant!
Jimmy: I wanna help bring her back.
Hayes: [haltingly giving him the gun] Don’t make me regret it.
Jack Driscoll: I always knew you were nothing like the tough guy on the screen. I just never figured you for a coward.
Bruce Baxter: Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me, not in the real world. In the real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun, who’s lost his motivation. Be seein’ ya.
“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.” –Ann Darrow, to Kong
Preston: He was right. About there still being some mystery left in this world… and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.
Jack Driscoll: That’s the thing you come to learn about Carl. His unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.
A lot of what is, or at least seems, implied in the 1933 film is made explicit in the 2005 remake. The film is set in what was the present, that is, the early 1930s, and therefore in the grip of the Great Depression. We are introduced to poor Ann Darrow (Wray), who is so hungry, she attempts to steal an apple; she’s also in old, rather shabby-looking clothes.
Moviemaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) doesn’t come off as overtly exploitative, since as one of the main characters, he’s more sympathetic; added to this, since people back in the 1930s were, on average, far less sensitive to the plight of animals in captivity, they were far less likely to judge Denham for wanting to capture Kong and put the giant ape on display for human entertainment. Nonetheless, he is an exploiter, even if the audience doesn’t think of him as much of one.
In the 2005 film, also set in the 1930s, the plight of the poor during the Great Depression is shoved in our faces right from the beginning. Darrow (Watts) is struggling as an out-of-work vaudeville performer, and Denham (Black) is a certified snake ready to take advantage of her desperation.
The 2005 remake also makes shrewd use of the old Al Jolson recording of “I’m Sitting On Top of the World,” which in the context of the film is an obvious reference to Kong on top of the Empire State Building, at the time the tallest building in the world. Because we hear the song during shots of the poor in New York City, its gaiety comes off as bittersweet, especially with the line, “Just like Humpty Dumpty, I’m going to fall.” Similarly, though Kong is regarded as a king on Skull Island, he’s a brutally exploited and ultimately victimized animal in the ‘civilized’ world, killed for being in a place he should never have been brought to.
Armstrong’s 1933 Denham is criticized only for being “reckless” and “crazy,” but he should be seen as every bit as exploitative as Black’s Denham of the 2005 version. He lures poor Ann onto the boat, knowing full well what potential danger he’s bringing her into, all just to give his audience what they want: a pretty girl as the love interest in his new movie.
Though he promises her “no funny business,” he also promises her “money and adventure and fame…the thrill of a lifetime,” with a big smile on his face, as if he were the director of a pornographic movie tricking a pretty young woman into participating in it by pretending he’s going to make her a Hollywood movie star. Even if the more innocent audiences of the 1930s couldn’t see it at the time, Denham, I insist, is an exploiter.
The Denham of the 2005 film is even more overtly exploitative, even tricking his screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Brody, as opposed to the sailor in the 1933 film who is played by Cabot), into staying on the boat–with a promise to pay him–until it sets sail and he’s stuck for the ride to Skull Island.
When they get there, they discover a tribe of natives getting ready to sacrifice a girl to Kong. Here we see the natives exploiting one of their own to appease their giant simian god; but then they see Ann, with her golden hair, and decide they’d rather exploit her, since Kong will surely like her better.
Ann, back on the boat with the crew, is abducted by the natives and given to Kong. It’s interesting here to compare the different Kongs of the three movies, and even with those of the others of the franchise. He is usually a giant ape with humanoid characteristics, that is, standing more or less upright and with some of the features of human understanding–greater intelligence, as well as his love of, and willingness to risk his life to protect, Ann; the exception to this is the 2005 Kong, who is more or less just a gigantic silverback gorilla with no anthropomorphic features. So, his capture and exploitation by Denham can be seen to represent that of animals, as in a zoo, or it can symbolize the exploitation of primitive man, as seen in human zoos.
The encroachment of Denham and the crew onto Skull Island–first to exploit it in order to make, as he originally hopes, a hit movie, and then to capture Kong and get rich using the giant gorilla as an entertaining spectacle–is easily seen as symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of the Third World. The 1976 remake–with the Petrox Oil Company hoping initially to secure vast untapped deposits of oil on Skull Island, then when realizing there’s minimal commercial oil there, Fred Wilson (Grodin), the remake’s equivalent of Denham, decides to capture and capitalize on Kong instead–is all the more a comment on capitalist exploitation.
