It’s one of the most famous scenes in film history: A giant ape stands atop the Empire State Building, swatting at fighter planes trying to shoot him down.
Yes, King Kong, aka the Mighty Kong, aka “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” is not only etched forever in our collective consciousness, but the 1933 classic is the movie gift that keeps on giving. The movie has spawned three remakes and sequels (in 1976, 1986 and 2005), several animated series, other giant ape films (most notably 1949’s “Mighty Joe Young”), comics, toys, clothing, books, plus two theme-park rides at Universal Orlando Resort. And now there’s “Kong: Skull Island,” opening March 10, a Kong story set in 1973 starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and John Goodman that’s a mashup of a giant ape flick, “Jurassic Park” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Not bad for a massive gorilla who just wanted to hang out with the blonde he had the hots for.
“Kong is fundamentally a beauty and the beast story,” says Max Borenstein, co-screenwriter (with Dan Gilroy) of the new film. “The core component is the misunderstood creature. Kong is a monster from some perspective that is dangerous and needs to be destroyed, yet the films derive their emotional impact from the fact that Kong is innocent and beautiful.”
Kevin Lally, editor of the industry trade publication Film Journal International, says that “although Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, co-directors of the original ‘King Kong,’ denied it, audiences in the 1930s likely saw their racial attitudes reflected in the story of an ape from a remote island lusting after a vulnerable blonde white woman. But let’s not forget one thing: The 1933 Kong is ultimately a very sympathetic character. He’s actually very gentle when he gets his big paws on Fay Wray, and we feel his anger and angst when he’s captured and put on display in New York City. When Kong falls from the Empire State Building, we don’t rejoice — it’s heartbreaking.”
True enough. Or, as Kong’s captor puts it in the original, “It was beauty killed the beast.” But there’s a lot more subtext in the Kong movies than just the sexual and racial (the 1933 film is particularly racist in its depiction of the Skull Island natives). Issues involving colonialism, environmentalism, cultural sensitivity, even animal rights, pop up in the films. For example, the original, Borenstein says, “is a product of its time. It’s cringe-worthy on some level.”
“The fact Kong is revered by the natives, it is their respect for nature, and the white man’s disrespect for nature, all of that is roaming around in there,” adds Ken Dancyger, a professor of film and TV at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Bringing him to New York, making a spectacle of him, the whole thing about enslaving, exploiting, it feeds into a kind of myth, the racial fears, the racial-sexual are mixed in there.”
Which is one of many reasons that “Kong: Skull Island” represents a major break from the past. The film tells how satellite imagery discovers Skull Island in the Pacific. An expedition composed of scientists, a photographer, a tracker and an airborne military unit straight out of Vietnam (think lots of choppers) heads there. They don’t know Kong exists, yet soon find out about him, and that he’s living in peaceful coexistence with the native population. But this outside incursion threatens the delicate man-beast balance on the island, creating a dangerous situation involving other monsters.
“In the early ’70s we put satellites in the air and mapped the world, and I thought that was a credible way to find an unknown place, and that’s when ’copters and ’Nam popped into my brain,” says Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of the new film.
This more modern setting for the story also meant that other aspects of the Kong legend had to be updated. First to go: the whole beauty-and-the-beast thing. “We have seen that story so much, and done well,” Borenstein says. “So if we want Kong to be a continuing character, we’re trying to incorporate him into this universe where other monsters exist, but not that same story that we’ve seen before.”
Also thrown out was the condescending racial attitudes of the previous films. “There are very racist stereotypes with the first film and the others,” Vogt-Roberts says, “and I really worked hard to represent the villagers in a new way; they are not this savage force. They are sort of enlightened and understand their symbiotic relationship with nature and the world. They understand themselves better.”
Ultimately, we’re still talking giant ape movie here. Scary, misunderstood, more like us on the evolutionary scale than we care to admit — 84 years after he first appeared on screen, King Kong is still a part of us.
“The giant ape is both an expression of power, of our fear of the animal world, and the kind of sexual threat a powerful animal represents, one that is a close animal to us,” NYU’s Dancyger says. “There’s a little bit of the beast in all of us.”
THE KONG MOVIES
‘KING KONG’ (1933) Starring Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The one, the only. Filmmaker heads for uncharted Skull Island where giant ape falls for blonde actress. Kong is captured, shipped to New York and exhibited in Broadway theater. Escaping, he climbs Empire State Building, where he is shot down by airplanes. Named one of the 50 best American films by the American Film Institute.
‘KING KONG’ (1976) Starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, directed by John Guillermin. Updated remake of the original, with Kong fighting off planes atop the World Trade Center. Mixed critical response, but commercially successful.
‘KING KONG LIVES’ (1986) Starring Brian Kerwin and Linda Hamilton, directed by John Guillermin. After being shot down from World Trade Center, Kong is kept alive in a coma. He is given a transfusion and heart transplant, then escapes with a giant female gorilla. Pursued by the army, he eventually dies, but not before he impregnates his lady friend. Trashed by critics, and a box office dud.
‘KING KONG’ (2005) Starring Adrien Brody, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, directed by Peter Jackson. Remake returns to 1930s setting, original story virtually intact. Positive critical reviews, and worldwide box office topping $500 million.
— LEWIS BEALE