The wall separating the tribe from the jungle represents that last remaining vestige of civilization, as against the wild, chaotic, vicious world of might makes right and everyone for himself. Such desperate circumstances are what the Third World is left with after having been so over-exploited by the imperialist First World, so we see Kong surrounded by hostility, always having to hate, and always having to fight.
Kong’s encountering of Ann/Dwan, her beauty symbolic of her gentleness, makes him see for the first time that kindness and love can exist. He is touched by her. The 2005 Ann does her vaudeville routine to entertain him, and instead of scowling, the big ape actually laughs. She looks out at the sunset/sunrise with him, and says, “Beautiful,” to teach him how to appreciate it.
In the 1976 film, Dwan–an anagram of Dawn–is the dawn of an understanding for Kong that love and beauty do exist. Her calling him a “chauvinist pig ape,” saying “eat me” gets him to empathize with her vulnerability. Kong in all three films represents the stereotypical brutish male, and Ann/Dwan is the stereotypical woman as civilizing influence on the male. Beauty truly kills the beast.
A parallel situation can be found in the 1933 film, in the relationship between first mate Jack Driscoll and Ann. At first, he speaks contemptuously of women, regarding them as a nuisance; but her beauty and sweetness tame the cool macho man in him, so that by the time they reach Skull Island, he’s in love with her. After he rescues her and they return to New York, they’re engaged.
To return to Kong, though, he still has to contend with the hostile world around him. In the 1933 film (and the 2005 remake), we see him fight off a Tyrannosaur (or T-rex-like predatory dinosaurs) and a pterodactyl (or giant bats) in his efforts to defend Ann and himself; and in the 1976 film, Kong fights with a giant–and fake-looking–giant snake.
It’s interesting in this connection to discuss Toho‘s King Kong vs. Godzilla, with Kong fighting another dinosaur-like monster. Since Godzilla, or Gojira, is a kaiju-sized reptile woken and empowered by nuclear radiation, he is symbolic of the horrors and destructiveness of nuclear war.
Kong (as representative of the people of the Third World) fighting Godzilla thus can be seen to symbolize the people of oppressed nations fighting off the imperialist threat of aerial bombardments, nuclear or non-nuclear. For not only did Japan suffer a thorough American bombing from both nuclear and non-nuclear bombs, but so did North Korea, though only with non-nuclear bombs, prompting the DPRK to create a nuclear weapons program to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.
Kong takes Ann up to a cliff where they will be safe from attack, at least for the moment. In his sexual curiosity, Kong can’t resist the temptation to see how beautiful Ann’s/Dwan’s body is without her clothes on, so he tries to peel some of them off. When the prudish Production Code was established a year after the 1933 film was made, scenes like this one, as well as many of the other violent scenes (Kong’s victims in his mouth, stomped on, or dropped to their deaths) were censored and removed later in the 1930s.
Some have accused King Kong of reinforcing racist attitudes, by suggesting that Kong represents the ‘brutish, uncivilized’ black male stereotype. This scene of him peeling off her clothes would thus seem to imply the ‘dangers’ of race-mixing. Now, the film’s creators insisted that they intended no allegorical meaning, let alone a racist one; I, however, would see Kong’s voyeuristic curiosity about Ann’s body as symbolic of how those in poor countries must wonder about the wealth of the West.
The scene of Kong fighting off the pterodactyl/giant bats on that cliff, as Driscoll rescues Ann, parallels the final scene of Kong fighting off airplanes on the top of the Empire State Building. Just as he literally dies at the end of the film, he metaphorically dies when Ann is taken away from him. This metaphorical death is emphasized in the 2005 remake, when we see Kong chained up on display in New York, with that despondent look on his face from having lost her.
This capturing of Kong, without the slightest regard for the ape’s feelings, this turning of a living being into a mere commodity so Denham can get rich, is the essence of capitalist exploitation. New markets have to be opened (displaying Kong) when others fail (Denham’s movie project; Petrox not finding any oil on Skull Island), in order to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
This spectacle, symbolic of human zoos (for recall Kong’s anthropomorphism and superior intelligence by gorilla standards, as seen in all King Kong films other than Jackson’s), shows the one valid way we can compare him with black people: not as a racist caricature meant to promote xenophobia or to discourage interracial marriage, but as a pitiable victim of Western imperialism.
Here we can see an irony in naming the giant ape King Kong (in the 1976 film, he is even wearing a giant crown): as Denham says in his introduction to his New York audience: “He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity.” As a symbol of the conquered and oppressed people of the Third World, Kong has been degraded, lowered from his rightful place as ruler of his own destiny, to a merely entertaining spectacle for the white bourgeoisie.
While some might do a racist interpretation of Kong’s size, strength, and aggressiveness by seeing them as representative of the traits of blacks, something terrifying to white supremacists, I see something far more fundamentally threatening in these attributes of Kong. These can be attributed to the global proletariat, provided they all come together in solidarity and rise up against the ruling class. Together, we’re as big and as strong as Kong; but separate and alone, we’re small and weak.
Indeed, when Kong sees Ann again–by the stage in the 1933 film, and when he sees a tied-up lookalike of her in the 2005 remake–he is reminded of what he lacks, which gives rise to his desire to have her again. This drives him to break free from his chains and get her, an act symbolic of that proletarian revolution, since her beauty represents all the First World luxury the global poor lack.
Kong breaks out of the theatre and rampages through the streets of New York City, the centre of global capitalism. Indeed, when imperialism goes too far in oppressing the Third World, sometimes the oppressed fight back…and that’s what we see symbolized in Kong’s rampage.
The bourgeois producers of the 1933 film are scarcely sympathetic to Kong, so he is portrayed as bestial and terrifying; but much more sympathy is shown to him in the 1976 and 2005 remakes, so we see Dwan and Watts’s Ann in tears when the men in their flying machines shoot at the ape. Such growing compassion reflects the changing values of Western society towards a more loving and sensitive attitude to animals…and to the poor, of whom I see Kong as symbolic.
The World Trade Center had replaced the Empire State Building as the tallest in the world, hence the change in the 1976 remake. Kong’s ascent to the top of this pair of buildings with Dwan, especially when seen in light of my interpretation of him as representative of the people of the oppressed Third World (e.g., the Middle East), makes it irresistible for me to make associations of it with the 9/11 terrorist attacks (including when Kong makes a helicopter crash into the side of one of the buildings).
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the 1976 remake is in any way prophetic of 9/11, as many conspiracy theorists have imagined with other examples of pop culture, including this fanciful one of Supertramp‘s Breakfast in America album cover. I only mean, through my associating, that Kong’s ascent, and subsequent battle with the fighter helicopters (as with his ascending of the Empire State Building with Ann, and subsequent confrontation with the fighter planes), symbolizes the kind of struggle the global proletariat has always had with US imperialism, the 9/11 attacks being the anti-imperialists’ greatest counterattack in recent memory.
So, Kong is “sitting on top of the world,” and “like Humpty Dumpty,” he is “going to fall.” If we see his rampage through downtown New York City as symbolic of a retaliation of the oppressed poor of the world, and Kong’s ascent to the top of the Empire State Building/World Trade Center as symbolic of a proletarian victory, this victory is a short-lived one, like those of the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution of 1936.
Those airplanes/helicopters shooting at Kong and killing him are thus symbolic of the forces of reaction, who fight to restore the original status quo of class and imperialist oppression. The raining of bullets that bloody Kong’s body represent such reactionary violence as the executions of 20,000 Communards, Franco‘s fascist repression of the Spanish revolutionaries, the IDF shooting at unarmed Palestinian protestors, the napalming of Vietnam (recall the flamethrowers used against Kong in the 1976 remake), and the imperialist invasions of such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, all in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’
Kong’s fall and death can be seen to represent the fall and destruction of so many states and societies that have dared to defy imperialism. Denham declares that “It was beauty killed the beast,” but we don’t see him punished for the mayhem he is responsible for having provoked. Similarly, far too few of the soldiers of imperialism have ever been adequately punished for their war crimes. Bush has even been rehabilitated by the public…for being seen as not as bad as Trump!
As people mourn the almost 3,000 deaths from 9/11, they should also condemn the imperialism that provoked it. Similarly, those whose loved ones have been killed by Kong should demand justice from reckless, exploitative Denham. At least his equivalent in the 1976 film, Fred Wilson, is crushed under Kong’s foot. That’s some justice, at least.
If my imperialist allegorizing of King Kong seems far-fetched to you, Dear Reader, consider the explanation of the original film’s meaning, as given by one of its producers/directors. Cooper said that his movie represented how primitive societies were doomed under modern civilization. My allegory is only a slight variation on that comment: the Third World has been, and continues to be, doomed by the First…unless something can be done about it.